Fixing Chapter One: Plot

The second deadly Chapter One problem that was mentioned in the article that started me off on this series was “The action is weak or meaningless.”

This is obviously a problem, but simply saying “Make it strong and meaningful instead” doesn’t tell you much about how to fix it. It also encourages people to think that there is some specific kind of action that is automatically and always “strong and meaningful.”

So let’s begin by considering why Chapter One action so often seems weak or meaningless.

Take a typical action-adventure/thriller novel that opens in Chapter One with Our Hero in a shootout with some flunkies in a drug cartel. Surely this is strong and meaningful – it is in line with the kind of story (I did say it was an action-adventure/thriller), and it lets Our Hero show off his skills as he beats the gang, foreshadowing what he’s going to do to the terrorists he gets to fight later.

And right there is the problem: what we have here is characterization, not plot. It looks like plot, but it isn’t actually plot-related at all. It’s there to be action, to show that this is a certain kind of book and that the reader can expect lots of adventure and fights and maybe some explosions; it’s there to show that Our Hero is just the kind of guy you’d want fighting off drug smugglers and terrorists – he’s cool and witty under pressure, smart, athletic, a crack shot, and a martial artist. The scene may even hint at a dark secret in his past that will certainly cause trouble later. But nothing in it has anything to do with the plot of this story.

There are quite a few reasons why a writer might want to do this, and it can work very well if the characterization and backstory parts of the Chapter are the things that are dragging the reader into the story and keeping him/her reading. In most cases, though, the action in Chapter One is supposed to pull the readers on into the plot. Getting the reader interested in what is going to happen in the rest of the book is the plot-job of Chapter One, just as getting the reader to care about (or at least be interested in) the main character is the characterization-job of Chapter One.

Anyone who has been reading this blog for a while knows that the action in Chapter One needs to fit the story. It rarely, if ever, works to begin a quiet family drama with a shootout, or an action-adventure with a tea party (unless the tea is interrupted by ninjas or gangsters or some such). In the example above, though, the opening action does fit the story, but it is still flawed because it’s not actually tied to anything in this particular story’s plot.

On the other hand, even in an action-adventure novel, the writer doesn’t necessarily want to unveil the entire plot up front. It’s often more fun for both reader and writer to unfold it slowly, a little at a time. But gradual unfolding has to start somewhere, and usually the sooner, the better.

Sometimes, the thing to look for here is the place where the plot does begin. In the above example, let’s say that Our Hero gets back from the shootout with the cartel to discover his boss waiting with a Mysterious Powerful Person who has just had Our Hero assigned to this new case.Or he come home to find a letter in the mail from his ex-wife, begging for help (which the writer knows is the first step on the way to the confrontation with the terrorists). That is where the first plot thread starts. The question is, should that be where the novel starts?

Quite often, the answer is “yes,” which means that whatever events are in front of it are scaffolding and will have to be cut. Sometimes, though, the answer is “No,” in which case one needs to take another look at the action in Chapter One to see if there are any places where the writer can put in something that does link the shootout with the cartel to the terrorist plot. Maybe there is a note in the papers that doesn’t seem to mean anything now, but that will be a clue (and a tie-in) to the terrorists later. Maybe one of the thugs escapes and turns up later with the terrorists. Maybe it isn’t really a drug cartel, but actually the terrorists selling drugs to finance their nefarious plot.

As a general rule of thumb, the smaller and less important the link, the sooner it has to become clear that it is a link and that it has done its job. A minor drug thug escaping in Chapter One and showing up as a minor terrorist flunky in the final battle does not do the trick; having him show up as a minor terrorist flunky in Chapter Three might work very well. Rene Belloq showing up at the end of the first scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark works very well, because he is one of the major villains of the movie (though we don’t find that out for a while). Bilbo’s retirement party would likewise be irrelevant to the plot of the story, except for the brief appearances of Gandalf and the One Ring, though the party provides lots of characterization and backstory.

Basically, whatever else the plot stuff in Chapter One does, it needs to be a trail of breadcrumbs leading to the main story plot in order to be “strong and meaningful.” Chronology is not sufficient; that is, the fact that Our Hero had an exciting shootout with drug smugglers in the morning and got hired to find and stop a terrorist plot in the afternoon is not enough connection to make the drug smugglers plot-relevant.

