Note: The purpose of the craft notes is to pull back the curtain and show what I am trying to accomplish as an author, and why I make the choices I do. There are spoilers here, so you probably want to have read the chapter before reading the craft notes.
As a general rule, the first chapter of a novel must accomplish at least these six things:
- It must hook the reader and reel him in.
- It must introduce the protagonist.
- It must present the protagonist with a problem.
- It must describe the setting, creating a sense of place in space and time.
- It must identify the novel’s genre.
- It must establish the author’s voice.
How do I accomplish these things in chapter 1 of The Eye of Crasis?
The first chapter must “hook” the reader. A hook is something that grabs the reader’s attention, pulls him into the story, and compels him to keep reading. You want to hook your reader as early as possible. How do I accomplish that here? I do it in the very first sentence: “Jerrod had been drinking too much to be driving, and he knew it.”
This immediately raises questions in the reader’s mind: Who is this Jerrod person who drives while drunk? Why has be been drinking too much? What is he doing behind the wheel of a vehicle?
It also creates tension. A drunk behind the wheel of a car late at night is an accident looking for a place to happen. The reader intuitively knows that something is about to go wrong.
The stakes are raised when we discover that his girl friend is in the vehicle with him; he is putting her at risk too. The stakes are raised again when he (apparently) hits a pedestrian, and again when it turns out the pedestrian had been shot in the back. And again when Jerrod learns that the police, the FBI and NCIS are looking for him.
By the end of the chapter, there are so many plates in the air that the reader should be well and truly hooked, unable to put the book down because he wants to know what’s going to happen next.
Second, the first chapter must introduce the protagonist. I do this in the first sentence: “Jerrod had been drinking too much to be driving, and he knew it.” The reader will assume that Jerrod is the story’s main character until told otherwise. In a sense, I have already made a tentative promise to the reader. I have promised him that Jerrod is the character to follow. If he’s not, I had better make that clear soon. The longer the reader is left with this assumption, the more irritated he will be when he discovers that someone else is the main character.
I use the first sentence to reveal a few thing about our protagonist. We learn that he is a man. Have you ever started reading a story with a male protagonist only to learn a few paragraphs later that he is a she? I have, and it is disconcerting to say the least. The reader begins building a mental picture of your protagonist from the very first sentence. Had I named him, say, Jamie, a name that could be either male or female, the reader will guess one or the other, with a 50-50 chance of being surprised later. I chose an explicitly male name to remove any possibility of confusion. Just to be sure, I added “… and he knew it”, which confirms that the protagonist is a man.
We also learn from the first sentence that our protagonist is a drunk driver. Worse, he knows he’s drunk and he knows he should not be driving. By the time we get to the end of the first paragraph, we suspect this is not an isolated case. By the time we get to the end of the first scene, we are sure. Thus, we have a character trait: Jerrod is not a particularly responsible person, and he may have a drinking problem.
This is confirmed later in the first scene, when he hits a man on the road, and decides to drive off rather than face the possible consequences of have two prior DWI’s. He is saved only by his girl friend, who jumps out of the truck to see if the man is all right.
We learn more about Jerrod as the rest of the chapter unfolds. We learn that he has a girl friend, Trish, who has a more reliable moral compass than he does. We learn that he served two tours of combat duty as an army medic. We learn that he has a best friend, named Parker, who looks out for him. We learn that Jerrod’s life is a mess and that he is bitter about the way it has turned out. We learn that he cares enough about his friends to want to keep them out of harm’s way.
By the end of the first chapter, we know a lot about Jerrod, with very little by way of “info dumps.” I accomplished this mainly through actions, external dialog, and some internal dialog. In other words, I used two action scenes (yes, the second scene is an action scene, although a subdued one) to show the protagonist in action in ways that reveal what kind of person he is. This is classic show-don’t-tell.
Trish and Parker get a significant amount of on-stage time in this chapter. I did this for two reasons: (1) having someone for Jerrod to interact with gives me plenty of opportunity to reveal his character; (2) they will turnout to be Jerrod’s “sidekicks” in the story that lies ahead, and I am signaling that by giving them a lot of attention right away. As a general rule, the reader will attach importance to characters in direct proportion to the amount of space devoted to them in the story.
As an aside, I was surprised to find out how messed up Jerrod was. That was not my original image of him. But almost as soon as I started writing, he began to reveal himself to be more complicated and more troubled than I had initially thought.
I took a risk by showing him at his worst right off the bat. Readers want to like their protagonists, and Jerrod is not an immediately likable person. I took this risk because (1) I felt it was important to respect his character as he revealed himself to me; and (2) this is the starting point for Jerrod’s personal journey from the man he is in the beginning of the story to the man he will be at the end of the story.
Third, the first chapter must present the protagonist with a problem. Without a problem, you don’t have a story. I present four problems in the first chapter, in ascending order of significance.
Jerrod’s first problem is to make it home safely. It’s not an especially big problem; certainly not one a novel-length story can be built on. But it creates a bit of tension at the very beginning of the story, making the reader want to find out what’s going to go wrong.
Jerrod’s second problem is that he hits a pedestrian. This is a bigger problem, one that could land him in jail, one that he wants to run away from. However, when Trish forces him to face it, he takes responsibility and draws on his skill as a medic to do what he can for the man. This is intended to show that he can act responsibility, if he can overcome his own fears. Already, in the first chapter, the reader sees that Jerrod has the potential to be a better person.
Jerrod’s third problem is that the man gives him a small black box just before he dies from two gun shot wounds in the back. The astute reader will probably realize that the black box is more significant than it at first appears, and might even wonder if it is the “Eye” that got left behind on the alien spaceship in the Prologue. Jerrod hasn’t read the Prologue, of course, so he at first misses the significance of this problem. For him it is just a murder that he wants nothing to do with.
