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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » First Chapters (Page 1)

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Author Topic: First Chapters
Meredith
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This is the first in a series of posts about first chapters by Patricia Wrede:

http://pcwrede.com/fixing-chapter-one-part-one/

Interesting. [Smile]

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extrinsic
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Though Wrede makes valid points, she's in the same insight blindness ballpark as the columnist--she claims--claims a first chapter must be boring. This is the same thinking that interprets the Freytag pyramid's first act, exposition, as dry, antagonism-, causation-, and tension-less lecture summary and explanation tell.

Exposition is introduction, what a first chapter must do: introduction of an antagonizing event, first priority, in an antagonizing setting, second priority, to an antagonizable character, third priority, though the degrees of each's priority nearly are coordinate to a single origin. Readers relate foremost easily to events, secondmost to settings, third-most to characters.

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Denevius
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I started reading the essay, then started to skim when I realized that she's basically saying what I've heard before.

'Boring' is subjective. I loved the first chapter of "Windup Girl", but when I bought the book for a friend to read, she couldn't get past the first chapter. And there *have* been books where I thought the first twenty to thirty pages were slow (though not so much that I quit reading), but as I read on, I found the novel overall extremely compelling. Some of my favorite novels had that effect on me, though right now none come to mind.

However, what I truly believe is short-sighted is when an unpublished writer says that there story really picks up after the beginning. I do usually take that to mean there are structural problems overall in the narrative.

Traditionally published books have been edited by professionals, and the beginning some may think is slow may not have even been how the author started it when they first submitted the manuscript. But along the line, the publisher decided that the risk is worth it to have the book begin at a gradual pace, and then have it pick up later.

Pulling a move like that when you're still trying to get published is a bad idea, in my opinion. Start as close to the action as possible, and then, together with your editor after the book has been accepted, decide if there's a better place to open the novel.

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MAP
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I like this article. I think it is excellent advice. Quit worrying about hooking readers and lay a good foundation for your story. I think that the focus should always be on doing what is best for the story.

I always give a book 30 to 50 pages to hook me. I think most readers will read more than the first chapter.

[ June 19, 2014, 11:49 AM: Message edited by: MAP ]

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Meredith
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Just curious, did you go on to read the other four posts on the same subject (linked on the left)? She goes into a lot more detail about what a first chapter needs to do--and some suggestions on how to do it.

I don't think she said it had to be boring. She did acknowledge that there's a problem making the protagonist instantly liked, but then gave suggestions and exceptions.

She did seem a little down on the in media res openings--like battles. That's not my favorite opening, either. Actually, I'm most drawn in by a bit of mystery about the character. I'll read on to find out the answer. [Smile]

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Grumpy old guy
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This is an excerpt from a blog post I've done on basic story structure. Obviously, this is my understanding of what First Chapters should do.

According to Aristotle in Poetics, “A beginning is that which does not itself follow anything by causal necessity, but after which something naturally is or comes to be.” And, according to Gustav Freytag in his Technique of the Drama, “Since it is the business of the introduction of the drama to explain the place and time of the action, the nationality and life relations of the hero, it must at once briefly characterize the environment. Besides, the poet will have opportunity here, as in a short overture, to indicate the peculiar mood of the piece, as well as the time, the greater vehemence or quiet with which the action moves forward.” It must be noted that both Aristotle and Freytag are talking about plays on a stage, with all its associated restrictions of time and space, and not written stories. That being said, their observations are valid none-the-less. To paraphrase both Aristotle and Freytag, one may say that the beginning of a story must not follow on from any other cause and must introduce the time, place and major characters as well as the ‘tone’ of the work.

As I said, that's my take on the issue of starting a story. The challenge for the writer is to MAKE it interesting. If your story calls for you to begin with your protagonist sitting in a bare room watching paint dry (and you have valid reasons for such a start) then it's YOUR job as a writer to engage the reader. If it was easy, everyone would be doing it.

Phil.

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extrinsic
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I did read the other four installments. My dissent is not so much disagreement with Wrede, she makes valid points, but the simplistic to me approach she takes and makes overly complex, while missing simple first principles. Is this because they're second nature, principles taken for granted everyone knows them, or so obvious they don't deserve mention? Or, what I suspect, she doesn't know?

I do appreciate Wrede covers these "First Chapter" topics from a revision perspective, yet a first principle for guidance would strengthen her argument and give her writer followers the guidance they might benefit more from.

That first principle, one feature engages readers' empathy and curiosity and starts a plot train barreling along its roller coaster track; that is, an event that incites a want, be that want an event on its own first, a reaction to a problem event first, or both want and problem event simultaneously or a closely concurrent sequence.

A want and problem event upsets emotional equilibrium, which also engages readers and starts a plot moving. Also, close distances narrative, aesthetic, psychic, emotional, and intellectual require a robust and vivid reality imitation in the moment, place, and situation of the want and problem event. Event, setting, and character development. Dramatic complication--anatgonizing want and problem wanting satisfaction events, crises, clashes, and contests--most characterizes agonists, develops them for readers, so readers are at least curious, if not caring and curious about what will happen to the agonists and their dramatic complications' outcomes.

Nor, please, should my dissent be taken as cause to not post links to outside writing discussions. They at least arouse robust and inspirational debate discussions here at Hatrack.

[ June 25, 2014, 05:54 AM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Meredith
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I suspected you had, extrinsic. You're nothing if not thorough. [Smile]
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kmsf
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Thanks for posting this link, Meredith!

Wrede confirms a lot of my recent experience in trying to hammer out a first chapter.

For my current WIP I have written, revised, and polished to a dull gloss, no less than three in media res openings. And each one was unsatisfactory for the story. They might be functional, but the scenes alone with nothing before them are too flat.

Grumpy, having only started Poetics recently, I've found it very instructive. And what Aristotle has to say about beginnings helped this writer clear away much of the spurious, prescriptive advice that's out there, e.g., a dead body by the end of Chapter 1 is optimal. Nonsense. Perhaps for a mystery.

