David’s been talking about the opening line in his Back to Basics series, and he’s been saying some really sharp, on target things. It made me think about opening chapters and what they are supposed to do for a book and whether different books can have different kinds of first chapters.
First, let me say that I tend to focus a lot on my first lines also. If a reader picks up the book and looks it over and is interested enough to check the first page, I want something there that will drag him or her headlong into the story, no turning back. I want to get that reader to the cash register with my book in hand, and then I want that reader to ignore his or her to be read stack in favor of my book. So I work hard on those first lines.
But after a first line, or a first paragraph, you have to have the chapter, and that’s where things are a little bit fuzzier. Henry James argued that you should set up your characters and let the readers get to know them before jumping into the action, since action grows out of character. But modern readers aren’t all that patient with those sorts of books. They want to get into the action right away–en medias res means starting in the middle of the action. That’s pretty typical of contemporary fantasies.
In fact, with contemporary fantasies, my experience has been you need to have something going on on the very first page. You can’t wait. But traditional or epic fantasy is different. You can wait a little bit to ramp up. Or can you?
With traditional fantasy, i think there’s more worldbuilding that has to happen before your readers can fully understand the conflict or action. If you toss them in on the first page and they don’t understand the context, they may shrug, or may not feel the level of tension you want them to feel.
Let’s take a quick example from The Game of Thrones (TV series, not the books, since I don’t have my books at hand). I’m not going to do spoilers. In fact I’m picking on one thing that is rather minor in some ways. Over the course of the first episodes are frequent and dire references to “winter’s coming.” And when it’s said, there’s always a somberness and a fear. But it’s not explained. So one has to ask, so what? What’s the big deal? Now on one level, we are given to understand that winter will be bad. That it is a terrible thing. But we don’t know why. We don’t know if it will bury everything under seventy feet of snow for six years, or if it will bring wraiths and wights from the north, or if it just means cold hardship for a few months until spring shows up.
We don’t know. And that’s a problem. We need the context. We need to know more about the Wall and the history of the place and the people. Otherwise we just don’t engage with it the way we’re supposed to. So let’s take that back to books. It’s the same thing. The openings of epic fantasy have to have action. They have to do world building. They have to set up characters and engage readers. They can take a little bit more time, but they still have to get going pretty quickly.
Writing it can be tricksy, because there is so much you have to do, and yet not confuse your readers. So first you pour it all out onto the page in a messy mass. Then you start crafting. One of your goals is to CUT. Cut everything that doesn’t have to be there to make sense of that scene, those characters and that world. Because it’s a new book and there’s so much going on, our first tendency is to overwhelm the reader with too much detail. So your first draft will have a lot of extraneous details. That doesn’t mean get rid of them altogether. Those details may need to be introduced later. But in the first chapter, only give what’s necessary for the reader to understand and engage in the moment.
So cut. Or as my editor once said, Prune Generously. Then go back and figure out what the reader needed to know that didn’t get put in there. Flesh those bits out. It all sounds much easier than it is, and for me, I don’t look at that first chapter again until I’m either well into the book, or finished. Because I usually don’t know what the first chapter needs entirely until I’m all the way through. So don’t spend a lot of time polishing that chapter when you may end up tossing it all or rejiggering it or adding in a ton.
It’s not until the end of all this that I go back through and really look hard at that opening page and try to punch it up as much as possible in terms of action, or voice, or something to really engage readers. I try to launch questions that they need answers to–why is that person scared? Who is the dead body? Why did she hide from her brother? My experience is that reader tastes are changing and they demand more action more quickly than they used to. It used to be that you could wait a couple of chapters before really kicking up the action. I don’t think you can do that anymore. Readers aren’t that patient.
Opening pages and opening chapters are critical. Make sure yours is a good one, but remember that it can take awhile for it to take shape. Don’t get hung up on it, trying to make it perfect before you keep going. Just hold your nose and write until you get through the book and can see what that first chapter really needs.