First Chapters Are Crucial
Most writing classes tell you the duty of your book’s opening is to hook your reader and to catch the interest of an agent. The truth is that’s only one of the purposes of your opening. Too often we forget “A beginning is a very delicate time.” Dune.
I try to write all of my books according to the rules of the Writer’s Journey a book by Christopher Vogler. He uses movies to explain in a very simple way how to craft a satisfying read. This essay is loosely based on its precepts.
Begin your story in your character’s ordinary world
The Ordinary World allows us to get to know the hero before he sets out on his journey. Your story should start out in your hero or heroine’s ORDINARY WORLD.
Throughout this essay I’ll use Romancing The Stone as a guide for you to follow. Almost everyone has seen it. If you haven’t, just follow along as best you can and nod your head.
Romancing The Stone starts out in lead character Joan Wilder’s apartment. This is her Ordinary World. She is a romance writer living in a small apartment in New York. The author of this story takes pains to show Joan in her Ordinary World, her apartment, her cat, her publisher, her fears and phobias.
These are the things you need to think of when you sit down to write your first scene:
1) The title: The title can intrigue and it can inform. It’s a tool. A good title can become a multi-level metaphor for the hero or his world. Romancing The Stone is a great title. If you know the story, you know it’s about romance and it’s about a stone. Ralphie, played by Danny Devito, uses the title as a derisive line in the middle of the story. He yells to Joan: “He doesn’t want you, he’s just romancing you to get the stone.” So the title has a double meaning. Is Jack romancing the stone or Joan?
2) Opening image: The opening image is the first thing your reader sees in your book. You can use this to alert your reader to the issues being addressed and it can suggest the theme of your book. Think about your opening scene carefully. In Romancing the Stone, the opening scene has Joan writing the last chapter of her romance novel. As she sniffles into a tissue and talks to her cat, you immediately understand she spends a lot of time in her apartment alone.
3) Prologue: Sometimes you just gotta have a prologue. You might not know why, you just know it’s gotta be there. That’s usually because you have an important chunk of backstory that the reader needs before they can understand what’s happening in the present. There are two other reasons to start with a prologue. You can use it to start your book off with a bang—serious action or maybe a murder, setting in motion a chain of events. You can also use it to disorient your reader.
3) Setting up the Ordinary World: This is an important part of the opening. It sets up the home base of the hero. As a reader you know where he comes from and where he can come back to.
4) Contrast: You need to make the Ordinary World as different as you possibly can from the Special World of the journey which is the rest of your story. This way, your readers will notice a dramatic change when the doorway between the two worlds is passed. Joan’s ordinary world is New York City. The rest of her story takes place in the jungles of Columbia; as different from New York as you can get.
5) Foreshadowing: When the hero is still in the Ordinary World, you need to drop hints, foreshadow, what is about to happen. I hope everyone knows this movie we’re using, Romancing the Stone. The heroine is Joan Wilder, a romance novelist. In the first scene, she’s finishing her novel and they show the elaborate ending she’s in the process of writing, where the fantasy heroine is in the process of killing the terrible villain and riding off into the sunset with the hero. This is a great way for the author to let us in on what is going to happen. And it also shows us how unrealistic Joan’s ideas of a hero and romance are.
6) Raising the dramatic question: Every good book should raise a series of dramatic questions about the hero. Will he or she change, overcome her obstacles, obtain her goals, find love, get the hero, get married, beat the bad guys? What are Joan’s? Joan’s issues are with trust and the fantasies she’s developed around romance. What are Jack’s? Jack has to learn to be trustworthy. Jack T. Colton. “What’s your middle name, Jack?” Joan asks as they sit in the drug runner’s burned-out airplane. “Trustworthy,” he says with a smile. And the minute she passes out, he rifles her bag and gets his first good look at the treasure map.
7) Inner and Outer Problems: The internal and external conflicts follow us around like a bad smell. External problems are easy; can the heroine escape the villain and find the treasure? But characters need internal challenges and problems or they are boring. They need to learn something in your book, or they need a personality flaw. Readers love to see characters that grow.
8) Making an Entrance: Your characters have to make a grand entrance; both the hero and the heroine. What will they be doing when your reader first sees them? This is a wonderful opportunity to show (not tell) your readers something about your hero’s emotional state, what their attitudes are and something about their background. In Romancing the Stone, the author shows you Joan Wilder is a writer, with no personal life, by having her in her apartment finishing her book, essentially in her nightgown with her cat for company. You know this woman. If you’re a writer maybe you’re like her.
9) Introducing the Hero/Heroine to the readers: Your hero needs to have characteristics that help your reader bond with him. Common traits help your readers to recognize your hero as being one of them, like them, just one of the guys or girls. In Romancing the Stone poor Joan has terrible allergies. She’s always hunting for a tissue. When she can’t find one she honks away on a piece of paper she takes off her refrigerator. And she obviously forgets things, because she has sticky notes everywhere. And she’s late, something lots of us can relate to. These are the common traits that make her human. These are the little things that make us love her.
10) Identification: Give your hero common goals that your reader can relate to, like the need for recognition, the need for affection, or in Joan’s case the search for the elusive perfect man. We can all relate to this.
11) Hero’s lack: Great heroes are always missing something—or something has been taken away from them. This need to find the missing piece drives the story. In Romancing the Stone Joan’s sister is kidnapped and she also lacks a man. These two lacks drive the story.
12) Tragic Flaws: This character element dates back to the Greek tragedies. But for us many writers, we have to have a happy ending, so the flaw is only a little one or one that gives the hero humanity. Joan’s personality flaws helped drive the story and made her lovable. She is afraid of almost everything and completely out of her element anywhere but in the city. When her journey dumps her in the Colombian jungle, we feel her confusion and discomfort. Her flaws may not be tragic but they cause poor Joan a lot of trouble which drives the story.
13) Wounded heroes/heroines: You can give your hero a deep wound, like a broken heart from a previous marriage, or a dead loved-one. The wounds make him lovable. You empathize as a reader. He seems like he’s in control, but deep down inside he’s hiding this terrible pain. The best example of this is Mel Gibson’s character in Lethal Weapon. Hope you’ve all see it. Mel’s wife was killed making him suicidal and edgy. Because we feel for his suffering we love his character. You can even make this wound a physical one. Something he’s embarrassed by and tries to hide.
14) Establishing what’s at stake: If you want your reader to become involved in your story, you have to let them know what’s at stake right away. This is what the hero/heroine has to lose if they don’t obtain their goal. And the stakes have to be high. They can’t be lame; something as big as life and death, love and happiness, their very souls or big, big money.
15) Backstory and exposition: The opening of your book and the Ordinary World is where you deal with backstory. Exposition is the art of gracefully revealing backstory and important details about the hero/heroine. This is the hardest writing skill to master and if you do it poorly you will lose your reader immediately. I think it’s better to give them as little to work with as possible and drop them right into the action. You can bleed the backstory in a little at a time in the following chapters.
16) Theme: Theme is the underlying statement about an aspect of life that you are trying to convey through your story. What are you trying to say? Is the story about vanity, prejudice, love, trust, betrayal? Does it have a moral like love conquers all, or pride goeth before a fall? This message is your theme. In a good story everything relates to the theme. In Romancing the Stone the theme is trust. Everything relates to Joan’s need to learn to trust and Jack’s need to become trustworthy.
The opening of your book is critical. It is the most important chapter you will write. It’s where you hook your reader, introduce your hero or heroine and it’s where your story begins.