It's funny how none of my favorite books fit the prescriptions so many espouse.

So true that good beginnings do certain things for the reader. Again, good blog link!

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extrinsic
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What then is this in medias res shortcoming generally? Aristotle and Freytag "show" what one is, what their shortcomings are, imply what their strengths are, in meanders and implications. They do not explain exactly what in medias res is, nor its strengths when mastered.

In Aristotle's era, audiences expected backstory, mostly who and what events begat who and what events, and so on back to a god's progeny. This is kleos: an individual's reputation based on ancestral lineage and ancestral history. The fruit doesn't fall far from the tree, so to speak.

Audiences over time became weary of the history background of agonists; they arrived "fashionably late" so they didn't have to suffer the boredom. They arrived when the action began, in medias res. The resources compositors and perfomance staff and investors expended on the backstory were realized as wasted. Other incentives were needed to timely draw audiences to satisfying performances. Begun at the beginning of the action, in medias res, became the incentive, though with some sort of preamble so the fashion of late arrival was preserved. Gradually, backstory became interleavened among the action.

Exposition acts, though, continued to depend on history background, summary and explanation backstory necessary to understand the action to come, leading to "exposition" being associated with routine summary and explanation lecture.

Unless who and what they did, the ancestors of an agonist are needed for understanding the main action, they are pointless backstory.

No need to begin with the creation time, when the cosmos was created, and every event and individual who came beforehand, nor the birth of an agonist, nor who his or her parents are, unless that matters to the action. Best practice yet, to leave those details until they matter to the agonist in the moment, place, and situation of immediate action.

In medias res begins when a life complicating event upsets a routine and compels an agonist to act to satisfy the complication. This is in medias res: three hundred sixty-five or -six days in a year, the one that's antagonizingly different is where in medias res begins.

Andrew Wiggin in Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game, for example, begins in medias res, when Colonel Hyrum Graff proposes Wiggin is the one, first page, and argues for his selection. Decided at the end of the first page. A decision is the inciting event. Wiggin's routine is about to be dramatically interrupted. The action then proceeds progressivley forward in time from then on. Backstory gradually interleaved in the immediate moment it matters to Wiggin's interrupted routine, as the action unfolds.

[ June 20, 2014, 01:25 AM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Denevius
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I just started reading Connie Winnis' "To Say Nothing of the Dog", and it's beginning makes me think of the criteria necessary for a novel's opening to feel slow (which is how this novel's opening definitely feels).

Yes, the story opens on an immediate action: the central character and his team are time travelers, and they're searching for some piece of art in the past for their client in their present.

Sounds intriguing enough, which is why I bought the book, except the first ten pages (I'm on a Kindle, so it's hard to know how many pages I've read, but it feels like about ten) is literally about them, in a wrecked church (it's doing a war), looking for a sculpture, I guess.

What makes openings slow: 1) why should the reader care? I don't know the characters yet, I actually don't understand what this religious sculpture is, and I don't understand its value either to the client, or how succeeding at the mission is important to the central character.

2) Low stakes: either they find the statue/sculpture, or they don't. Either way, the stakes for the central character seems minimal. He hasn't mentioned a need for money, status, or prestige. He doesn't seem to be under threat if he can't find the statue. I see no way in which his life changes, at all, whatever the outcome of him finding the statue is.

3) Redundancy: The first pages open on them talking to a guard, I guess, of the church as they search for the statue. The guard is wondering why they're there at all, and so they're coming up with a lie. They search for the statue. Backstory about the client. They search for the statue. Backstory about the war. They search for the statue. Backstory about timelag and the mental confusion it creates (which I think the stakes actually are). They search for the statue.

And as the reading, I'm thinking, "God, can we just get the h*ll out of this scene already."

Not having a reason to care about the character, having low stakes (or stakes that are hard to relate to, such as timelag), and redundancy are killers for a novel opening. Lots of unpublished fiction that I read in workshop settings suffers from these faults . Connie Winnis has published numerous novels, so she can get away with this opening. But really, if this was some unknown author who hadn't won numerous Hugos, I'd seriously wonder how an opening of this caliber would have sold.

Now, I contrast with the opening of "Windup Girl", which my friend found boring. But we immediately know the stakes in the first pages: the main character, a Calorie Man, is searching for fruit that shouldn't exist anymore in a world that's been wrecked by manmade genetic plagues. Most of the population has died, or are under threat of death from viral mutations. So the Calorie Man in this mart in Bangkok simply haggling with an old woman for a piece of fruit gives us a reason to care, gives us high stakes (illness and starvation), and doesn't get bogged down in repetition.

However, you do have to get past the foreign locale and foreign words interspersed throughout that opening.

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Meredith
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Maybe I found this series of posts particularly interesting because:

A) I am one of those writers who sometimes has to find my way into a story. I've gotten better (I think) at finding the right beginning, but it isn't always where I first think it is.

B) The novel I'm getting ready to query is one of those that morphed somewhere along the way. These posts have given me some reason to question where the story starts now and whether that's really the best place/conflict to begin with. I'm going to spend a little time thinking about that.

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extrinsic
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Stakes for me are what many writers label conflict. A dramatic conflict is a diameteric opposition of risk-reward and outcome forces: life or death, safety or injury, acceptance or rejection, riches or rags, fallback or maturation, salvation or condemnation, success or failure, nobleness or wickedness, beauty or commonness, popularity or obscurity, actualized or marginalized, proactive or victimized, fame or mediocrity, secured or endangered, ad infinitum. Conflict also relates to outcomes. The so-called "twists" are artful, surprising changes in conflict, to perhaps a third and maybe fourth alternative. Conflict drives tension.

