STARTING A NOVEL, writing that very first sentence, is as exhilarating and intimidating as riding a bicycle for the first time without training wheels.
It’s arguably the most important chapter in the book, which is probably the reason that authors tend to re-write it more than any other chapter. A lot can go wrong. It’s too long, it’s not interesting enough, we don’t get a good sense of character or place or predicament—editors have a lot of ways of telling writers why their first chapter doesn’t pique their interest. But in my experience, how a first chapter goes wrong can usually be summed up in three words: Too Much Information.
Many new writers think they need to explain a good deal more than they need to explain. They think that the first chapter is about laying a foundation so that the story — the real story— can begin in chapter two.
They could not be more wrong.
The first chapter is not about giving information. In fact, the less information you give, the better your story will probably be. In your opening pages, you want to put all your effort into creating enough interest so that readers will want to read more. Forget the foundation. Forget the back story. Get your readers hooked.
In this and in the coming weeks, I’ll be writing a blog series about those hooks—different techniques writers have successfully to capture their reader’s attention.
Let’s start with an old stand-by:
In Media Res
In media res, or “in the middle of things,” drops your reader into the middle of the action with no warning. In other words, the action of the story began off stage, before the very first sentence, and the reader must play catch up. A great example of this is from “A Room with a View” by E.M. Forster. Here are the very first lines from Chapter One:
“The Signora had no business to do it,” said Miss Bartlett, “no business at all. She promised us south rooms with a view close together, instead of which here are north rooms, looking into a courtyard, and a long way apart. Oh, Lucy!”
“And a Cockney, besides!” said Lucy. . . “It might be London.”
New writers are often worried about using this technique: “Won’t the reader be confused?” “I have to give some context first” and “Why should the reader care about these characters’ problems?” are some of the comments I’ve heard.
Yes, the reader will be confused at first, and in fact that’s what you want. Whenever you put a question in a reader’s mind, the reader is more likely to keep reading so she can find out the answer. Of course, too much confusion results in a book thrown across the room in disgust, but usually this doesn’t happen on the very first page. When you open using the “In Media Res” technique, there is an implicit promise that whatever you are throwing your reader into will be explained. But not quite yet.
By this same principle, no context is needed for this action-in-progress. We readers open a book with the expectation that we will learn, as time goes by, more about these characters and their situation. On page one, we expect not to know much or anything at all. What we really want is the incentive to want to know more. If we start reading a scene and immediately are thrust into the position of figuring out what is going on, we are getting that incentive. We want to know more because something is happening and we’re not sure what.
This logic also addresses the worry that readers won’t know (and care) enough about the characters to be sufficiently interested. Readers are generally patient for a few paragraphs or a page or maybe even a whole chapter, if you’re lucky. We want the writer to make us interested; that’s why we opened the book!
I’ll talk about another technique in the next blog post, which can be used in conjunction with “In Media Res”: starting at the last possible moment. And don’t worry, it’s not a pitch for procrastination (most writers don’t need that pitch, anyway).
Martha Conway’s novel Thieving Forest won the North American Book Award in Historical Fiction, and her first novel was nominated for an Edgar Award. Her short stories have appeared in The Iowa Review, The Massachusetts Review, The Carolina Quarterly, Folio, and other journals. A recipient of a California Arts Council Fellowship, she teaches creative writing at Stanford University’s Online Writer’s Studio and UC Berkeley Extension.
Her new novel, Sugarland, is available now.