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» Hatrack River Writers Workshop » Forums » Open Discussions About Writing » First Chapters (Page 2)

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Author Topic: First Chapters
MattLeo
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I wouldn't claim that plotting isn't at least *part* of the problem. A lot of what I've seen is authors struggling with the bewildering array of choices openings present.

How to make those choices, that's the practical problem.

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Grumpy old guy
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For me it's simple; focus your opening on who, where, why and what. I'm not going to elaborate on, say, what I mean by 'what', that's for each individual writer to puzzle out for themselves. What I will add is that having one of these things is essential and having all four is Nirvana. Any number in between is best practice.

Phil.
Being unusually cryptic--been a long day in rough weather

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extrinsic
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quote:
Grumpy old guy:
For me it's simple; focus your opening on who, where, why and what.

When and how feel left out.
quote:
MattLeo:
(1) that everything a reader does with your words to create a subjective experience costs him effort.

Ideally, according to audience sophistication, an iota of effortless intellectual stimulation starts effortless imagination stimulation, should cost readers no effort. Unless a writer delights in making readers work hard for their stimulation and readers of such enjoy the comprehension work, effortless reading for entertainment is most stimulating. The literary opus is a spectrum between impenetrable and appealing, easy, comprehensible expression according to audience sensibilities.

For example, James Joyce's The Odyssey is among the more impenetrable works. Part of its appeal is a desire to fully understand, decipher its entire meaning. Human nature wants to make sense of stimuli; this is a basic survival instinct.

Joyce put on a grand lark at the expense of high-brow sensibilities, a parochial school boy prank intended to pay back the grade school English study misery of literary interpretation. Evading one rhetoric substitutes another for the one denied. Sophisticated sensibilities delight in extracting the narrative's meaning. By obscuring meaning, conventionally alienating, Joyce created an appeal of an unconventional puzzle to solve.

Fables generally are easy to read, easy to comprehend on their surfaces; however, their surface appeals belie their depths. The original French "The Sleeping Beauty" fable by Charles Perault, based upon "Sun, Moon, and Talia" by Italian Giambattista Basile, 1634, is a house märchen, a folktale, with many fabulous appeals superficially.

Underneath the superficial action are cautions about attention to hospitality, learning domestic work skills, overbearing mother-in-laws, and desiring Prince Charming husbands, directed to young women's attention so that they may become suitable wives. If the superficial action were less appealing and accessible, the message might either be received as alienating lecture to be denied or lost from lack of persuasion.

Avoiding undue persuasions is a first part of literary interpretation. A second part is learning how to persuade effectively.

[ June 24, 2014, 03:23 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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Grumpy old guy
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I omitted when and how deliberately. While both have their place later on, for beginnings I think you should concentrate on the who, where, what and why.

Take for example: He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish. We have the who, He was an old man (I know it's vague but it's all that's needed) alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream, Where (need I say more) who fished alone in a skiff, What (That's what he's doing) and, finally, why, he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.

I'm not saying we should all try and channel Hemingway and try and put it all down in one sentence. But I hope you get my meaning; in the first chapter we should try and answer our readers most basic questions about why we're there and what's going on and why the person we're talking about deserves our notice.

Phil.

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extrinsic
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The sentence contains two hows and two whens: fished alone in a skiff, unsuccessful for eighty-four days; now and a span of eighty-four days past.
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Denevius
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Again, just my personal opinion, but I don't put a lot of stock in first sentences. Yes, a bad first sentence makes it more likely that I won't read the book. But it has to be absolutely awful. Otherwise, I generally get through the first paragraph, and usually at least flip from page 1 to page 2.

I saw that other thread on here about first sentences. At first I was going to contribute until I realized that the only first sentence that I remember is because it's so famous, and I had to memorize it at some point in school; and even now, I only remember the first part of that sentence.

quote:
It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...
That's all I basically remember, but that opening has enough pop cultural references that I bet someone who has never heard of Dickens knows those 12 words by heart.

