Saturday, July 15, 2006

The Blank Page - 1st Chapter Relationship Set-up

Okay so here we are, finally I can hear you all say... With the chat about what I’ve learnt about characters and the first chapter.



First chapters aren’t easy. There’s no doubt about it. And even after ten books I still find the first third of the book, particularly the first chapter, the part I end up doing the most work on. So don’t be disheartened. You’re not the only one going through it. And I bet if we ask any of the usual gang which chapter they worry the most about it’ll nearly always be the first few. ‘Cos by the end, inevitably, we pick up ‘speed’, everything falls into place and we can see light at the end of the tunnel…

So, in our first chapter we are setting everything up; we are introducing our characters to the world and inviting the readers to take a walk in the world we have created. As the saying goes; It is the best of times and the worst of times…

The relationship with your characters before the book even begins, before you even put fingers on keyboard, can decide the way that you approach that first chapter. If they have any sort of a past then it can effect the way they are when they meet. Friends have a different rapport, an ease with their conversation and body language around each other that won’t be there with people who have never met before. And people who don’t like each other at the beginning will be different again…

So, once again, it comes back to knowing your characters before you begin.

Remember, we’re jumping the reader straight into the story, we don’t have time for a long lead in or a huge back-story dump. So that first chapter has to show us the subtle differences in the relationships without us having to actually spell it out…

Let’s look at two different stories that start out with two completely different relationships. My two linked stories; that were only available in the UK, Ireland, Australia and New Zealand…

In Her Real-Life Hero we had two people who had never met before. But a heroine who had been ogling the hero through her window for weeks:

“Stopping in front of the heavy oak, she straightened her robe and swung the door open. The rain-soaked man immediately stepped on past her, shaking his head before he turned to look at her. Then he stared, blinking his blue, blue eyes.
Tara blinked back at him.
He studied her, from her lemon face to her reindeer-clad feet, before raising his eyebrows and smiling, ‘Is this a bad time?’
She continued staring. Him. There he was, right there, larger than life, in her house. Was it Christmas already? What a gift. Water dripped from his rapidly spiking hair, catching her attention. It was raining? Well, that explained her recent meanderings on the computer.
He waved a large hand in front of her face, ‘Hello?’
‘I’m guessing either it’s raining or you just went swimming fully clothed.’ She glanced out through the doorway before closing the door. No jolly man in red in sight.”

Now apart from the fact that the heroine’s sense of humor is plainly obvious, you can also see clearly that the conversation is not that of two people who have met before. As the scene continues we are then given their impressions of each other as those of strangers seeing each other for the first time, they'll have to make introductions, as they continue to talk they even find themselves in a bit of a row; due to a misunderstanding. All things that wouldn’t necessarily have happened if they had already met or were friends before the story started… So we then have to wonder how these two people get to know each other better, how they get past this initial row and the pre-conceptions they have of each other from this first meeting... which draws us into the story...

Let’s then compare this to Her Unexpected Baby, the linked book, which has two characters who have been working together for six months;

“Adam Donovan had the most amazing effect on women.
It was a gift really, and probably had more to do with the way he looked than anything else. Though he could be charming when he really wanted to.
Dana watched as he managed to charm the pants off yet another customer.
It was truly disgusting.
She shook her head the tiniest amount. What on earth did all those women see in him? She decided to make an inventory of all things good about him. Though that did mean putting to the back
of her mind the list she’d already formed of all things bad.
She’d worked with him for months now, and that latter list was getting long…”

So in this case we have a ‘relationship’ already in place, if a somewhat antagonistic one. We can tell that the hero is a good looking guy and that the heroine isn’t exactly swayed by that. So we have established where their relationship is at and it’s a very different case from Her Real-Life Hero, isn’t it? And from this set up in the first chapter, seeing that they don't like each other, you kinda gotta wonder how the heroine ends up pregnant with the hero's baby... Which draws us into the story...

Take one that has an already established friendship like The Bridal Bet and you get;

“ ‘… How anyone over six foot two can possibly have vertigo stuns me. If you were any sort of a gentleman you would have gone up there to rescue Houdini yourself instead of sending me up there!’
‘I hate heights- you know I hate heights. And I still maintain if you didn’t keep rescuing that stupid beast every time he gets stuck then he would soon learn how to get out of these messes on his own.’
She stuck her tongue out at him, then laughed, ‘You always bring out my mature side, It’s one of your less endearing qualities.’
Ryan bent down until his nose almost touched hers, his breath fanning her face, ‘Molly, all my qualities
are endearing. You just haven’t noticed that yet.’
‘You wish!’ “

So here we have a couple who very clearly are already friends before the book begins. The way they bounce off each other, the way they are easy in each others company, tells us that the relationship is already in place, and warm and easy… Which then leads us by the end of the chapter to wondering what changes to make their relationship take that leap from friendship to something more... Which draws us into the story...

Yes, much as I hate to sound like a broken record; it’s yet another case of knowing your characters prior to writing and knowing where you’re headed. What you already know will then have a very direct knock on effect in the way you present them to the reader. In their dialogue. In their body language. Is a stranger likely to lean nose to nose to someone to make a point without the other person thinking it strange, an invasion of their ‘personal space’ or, quite simply threatening?? Unless it’s threatening you’re aiming for then the answer is, no, they wouldn’t.

If it’s enemies meeting then they’re likely to be cold towards one another. If it’s a couple with a painful past then the meeting will be difficult, awkward, they will avoid talking about the things that took them apart in the first place; maybe simply hinting at it because the other person already knows what happened…

In the first chapter, when you drop the reader straight into the story; the kind of relationship they have needs to be made clear to us through showing us, rather than telling us, where they are and what they mean to each other. So think about that. Think about the kind of things they’re likely to discuss, the way they’ll look at each other, little bits of body language that may tell a story in themselves; a nervous tucking of hair behind an ear, a moment of avoiding eye contact, a small smile, a grimace. The little things that tell us more in less words than a full paragraph of back-story would…

Remember: 50-60k odds, depending on the line. So we need to use every scene to its best advantage as succinctly as possible so we can concentrate on that emotional conflict that we may have talked about a time or two…

SHOW RATHER THAN TELL…

And in showing us the kind of relationship already in place before the book even starts, you’ve led us into your story, left us asking questions. You’ve set us up to turn that next page…
It all goes back to what you have in place before you start…

Next up we’ll look at dialogue, if that’s okay with you…???

2 comments:

Natasha said...

Sad to see your mood is 'broken'. Look after you shoulder ...

Anonymous said...

Best regards from NY!
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