It is not until two-thirds of the way through the second scene, which takes place the following morning, that he realizes that the black box is the cause of a fourth problem; namely, he is now wanted by the authorities, including the FBI and NCIS. At this point, he makes a precipitous and fateful decision: he decides to run. As the story progresses, this tendency to act first and think later will become a recurring theme for him.
Jerrod’s rationale for running rather than turning himself and the black box in to the authorities does not become clear until early in chapter 2. I wrestled with this placement. I want the reader to be left hanging with the question, “What’s he going to do now?” It may be that I have instead left the reader with the question, “Why the heck did he do that?” which is not the question I want to leave the reader with. I will probably come back to this in revision and see how I can make sure the right question is left in the reader’s mind at the end of chapter 1.
By the end of Chapter 1, we have seen Jerrod go from driving while drunk to hitting a man while driving drunk, to coming into possession of something mysterious that the government wants, to becoming a fugitive. I think this building of problems on top of each other is an effective technique for making the reader think, “Man, this guy has landed in some serious hot water.”
Fourth, the first chapter must describe the setting. The amount of attention given to describing a setting is largely determined by (1) the kind of story being told, and (2) the relative importance of that setting for the story.
The first chapter of The Eye of Crasis has two scenes, each with its own setting: a lonely road at night, and Jerrod’s home the next morning. I don’t spend much time describing the setting for either scene because (1) it would slow the story down, which I don’t want to do in the first chapter, and (2) I don’t need much description to accomplish what I want to accomplish in the first chapter. Nonetheless, I do try to ground both scenes in space and time. How do I accomplish that?
First, I include a subtitle for Chapter 1: “Six weeks later, Bozeman, MT.” This tells the reader that the story begins six weeks after the events described in the Prologue, and that it begins in Bozeman, MT. This grounds the story in time and space.
Second, I sketch in a few scenic details in the first paragraph of the first scene: a clear night, a three-quarter moon, a relatively untraveled two-lane road with gravel shoulders. It’s not a lot, but it’s enough for the reader to form a mental picture of where they are. The reader’s mental picture probably won’t look anything like mine, but that doesn’t matter for my purposes; all that matters is that the reader is able to form some kind of concrete picture of the scene in his mind.
For the second scene, I provide a few details about Jerrod’s house:
- “He crawled out of bed, noted that Trish was still comatose, and made a seemingly endless trek from the bedroom to the living room and then to the front door.”
- “a one-bedroom dump.”
- “the sagging couch.”
- “the old rocking chair in the corner.”
- “the gravel driveway that led up to the road.”
Again, not a lot of description of the setting, but more than in the first scene. Why? Because the second scene is set in Jerrod’s home, and a person’s home often says things about the person who lives there. We learn things about Jerrod by seeing where he lives. Notice, too, that I spread the setting details through the scene, incorporating them into the dialog between Jerrod, Parker and Trish. That way I avoid the dreaded “info dump.”
In both scenes, my intention is to provide the reader with just enough detail about setting to enable him to form at least a minimal mental picture of where and when each scene takes place. If I have done it right, the reader will form these images without the descriptive details becoming intrusive. I do not want the reader’s attention to be drawn to the details of the settings for their own sake.
As an aside, a different kind of story might have called for a different kind of treatment of setting. My short story Far From the Burning Sun is a man-versus-nature story in which a woman struggles to survive on an ice world. Full half of the text is given over to descriptions of the setting, which is appropriate because the setting is the antagonist. The Eye of Crasis, on the other hand, is an action-adventure story in which setting is secondary, which is why I keep setting description to a minimum.
Fifth, the first chapter must identify the genre. Nobody wants to pick up a an historical romance only to discover it’s actually a police procedural.
In the case of The Eye of Crasis, nothing in the first chapter tells the reader what genre the novel is. I am depending on three other things to do that: (1) the title, (2) the cover, and (3) the Prologue. The Prologue in particular clearly establishes the genre as science fiction. The fact that the first chapter takes place in an entirely familiar and mundane time and space tells the reader that the theme is probably “an ordinary man in an extraordinary situation.”
Sixth, the first chapter must establish the author’s voice. The author’s voice is mainly a matter of tone and style. Is it lean and terse like Hemingway? It is meandering and obtuse like Faulkner? Is it baroquely dark like Poe? Is it humorous like Douglas Adams (The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy)? Is it elegant and verbose, like Jane Austen (Sense and Sensibility)? The first chapter sets the reader’s expectations about the tone and style that he can expect to find in this novel.
Voice isn’t something you have to find; it is something you already have. I pretty much write the way I talk. That’s my voice. I am also prone to tossing in a little dry humor here and there.
It is, of course, possible to establish and write in a different voice. But that’s probably something best left to experienced writers. Most of us are doing well to just be ourselves when we write (oddly, this is harder than it sounds).
The only really important thing about voice is that it be consistent throughout the story. If you start out with a heavy dose of dry wit, you had best keep doing that all the way to the end, because you have made an implicit promise to the reader and you don’t want to disappoint him.
As an aside, a character’s voice is different than the author’s voice. A character’s voice is that character’s particular way of talking, both out loud and in his own head. In chapter 1, Jerrod, Trish, and Parker each has their own unique way of talking. Jerrod is a doer; he tends to think and talk in concrete terms. Parker is a thinker; he tends to talk in generalizations and abstractions. Trish is a feeler; she tends to talk in the language of the heart. Their voices reflect who they are. Like the author’s voice, the key a character’s voice is to be consistent, to ensure that each character uses the same voice throughout the story.