So, when I realized that I didn't remember any of the first sentences of some of my favorite books, I went back to look them up, and was less than impressed:

quote:
No!
Technically, that's the first sentence, or I guess statement, of my favorite book of the last five years, "Windup Girl". It's actually part of dialog, and usually I hate when dialog opens a narrative.

quote:
"No! I don't want the mangosteen."
Alone, this doesn't even make sense. You'll get no idea of what this novel could possibly be about at this point, either from its title (what the h*ll's a Windup Girl?), to its first sentence (what the h*ll's a mangosteen?).

Another of my favorite books in the last five years is even more complicated. Exactly where is the first sentence? The italicized opening with offset margins that represents some disembodied voice?

quote:
By human standards it could not possibly have been artificial: It was the size of a world.
Or the point where the narrative actually begins:

quote:
When they pulled her out, she was not crying at all.
This is from Carl Sagan's "Contact", another of my favorite books in the last five years. Now, the italicized sentence from the disembodied voice isn't bad, and it's definitely better than where the prose actually begins.

But really, the first sentence for me when I opened "Contact" wasn't either of those. It's the epigraph, which is from William Blake:

quote:
Little fly,/Thy summer's play/My thoughtless hand/Has brushed away.
This is the first thing I see past the title, blurbs, and table of contents. Aren't epigraphs not an integral part of the story? Why else would the author have decided to put them there? And though they're lifted from someone else, aren't they actually the "first sentence" of the novel?

And then, one of my favorite novels of the last ten years:

quote:
Lyra and her daemon moved through the darkening hall, taking care to keep to one side, out of sight of the kitchen.
There's nothing particularly special about this. Sure, if you're not into fantasy, you might wonder what a 'daemon' is. But I was into D&D as a teen, so words like that don't especially intrigue me. Beyond that one word, again, a perfectly fine, but perfectly ordinary sentence that spawned a fantastic series, "The Golden Compass".

Someone said this in the thread about first sentences, and I agree with it. I think too many writers try a bit too hard to nail that perfect first sentence, but there's a lot of published books that went on to great things that have just normal first sentences. There's nothing special about them, there's nothing particularly compelling, or memorable, about them. Yeah, sometimes you'll get that novel that opens perfectly:

quote:
The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel.
Yes, this line from "Neuromancer" is very poetic, and very compelling. But like much that is poetic, what is it really telling you? If you saw just that line and absolutely nothing else, knew absolutely nothing else about the novel or its genre, what information are you really getting from that line except that it's a weird, cool way of saying, "It's night time."
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Grumpy old guy
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Denevius, I can 'infer' a lot from: "The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel." However, that doesn't mean that I can 'infer' what the story is about. It gives me a sense of a techno dystopia, bleak and full of 'static' like the signal from a dead TV channel. For me, it evokes a visual response. I don't see simply grey, I see a sky that is almost identical to a television set displaying that unique type of static. I guess this is a case of the right words push the right buttons for a particular sub-set of people

Phil.

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wetwilly
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I agree with Denevius that a bad first sentence won't turn me off, but a great first sentence will definitely turn me on (no, not sexually, though I suppose if it were good enough...)

And at this stage of my writing life, when I'm basically begging for scraps from the publishing table, I know (or suspect) the editor/agent/Assistant/whoever may never read past the first line unless it wows them.

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Grumpy old guy
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Well, Mr Pedantic [Smile] , yes, there are two hows--fished alone, and, in a skiff, and yes, there is a when, eighty-four days--although this is more arguably a measure of time passed (not sure how I'd categorise that).

Castigate me for finding a poor example in my haste to bolster my argument. I still stand by my initial statement.

Phil. :-p
Laughing all the way to a well-earned nights sleep,

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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Finding myself wondering how he could have survived for 84 days on the Gulf Stream. Could he really have carried enough food and water to sustain himself (especially if he hadn't caught any fish) for that long?

Or is that getting too literal? Maybe Hemingway was speaking hyperbolicly?