A common conflict development shortcoming is focus on the risk without proportional focus on the reward. This is also a shortcoming in the antagonsim department; antagonism is easily perceived as a negative force, though antagonism is actually a pushmi-pullya force, both negative and positive and otherwise, back and forth, up and down, left and right, forward and backward, clockwise and counterclockwise.

A ticking countdown to a deadline also drives tension. Time is, of course, relevant; space also is relevant to a ticking countdown. Four days before the enemy arrives at the castle gates from a faraway land, for example. A week to find the treasure in a trackless waste before the hostage loses his life. One month to learn how to use an abacus before the traders from the Orient arrive. Two hours to teach a novice how to load, aim, and fire a howitzer before the battle begins across the river and over the ridge. One day to decipher the intercepted message from behind enemy lines before the spy dies. A lunar month to catch a mass urban killer before another person dies. A weekend to romance the love interest before the convention ends and participants return to their distant homes. Four minutes before the air leaks out of the spacecraft. Overnight before the fish catch on its way to the dock spoils. Also ad infinitum.

I have yet to read a conventionally published narrative in which those above principles are not front and center stage; though rarely directly stated, almost always artfully implied. Same with where and when and who a narrative begins: a routine is established that is soon antagonizingly interrupted, also implied. Some narratives may spend more word count establishing a routine than is ideal, though. I'm especially delighted when a routine has already been interrupted but the agonists haven't yet realized it. This latter is dramatic irony.

[ June 19, 2014, 09:59 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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kmsf
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It seems to all come down to what the desired effect of the words on the page is. Start too early, and you induce irritation or sleep. Start too late, and you might induce shock without empathy.

Also, what does your audience expect? Greek theater goers initially expected long exposition on lineage, so in that context the effect was desired. What about Epic Fantasy readers today? They seem to like artfully done exposition to start. The Thriller reader would say, "Get to it!"

But usually establishing routine, however efficiently the writer lays out "once upon a time", is necessary for the reader to respond to the change as something more than spectacle. I say usually because there are no rules. And sure enough there'll be an exception.

Extrinsic, I enjoyed your point about the instance where the protagonist is unaware that his normal has already changed. Ender believes normal has changed back to normal but has no idea it has actually moved in the opposite direction. What other examples are there?

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Denevius
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For openings, I think stakes can begin small, as long as they're there. I was re-reading the opening of my last novel, which I hadn't looked at in at least a year and a half, and as I read, I kept asking myself: what's at stake for this teen girl? And really, there was nothing. Her and her best friend were going to a party that my main character didn't want to go to, but that's not stakes. That's more a vague inclination, or a discomfort at the prospect of a social gathering.

And then I wrote a romantic interest, which as I think of it now is an overused cliche/trope (whatever we're calling it). One guy likes her, but he's not cool; and she likes the cool guy, who thinks she's just a kid. Again, no stakes, and not even a very compelling setup.

Now, I had been told that the novel really starts when she headbutts a guy's skull in during a battle to death overseen by a dragon masquerading as a man. That's when the reader realizes, "Oh crap, this girl is in danger!" And "Wow, she's violent." But that happens like, sixty or so pages in the story, and try as I might, I couldn't figure out a way that would have worked in opening the novel closer to that point.

That's basically the dilemma I have as I think of how to eventually rewrite this story. How do I lop off those first fifty to sixth pages to get to stakes that matter.

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Denevius
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quote:
But usually establishing routine, however efficiently the writer lays out "once upon a time", is necessary for the reader to respond to the change as something more than spectacle.
It's interesting, because though this seems to make sense, I actually think it's counter-productive. Even in this novel that I think has a slow opening, "To Say Nothing of the Dog", you're still dealing with admitted time travelers hunting a religious relic in the past in a church that has recently been bombed (and yes, it is funny how that not-interesting that setup was).

I think the key is to somehow hijack the routine, or subvert it. "A Confederacy of Dunces" begins with a guy trying to catch a bus. What's more routine than that, right? Until you meet that guy, who's grossly overweight, extremely intelligent, unable to do simple things without creating a riot, and has a superiority complex that reveals itself in treating every other human around him as if they're absolutely retarded.

The routine subverted into farce.

[ June 20, 2014, 09:04 AM: Message edited by: Denevius ]

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kmsf
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Denevius, OSC in How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy has a real spiffy section in beginnings and endings. I found it very helpful as it helped me decide what kind of story I want to tell. The end must answer the questions raised in the beginning, or at least give some satisfaction. Maybe ask yourself what kind of story it is, then your beginning will be more clear. I hope this helps.
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extrinsic
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kmsf,

Another example of a protagonist who's unaware normal has changed, routine antagonizingly interrupted is Santiago in Ernest Hemingway's The Old Man and the Sea. Santiago believes he has vigor to spare. His community knows he is "now definitely and finally salao, which is the worst form of unlucky." That's part of the third sentence, again, first page, first paragraph actually.

Salao is a provencial Spanish idiom that means cursed, in this case, by old age, with mystical connotations. The word's literal meaning is "salted," idiomatically akin to the English maritime idiom "old salt." Anyway, the main thrust of the novel is Santiago's struggle to prove to himself and consequently his community he's still a capable fisherman, still a man, not cursed by old age. Labeled salao is the antagoinizng event that interrupts Santiago's routine, two long gaps--streaks of no fish caught, and compel him to greater efforts.

Connie in Joyce Carol Oates' "Where are you going, where have you been" is unaware that the change from child to woman comes with attendant risks, hazards, dangers, perils, not just privileges and rights, again, what the story is about. Connie's vanity and false sense of security antagonized by her budding womanhood lead to her contention with peril.

The entire Seinfeld television situation comedy is about "nothing" the cast is aware of; that is, their self-involved wants cause problems wanting superficial satisfaction time and again each episode. They have no moral compass for activities of daily social coexistence, so they invent superficial rules to live by in a superficial culture.

Actually, that self-involved cluelessness premise is the main thrust of many situation comedys, begun as early as, if not earlier, Jackie Gleason's Honeymooners and evident in this past season's crop more of the same.

