Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Thoughts about Chapter One

“Be aware that anything that appears before "Chapter One" may be skipped. Don't put your vital clue there.”
I read this comment recently (from British writer Hilary Mantel, winner of a couple of major awards, and most recently a critic of royalty!). The full article of her ‘rules for writers’ appears here
Much of it is excellent apart from (in my case) the suggestion to write first thing in the morning. My brain is NOT in creative mode in the mornings. To quote one of my teaching colleagues: ‘Don’t ask Paula anything before 10.30am if you want a sensible answer.’ It’s true, and most people know not to call me first thing in the morning!
However, ignoring the ‘first thing in the morning’ advice, I’m not totally sure I understand this comment about anything appearing before Chapter One. Does this mean we shouldn’t put ‘important’ information in a prologue? Or does this means that the reader ‘skips over’ any back story contained in Chapter One?
I admit I do include some background in my first chapters – not  a huge chunk of back story, but maybe some hints about what has happened in the past, particularly if the hero and heroine have known each other before., or if there is something in their past that is going to prove a problem for them in the future.
How do you interpret this comment? Maybe I’m reading too much into it!
Also linked to Chapter One is her next piece of advice: ‘First paragraphs can often be struck out. Are you performing a haka or just shuffling your feet?’ Admittedly, I had to look up the meaning of ‘haka’ – which evidently is a Maori war cry or dance in New Zealand, with vigorous movements and stamping of feet.
This makes more sense. I know I’ve been guilty of setting the scene and ‘leading up’ to the significant moment, which is akin to feet shuffling, instead of plunging the reader into that moment where the story should really start. There are times when I want to re-write all my published novels and start them at a different point. Maybe one day I’ll actually get it right first time! 

Here's some more advice I read recently about Chapter One: If your first chapter drags because of backstory, world building, set up etc. copy and paste the first chapter into a new doc. Then delete everything but the dialogue. See what story needs to go back in for the dialoge to make sense. 9 times out of 10, if you wrote good dialogue, you won't need most of what you deleted. Tell your story walking (or performing a haka?)


  1. Hmmm, I know I don't usually read acknowledgments or introductions, but I always read prologues. And those two things don't usually appear in romance novels; they're usually in non-fiction, so I have to say, I don't know what she's talking about for that one. I can pretty much write at any time during the day, although I'm having a harder time late at night--too tired to think at that point. The rest of her advice is interesting, though.

  2. Glad it's not just me who wasn't sure what she meant, Jen!
    Must admit I tend to do all my writing after 9pm, and then I can carry on until about 1am, but of course I no longer have family making demands on me during the day, and I don't have to get up early either!

  3. I used to be able to write at night, and was my most productive then. I now find myself better able to do it during the day. The 30K challenge forced me to do it first thing in the morning so that I could make sure to get it done, but that's not my favorite time.

  4. It's an interesting comment.

    In my chapter's critiquing sessions we always talk about starting your story in the right place. Sometimes an author finds that much of what happens in the first draft of a chapter one is actually back story or story set up, and that the story does indeed 'start' someplace else: midway through, or in the case of my first the very end of the chapter!

    I guess you could interpret the comment that way.

  5. That's how I interpreted the comment to begin with, Debra, but then I think I became more 'literal' and started to wonder if it referred to prologues or 'introductions'.
    I think it's true that we have a tendency to start a story in the wrong place, but sometimes we do need a lead-in to the pivotal moment. If I started my current WIP with the hero and heroine meeting, I'd need to do a lot of 'back-tracking' to show how they actually got to that moment, so the lead-up to that moment is necessary (I think!)

  6. And I think sometimes our brains need to start early so that we're able to get into our characters' heads and really jump into the scene or the story line. Once we get inside them, we can go back and delete all the backstory, etc. At least my brain works that way.

  7. In my current WIP, which is a king of story within a story, as the h/h find out about their family history, I actually wrote a 'prologue' about two of their ancestors. I did this after writing the first couple of chapters. Now (two thirds of the way through the story) I realise I did it to sort it all out in my mind, and to make those early characters come alive for me. I don't think I will now need that prologue, but it was still a useful exercise.

  8. As one who has chopped my prologue and multiple starting paragraphs, and who believes ferverently that first chapters are the hardest to write, I vote to write everything and then trim away. I disagree with the quote--pre-story elements can be essential to character arcs--how else can the heroine distrust love or be focused on a quest?

  9. I agree about pre-story being essential (for some stories), but think it's more a question of what to put in and what to leave out of the first chapter. Too much, and you slow the story down; too little, and you leave your reader confused.