Beginnings are loaded with decisions that affect everything that comes after, so Chapter 1 will probably get more attention than any other single chapter. Subjects touched upon herein: point of view, relevance, name dropping, F-bomb dropping, setting, and foreshadowing.
If you don’t yet have the book, you can follow along with the excerpt here.
Although I don’t think much can be said about any book’s first chapter that will “spoil” the rest of the book, I’m going to make a habit of leaving a big, obvious warning sign to protect anyone who’d rather go into the book cold from inadvertent exposure.
Who are you, where are we going, and why are we in this handbasket?
The challenge of beginnings is always orienting the reader to place, time, circumstance, and character without infodumping, which should be a criminal offense.
Generally, it’s a bad idea to begin with a character in a familiar environment because human beings are blind to the familiar and comfortable. We don’t examine what we see every day; we take it for granted. If you come home from work and your home is precisely as it was when you left, it might as well be empty space for all the attention you give it as you’re dropping your purse and kicking off your shoes.
If, however, there’s a bloody handprint on the wall that wasn’t there earlier, that’s going to get every bit of your attention in a hurry.
(It’s never a trail of rose petals or a plate of fresh-baked cookies with me. It’s always blood or an interdimensional hell portal or something else sinister. Everyone who knows me is bewildered that I keep going back to writing romance. You’ll see, I tell them. Once I get my writing legs under me, the romance and the predilection for menace will make perfect sense together.)
We notice when things are not as they should be because that’s a sign of potential danger. When we go into an unfamiliar environment and don’t know what to expect, we’re likewise hypervigilant, taking note of every obscure detail in search of signs of potential danger.
The “danger” doesn’t have to be a threat to life and limb. Anything that jeopardizes feelings of comfort and security qualifies.
When the principle of invisible familiarity is disregarded, you get ham-fisted, out-of-place description. We’ve all read books in which a character describes in excruciating detail something that ought to be as well known to her as “water is wet.” My favorite example is mirror gazing, in which we’re treated to a page of the heroine describing her own nose, lips, skin, eyes, and hair as if she has never seen them before because it is absolutely essential, for some reason, that the reader gets a precise vision of the character’s head at that moment, at the expense of a 500-word break from storytelling.
I’ll stop reading right there because I don’t approve of storytellers taking breaks on my time and making me watch, but your tolerance for ham-fisted, out-of-place description may be higher.
It’s unnatural for someone to have an internal monologue about an unchanged everyday state of being, but the reader must somehow be brought into that state. There are two natural ways to do that:
- The character comes home to a bloody handprint on the wall — or an interdimensional hell portal or an unexpected plate of cookies. Whatever it may be, the ordinary has been disturbed. Hypervigilance has been triggered. Every familiar knickknack is now suspect and fair game for analysis. Meljean Brook even made mirror gazing work once, having a heroine check out her new black eye (pretty sure it was Charlie in Demon Knight) — a disturbance of her ordinary appearance.
- The character is as new to the situation as the reader is and uses the hypervigilance born of being in unfamiliar territory to focus on details that will be relevant to the reader.
In WCAD, I used a hybrid of the two. Ben grew up in Westard and has expectations of the status quo, but he’s been away long enough to feel like a visitor, and the new status quo is alien to him. No one who drives by the boarded-up market every day spares it a thought, accustomed to one more necrotic space no longer of any use to them, but it’s a shock to Ben. Even if it closed three years ago, the repercussions are fresh to him, so it’s not out of line to have him think or say something in response to the new information he’s receiving.
I couldn’t have used Tally to introduce Westard because her reaction to everything would have been “same shit, different day.” While that’s certainly more succinct, it doesn’t create the sense of time and place Ben’s point of view does.
Relevance is a few of my favorite things
There were a million things along that walk from the gas station to the bakery Ben could have made note of. He lived in that town for nineteen years and spent some time on every inch of that street. Everything he laid eyes on probably had some relevance to him, but the story trying to get going now wouldn’t survive 50 pages of reminiscing about ancient history.
In order to be relevant to the reader, the details selected have to be relevant to the story to come. The market being closed necessitates a road trip coming up in a few chapters. The clinic and firehouse being closed are ammunition against Ben’s mom’s arguments for staying. The hardware store being closed is a nod to everything being broken and not easily repaired — literally for sure, figuratively if you don’t mind seeing a chiropractor for how hard you’d have to strain reaching for that particular metaphor. The school and the bar will be used as settings later.
The gas station could have been just one more symptom of decay, but because it was the last stop on the way out of Westard, its closing also represents death of hope of escape. And it could have been owned by one of the families that moved away when their business folded, but it was owned by Julie’s family, and Julie — heir to the failed escape route — later hammers Tally on the “how dare you fail at escaping” subject. In the rough draft, the derelict gas station existed only to force Ben and Tally into some alone time. In revision, it took on the extra attributes to create layers of relevance.
These may not be connections readers consciously make while reading, but they damn sure notice if everything is random and irrelevant because the pieces don’t quite fit together in the brain. If a writer wants a reader’s undivided attention on the story being told, it behooves that writer to not provide the concurrent distraction of a broken puzzle.