I could go on at length. Disturbance of unaware bliss is a mainstay for routine interrupted across the literary opus.

[ June 24, 2014, 04:06 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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extrinsic
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quote:
Originally posted by kmsf:
But usually establishing routine, however efficiently the writer lays out "once upon a time", is necessary for the reader to respond to the change as something more than spectacle.

quote:
Originally posted by Denevius:
I think the key is to somehow hijack the routine, or subvert it.

Both these are astute insights.
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Grumpy old guy
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Personally, the hardest part of starting a story is finding out A), where to start and B), how to start. For my story, Jack Rayne, (Which has not had a single line of prose written for it yet--damn it!) I decided I needed to explain the milieu immediately--Earth under siege by an orbiting alien fleet. Then I toyed with various 'hows' to try and come up with the best tone to strike. They boiled down to two:

First, Jack Rayne about to be launched into space for his first flight to combat the aliens. With this I have all the cliche requirements everyone and their dog demands of stories now-a-days; colour, movement, impending action and a rollicking good space dog-fight after page two. But I tossed that idea because it doesn't strike the right tone for the rest of the story--which barely mentions the war but which has it as an undercurrent that pervades all society. And for the fact that stories that start in medias res are invariably failures with only a few very notable selections because most writers don't actually know what in medias res means in actual prose. Although extrinsic does explain beautifully that it does NOT mean starting in the middle of a fight or similar action.

So I settled on scenario 2 where the entrance is more languid--the off-duty mess room for new pilots awaiting assignment. This 'tone' allows me more latitude to explore the milieu, but in a very compressed time-frame as well as delve more deeply into my two protagonists, Jack and 'his' AI and to 'fool' the readers for a brief moment about the very nature of the AI; they'll believe she's a person for a little bit..

Readers really DO need to know almost immediately something about the stories milieu; is it fantasy, sci-fi etc. I don't mean genre, that's usually bleedin' obvious on the cover, but on page one, and preferably in the first paragraph, just where they are. They also really want to get a glimpse of the character they're going to be asked to barrack for.

Phil.

[ June 20, 2014, 02:13 AM: Message edited by: Grumpy old guy ]

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Meredith
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quote:
Originally posted by Denevius:

That's basically the dilemma I have as I think of how to eventually rewrite this story. How do I lop off those first fifty to sixth pages to get to stakes that matter.

By starting with a smaller--but still very real and interesting--conflict/stakes. Ideally, one that will be tied eventually to the main conflict.

Going back to Ender's Game: The stakes for Ender at the very beginning are the consequences of having his monitor removed.

First the other kids try to bully him and he has to figure out how to stop them so it won't just keep happening. He doesn't know that this is effectively another test. He just wants not to have to fight his schoolmates all the time.

This is followed up by an even worse threat from his older brother--again, because the monitor has been removed and it's "safe" now to threaten Ender.

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extrinsic
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quote:
Originally posted by Meredith:
By starting with a smaller--but still very real and interesting--conflict/stakes. Ideally, one that will be tied eventually to the main conflict.

Going back to Ender's Game: The stakes for Ender at the very beginning are the consequences of having his monitor removed.

First the other kids try to bully him and he has to figure out how to stop them so it won't just keep happening. He doesn't know that this is effectively another test. He just wants not to have to fight his schoolmates all the time.

This is followed up by an even worse threat from his older brother--again, because the monitor has been removed and it's "safe" now to threaten Ender.

Also astute insights.

Donald Maass in Writing the Breakout Novel refers to using smaller stakes/conflict to access the main action as a bridging conflict, though these are actually bridging complications; also, Maass' term and how he demonstrates it is about complication, not conflict.

Wiggin, for example, wants to satisfy the bully problems of his schoolmates and elder brother Peter. The conflict/stakes are physical comfort for or physical harm to himself, with a "twist" reversal (peripeteia) his satisfaction of the moment is neither physical comfort for nor physical harm to himself.

I believe, but don't have copies handy, Orson Scott Card also references bridging conflict or complication or gives examples in either or both his two writing books: Characters and Viewpoint, How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy.

The earliest writing I've found dramatic complication named and demonstrated is in The Poetics of Aristotle.

[ June 20, 2014, 05:03 AM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Denevius
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I think this is all easier said than done. A common refrain in workshops, even here, is that the narrative's pacing picks up a little later. Well, how much later? And why?

People get somewhat defensive about this, but the bottom line is that much unpublished fiction starts with a buildup before it gets to any type of stakes. Like, Phil, I'm just using this as an example. Since you haven't written any of it yet, who knows how it would go. But anyway, I read this:

quote:
So I settled on scenario 2 where the entrance is more languid--the off-duty mess room for new pilots awaiting assignment. This 'tone' allows me more latitude to explore the milieu, but in a very compressed time-frame as well as delve more deeply into my two protagonists, Jack and 'his' AI and to 'fool' the readers for a brief moment about the very nature of the AI; they'll believe she's a person for a little bit..
And I can't help but wonder how a central character has been set up to lose or gain anything, even if it's minor. In "Confederacy of Dunces", all the main character wants to do is catch the bus home. But this is a genuine 'want', and the stakes are either he gets home to his mom, or he doesn't. You realize why this is important because, as intelligent as he is, he's also totally hopeless in anything beyond theory and books, and he wouldn't last a day on his own in the real world. He's rude, he's obnoxious, he's hopelessly inept, and he hates people. This is not the kind of guy that needs to be stuck on Canal Street in New Orleans.

So, catching the bus is sky high stakes, as comical as this is (yes, it's one of my favorite books).

Phil, in your scenario 2, I almost feel that the problem seen in the beginning of many unpublished novels will crop up in yours. You'll have several pages of world building where it doesn't really seem like anyone wants anything of any consequence to anyone. And to be honest, every time I read your description of this potential project, I keep thinking that the alien invasion can probably be cut. But again, since none of it has actually been written, who knows.