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wetwilly
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I don't know, Kathleen; that's awfully specific for a hyperbolic statement.
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extrinsic
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First lines, first chapters, starts, etc., responses to these topics suggest to me how differently any given individual reads and interprets implications.
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extrinsic
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quote:
Originally posted by Kathleen Dalton Woodbury:
Finding myself wondering how he could have survived for 84 days on the Gulf Stream. Could he really have carried enough food and water to sustain himself (especially if he hadn't caught any fish) for that long?

Or is that getting too literal? Maybe Hemingway was speaking hyperbolicly?

Hemingway's intents and meanings rely a great deal on sparse prose, understatement, implication, and reasonably close reader inferrence. He also emphasizes reality imitation, a carryover from Realism, though at an appreciable departure of deeper character self-consciousness over Realism's strong narrator commentary, a Modernism convention he helped shape.
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MAP
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Kathleen, if I remember correctly, the old man isn't living on the sea. He takes his skiff out everyday and returns home every night to his little shack. I believe he had been depending on the charity of others to survive for those 84 days.
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MattLeo
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As for "who what where and why", it's one way to start a story, but not the only way.

In my own stories I often open with what I call a "bootstrap scenario". This is a problem that is posed not for its own sake, but to give the reader something understandable to follow as he absorbs the background information he'll need to understand what the story is "really about".

For example The Keystone starts with a space captain trying to stop a spaceport official from impounding her ship. But the story isn't about her ship, its about a galaxy-wide political crisis.

I developed this boostrapping technique after reading too many MSS that would have approached the problem this way: Explain that the galaxy's ruling dynasty is divided into three rival factions. Explain the limitations of the civilization's FTL drive, and how that contributes to the stalemate between those factions. Explain how recent advances in FTL technology have upset the balance between the factions, leading to the incipient genocide of a hundred billion people.

That's a lot of text to read scrolling up the screen before anything interesting happens.

In fact the protagonist of The Keystone goes through a sequence of "bootstrap" scenarios that seem personal to her, but which in fact draw her deeper into the galaxy-wide conflict. She doesn't quite realize what she's done until long after the action is over. I often do this; keep the protagonist in the dark about what the story "really" is about until well into the story. This means I don't have to do all my explaining up front.

The trick is not to produce an episodic plot, what the Turkey City Lexicon calls an "And Plot". You need to know where your story is going, and it's important for the sequence of events to matter. The reader should feel like he's getting closer to something, but you don't have to telegraph what that is. You can of course telegraph what the story is about right in the first chapter, if you can make that work. It's just not mandatory to make everything clear in the first chapter. Some stories avoid explaining themselves to the reader altogether (e.g. Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell).

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extrinsic
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quote:
Originally posted by MAP:
Kathleen, if I remember correctly, the old man isn't living on the sea. He takes his skiff out everyday and returns home every night to his little shack. I believe he had been depending on the charity of others to survive for those 84 days.

Manolin helps Santiago out, hopes he may crew for Santiago again after his family tells him he can't anymore. The help isn't charity, though, a bit of thieving and self-interest. The takeout food Manolin brings to Santiago is given on credit, which Santiago through Manolin pays back from the head and tail of the marlin remains Santiago lands. Other living costs during the eighty-four day span are paid from the last of Santiago's savings and good will in the community. Santiago also had an eighty-one day no fish landed streak before the recent one, pivotal motifs Santiago relates to Joe Dimaggio's famous batting streaks. Good will, charity not so much.
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extrinsic
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quote:
Originally posted by MattLeo:
In my own stories I often open with what I call a "bootstrap scenario". This is a problem that is posed not for its own sake, but to give the reader something understandable to follow as he absorbs the background information he'll need to understand what the story is "really about".

This method I know from study as a stepped transition using a sequence of bridging complications.
quote:
Originally posted by MattLeo:
In fact the protagonist of The Keystone goes through a sequence of "bootstrap" scenarios that seem personal to her, but which in fact draw her deeper into the galaxy-wide conflict. She doesn't quite realize what she's done until long after the action is over. I often do this; keep the protagonist in the dark about what the story "really" is about until well into the story. This means I don't have to do all my explaining up front.

