Sunday, July 9, 2006

The Blank Page - Importance of that opening line & what the 1st chapter should tell us

So, you’ve spent some time with those characters of yours, you now know them pretty darn well and you’re sure of the basic place you want them to start off and head towards. Everything is in place… We’re good to go…

So, what do we need this first chapter to do?

I like to think of it as a ‘taster’, you know, like in a ice-cream shop when they let you have a little plastic spoonful before you decide if you want a small cone or a huge tub!! This is our selling platform for the reader, a way of easing them into a story that we hope will hold their attention for the next 250 odd pages… It’s their first glimpse into our world and it needs to make them want to jump straight on in…

One of the biggest compliments I receive from readers is when they tell me they couldn’t put the book down… It means I’ve done my job. Cos, I know, for me, there’s nothing I love better than a book that encourages me to read ‘just one more chapter’ before I switch off the light or go and do what I *should* have been doing.

So, what does the first chapter need?

It needs to introduce us to your hero and heroine as soon as possible. Getting them onto the page together at the start is crucial in a shorter format book. You only have 55 to 60k to tell this story, so you need to get going…

It needs to give us a flavor of their personalities and an idea of what they look like; particularly the hero. Cos if there’s a gorgeous hero in that first chapter it fires the readers imagination and we want them to want to know more, see more… turn that page! For me, I always run with the theory that a heroines physical description can filter through the book beyond the basics in the first chapter. Anyone who has read my work will realize I’m not a big one for descriptions of what she’s wearing… And the thinking behind that, for me, is this; the reader needs to be walking in her shoes… she needs to feel for her, understand her, and almost replace the person on paper with themselves! So I like them to have little detail at the start – and let them use their own imagination as to what she looks like, beyond how the artist has portrayed her on the cover that is…

It needs to lead us into the plot, give us the reasons why these two people are about to embark on that romantic journey. Chapter One sets up the premise, gives us a basic understanding… but leaves us wanting more…

It needs to be ‘snappy’ or ‘punchy’ without too much emphasis on the back-story. (A mistake it has taken me MONTHS to overcome) Its all too tempting to try and flood the reader with information in that first chapter, to try and get them to understand our characters as well as we do so that they understand everything that is yet to come. But that kinda ruins the surprise doncha think??? Its much better to ‘drip-feed’, give us as much as we need to keep the story going, but use the really important background info as a tool later on to create conflicts or black moments… and it stops us from falling into that trap of downloading in the first chapter which slows down the story…

It needs to leave us on a ‘page-turner’ of some kind so we keep going…

How do we manage all this???

Get comfy gang and I’ll tell you what works for me…

The opening segment can tell us so much about the personality of the people in our story. I nearly always start with a single line or a short paragraph…

In The Bridal Bet we had;

“Yes, I am still standing at the bottom of the ladder, and yes, I am looking straight up your dress.”
Ryan grinned and tried valiantly to avert his gaze. It wasn’t easy. Molly O’Brien had great legs; he had never once argued with that. In all his years as her nemesis, friend and elder brother figure he had never once been blind to her good points or her bad. The moment he glanced upwards he was awarded an eyeful of two of those good points…”

So, what have we learnt in that short space of time? We know that their names are Ryan and Molly O’Brien; Ryan’s surname is then revealed in the next line. So we’ve established our hero and heroine…
We know that Ryan has a sense of humor and the kind of relationship with Molly that will allow him to say something that outrageous to her… A fact that is then backed up in the next paragraph by establishing their relationship while at the same time hinting at his awareness of her as a woman, crossing the boundary line between friendship and something more…

There are no written rules for how a first line or paragraph or page is approached, but we do want to ‘drop’ the reader straight into the story, involve them from the first line…

How different would it have been if I’d tried to establish the relationship through a dump of information like;

“Molly O’Brien and Ryan Callaghan had been best friends for their entire life. Molly, twenty-eight and Ryan, thirty, now find themselves sharing a house following Molly’s return from America after six years away when she split up with her boyfriend, who also happened to be Ryan’s friend from University.
Molly has bought a kitten, and it’s stuck on the porch roof. So, with Ryan holding the ladder, they go outside to rescue it, while Molly forgets she’s still wearing a skirt.”

It’s basically exactly the same opening, the same scene. But the information has been ‘dumped’ in one lump. SHOW rather than TELL is the name of the game here… And both examples are six odd lines long. The difference is the first, in print example, shows rather than tells. It ‘drops’ us straight into their world. Involves us from the get go… and therefore draws us into the story…

In a longer novel we can take our time more, we can set up a beautiful atmospheric story with long descriptive passages of the scene around them… But in these books we have 55-60k to work with. So, we’ve gotta get straight to it…

The way that you treat your first chapter can be very dependant on the type of story you’re telling, whether they’re friends or strangers from the start… whether your story requires a short Prologue to set up the premise…

But no matter what you do… the story should draw us in straight away…

Am I the only one that does this? Not in the Romance/Tender line I’m not…

From Natasha Oakley’s 'Ordinary Girl, Society Groom':

“It was true what people said – you were more alone in a crowd than any other place on earth. Eloise Lawton felt as lonely tonight as she ever had.
All she wanted to do was go home, run a bath and soak away her troubles. Instead she was here, making social small talk and avoiding the barbs of people who were fearful of what she might say about their dress sense. As well they might; she’d become more vitriolic of late. She couldn’t seem to help it.”


