Friday, March 9, 2018

Can First Chapters Ever Be TOO Dramatic?

Writing teachers and writing classes-- if you've worked with either, if you've shared your writing for feedback, you've probably heard the golden rule of first chapters.  They need to have something happen.  Preferably something outwardly dramatic.

It's called a triggering event, and it literally triggers your story.  Here are some classic examples:

All the Light We Cannot See (Anthony Doerr):  war begins
The Glass Castle (Jeannette Walls): homeless mother is spotted rooting through dumpster
The Passenger (Lisa Lutz):  husband dies falling down stairs
Everything I Never Told You (Celeste Ng): daughter is missing
Cruel Beautiful World (Caroline Leavitt): high school girl runs off with teacher

Each of these has an event that readers can logically, outwardly follow.  Usually one event.  And the event must have meaning in the character's life.  It must be life-changing in a way.  It must cause readers to know the character in a new way, as we see their reaction to the event.

If you don't have a triggering event in that first (or second) chapter, how will you show us the character in a way that we can grab hold of?  Engage with?  Want to follow?

I think of Americanah, by the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.  The first chapter, or triggering event, has the narrator going to get her hair braided at a salon.  It's an event that tells us about her, her culture, her background, and her tenuous hold on life in the U.S.  It's not war, death, murder, loss. But it says so much about this narrator, we understand why Adichie chose it to launch the story.

One of my long-time students is finishing her novel and asked the question:  Can the opening chapter be too dramatic?  Can the triggering event just keep your pulses racing but not really engage you in the story? I think, yes. 

If the triggering (dramatic, outer) event reveals the character's dilemma, shows where the character gets their false agreement or misunderstanding about this dilemma, and presents a possibility of overcoming it, then it's character-engaged drama and we want to read more.  If it doesn't relate to the character, it's just drama for its own sake.  We can listen to the news for that.

Your weekly writing exercise:  Ask yourself if your triggering event reveals the character who's involved in it.  Ask if it reveals the dilemma that character is going to face during the book, and if it presents some basic misunderstanding or false agreement the character has that fosters this dilemma--a misunderstanding that will need to be faced and dealt with during the book.  If yes, your opening event is golden.  If not quite, what can you change?