I can't exclude myself from this conundrum. I've written three novels and one novella, but the only one that ever had evident stakes on page 1 is my current project. It's not uncommon to read unpublished fiction and think to yourself, "So, when does the story begin? And why are we taking the scenic route to get there?"

I think what trips up a lot of writers is that something of consequence isn't immediate. I think people feel that hinting at big stakes is more than enough, even if in the first ten pages, no one actually has anything *immediate* to lose or gain. They don't stand to lose or gain something *now*, in the present moment of the novel.

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Grumpy old guy
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Denevius, I can set your mind partly at rest. Even though it hasn't actually been written yet I have a clear vision of what I want my opening scene to do. Set in the AI's POV, it will open with my AI 'watching' as Jack Rayne enters the mess-room and you'll get her thoughts and, basically, she wants to know what fascinates her about Jack. He is, after all, not that much different from anyone else in the room. The point is that the AI has a want right in the first paragraph, or perhaps second, that the reader will eventually learn is central to the AI's current conundrum. I admit, it's still in the up-in-the-air/I'm-working-on-it stage but I know what I want it to do--I just have to craft it to do it in the most engaging way I can find.

Also, I'm hoping the world-building will be so thick within the atmosphere that I won't have to point it out too much, it will be absorbed by the reader through osmosis--good luck with that I say to me.

I will, however, disagree with you that a want needs to be revealed immediately--depending on what you mean by immediate and the importance of the want. If the world hangs in the balance, then I want to know about it page 1, first line or, maybe, second at the latest. If it's something less urgent, I'd allow a page or two of set-up before getting itchy, but I do agree that far too many writers think beautiful prose and great literary atmospherics are substitutes for plot/character substance. And, sad to say, some of the prose and atmospherics of current writers aint all the grand to write home to mother about either.

Phil.

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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I would like to submit that TO SAY NOTHING OF THE DOG is packed with dramatic irony. Perhaps a novel is too long for this particular version of dramatic irony, but I thought it worked.
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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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quote:
Originally posted by extrinsic:
A ticking countdown to a deadline also drives tension.

Another name for that ticking countdown is "the or-else factor" in that something has to happen "or else" things will go terribly wrong.
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extrinsic
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quote:
Originally posted by Kathleen Dalton Woodbury:
quote:
Originally posted by extrinsic:
A ticking countdown to a deadline also drives tension.

Another name for that ticking countdown is "the or-else factor" in that something has to happen "or else" things will go terribly wrong.
The "or-else factor" is a current throughout Cold War spy thrillers. Tom Clancy's The Sum of All Fears uses one or-else for a late revelation and reversal that adds a surprise twist complexity to the plot, not to mention several or-elses arise earlier.

Or-elses in the Lord of the Rings epic are also masterfully set up, though a ticking countdown clock to the ultimate end isn't as much time sensitive.

Or-else is also a common current in romance, mystery, western, horror, maybe a subtler motif in science fiction and fantasy for their other tension appeals, maybe unimportant or overlooked in literary fiction. Leopold Bloom has few dramatic or-else decisions to make in The Odyssey nor ticking countdowns or places to be or else. However, Inman of Charles Frazier's Cold Mountain has an or-else time and place to be that's subtly set up. Odysseus also does have a place to be by a time certain or else the suitors will prevail.

I'd thought of an or-else for a project in the planning stage that lacked for a time certain deadline. Adding a deadline for the or-else developed a crucial turn for the plot.

[ June 20, 2014, 02:45 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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extrinsic
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Easier said than done is a proverb, a universal truth; and profound greater truth lays within its meaning: If it, whatever "it" is, were easy, doing it would be meaningless. The hard way is the easy way.

I'm wondering, though, if the wise advice to consider if one or a very few words can say what a narrative is about, expresses about the human condition is a way to make doing as easy as saying. The Old Man and the Sea: aging, specifically, late adulthood coming of age. Twilight: popularity, popularity is cool. "Where are you going, where have you been": womanhood, sexual coming of age, for examples.

Can you name that meaning in one word or a very few words? And express or imply that meaning on the first page, within thirteen lines?

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extrinsic
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Grumpy old guy,

If the world hangs in the balance, that comes readymade with a built-in want. Basic needs' problems tend to come with built-in wants; in other words, implied: subsistence, sanctuary, and a social life.

More abstract needs need more complication development, though, through tie-ins to basic needs. Want for a bicycle or pony, for example: a need for play, peer prestige, expending pent up energy, tied to play as preparation for adult life's transportation to subsistence, shelter, and social life needs.

[ June 24, 2014, 04:04 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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MattLeo
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Hi everyone! Long time no see.

I'm late to the conversation, but let me put in my two cents. Opening chapters are special places in a story. I thing the one thing that can categorically be said about them is that they call for your very best work. Things that you can get away with in the middle of the story can kill reader momentum in Chapter 1.

There's more than one way to launch a story, and every one of them can go wrong. Take in media res. It can work, but many people don't like it because it's so often clumsy and crude in execution. I think authors turn to in media res because they want to hook the reader early with fast-paced action, but this is a hopelessly naive idea. Pace is not something you can measure objectively in events per page; it's a subjective psychological experience you induce in the reader. If you don't understand that, your in media res opening is sunk because the opening is the very hardest place in a story to engage the reader.

Here's what I think are some rules of thumb that work for any opening.

1)DON'T make the reader work harder than he has to. This is the place for your cleanest, clearest, best constructed prose.

2) DON'T tax the reader's memory. Keep the number of names for things, places, or people he needs to remember to a bare minimum.

3) If you must spoon feed background information to the reader, DO make the spoon very, very small.

4) DON'T try to bring the reader completely up to speed on *everything*,

5) but DO throw him a lifeline by giving him something that makes sense to sink his teeth into. Readers can tolerate some mystification if they feel they're following the story on some level.