Agonists unaware of an already emergent crisis are for me an especially intriguing and engaging opening method. They do, however, require readers know before an agonist what's actually going on: dramatic irony.
quote:
Originally posted by MattLeo:
The trick is not to produce an episodic plot, what the Turkey City Lexicon calls an "And Plot".

Turkey City's "And Plot" admonition is about a picaresque--not picturesque--narrative that "adds up to nothing in particular," not pe se an admonition against an episodic structure. And something meaningless happens at the start, and something meaningless happens in the middle, and something meaningless happens at the end, and to no meaningful end.

A picaresque is a narrative about the episodic adventures of a roguish protagonist, which is a method of William Faulkner's and early Cormac McCarthy, seen later fully realized in his No Country for Old Men. In masterful hands, a picaresque is quite entertaining.

Note that a picaresque method, like most any writing principle, contains both a structural or mechanical or overt or surface feature--episodic--and an aesthetic feature: adventures of a roguish protagonist, emphasis on "roguish" aesthetics, at one focus perhaps on a moral crisis for the sake of meaningfulness.

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Meredith
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quote:
Originally posted by MattLeo:

I developed this boostrapping technique after reading too many MSS that would have approached the problem this way: Explain that the galaxy's ruling dynasty is divided into three rival factions. Explain the limitations of the civilization's FTL drive, and how that contributes to the stalemate between those factions. Explain how recent advances in FTL technology have upset the balance between the factions, leading to the incipient genocide of a hundred billion people.

That's a lot of text to read scrolling up the screen before anything interesting happens.


The absolute worst case of this I ever read was a published book and by an author I usually enjoy. Robin McKinley's PEGASUS. The entire first chapter and half of the second is nothing but the main character (who we barely know and have no reason to care about) reading a history book. Yech!

Even worse, the @#$%^ book just ended in the middle. Just when it seemed like something was finally about to happen. If book 2 ever came out, I haven't seen it.

One has to wonder what her editors were thinking.

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extrinsic
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Ebon, sequel to Robin McKinley's Pegasus is set for release later this year.
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Meredith
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quote:
Originally posted by extrinsic:
Ebon, sequel to Robin McKinley's Pegasus is set for release later this year.

2010 to 2014. Long time between the first half of the story and the second. Or is it a faux trilogy?

#won'tbebuying

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MattLeo
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quote:
Originally posted by extrinsic:
Agonists unaware of an already emergent crisis are for me an especially intriguing and engaging opening method. They do, however, require readers know before an agonist what's actually going on: dramatic irony.

Dramatic irony is one of my favorite things, right up there with raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens. But that's not what I'm talking about here as I'm sure you're well aware.

[ June 24, 2014, 06:50 PM: Message edited by: MattLeo ]

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extrinsic
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quote:
Originally posted by MattLeo:
Dramatic irony is one of my favorite things, right up there with raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens. But that's not what I'm talking about here as I'm sure you're well aware.

I am well aware what you mean. Dramatic irony adds a special depth to otherwise And episodes, ties bridging scene events to a main action's events, a primary, if not the reason to deploy dramatic irony. Foreshadowing is one method to develop this dramatic irony type, where an agonist is either blissfully unaware or knows about other events that become pivotal but is blissfully unconcerned, though readers know or suspect great trouble is afoot.

Degree of reader sophistication notwithstanding, degree of accessibility is essential. Ender's Game's dramatic ironies, for one example, are easily accessible. By the same token, overly much or untimely foreshadowing gives away surprises prematurely. Readers only need a slight lead on agonists, so the unfolding bridging and main actions flow together and as readers become timely aware of the action, not to mention, and feel smarter than agonists, at least. Though readers know ahead, their knowledge drives tension from that knowledge.

Oh no, don't go down into the basement. That's where the troublesome demon is. Do they listen? Of course not. Where's the drama in that?

[ June 25, 2014, 01:11 AM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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