That tricky opening chapter

October 22, 2013 Current writings, The Plains of Kallanash, Writing musings 0

Everyone agrees that the opening to a book is critical. Some say it’s the first five pages, some the first 18 lines (the first page on a typical print book), and some will tell you that you have to grab the reader by the throat within the first sentence, or All is Lost.

Well, to be honest, if a reader is so flighty that they’re going to toss a book based solely on the first line, I’m not sure I want them anyway. The first page is trickier. I can see the case for putting something there that’s so compelling that a reader absolutely has to turn the page. It’s all very well for George R R Martin to stick a forty page prologue up front, full of characters who promptly die, dialogue that is deeply portentous but unintelligable, and events that will possibly be understandable three books later, if you’re lucky. Most of us won’t be given that much leeway by the reader.

So, the opening has to be compelling, in some way. But where do you start? The current thinking is that you start at the precise point where events tip the main character out of his normal life. In ‘The Day of the Triffids’, for instance, you don’t get the backstory of the hero’s life, you don’t get the first appearance of the triffids, you don’t even get the meteor shower that caused world-wide blindness in humans. The book starts when the hero wakes up and realises something is wrong:

“When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.”

In ‘The Plains of Kallanash’, the tipping event (or the inciting incident or the catalyst; it has many names) is that one member of the double marriage dies, starting a chain of odd events that eventually leads to disaster. So that is where chapter 1 now starts, although I have added a small prior scene to weasel in a magic reference. [Edit: Now removed. The opening scene now shows the four members of the double marriage, and some of the tensions below the surface.] It acts, in a sense, like a mini prologue, even though it segues straight into the main action.

Am I happy with it? No, not really. One problem is that the resulting chapter was too long, so it’s had to be  split into two. The effect of that is that an entire long scene has had to switch from Mia’s point of view to Hurst’s. You wouldn’t think it would make much difference, but it’s surprising how much has to change when seen through a different pair of eyes. There were a few lines of Mia’s childhood memories, which obviously Hurst would know nothing about. Some I was able to put into dialogue, although the wording changed so much that it lost a great deal of its impact. There there’s the fact that Mia is very devout, and Hurst is (at best) ambivalent about the religion. They see other characters differently, too. So basically, I’m still tinkering with it.

However, I’m fairly confident now that I’ve got the right point to start the story. Now I have to edit the remaining early chapters to work in the aspects that disappeared with my original opening chapter, and try to build a sense of who my characters are. This is major editing – more like rewriting – and it’s not what I expected when I pulled ‘The Plains of Kallanash’ out of cold storage. It’s excellent experience, though. I have to toss scenes that have been there from the start, or rewrite them from top to bottom, or replace them with completely new material. It’s scary, but I think the new version will be much, much better.

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