Friday, August 01, 2008

Structure and Story Post 1

I'm thinking about teaching at the Loft again, an advanced novelists class on structure and story and I'm going to use the blog to work through some of my ideas on the subject. It would be six classes, so there will probably be six posts starting with today's post on first chapters and book openings. I'm going to try to formulate some general principals on what I think a first chapter needs to accomplish and some ways to look at how to do that. As always, sufficiently good writing will trump any general principal.

So, a first chapter should:

1) Introduce the protagonist in a way that makes the reader want to know more about their story. I think that generally this is best done by making the protagonist a sympathetic and likable character. You need to spend some time with the protagonist under circumstances that allow the reader to get to know their best side so that they will be pulling for the character.

2) Set up the central problem or conflict of the story. I generally try to put a "problem statement"* of some sort into the opening three pages, and if I can't do that I make very sure to get it in by the end of the first chapter. I'm not sure you can apply this to every kind of story, and it can be very difficult, but it's a good exercise both for the writer and reader. You also have to be careful not to make the problem statement so obvious that the reader can then put down the novel because they know what's going to happen.

In the WebMage books the problem statement is usually also a red herring, i.e. Ravirn thinks he has x problem with thing y, but in actuality he has g problem with thing y, or x problem with thing r, or some other variation. In Cybermancy, Ravirn initially thinks the problem is simply "I need to get Shara's soul out of Hades," and that is the opening problem, but the actual problem is closer to "How do I get Shara's soul out of Hades successfully and survive the consequences?" which is a multi-step process that only begins with the initial extraction of Shara's soul.

3) Introduce the setting. This is especially important in science fiction and fantasy where part of what the reader is looking for is a cool speculative world (technology, magic system, magical creature, alien, magical situation, etc.). I'm generally of the school that says the more of this you put up front the better, though there are situations where you might want to keep parts of it secret for a while. I'm absolutely of the opinion that something fantastical has to happen before the chapter ends.

In summation:
1) Protagonist introduction (generally sympathetic).
2) Problem statement.
3) Setting.

Hey, that sounds like a character with a problem in a setting. Isn't that the most basic description of story? Why, yes it is Mr. McCullough; you get a balloon. I know this seems almost too basic but it's remarkably easy to lose track of. In many ways an opening chapter has to play out the arc of the book in miniature. For that matter so does a closing chapter.

It's really very similar that way to the best advice I ever got for writing an essay: Paragraph one, tell the reader what you're going to tell them. Main body of paper, tell the reader what you said you were going to tell them. Final paragraph, tell the reader what you just told them.

As a writer you have to think about chapter and scene, especially first chapters and scenes, as much in terms of what they do for the reader as you do about what the events of the story are. You have to develop a sense of the structure of story in a way that non-critical readers don't.

Thoughts? Comments? Vehement disagreements?

*I've borrowed this term from physics problem solving theory** in which the student's first task is to read the test or homework problem, figure out what they are solving for, and restate it in a clear way so that they can dedicate all of their efforts toward the correct goal.

**Where they got it I don't know.


Douglas Hulick said...

Two thoughts I am just going to throw out there.

Thought the First:

I always twitch when I hear "make the protagonist sympathetic/likable/etc." Not that I think it is bad advice, but the subtext can come across as, "Make them a nice person somehow." That I disagree with. You can have an essentially not nice protagonist (and anti-hero, if you will) who will still engage the reader and pull them along. Is it more work? Yes, but the pay-off can be bigger, too. And yes, they still have to be likable, or at least engaging, in some way.

Essentially, I think I am arguing with your wording on this. The underlying message is basically sound, but I think you need to convey that the protagonist can NOT be a likable guy in the context of the world or story, but still a sympathetic one. And I think that needs to come across in one basic sentence in some way, so people don't lose sight of it.

Thought the Second:

I would say that A problem needs to be presented, but not necessarily THE central problem. You kind of say this later under point two, but the initial spin is that it should be the main issue. Again, I'm nit-picking, but I think it is important to relay the flexibility of the rule in the initial statement. I agree that some sort of problem needs to be put forth, but it can just as easily be a red-herring or a leader or a side-plot or what have you.

Again, more of a wording argument, but given this is an advanced class, I think the students both deserve and can handle a more nuanced set of guidelines from the get-go.

As for the Setting stuff: bang on, IMO.

Good luck. I look forward to seeing how you are going to structure the rest of the class.

Michael Damian Thomas said...

Hooray! My novel passes this test. :)

As for the likable protaganist, I see it as the reader has to be fascinated about this character and their problems. If you don't want them to get through the obstacles, you stop reading.

I personally prefer grey characters with some internal conflict.

Kelly McCullough said...

Good points Doug, thank you.

And now I'm going to quibble-you knew that was coming right? Though it's really more about refining the ideas than not being in a high degree of agreement with you.

I really do like the word likable--not so much in terms of likable to the other characters and certainly not in terms of "nice" (you're dead on there and I think that's more what you're getting at--you can correct me if I'm wrong) but in terms of a character that the reader can like. It's my bias both as a writer and a reader that if I don't get a reason to like a character fairly quickly I'm not going to want to spend time with them. That's not to say that they can't be nasty or vicious or evil on some levels--a good writer can make people with all of those traits likable--just that if I don't like the protagonist pretty quickly I put the book down and walk away and don't come back.

I'm a little more wishy-washy on the problem statement. It doesn't absolutely have to be in the first chapter but if you don't give the reader a strong sense of what the book is going to be about fairly quickly you can (not will, can) get into a lot of trouble with readers. I've seen it done well, but rarely, and usually by emphasizing things that can be looked at as the central story problem in terms of theme or character development. A problem statement certainly doesn't have to give any of the actual story away. It can be something as opaque as here's this mystery that is important to the character somehow. But you need to give the reader some sort of guidepost for sorting out the things that are important to the story. If the reader is fifty pages in and really doesn't know what the story is about in terms of theme and there being a bright shiny visible problem that needs solving it usually means the book is in trouble.

of course, everything I say can be trumped by sufficiently good writing. I'm talking more about general principals and knowing what works for most books. If you deviate from the core values of story you want to do it consciously and with good reason.

Again, thanks for good points that got my brain to work on refining what I'm thinking on the subject.

Kelly McCullough said...

Michael, sorry I missed your comment earlier–I think we crossposted and I didn't look up. Yes, I tend to prefer both some moral ambiguity and complexity of my motive in protagonists as well. I'm thinking that the problem with my original post was a failure to sufficiently define "likable."