If something in the story serves only one purpose, I look for opportunities to make it more meaningful. Any single-purpose thing that can’t be made more meaningful usually isn’t doing enough to justify its inclusion in the story. If I can’t make a sensible argument for including something, it gets cut. Nothing should be filler. Nothing should be solely for the sake of “color.” If it doesn’t matter, it doesn’t belong in the story.
Oh, so this is a CURSING book.
For the sake of transparency, I made a point of having “fuck” show up on the first page on my Kindle while formatting. I don’t want anybody getting 50 pages in before taking offense because they didn’t realize this was “a cursing book.” You need read no further than the first seven paragraphs of the sample to know if it’s going to make you clutch your pearls.
I used to say I wasn’t trying to offend anyone, I just didn’t care if they were offended, but that’s no longer accurate. I am trying to offend, in the sense that sensitive readers should be made aware immediately that this isn’t the book for them so they don’t waste their money or their time.
“Fuck” on the first page, therefore, is a form of consumer advocacy.
Where everybody knows your na-a-ame
I turn a squinty eye on writing “rules” until I see for myself there’s a good reason to obey them. Crazy Cousin Alphonse convinced me “Every character must at least be mentioned in Act I” is a valid one.
I was halfway through reading a book (the story was actually over, as the conflict set forth in the beginning had been resolved, there just happened to be 150 pages left — but that’s another issue for another time) when the antagonist’s heretofore unmentioned Crazy Cousin Alphonse showed up via an interdimensional hell portal (I guess) to provide enough drama to sustain the last 150 pages (I guess). I can’t say much about Crazy Cousin Alphonse himself, as we had barely been introduced when I had to leave on urgent teeth-gnashing business, but I can say pulling him out of a hat halfway through the book was bullshit. It was like grabbing a whole new handful of Scrabble tiles because the author couldn’t do anything with what she had in front of her, cheating instead of admitting she lost or finding a creative way to make what was on the board work.
Now, I’ve certainly gotten halfway or three quarters through writing a story and realized I needed some new element to make the rest of the story work, but I didn’t just slap it down on the page and expect readers to accept it. It takes very little effort to go back in the manuscript and make some tiny reference to what you’re going to do 10, 20, 30 chapters in the future to set it up in the reader’s mind as a possibility.
All the antagonist (who did have point-of-view scenes) had to do was think, just once, If the girl I want to marry finds out about my Crazy Cousin Alphonse, I’ll never convince her I’ll be a better husband than that other guy, and the problem wouldn’t have existed. I’d have been waiting for Crazy Cousin Alphonse to show up and create drama. I’d have been gnashing my teeth if he didn’t make an appearance because when something is set up, I expect it to pay off, as if there is some inherent logic to this storytelling biz.
“Hint at it now if it will be important later” applies to pretty much anything in a story, but let’s concentrate on how it applies to WCAD‘s characters for now.
In order of mention: Shane appears later both as a minor romantic rival and in his capacity as a law enforcement officer. Ben’s mom has a big role. We never meet Ellen, but the ex is a popular topic of conversation throughout the book. Jed barely has a cameo appearance in Chapter 29, but his alleged sexual exploits are a running gag. Sheila and Norma are the lunch ladies working with Ben’s mom in Chapter 17 (who were nameless in the rough draft — connecting them with the hair lady and her roommate to tie those loose ends in a tidy bow came in revision). Julie also makes her first personal appearance in Chapter 17 but plays a crucial part in Tally’s arc. Stella doesn’t show her face until Chapter 38, but she’s practically family by then.
With the exceptions of Tally’s dad, Will, and Liz, every character of interest is mentioned in Chapter 1. They didn’t have to be planted that quickly — all of Act I is available for sowing the seeds to be grown in Act II and harvested in Act III — but if you can hit that many targets in a couple of state-of-the-reunion sentences, there’s no point spacing them out. Tally’s dad is first mentioned in Chapter 2, Will and Liz in Chapter 5, still well within the first act.
Nobody pops out of an interdimensional hell portal yelling “SURPRISE!” at any later point during WCAD.
That’s probably a huge spoiler, but I did warn you.
Four streets, four avenues
The town where I spent my first few years consisted of four streets and four avenues. It did not have Westard’s massive commercial district. There was a K-8 red brick schoolhouse serving the surrounding rural area, a church, a volunteer fire department, a bar, a post office where everyone had a box because we didn’t warrant home delivery, and that was it — not that everything else was closed, but nothing else was ever there to begin with. You drove 20 miles to the nearest supermarket or hardware store or doctor or anything else. On the one hand, you knew everybody. On the other hand… you knew everybody. Even at age six, I knew that was a mixed bag.
Why set WCAD in such a place?
A small town is only setting where Tally’s story makes sense.