6) DON'T build your opening around anything that compels you to give the reader a background briefing so he can follow it.

7) DO display a variety of writing techniques in the first chapter. Don't make it all dialog, all action, all scene painting, all inner monologue, all character sketch etc. Variety lightens the burden on readers.

8) DO end your opening chapter promptly. It's a amazing how often you can improve a story opening just by inserting a chapter break. That's because I think readers have an expectation of rising tension throughout a chapter. When you resolve something, close the chapter.

9) When you're stuck, DO try starting your story at a different point in time. Usually later. Starting a story in the wrong place creates many knotty problems that disappear when you start in the right place.

10) Do display some personality in an opening. Tasteful writing has broad appeal, but personal writing has power.

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Grumpy old guy
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Wants come in all shapes and sizes; Ishmael wants to go to sea on a whaling ship 'cos he feels it's time to 'get away' again. Dr Watson is looking for someone to share the expense of lodgings in London so he doesn't have to 'rusticate' in the country and thus is introduced to another looking for someone to share lodgings; a slightly obsessive man named Sherlock Holmes.

The point of the want is not necessarily to be the foundation of the dramatic complication; it's purpose can be to simply set events in motion that lead to that complication.

Denevius' example of a superficially mundane want--someone needing to catch a bus--is what I'd call a 'snowball want'. A small incident that escalates into something substantial.

Finally, everyone should print out MattLeo's list for future reference; and not just for beginnings. I think it's good advice at any stage of the writing process.

Phil.

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MattLeo
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quote:
Originally posted by Grumpy old guy:

Denevius' example of a superficially mundane want--someone needing to catch a bus--is what I'd call a 'snowball want'. A small incident that escalates into something substantial.

This by the way is a good way to launch a fantasy or science fiction novel, with something mundane that takes a funny turn. This is because speculative fiction stories often require a considerable amount of background briefing before they can really get off the ground. Something the reader can follow, and which suddenly takes a weird twist is a good way to get the reader engaged with a character.

The most brazen example of this ever was the opening of A PRINCESS OF MARS. We start with an absolutely unremarkable story of a prospector fighting off an Indian attack. It's standard pulp fare, very easy to swallow. Then John Carter falls asleep and wakes up on Mars, and the scene picks up again, this time with Martian natives attacking. It's this continuity that draws you past the obvious hole in the proceedings: how the heck did Carter end up on Mars?

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Grumpy old guy
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MattLeo, John Carter does not fall asleep, he becomes paralysed (reason unknown) and during his struggle to move his attention is drawn to the red planet, rising. A coyote howls at the full moon, he hears a snapping sound and suddenly he's on Mars. Once there he meets Tars Tarkas pretty much as portrayed in the film. A Princess of Mars was written by ERB in an attempt to prove his point; that 'modern writers' wouldn't know a good story if they fell over it and couldn't write about it if they did.

And, on the point of the film:

One, why'd they title it John Carter? Unless you've read the book you wouldn't know who the heck he is.

Two, there was only one tower in Helium--there should have been two! (I'm discounting the teeny-weeny one shown in the movie).

Phil.

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Robert Nowall
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Honestly, I don't know what went on in the movie---never got around to watching it, though I bought the DVD.

In the book, John Carter, fleeing from Indians, finds himself in a cave and finds himself paralyzed. The Indians flee in fright. The paralysis continues, and abruptly John Carter is outside his body (though he still has one). He goes to the cave entrance, catches sight of Mars in the sky, experiences intense longing, raises his arms and closes his eyes---and after a moment of darkness and cold, is on Mars.

(Carl Sagan, according to the original "Cosmos," found this fascinating enough to try it himself---without luck.)

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MattLeo
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quote:
Originally posted by Robert Nowall:
In the book, John Carter, fleeing from Indians, finds himself in a cave and finds himself paralyzed. The Indians flee in fright. The paralysis continues, and abruptly John Carter is outside his body (though he still has one). He goes to the cave entrance, catches sight of Mars in the sky, experiences intense longing, raises his arms and closes his eyes---and after a moment of darkness and cold, is on Mars.

Well it's been forty years since I read the thing so I think I might be forgiven a little inaccuracy. Even so, the mysterious transition doesn't make sense, though, does it? So why does it work? How does he get the reader's critical mind to ignore the nonsensical nature of Carter's trip to Mars?

It's worth thinking about this particular opening, because usually authors presented with the problem of getting Carter to Mars concoct some elaborate scheme which sinks their first act under a mountain of exposition. ERB apparently knows something about the way readers' minds work that most of us don't.

quote:
Originally posted by Robert Nowall:


(Carl Sagan, according to the original "Cosmos," found this fascinating enough to try it himself---without luck.)

We should organize a group trip sometime when Mars is in a favorable viewing position.
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extrinsic
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The Poetics of Aristotle names, explains, and demonstrates this hand-wave phenomenon: one impossible event on top of another, John Carter's impossible transport to Mars and ongoing Mars adventures.

"It is Homer who has taught other poets the art of fiction. The secret of it lies in a fallacy. For, assuming that if one thing is or becomes, a second is or becomes, men imagine that, if the second is, the first likewise is or becomes. But this is false inference. Hence, where the first thing is untrue, it is quite unnecessary, provided the second be true, to add that the first is or has become. For the mind, knowing the second to be true, falsely infers the truth of the first. There is an example of this in the book of the Odyssey containing the bath scene." (Aristotle's Poetics, XXIV p 89: 9)

"In general, the impossible must be brought under the law of poetic truth, or of the higher reality, or of received opinion. With respect to poetic truth, a probable impossibility is to be preferred to a thing improbable yet possible." (p 99: 17)

"Poetic truth" is a greater truth, a higher reality, or received opinion that underlays a surface expression; for example, a litotes, a verbal irony, a trope, etc., have underlaying meanings, for expressing an intended meaning though the surface meaning be farfetched or impossible.

