Sunday, May 22, 2011

What do you tell your readers?

In the first chapter?

I recently entered a first chapter contest. While I didn't place, I got some good comments on my prospective stories. I actualy entered to get those opinions, and not to win. Although winning would have been nice.

The comments left me with some general questions though. What exactly do you put in that first chapter? Some of the judges told me that I didn't draw it out enough and needed to give them more information. Others told me that I drew the story past the ending point and that the chapter should end on page three. While none of them told me I had too much information regarding the plot, some told me they wanted to see more.

My question is this. Where is that level of information where the first chapter entices the reader to pick the book up and buy it, but doesn't tell you the whole story and ruin the reading of the book?

If I tell you that Dave is a unwilling superhero and if he doesn't hurry and finish his cereal in time to rescue the lady who is going to be pushed in front of the bus at 9:12 and that she is the one person who is going to be able to save the earth from destruction by discovering a new element that afternoon. Why even bother turning to page two?

I ran into this problem early in my writing career and thought I had come to a reasonable answer regarding the problem. Which is why I am asking you guys. I went to a writing website and entered my first page and the critiques were asking for more information, who what where why etc etc etc. Problem is, if I give you the who what where why etc in the first half page of the book it isn't enticing, it becomes an info dump. Why bother reading the book if all the questions that should be discovered in the process of the text is given to you right away?

For example, I opened a book at a used book store and read the prologue. By the time I finished it I knew exactly what would happen in the rest of the book. Why, at that point bother reading it? On the other hand, I read a book where the first chapter was exciting and full of action I couldn't wait to get home and finish the rest of the book. Sadly the writer had worked so much on drawing the reader into the book that by chapter TWO it fell flat and I never finished the book. The first chapter was completely diferent, only the names were the same. It seemed to me that the writer worked so hard on the first chapter but not the rest of the book. What about the writer that gives you detailed information of the world for the first quarter of the book and the characters and plot start after chapter 10? Or the writer that starts the book in chapter 1 but the story started in either chapter 5 or -5?

What do you think? What is necessary in the first chapter and what isn't? What point in the plot is the first chapter written? How much back story, character development and setting is necessary? Do we always have to drop the reader into the action on page one?


Canda said...

AS a reader, I like to have a lot of questions from the first chapter. Some foreshadowing of the problem is good. Maybe the thing that keeps me turning pages though is the voice and mood of the main character.

Caledonia Lass said...

Wow. So much stress over a first chapter... Personally I'd like to see what they say about my first chapters. I think that by the end of the first chapter I have given the reader a pretty good idea of where we are going to be heading with this story. I try, then, to find a good place to end it, almost like a cliff-hanger and pick it up in chapter two.
Now you've got me thinking...

Shari said...

These are excellent questions which I am trying to figure out as well. I only know that you don't have to necessarily start with huge action, but leave the reader asking questions that will make them want to know more. Let the reader know what is at stake for the MC. Maybe give them a hint at the importance of what she has to do--some foreshadowing--a flicker of a villain in the wings or something.

Just some thoughts. Good luck!

Rebecca said...

I thought I was following your blog, but I wasn't! That sad situation has been remedied.

As far as a first chapter, I don't want it to tell me anything--I want to be dropped into an interesting story, and watch and feel it unfold. But if the first part contains a death or something, give me a paragraph or two before it so I'm emotionally engaged.

I'm currently reading Plot and Structure, and I highly recommend it. They answer some of the questions you brought up and I will never be able to explain it as well as the book does.

Amie Borst said...

this is the age old question, i'm afraid.

there is an answer, and it's one word: balance.

not too much this, not too little that.

it's a difficult balancing act and honestly, i happen to think it varies from person to person, story to story.

good luck with it and try not to stress too much. remember it's just an opinion - someone else may love it exactly as it is!