I’ve just finished the Alienist, which was a good read, but about 200 pages too long, so I wanted something short and breezy for my next read. I won’t tell you what it is, because I’m going to trash it.
The book is 4th in a series. I haven’t read the earlier installments, and now I don’t have to, because the character, in the first chapter, summarized the last book for the reader: the whole plot and the resolution, for, as far as I can tell, no reason. Then a cop from the last book dropped into the main character’s office where they small talked and he got permission to scout the hero’s property.
That was chapter one, where if I didn’t actually know the writer, I would have stopped reading. The chapter was 80% exposition, half of it was unnecessary, the other half could have been handled in the coming chapter where they find something they didn’t expect to find.
Maybe the second chapter would be more interesting.
Set in the past, two guys get instructions from the superior, more exposition, and nothing happened.
This writer made several mistakes in the beginning…
- If you’re writing a series, every book must stand on its own. Certainly, the reader who’s read from the beginning gets a flavor the non-sequential reader doesn’t, but if you recap you prior books in the series, the non-sequential reader doesn’t need to read those books.
- He didn’t start as late in the story as he should have. Thrust me into the action! Barring that, give me something to visualize as the characters talk. One is doing something, the other is trying to break in, or perhaps a third character is in the way. In short, ADD CONFLICT.
- Exposition should rarely be dropped in bulk. Some is necessary, and there are occasions where you do have do a bulk-drop, but not at the beginning! (This is done well by some writers, be sure you’re one of them if you do this).
- That entire first and second chapter could easily have been slipped into the action of the later chapter. Ask yourself: Do I need this scene? If there’s no conflict, probably not. If the instructing character is never seen again, lose it.
- No emotions were engaged. They talked about a lot of stuff, none of which mattered, but even the emotions they talked about (!) would have been better shown.
Your beginning should start as late in the story as possible. The reader should be shown the hero’s character, not told, ideally through conflict (it doesn’t have to be dire conflict, it may just be irritation); we need to explore the hero’s current “normal” briefly and poignantly, ideally while dealing with something that threatens that normal.
The second chapter should ramp up the energy; Motives and Goals begin to form, if not already begun in the first chapter (Motives and Goals of all characters drive the middle of your story as they clash).
It’s worth talking about foreshadowing. There is a difference between subtly hinting at future events, but if a chapter is telling me a future chapter is going to happen and that’s all it tells, I don’t need that initial chapter.
To sum up: Show me the existing normal through conflict (why? Because we’re our true selves under conflict ((again, not necessarily mortal conflict. It could be dealing with a child or a fussy assistant when trying to do something else… and that something else must contribute to the story)).
Reveal your character (don’t tell us), reveal the existing normal that is going to be severely shaken up later. Give me a hint what the story is about.
For example: In my book, Do Angels Still Fall? the narrator guardian angel is taking his human charge from death to the heavenly courts (his normal), the man asks the dramatic question, and the angel doesn’t know the answer (conflict comes from the man acting contrary to expectations). He then goes to the court of angels (his normal) and is given his next assignment, but his human isn’t a baby, it’s a pre-teen boy (his normal threatened), and he can reveal himself (totally against norms!). From there he meets his new charge after a moment of mistaken identity. Once he reveals himself to the boy, it’s new territory, where, in the end, our angel may fall and his human lost. That’s three chapters, which in this book constitutes the beginning.
Normal, normal challenged, against norms, dramatic introduction of the main characters. That’s a beginning.
Some writers say they view their drafted beginning as a means to figure out where to actually start. Many throw the first couple chapters out once the story resolves.
We’ll get into Motives and Goals in a future post, promise.
(I’ve read a bit futher in the book; plot is interesting, poorly told).
As for you, what are your “in the beginning” pet peeves?