The bath scene Aristotle references--Circe turned Odysseus' men into pigs; Odysseus through guile persuades Circe to restore the men to human form by bathing them.

This "poetic truth" phenomenon is also a principle for maintaining willing suspension of disbelief though impossibility abounds.

[ June 21, 2014, 05:27 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Denevius
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quote:
It's worth thinking about this particular opening, because usually authors presented with the problem of getting Carter to Mars concoct some elaborate scheme which sinks their first act under a mountain of exposition. ERB apparently knows something about the way readers' minds work that most of us don't.
I suppose we can look at it this way. I never read the book, so I just did a quick wikipedia search to see when it was published:

quote:
A Princess of Mars (1917) is a science fantasy novel by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the first of his Barsoom series.
1917. I think you could get away with a lot of pseudo-science and spirituality in the early 20th century that you simply can't now. This came out even before that famous 1938 Orson Welles "War of the World" broadcast that actually set off a panic. The people of 1917 weren't exactly the most technologically sophisticated minds Burroughs was dealing with when the John Carter series started.

Also, I wonder if Burroughs really got away with that opening, or if people read it, thought, "What? That's kind of silly.", but then enjoyed the rest of the novel so much that they forgave it.

I think every novel has something in it that the author is getting away with. However, when I'm writing a story, I would prefer to leave as few moments like that in it as possible. So I personally think it would be short sighted to see a plot hole in a published novel and think, "Well, if this person could get away with it, why not me?" Once your book is published, then fine. But before then, it's probably best to try and tie up all loose ends.

If you need John Carter to get to Mars, have a reason why it happens. If after your book has been accepted by a publisher and the editor says, "You know, you probably don't really need a drawn out explanation of this", then yeah, cut it.

Just my opinion.

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Grumpy old guy
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It's been 30 years since I read A Princess of Mars so my recollection of the opening was a bit hazy. Having said that, ERB is writing for an audience that, in 1917, was generally quite open to the ideas of spirituality, the occult, oriental mysticism and all that other stuff most of us now-a-days regard as mumbo-jumbo.

However, today writers still rely on their reader's willing suspension of disbelief so long as we don't abuse it by asking them to believe the obviously preposterous. ERB didn't have to explain anything, he just transported Carter to Mars in the most efficient way possible--to him. The story isn't about how he got to Mars, it's about what he did when he got there and, by that time, most readers would have forgotten his 'miraculous' method of transportation.

Phil.

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MattLeo
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quote:
Originally posted by Grumpy old guy:
ERB didn't have to explain anything, he just transported Carter to Mars in the most efficient way possible--to him. The story isn't about how he got to Mars, it's about what he did when he got there and, by that time, most readers would have forgotten his 'miraculous' method of transportation.

Phil hit on the key point. We've come see Mars, and ERB gets us to Mars as quickly as possible, and that's surely at least part the explanation for why this opening works. But it's not the whole story. Just because the story uses crude elements doesn't mean the writing itself is clumsy or relies upon the readers being uncritical dolts. I think what happens immediately after Carter finds himself on Mars is crucial to selling the change to the reader, even an intelligent one.

The usual thing authors do in this situation is to have the hero poke around this strange new world. The other thing many authors would do is have the protagonist wonder at the miraculous transport. Either of these would be a disaster, because we'd be looking for an explanation for Carter's transport, but ERB doesn't have one. So instead ERB drops Carter into a very similar native fight to the one he just left, only this time with Martians, and I think this makes all the difference. It's what transforms the transition to Mars from a plot hole to a miracle.

Putting Carter into action moves the reader past the awkward bit, so that wondering about how Carter got to Mars would be backtracking. Also, instead of being dumped into a pit of imponderables, we find ourselves in a very similar situation to the one we just left. The similarity of the situation makes the reader feel he understands what is going on, which helps sell the exotic details of Barsoom and sooth the shock of the unexplained transition.

I think this is a brilliant piece of writing, even if it is pulp nonsense. It gets to what I was saying before: keep the explanations to a minimum early in the story and throw the reader a lifeline so he feels like he knows what's going on.

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extrinsic
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A Princess of Mars asserts a truth-of-the-matter convention of Romanticism. Edgar Rice Burroughs introduces the novel, claims it is the manuscript of his uncle John Carter. That is the "truth" asserted and is the minor first of an escalated pattern sequence of probable impossibilities; that is, they are the "factual" manuscript of the imaginative inventions of John Carter. For suspension of disbelief potentials, that is enough. Readers for themselves determine whether they suspend disbelief and continue while the account of Carter's impossible events unfolds, the truth of the matter as an invention of John Carter's forgotten amid the fantastical drama.

This is what folklorists label a "friend of a friend," or FOAF, account. My friend told me his neighbor friend ate a chicken-fried rat his mom brought home from the fried chicken emporium.

Edited to add: A convention of Realism, truth-of-the-matter assertion preambles are skipped and begin straightaway into reality imitation: in medias res.

[ June 21, 2014, 10:59 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Denevius
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quote:
I would like to submit that TO SAY NOTHING OF THE DOG is packed with dramatic irony. Perhaps a novel is too long for this particular version of dramatic irony, but I thought it worked.
I'm still trudging along. Perhaps the novel isn't for me. But I would definitely agree with this second line, a feeling that the writer is dragging out the incidents for page length/word count.

There's a bit too much fiddling around in scenes to a degree that I keep wishing we'd just get to the point already.

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Robert Nowall
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I should say it's been at least twenty years since I last read A Princess of Mars, maybe forty years since I first read it---but I looked up the pertinent details by finding the text of it at Project Gutenberg and rereading the opening chapters.
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extrinsic
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Burroughs' opening preamble is not especially memorable; however, it begins the setup for the probable impossibilities of the main action. Carter is a young retired Confederate officer, becomes a gold prospector in Arizona and restores his lost fortune, dies immediately before the time Burroughs goes to visit him, appears around thirty years old though he's in his eighties, and had installed a lock on his carefully prepared burial vault that can only be opened from the inside.