If you’re a stripper in a big city, nobody cares. If you’re not messy and loud, city neighbors might not even know you’re alive — or if you’re dead after a horde of demons emerges from an interdimensional hell portal in your closet, provided they don’t make any noise after 8 p.m. and clean up the blood so the whole building doesn’t reek like a slaughterhouse. In a town of 200 people, everyone takes everything you do personally. There are no degrees of separation, so Tally showing her tits to drunken college boys is like showing their tits to drunken college boys, and they might not have the sort of body confidence that lends itself to that sort of exhibitionism. Ergo, their disapproval envelops her like a smothering, scratchy sleeping bag with a broken zipper.
In a big city, it’s easy to be invisible. There are thousands, if not millions, of people other than you to look at. All you have to do to keep a secret is not demand attention upon it. In a town of 200 people, all 200 of them know what’s in your medicine cabinet and what mail you get and that you came home at 3 a.m. on a weeknight. You have to be very, very good at containment and concealment to keep a secret under those conditions. Tally’s evasive and secretive nature had to be sufficiently severe to be detrimental to her happiness, and that level of dysfunction can be achieved only with a lifetime of practice, such as hiding abuse from the 200 other people living in the same box of Tic Tacs.
The goal was to make Tally unable to continue hiding and keeping secrets. Ben is the force that finally cracks her wide open, but the constant external pressure from the environment is what fractures her shields so he can get a crowbar in there for leverage.
The essence of story
There is no story without conflict. Any storyteller worth the title is a sadist because the bulk of the job description involves torturing story people.
Story people, like their real-life counterparts, generally do not charge eagerly into conflict. They will attempt to avoid conflict when they sense it coming.
Since the bulk of the job description of story people involves being tortured by these conflicts, there must be consequences for shirking their duties.
I’ll probably explore this in greater depth later because it’s one of my favorite things after relevance, but since a shallow example presents itself early on, here’s the first reprimand in Ben’s permanent record: He anticipates a tense reunion with his mother and agrees to a tour of the town to postpone it, for which he is punished with an even tenser reunion he doesn’t see coming — a bigger, nastier version of the event he was trying to dodge.
The only sin punished more severely than attempting to avoid conflict is seeking comfort when it hurts. But we’ll get to that later, I’m sure…
The aforementioned tiny town where I spent some of my formative years was Steward, of which Westard is a letter scramble because I had too many St- names in the story.
Sterling and Marion are also two of the dozens of towns I bounced amongst.
I wrote an origin story about the town being founded by a narcissist named Westard in anticipation of the railroad coming through in that spot, getting a jump on being the hub of midwestern commerce, but when the railroad people came to survey, they assumed the yokels couldn’t spell “Westward” correctly on the sign and took the railroad through Sterling instead (which is why Sterling today is such an enormous metropolis with its one gas station…), thereby sparking a feud for the ages between Westard and Sterling (those railroad-stealing whores), but there was no place to stick it in the book, so it’s not in the book. When the story rejects something like a foreign body, self-indulgence isn’t a valid reason to shoehorn it in.
That’s what blogs are for.
Omens, portents, and prophecies, oh my
Because everything that happens in Acts II and III should be set up during Act I so there’s logic to the story, pretty much all of Act I qualifies as foreshadowing, to one degree or another.
- nothing ever changed in Westard — expect old patterns (rhythms, even) to repeat
- Because the Serv-N-Go had Servd-N-Gone, it looked like the happy couple would be going all the way before the night was over. — expect a couple to go all the way before the night is over, at least in part as a result of this fuel issue…
- on the fifth day, she took the last thing she wanted from their life together and left her key in the mailbox. No note. — expect “five days, over, no explanation” to repeat itself
- Fuck you, Officer Beaver — expect swears
- the ensuing years hadn’t come bundled with maturity — expect some degree of youthful playfulness to be a character trait
- coming home to find he had nothing else worth taking — expect abandonment issues and feelings of worthlessness
- If she would let him in — expect some sort of problem with Mom
- Lock your car so it doesn’t wander off — expect your vehicle to go walkabout if you leave the keys in it, dumbass
- no one discussed family business with outsiders — expect family secrets
- his mother couldn’t possibly look him in the eye and claim there was anything to keep her here now — expect a big ol’ wanna bet?
- almost every female in town gave you free cookies — expect Ben’s romantic escapades to warrant mention
- the lightning-split tree in the woods/the boathouse — expect more info regarding those noteworthy landmarks
- he’d asked her to marry him and she’d said no — expect to hear the story behind that heartache
- The Fortress — expect an explanation of that nickname
I could have picked out many more little leads, but there’s no point getting all abstruse about it. You get the idea that most things on the page in the beginning are leading to future events, not just the Big Obvious Official Foreshadowing of Lock your car.
Looking at that list, I’m actually kind of impressed with how many scenes were set up in the first chapter. No, that didn’t happen in the rough draft. Rough drafts are all about getting from Point A to Point B, not linking Point A to Points J, Q, R, and Y. A huge part of revision is looking for opportunities to make those connections, so the story is a tapestry or a sweater or some other crafted textile metaphor instead of just a straight, boring stretch of yarn that never references where it came from.
That seems to me like more than enough about Chapter 1, but if you have unsated curiosity, comment away. The walkthrough of Chapter 2 will be up next Monday.