Structure and Story Part I

I’ve been thinking about teaching at the Loft again, an advanced novelists class on structure and story and I’m going to use the blog to work through some of my ideas on the subject. Today’s post focuses on first chapters and book openings. I’m going to try to formulate some general principals on what I think a first chapter needs to accomplish and some ways to look at how to do that. As always, sufficiently good writing will trump any general principal.

So, a first chapter should:1) Introduce the protagonist in a way that makes the reader want to know more about their story. I think that generally this is best done by making the protagonist a sympathetic and likable* character. You need to spend some time with the protagonist under circumstances that allow the reader to get to know their best side so that they will be pulling for the character.

2) Set up the central problem or conflict of the story. I generally try to put a “problem statement”** of some sort into the opening three pages, and if I can’t do that I make very sure to get it in by the end of the first chapter. I’m not sure you can apply this to every kind of story, and it can be very difficult, but it’s a good exercise both for the writer and reader. You also have to be careful not to make the problem statement so obvious that the reader can then put down the novel because they know what’s going to happen.

In the WebMage books the problem statement is usually also a red herring, i.e. Ravirn thinks he has x problem with thing y, but in actuality he has g problem with thing y, or x problem with thing r, or some other variation. In Cybermancy, Ravirn initially thinks the problem is simply “I need to get Shara’s soul out of Hades,” and that is the opening problem, but the actual problem is closer to “How do I get Shara’s soul out of Hades successfully and survive the consequences?” which is a multi-step process that only begins with the initial extraction of Shara’s soul.

3) Introduce the setting. This is especially important in science fiction and fantasy where part of what the reader is looking for is a cool speculative world (technology, magic system, magical creature, alien, magical situation, etc.). I’m generally of the school that says the more of this you put up front the better, though there are situations where you might want to keep parts of it secret for a while. I’m absolutely of the opinion that something fantastical has to happen before the chapter ends.

In summation:
1) Protagonist introduction (generally sympathetic).
2) Problem statement.
3) Setting.

Hey, that sounds like a character with a problem in a setting. Isn’t that the most basic description of story? Why, yes it is Mr. McCullough; you get a balloon. I know this seems almost too basic, but it’s remarkably easy to lose track of. In many ways an opening chapter has to play out the arc of the book in miniature. For that matter, so does a closing chapter.

It’s really very similar to the best advice I ever got for writing an essay: Paragraph one, tell the reader what you’re going to tell them. Main body of paper, tell the reader what you said you were going to tell them. Final paragraph, tell the reader what you just told them.

As a writer you have to think about chapter and scene, especially first chapters and scenes, as much in terms of what they do for the reader as you do about what the events of the story are. You have to develop a sense of the structure of story in a way that non-critical readers don’t.


*I really do like the word likable–not so much in terms of likable to the other characters and certainly not in terms of “nice” but in terms of a character that the reader can like. I prefer lead characters who are complex and layered and morally ambiguous. That said, it’s my bias both as a writer and a reader that if I don’t get a reason to like a character fairly quickly I’m not going to want to spend time with them. That’s not to say that they can’t be nasty or vicious or evil on some levels–a good writer can make people with all of those traits likable–just that if I don’t like the protagonist pretty quickly I put the book down and walk away and don’t come back.

**I’ve borrowed this term from physics problem solving theory** in which the student’s first task is to read the test or homework problem, figure out what they are solving for, and restate it in a clear way so that they can dedicate all of their efforts toward the correct goal.

***Where they got it I can’t say, physicists just like it better that way.

(Originally published on the Wyrdsmiths blog August 1st 2008, and original comments may be found there. Reposted and reedited as part of the reblogging project)