So Natasha too has told us who her heroine is and has eloquently told us, while setting up the scene, of her heroines sense of loneliness and the fact that she’d really be rather somewhere else than where she is right that moment. Straight into the scene, straight into the characters head, and all in the space of six odd lines…

From Nicola Marsh’s 'Contract To Marry':

“Fleur Adams rushed into the café, trying to juggle a portfolio, a laptop, umbrella and handbag while shaking raindrops from her curly hair and cursing the fickle Melbourne weather, a lousy public-transport system and men, in that order.”

So Nicola has told us who our heroine is, where she lives, a brief hint of what she might look like, the fact that she’s a career girl (from what she’s carrying) and that she’s having a pretty rotten day. Straight into the story, smack bang into the characters head, and all in one short paragraph – incredibly that’s all that information in ONE sentence… Wow!

And from Ally Blake’s 'A Father in the Making':

“Ryan pulled off the winding country road onto a long gravel driveway and slowed his car to an idle. A weathered wooden sign at the turn read Kardinyarr. He looked to the return address on the letter laid flat on the passenger seat of his car. Youthful handwriting on lavender stationary, dappled with fairies, smudged with tears, scrunched into a ball, and flattened again, told him this was the place. Kardinyarr was where he hoped against hope to find her. Though she had written the letter several years earlier, Ryan had only stumbled upon it that week, and it was all he had to go on.”

So Ally has introduced us to her hero, has bounced us straight into a scene, inside the characters head as he tries to find what’s he’s looking for. And has also, very cleverly, set up the back-story by telling us about the letter. Lavender paper tells us it’s a woman, fairies tells us she’s whimsical and maybe a little bit of a romantic, tears tells us the letter was hard to write, scrumpled up and flattened tells us she almost didn’t send it. And I don’t know about you, but now I want to know why….

It’s not just me that does this. And it would be worthwhile going to your keepers shelf and seeing how some of your favourite authors managed this. What can those first few paragraphs, that first page, tell us? How fast do they draw you into the story?

And this is part of the reason you need to plan beforehand. Because in order to give us all of this information in such a short space of time, you need to know where you’re going, you need to know your characters and their motivations… You need to have planned ahead.

And then you bring us straight into it!!! Introduce your characters quickly, get us inside their heads, draw us forwards into the story and then ‘drip feed’ little bits of what we need to know as the story progresses; through conversations, a little inner thought, emotions that remind them of things that came before the story started… Threads, my friends, threads… They should run right through your story…

Now, if it’s okay with you lot, next time we’ll continue on this theme and look at how your characters relationship before the book started can influence the way you approach your first chapter… So…

Coming Next: The Blank Page – First chapter relationship set-up….

12 comments:

Donna Alward said...

In ways I HATE beginnings. My first page usually changes at least a half dozen times in one way or another...

Nicola Marsh said...

You're doing a great job with this, Trish.
I love starting a new book. The thrill, the rush...then the hard work really sets in!

Donna Alward said...

LOL Nic! It's not that I don't like beginning a new story...you're right about the thrill, the rush, getting excited about your new characters....but there's so much important in setting up the story in the right way that you're so right...it's a lot of hard work!

Trish said...

You ladies will know better than me... is it like giving birth???

All that hard work but worth it in the end???

Leastways thats what they say isn't it??? Personally I can't get past the image of beachball through golfball hole... *shudder*

allyblake said...

I loooove writing the openeing line, Trish! Prob my very favourite part of the book.

A funny line, a tempting hook, a snapshot glimpse into the heroine's life... So many ways to get a reader to read on!

April said...

I love writing the beginning, but it's something I mull for a long time before I do it.

Love the lesson, Trish!!

Nicola Marsh said...

Nah...nothing like giving birth. At least, not for me. A lot less pain involved with writing ;)

Sharon J said...

That was really interesting, Trish, and made me go straight to the ms I'm working on at the moment to check the information I have in my opening paragraph and bit of dialogue.

123 words tell me the heroine's name, that she and the hero have known each other in the past but that while their relationship had been fundamentally good, something damaging happened to keep them apart for so long. They also say that the heroine has been through something unusual and, judging by her reaction to something the hero says, it was a traumatic experience that the hero somehow shared with her. Finally it tells me the hero's name.

I haven't planned the whole book but I did know who the hero and heroine were, what their past was, and why they were coming together again, which was enough for the opening. At least, I hope it was!

Will be eagerly checking back for the next instalment.

Anonymous said...

Trish! Love the new look blog and also loving your master classes!
x Daisy

Donna Alward said...

LOL Nic, you're right....childbirth IS more painful! Would you agree that it's more like the first trimester???? LOL

I keep checking back for a new installment too, guys. ;-)

Trish said...

Glad it's bringing some enjoyment/help guys!!!!

Due to flaring of shoulder injury am a tad behind... bear with me and I'll aim to update tomorrow. Promise!!!!

Straight after I finish a crit for *someone*.... ;)

Oh and Sharon J - Another thing we have in common - you sound like a panster too!!! (I don't plan too much either) Sounds like your chapter has gotten off to a great start tho!!! CONGRATS!

And DAISY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
Yaaaaaayyyyyy!!! Good to see you here oh fellow Irish Mills & Boon-er!! Glad you like the new look. I have Ally to thank for the technical jargon. Otherwise this would be a blank page....

allyblake said...

Take care of yourself, Trish!

But do hurry up and give us the next instalment. *Someone* can just get in line!

Especially since I'm writing an opening chapter for a new book as we speak ;).