The probable impossibilities continue to emerge in the main action before Carter is transported to Mars. For first chapters, Burroughs does masterful handstands getting from the mundane into poetic truth and the fantastical. This is a type of buyer bias, in that once one or an escalated series of mildly incredible events have passed and been accepted, the whoppers are more easily glossed over. This is the opposite of an abrupt surprise, rather a stair-stepped transition from the mundane to the fantastical.

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Meredith
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quote:
Originally posted by extrinsic:

This is a type of buyer bias, in that once one or an escalated series of mildly incredible events have passed and been accepted, the whoppers are more easily glossed over. This is the opposite of an abrupt surprise, rather a stair-stepped transition from the mundane to the fantastical.

In other words, it's sort of a slippery slope. [Big Grin]
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Reziac
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quote:
Originally posted by extrinsic:
Though Wrede makes valid points, she's in the same insight blindness ballpark as the columnist--she claims--claims a first chapter must be boring.

That's not how I read it...

Ms.Wrede, from the article:

I will go so far as to say that a boring first chapter is a major flaw that must be addressed

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extrinsic
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Wrede claims an unnamed columnist claims a first chapter must be boring. Wrede's argument claims that's not necessarily so. Where her insight is blind is what constitutes a boring first chapter is "1) The reader doesn’t care about the character, 2) The action is weak and/or meaningless, and 3) There’s too much telling and backstory."

Valid points though negative assertion guidance. If inverted for positive assertion: 1) Readers care about the character. 2) The action is strong and meaningful. 3) The action begins immediately into reality imitation (show) and in the now moment, place, and situation of the action.

Meaningless in itself. Wrede offers feint suggestions in the linked post and the other four related posts for arousing readers caring about the character, for strong and meaningful action, and now "show" beginnings. She doesn't touch upon first principles for building up to realizing and developing those features; that is, antagonizing events that incite wants and problems for characters that matter to readers, what constitutes strong and meaningful action, and what constitutes robust and engaging reality imitation. Wrede is too general and glosses over a fundamental step.

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extrinsic
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quote:
Originally posted by Meredith:
quote:
Originally posted by extrinsic:

This is a type of buyer bias, in that once one or an escalated series of mildly incredible events have passed and been accepted, the whoppers are more easily glossed over. This is the opposite of an abrupt surprise, rather a stair-stepped transition from the mundane to the fantastical.

In other words, it's sort of a slippery slope. [Big Grin]
A slippery slope indeed. The human capacity to "believe six impossible things before breakfast" (Lewis Carrol Alice in Wonderland) for writers is a magical implementation of a particular cognitive bias: choice-supportive bias, where once a minor fantastical circumstance is accepted as credible, farther farfetched fantastical circumstances tend to lend prior ones greater credence and pay forward as well. I, a reader, chose to believe this impossible circumstance; therefore, it must be credible. Now that I've bought in, I'm in it until the end. "Hooked" on one's own petard, to say the least.

[ June 22, 2014, 02:26 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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MattLeo
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Here's what I think is wrong with the advice in the linked article:

quote:
Take another look at the three symptoms that writing column mentioned: 1) The reader doesn’t care about the character, 2) The action is weak and/or meaningless, and 3) There’s too much telling and backstory. Basically, this means that there is something wrong with one or more of the three basic areas of storytelling: 1) the characterization, 2) the plot, or 3) the background/backstory.
Wrede is absolutely wrong in her diagnosis. It's necessary to get the things she lists right of course, but even so your story might still fail to launch. She's completely missed the unique challenge of first chapters.

There's two things you need to know about story openings: (1) that everything a reader does with your words to create a subjective experience costs him effort; (2) that a reader approaches a story wanting you to succeed, but the supply of goodwill and interest he lends you is very limited. So the special challenge of a story opening is husbanding that very small initial stock of goodwill until you have enough to spend on accomplishing significant things.

Until you understand that what you can do in openings is different than what you can do in the middle of the story, even good feedback on your opening isn't going to help. The challenge is not just to write a good chapter, it's to write a good opening chapter. In the middle of a story you can afford to challenge a reader, leave him mystified, frustrate him, etc. In the first chapter you've got to keep your eye on that gas gauge because unless you're a famous author writing for his devoted fans you're starting this trip running on fumes.

That's why I set such great store in the prose of opening chapters. It's not that we shouldn't bring our best prose to every page of a story, but in openings I think we need to focus especially in simplicity. I believe ease of reading should be a higher priority than "hooking" the reader in the first chapter. If the first couple of chapters go by effortlessly for the reader, I suspect you're in pretty good shape.

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Denevius
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quote:
(1) that everything a reader does with your words to create a subjective experience costs him effort; (2) that a reader approaches a story wanting you to succeed, but the supply of goodwill and interest he lends you is very limited.
I actually feel that this is a contradiction.

I agree with your first point, that the openings cause a reader effort in trying to engage in a reality they know isn't true, and isn't directly important to their real lives.

But I think that as a result, readers are looking reasons *not* to continue. Their time is valuable, and there's a hundred other books they could be reading, as well as a hundred other activities they could be engaged in besides reading a particular author's book.

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extrinsic
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Number 2, something wrong with the plot, is a valid diagnosis criteria. My dissent is strengthening a plot is a fundamental matter of causal event development, which Wrede skips past. Story in a pure and simple essence is "a narrative of events arranged in their time-sequence"--be that chronologically linear, nonlinear, or epsiodic. "Plot is also a narrative of events, their emphasis falling on causality" (Forster Aspects of the Novel 86).

The cites above are E.M. Forster's definition of plot as distinct from story. "'The king died and then the queen died' is a story. 'The king died and then the queen died from grief' is a plot" (86). The king's death, an event, causes the queen's grief, an event; in turn, grief causes her death, an event: beginning, middle, end.

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