10.11.2017

Blocking Out Initial Places

A common problem novice writers have is failing to think enough about where their characters should be positioned in the first chapter. Life before page 1 might as well be a tabula rasa—because it in fact is a blank slate to the author. Yet in almost all cases, your characters have lived for a number of years before the curtain rises.

Most authors recognize that fact, and they provide background stories—narrative summaries that convey key events in their past. Yet I am constantly surprised by how poorly positioned the characters are at the story’s onset to create immediate excitement—and reader interest in them.

You need to ask yourself, what are the main character’s relationships status quo ante (before the book begins)? What I usually find is that the author knows where the plot begins. A signal event such as a murder occurs, and the story is set in motion. Yet stop to think about what contributes to a novel’s tension besides the galvanizing plot event. It’s the friction between characters. You don’t have to wait for a plot to develop to foment that tension. If chosen wisely, your characters have been at odds for a number of years previously.

What would be the best positions for your main characters as the book opens? What if your hero-heroine duo don’t meet until page 50? You need to devise friction with characters both on the hero’s side and the heroine’s side.

Let’s use the latter as an example. Chrissie has two bratty children, and her husband is coming home later and later these days. So what should Chapter 1 feature? I would advise that you throw that mix right in the reader’s face: status quo ante. The chapter opens with the heroine getting a headache because her two children are yelling at each other about some stupid video game her husband bought. She goes out into the family room to yell at them to shut up—and her husband, befuddled with drink, walks in the door and says, “Dear, dear, why don’t we all calm down?” Sure, this charming scene can’t match up with the excitement of an initial murder, but we do want to find out if the heroine is going to have a fight with her husband. She might even be mad enough to kill the guy.

Exercise: In terms of general principles, there are several useful questions to ask yourself. What antagonistic event happened to the hero two weeks before the murder occurred? Two days before it occurred? Two hours? Can you set up lingering conflict from that event so that his very first scene has a crackling edge in which he is arguing about that event with someone else? Now your knowledge of the character’s past propels him forward right from the start.

“Beware of no man more than yourself; we carry our worst enemies within us.”
—G. K. Chesterton

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine

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