What makes the first chapter (in a novel) so interesting? Well, according to K. M. Weiland, there are five ingredients that make up the first chapter in a novel (reduced to three main ones, discussed later). I’d like to show these now, because I, for one, have had great trouble (so far) putting all these ingredients together in the first chapters of my novels. But I think I’ve managed to include most of them (so far). But there’s this niggling feeling that I haven’t been as obvious, perhaps; made the five ingredients blatantly obvious, I should say, in my opening chapters as Weiland suggests, implied in this list of important ingredients:
- Does the chapter contain the all-important hook?
- Does the chapter contain enough background and setup to orient the readers?
- Does the chapter contain the opening event – that first domino that kicks off the plot?
- Does the chapter contain action of some sort to engage readers?
- Does the chapter contain conflict and stakes?
Given that I haven’t discussed any of these issues (e.g. all-important hook, background, setup, opening events, action, conflict and stakes) on my blog, Weiland discusses them nicely in Structuring Your Novel, I won’t assume you (the reader) know and understand what they are and what they mean. Maybe you do, but you have a slightly different, maybe even very different, interpretation of what the ingredients are or should be (or even be able to recognise them when you see them).
The hook is … what gets the reader to keep reading the novel.
The background is … the information that contextualises the story.
The setup is … the thing that makes you want to care about the character (I suppose) and keep reading.
The opening event is … the catalyst for the story to move forward.
The action is … the thing that happens in the opening chapter that drives the plot forward.
The conflict is … the thing the character contends with, e.g. him or herself, nature, another person
The stakes are … what the character will gain or lose by reacting or responding to the event that is the catalyst for the story.
Let’s look at the opening chapter of Martin Booth’s A very private gentleman. I’m not going to say ‘spoilers! Turn away now!’ because this is an exercise in understanding, or, at least, I hope it is, of what Weiland means by including those important ingredients – listed above – in novel-writing. I’m not reproducing the novel in its entirety, which would be pointless, meaningless and, not to forget, illegal. This exercise is concerned with confirming what Weiland suggests is important for writers to get right, if they want to write good novels, and something writers should aim for in their novel-writing. That’s all I’m hoping to point out here.
The ‘hook’ in the opening chapter to Martin Booth’s A very private gentleman is not so obvious – if you don’t take my word for it and read the opening chapter (if you haven’t already and remember what it says). For me, the ‘hook’ doesn’t come until the end of the chapter. The reader must wade through a strange story about something they don’t expect to be in the opening chapter – e.g. ‘a small cave high up a precipice’. If the reader finds the opening chapter interesting enough to compel them to continue reading until they learn why Booth’s character, ‘Signor Farfalla’, is telling this strange story in the opening chapter. But, I think the opening chapter is very interesting. And in fact, I think the opening chapter serves as a great setup – point number three in the list above. The odd story in the opening chapter makes sense when you read the hook at the end.
There is hardly any background information. In my opinion. The opening chapter doesn’t blatantly provide background to the story. What it does is, by way of an analogy, provide a crumb about the character. It sets up the character more than it sets up the story. But as an analogy, you instantly get an insight into what the story might be about. Is it a strong hook? It was tantalising enough to cause me to keep reading, but that was me. Other people may have a different response to it. And if you get it, the ‘setup’, you’re hooked, and want to read on. It’s subtle; not obvious.
There is no opening event. Like I said, the character tells this odd story about something he did in the past (e.g. ‘I have been there’), but it holds implications for the present (e.g. ‘anything is possible where faith is concerned’). It’s not an obvious analogy with the character’s life, but you can draw that conclusion based on the sentence that contains the ‘hook’: ‘I should know’.
There is no action. Except in the story being told by the character about ‘a small cave’. The action is in the odd story (e.g. ‘it is very difficult to reach’). It is something he did to achieve a personal goal, of sorts – e.g. traversing a mountainous path that requires skill and dexterity or the person might slip and die, kind of thing. Like proving to himself he can do it, but should he have done it? Who’s to say?
The conflict, however, is in the odd story the character tells about the thing he did (e.g. ‘not an outing for the feint-hearted’). Is he contending with the forces of nature (e.g. ‘it is not an outing for the faint-hearted’), whether that be actual nature (e.g. a difficult to reach place because it’s high on a dangerous precipice), or the forces of nature in people (e.g. ‘a test of one’s faith’).
The stakes are what the character will gain or lose by doing something, or responding to something. Whatever it is that compelled the character to do the thing in the odd, opening story, ‘not an outing for the faint-hearted’, says something about the character. That he is willing to do things that other people might find frightening, be unwilling to do. And this immediately makes the reader wonder what it is that the character is willing to do, where he’s willing to go that many people would shy away from going or be too afraid to do. It piques the reader’s curiosity. Well, it did mine. But the gain for the character is perhaps some kind of absolution – he seeks a damn good reason for not doing this thing, for not going to this place. And if he does, who will absolve him of the sin of doing this thing, or of going to this place? If it is a sin? A test of his faith that what he does is what he should be doing, even if it he dies doing it.
It seems that, from just this one example, Weiland’s five ingredients she recommends should go into opening chapters are not always obvious and so blatant that the reader will see them like signposts on a highway, or the sun on a sunny day.
Let’s look at the opening chapter to my novel The Subjugation.
What is the hook in the first chapter? It is found in the sentence expressing Mertinus’s hope that ‘Lledumar’s finest would help turn the tide’. Did he ask them to help? A battle is raging for control of Xinar, the Cuian homeworld. The Hrexan have laid siege to Xinar, and ‘If it wasn’t stopped it would extend, beyond the quadrant, to the shores of Lake Florian on Lled’. Will the Cuians lose the battle? Will the Lledumar come to their rescue?
