Carrying on from my last post, (Chaper One: 11/22/63), I’ve been thinking a lot about what’s really important in those first few pages of a novel.
If you didn’t have to worry about what agents and publishers think are the vital elements to a first chapter (and let’s face it, more and more of us are finding other ways to get stories out there), what is it a reader is looking for?
As I’ve gone through the openings of well-written and very successful novel (for a full list check the Ch.1 Analyses page) it’s become increasingly clear to me that things like action, plot, inciting incidents etc, all the things we’re taught to get into as quickly as possible, are not necessarily the most important parts of the starting moments of a novel.
They are, of course, important, but I’m talking about their placement, where they should come in the structure.
Stephen King opens 11/22/63 with a prologue full of backstory and no indication of where the story is going. And while King is not just another writer and can do as he pleases and still sell millions of novels, he also gains readers with every publication. In short, he must be doing something right. My question is: What is it, and how can it be of use to me in my own writing?
Going over a few of his other books I’d say I do start to see a pattern.
11/22/63 — Jake is a lonely high school teacher who is moved by the story of how the janitor’s father murdered his mother and sister when he was a kid. He isn’t a very emotional guy, but he’s moved by this.
Duma Key — a successful man recounting how he made his money and everything was fine until an accident took his arm, which left him prone to rage and cost him his marriage.
The Stand — a bunch of men lamenting the state of their rundown town and the difficulty they and their families have in coping.
Bag of Bones — Mike Noonan recounts how his wife died in a traffic accident (in great detail) and how he coped with the aftermath (lots of tears) and with the news that she had been pregnant (more tears).
Cujo — a four year old boy is scared of the monster in his closet.
The Shining — Jack in a job interview with an officious prick. He is embarrassed and humiliated to be taking this job, but bites his tongue because he needs the job.
Carrie — outsider Carrie get embarrassed when she has a period in the school showers.
This was just a random sampling using Amazon’s look inside a book facility. I haven’t read these books, I just wanted a quick idea of how King gets into the swing of things and if there were a pattern I could identify.
What I noticed, in my own highly unscientific way, was that the stories start at various points before the main plot kicks in, sometimes just before, sometimes years in advance (the older books tend to start much closer to the main action of the story, not sure if there’s a pertinent reason why that's changed). But they all have one thing in common: They all attempt to make an emotional connection between the reader and the people in the story.
Once you read enough of his openings it becomes quite hard to not notice this. Usually it’s about a moment of change that was emotionally affecting.
The cause of the change usually doesn’t have anything to do with the premise of the book (although it may become embroiled into it later on), its main purpose seems to be to make you aware of the emotional condition of the character.
That moment of change can be a divorce or a loss of life or loss of employment, but it’s a painful experience, and that pain is made very clear in the text. No hinting or subtext. This is what happened to me and this is the effect it had. Telling, showing, first person, omniscient — the method varies, but what we end up with is pretty emphatic.
What we get is emotion. What state of mind are the characters in? How did they get that way? Usually they are damaged by something that’s happened, but it’s not related to the main plot, just normal life sticking it to them. However, it’s always sincere and you can feel that this person was hurt by it.
Does he do this to make the reader feel sympathetic? Possibly, but more importantly, I felt, was the need to make the character appear as a feeling person, one affected by circumstance. We are given an awareness of his sensitivity. The things that upset these people are varied and not necessarily all that grand. Normal things. And the events that then happen to them in the book are generally not very ordinary at all. So it’s almost like setting a base line for you to see where we are, so we have a better context for where we end up.
I thought this was an interesting element of his opening strategy. I’m not sure how useful this is to different genres, but I used to think if I had a character going through various problems, then that process, if I realised it well enough, would engage the reader in my character’s trials and tribulations. Now I’m thinking, before things get crazy, maybe I should take a moment to establish where his head is at. And that place shouldn't be calm and settled.
Of course it still takes skill and imagination to write an emotionally effective scene about something that messed up your character’s life, but it could turn out to be the key to grabbing the reader’s attention, and, more importantly, their emotions.
The question is, what emotional state is your character in at the start of your story? Even if you don’t start with your main character (maybe you start with a prologue or backstory), is there emotion in the scene? And have you found a way to impart that emotion to the reader?
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