I should also note that it is not necessary to open an action-adventure with a shootout or a romance with a tea party; the necessity is that the action be relevant to the eventual plot. Chapter One may begin with Our Hero getting that letter from his ex-wife, instead of with the shootout, and it can still promise the reader action and adventure. The romance can start with ninjas or a bank robbery and still make clear that it is going to be a romance. It’s all a matter of what the writer focuses on when describing the action.

If the story is a romance, but has to start with a ninja attack for some reason, then the writer had better focus on the emotions and reactions of the main viewpoint character, rather than the cool martial arts fighting going on. And, of course, it has to link really solidly to the main plot (which, in a romance, is the emotional one, not the action).

In most cases, the farther the Chapter One action is from what the reader might expect from “this type of book,” the stronger and clearer you want the plot-link to be. The One Ring is at the center of The Lord of the Rings; Gandalf isn’t far behind; Frodo, Merry, and Pippin are major characters in the rest of the story, and Bilbo himself reappears in Rivendell. Introducing the main villain or the McGuffin is frequently a good way to link Chapter One action to the main plot, even if we don’t know that Rene Belloq or Bilbo’s ring will be particularly important until later in the story.

 

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6 Responses to Fixing Chapter One: Plot

  1. Deep Lurker says:

    I’m getting the impression that it’s especially important for the scenes in Chapter 1 to do double or triple duty in terms of plot, character, setting, etc.

    My natural tendency is to use the first scene for setting and characterization, and then kick off the plot in scene two of the first chapter. Trying to cram the start of the plot into the very first scene feels rushed and unnatural to me. But it’s often the right thing to do, especially with my shorter pieces. My first novel needed to get the plot kicked off ASAP in the first scene as well, and I had a lot of trouble with it.

    It’s great on those rare occasions when I can make a neat braid of plot, characterization, and setting right from the start. Most of the time, however, I feel that it’s important for the readers to “get” the setting, and so I delay the plot-start to put in more setting-stuff. Maybe I worry too much about readers understanding the setting; but maybe I don’t, either.

  2. gwionis says:

    This is funny because I just read a book that started off with a scene that was mostly irrelevant to the plot of the individual story (though thematically appropriate in a number of ways), but looks to be relevant to the series, as one of the final scenes had the character from the first scene getting closer to the series main characters.

    Although now that I think of it, there was a minor plot thread for the individual story itself that was helped along by that scene, though it was really really minor.

  3. Tiana Smith says:

    ‘The opening action does fit the story, but it is still flawed because it’s not actually tied to anything in this particular story’s plot.’ <– I see this way too often. Especially since writers now get the advice to start off with a hook.

  4. LizV says:

    @Deep Lurker: I think it depends on the reader. I tend to like stories that let the setting trickle through the main character’s POV over time (John M. Ford’s The Last Hot Time is brilliant at this), but I know some other people get frustrated if their questions aren’t answered right away.

    It probably also depends on how tightly dependent the plot elements are on the setting. If things are happening that could only happen that way in that place, you likely need to get the setting more clearly established early on. If your plot isn’t specifically linked to some peculiar characteristic of the setting, you can likely take more time.

  5. Wolf Lahti says:

    The degree of setting that is established by the opening words of chapter one depends on the author’s voice and the sort of story they’re telling.

    However, it is important to immediately impart some sense of place, or you risk alienating the reader. I’ve read too many stories where the reader doesn’t find out that the action takes place in a city or forest or atop a mesa on on a space ship until the second page or so. By that time, they’ve formed their own mental image based on what few clues they were able to cobble together—and it is jarring to be told that what they thought was a modern-day small town turns out to be an enchanted palace in prehistoric Mesopotamia.

    You don’t necessarily need to reveal specifics of time and place, but the reader needs to know right off the bat what the viewpoint character sees or otherwise experiences.

    • Miriam says:

      I think that one depends on the reader. Some readers will be jarred by that; others are less setting-dependent and won’t care as much.

      (Which is not to say that it’s not still a good idea, but I think it’s possible to write a successful book that doesn’t do that — it just will be successful for a smaller portion of its potential readership.)

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