Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Question From A Writer - The importance of the first three chapters

These questions just came in yesterday from a writer so I thought I would respond here.

Should a writer “consider the audition” and draft the first three chapters for marketability?  Perhaps using a device such as a narrator to help the reader get into the story faster?
Would it be helpful in a query or synopsis to inform a potential agent that character development is paced?

I know I have talked about it a lot here and I know other agents and editors have said the same thing about the opening pages of a book. Those first three chapters of a book have to be, as one of my authors has said, "golden." These pages have to be strong enough to really suck the reader into the pages of your book and want to know much more. Please note that there is not one specific technique that will work for every book. When it comes to your story, you have to let the story set up those opening pages for you.

What we do have to see is a sense of who the character/characters are and where the story might be heading toward. What we need to see is the centerpiece of your story. It might be the relationship. It might be the internal conflict of one of the characters. It might be the quirkiness of your own writing voice. It really doesn't matter, but this needs to come out pretty quick.

I am going to work off of what I think the author is asking about the idea of "the audition." As someone who has done theatre in the past, the audition is a crucial element. During that brief moment in front of the director, it is your job "demonstrate" not only that you can do that one part you are looking to claim as yours, it is also a time to demonstrate your versatility, your depth as an actor and your ability to adapt to situations in the blink of an eye. Heck in theatre, you never know what might happen on the stage and you have to be prepared for that.

When it comes to writing, those opening pages work much of the same way. It is a chance to "demonstrate" a lot of things to your readers and what they will expect throughout the rest of the novel

  • Your voice as an author
  • Your tone and the approach you are going to take
  • Who the characters are (or simply one of the characters) and what we should expect from that character.
  • A sense of what we might see in terms of the plot.
Now, do we reveal everything in those opening pages? Absolutely not! This is a "taste" of what is to come. For that reason, we don't want to know everything about the characters - their back story, their history, their full conflict and so forth. But we do need to see something that makes us think, "Hey, this character is interesting and I might want to know a bit more." Think of this as a first date.

The same goes for the plot. Obviously we don't want to know the whole thing. We don't even need to see what the central story arc is immediately. But, what we do need to see is what "might" be at stake for the character, or the theme of what might come forth in the story.

The author goes on to ask, Perhaps using a device such as a narrator to help the reader get into the story faster? In this case, I would once again say that the story will dictate what needs to happen. There is a huge drawback of using a narrator to get us into the story faster. In many ways, this becomes nothing more than a back story dump and that is not going to be a motivating force for the reader. In reality, it is the story that will dictate what works. Let me give you two cases from the movies where this did work.

LORD OF THE RINGS - Jackson had to insert the whole narrative that Galadriel speaks at the beginning is a paraphrase of a lot of things that came from the books. Why did he have to put it there? Unless you were a complete Tolkein addict, knowing the history of the rings would have been really confusing to you. What works here as well is the fact that a character from the story tells it, AND, it is written in the voice and the style of what we will hear throughout the rest of the trilogy.

AGE OF INNOCENCE - Scorsese uses a narrator in the beginning as well to get the readers into the story. In this case, since the book does revolve around the community of New York during this period, we have to understand the context and the setting of the story. Again, this is also a case where the same tone and voice of what we will see in the rest of the story helps get us into the movie.

As far as the last question about the query and the synopsis. As editors and agents, we are already expecting that we will learning more about the characters as we move through the story. Just telling us that will happen isn't going to do anything for us. Your synopsis will likely show some of that growth in the characters as we read through the central story arc, but telling is is not worth it.

Altman and Taylor developed an interpersonal model of communication referred to as "The Onion Skin Model" that I think highlights what we are likely going to see throughout the story. As we move through the pages of the book, layers will be pulled back to reveal more about the individual characters, their conflict and certainly the story line.

Hopefully this helped.

Keep those questions coming!

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