What is the background in the chapter? It is that ‘It wasn’t like they hadn’t suffered attacks from the Hrexan before this’. The Cuians have been attacked by the Hrexan before – the Hrexan have a history of attacking the Cuains, and others in the quadrant.
What is the set up? It is that the character, Titrius Mertinus, ‘prayed most that the Lledumar would agree to a military pact’. Will the Lledumar agree? Mertinus thinks that if the Hrexan aren’t stopped – the Cuians seem to be barely holding the Hrexan at bay – the battle for Xinar, if lost, ‘would extend, beyond the quadrant, to the shores of Lake Florian on Lled’. Lled is the homeworld of the Lledumar, their neighbours. He’s sent the Lledumar a request to agree to join them in repelling the Hrexan or, if the Cuians lose, the Hrexan will soon be on their doorstep. The reader, I hope, will be interested enough to keep reading, and find out whether the Cuians lose, or the Lledumar agree to fight for the Cuians.
The opening event is the battle for Xinar. A battle is raging in the skies above Xintito, the capital city of Xinar on the Cuian homeworld.
The action is seen in ‘the speckle of fireflies on the edge of the translucent dome’. It’s an analogy. The ‘speckle of fireflies’ are the Hrexan bombardments ‘on the edge of the translucent dome’. The translucent dome is the protective shield the Cuians have erected to keep the Hrexan out. The Hrexan are bombarding it, trying to weaken it and eventually destroy it, if possible.
There is also action in Mertinus’s prayers and litany recitations. He prays for the Lledumar to agree to fight, and recites a litany against fear so he can bear up under the stress and fear of death, and the possible destruction of the Cuians.
The conflict is a physical one. The Hrexan have laid siege to Xinar, the Cuian homeworld. The Cuians are on the defensive, hoping to defend themselves against ‘A fearful spectacle never before seen by the Cuians or anyone else in this quadrant’. A war is being waged against the Cuians. Is war being waged against anyone else?
What is at stake? The Cuians will lose their lives, if they lose the battle for Xinar, their freedom, if they live. So the stakes are high. The Cuians must win the war, at all costs. Mertinus feels that they will surely lose if their neighbours, the Lledumar, do not agree to fight for them. So he prays hard for them to agree, and while he waits for word of their agreement, he recites the litany against fear.
In some respects, I have tried to include Weiland’s five important ingredients in the opening chapter of The Subjugation. My novel, though, is very different from Martin Booth’s novel. My novel is a Sci-fi/crime novel – I try to combine Science fiction with crime, or vice versa (e.g. The Directive). Martin Booth’s novel is a crime story, about a character, though some people categorise it a ‘psychological suspense thriller’. My novel opens with a war, while Booth’s opens with an analogy about doing things that others may fear to do. Booth’s novel is told from the first-person perspective, that of the main character, whereas mine is told from multiple perspectives, many characters. My novel is set in a galactic context, while Booth’s is set on Earth in the mountainous region of northern Italy. My novel opens with a struggle for survival, between whole civilisations, whereas Booth’s novel opens with one character’s personal struggle with a conscience. Both novels achieve a certain level of tension in the opening chapter. Perhaps one character’s struggle with a conscience is less dramatic than the tension created by a full-on planetary siege. But the personal conflicts each character faces, presented in each opening chapter (e.g. Signor Farfalla faces a personal fear; Titrius Mertinus faces physical death) are not all that different – ‘Signor Farfalla’ could conceivably be facing a life and death situation, depending on whether his unique set of skills lets him do what he does (to protect himself) or someone can give him a good reason to stop doing what he does (and give in), and Titrius Mertinus faces death or life, depending on whether the protective shield holds and/or the Lledumar agree to come to their rescue and fight.
Weiland brings it all back to three main ingredients for opening chapters: character, action, setting. If your story manages to include all these ingredients in the opening chapter, you will succeed in creating a great opening chapter. But will it achieve its purpose? Depends on the story. In my humble opinion. I would not like to presume that any or all of these ingredients should be in an opening chapter, just that your opening chapter achieves the goal of drawing readers into the story (review the five ingredients listed above).
I mean, Booth’s opening chapter begins with the main character telling a short story. Booth isn’t obviously talking about Signor Farfalla – it’s Signor Farfalla telling a short story. Getting Signor Farfalla to tell a short story isn’t providing a lot of opening chapter action. And as to setting: it’s not obvious that having the main character tell a short story is providing some setting. However, having the Signor Farfalla tell the short story subtly introduces the main character – the main character is telling a short story about himself.
The Subjugation, on the other hand, introduces a minor character with Titrius Mertinus. Mertinus is not the main character, as it were. Because the story is told from multiple perspectives, there are several ‘main’ characters. The four ‘main’ characters are the civilizations battling for survival and/or dominance: the Cuians, the Lledumar, the Jannaxians, and the Hrexan. Each of these groups has a lead character whose existence and actions drive the plot forward. The story may begin with the Cuians, but it ends with the Lledumar. The story is really about the Lledumar. But I had to create a situation in which a catalyst would emerge for what happens to the Lledumar. And war provides the context or background, if you will. Without this war, there is no story, really. Well, told from any one of the characters’ point of view might create a slightly different story. So, in essence, I have provided all three ingredients (see above) in the opening chapter to The Subjugation. Two civilizations battling it out (the Cuians and the Hrexan), two characters (Mertinus vs Blexro), one of which indirectly introduces the ‘protagonist’ (Mertinus introduces the Lledumar – the ‘protagonist’), the other is the ‘antagonist’ (the Hrexan), and a setting, a war started by the Hrexan. The twist in the story is … something you’ll have to discover by reading the story. 😉