Monday, July 13, 2009

Dilemma, Players, Container--Three Essentials for Chapter One

My summer session writing class is climbing mountains! They're working on chapter one of their books--perhaps the hardest chapter to write. It has to establish three essential elements that pull the reader into your story. These elements are key to successfully placing your manuscript with an agent. If you don't have them securely in place, you won't get a contract. They exist in any genre of book, if you know how to find them.

Three Steps to an Eye-Catching Chapter One
Chapter one is often the chapter agents request, if you're lucky enough to write an eye-catching query letter. So this initial chapter is a make-or-break experience. If an agent loves it, they'll ask for more. If not, "Sorry, it's not for us."

I've found most great books--in any genre--hint at these three elements in chapter one. Dilemma (the conflict, the question). Players (who's on stage, who should we care about). Container (the place everything happens, both outwardly as setting and inwardly as emotional or cultural environment).

These elements create a kind of tension cord. It pulls the reader through your book to the last page. If they are not all in place, the cord is slack.

Entering Your Book via Your Natural Strength
Every writer has one of these as a natural, almost unconscious, strength. A mystery writer might think up plots--dilemma. She would enter her story from the question What happens? But she might overlook the place it happens, and the characters who are complicating things and getting deeper into trouble. So her story is interesting but the agent or editor might say, "Your prose needs tightening." Read: "Two elements are missing here; plug them in." Or, most important: "Make us care!"

A medical memoirist might also think of dilemma first--the accident that left him in a wheelchair, for instance. Event is what matters most to him, but the reader engages through first caring about his dilemma--or character. So the memoirist must begin to reveal himself on the page, more and more. Not always comfortable, but essential.

A psychologist writing a book on mental illness might think first of players--the people she counsels at the clinic or hospital, their personalities. She presents their background, their case histories (disguised or with permission), but she can't figure out how to place them in a setting that's believable. She begins to write the setting--a hospital--and suddenly we see the frailty of these people because we smell the antiseptic or hear the intercom paging doctors.

Your job is to think of all three, no matter which strength you build from. And they all must appear in chapter one.

How Does Chapter One Reveal Dilemma, Players, and Container?
I just read the opening chapter--only three pages long--of Judy Blundell's What I Saw and How I Lied. Blundell won the National Book Award for this novel. Her first chapter made me want to buy the book. Because it covers all three elements.

We learn of the main players first--a mother who smells of cigarette smoke and My Sin perfume, the young daughter who pretends to be sleeping beside her, the brother who may have died tragically, the father who left, the mysterious friend. We learn of the dilemma--a small reference to the beach town and how everyone knows the family's faces because they've been in the news recently. Blundell also creates an amazingly engaging container, both physically and emotionally, with lines like "The match snapped, then sizzled, and I woke up fast" or "I heard the seagulls crying, sadder than a funeral, and I knew it was almost morning."

This Week's Writing Exercise
Want to join my writing class--at least virtually--this week? Try focusing on chapter one. Can you draft it--or look it over if it's already written--and check it for these three elements. What's missing? What's already present?

Then find a favorite published book in your genre. Read it to learn how the writer presents dilemma, players, container in the first chapter. How were you hooked into reading on?

How can you change your chapter one to be as successful?