“A good writer is basically a storyteller, not a scholar or a redeemer of mankind. ”― Isaac Bashevis Singer
You are convinced of your story’s value. You’ve keen insights to share as it unfolds and a willing crew of edgy characters set to leap into action and demand attention. But when the time comes to write your novel’s first sentence it strikes you that—unless you are a celebrity or already have a following— the next 100 or so frail words you type will likely determine the fate of the 75,000 to follow.
It won’t help to say, “Please bear with me, I promise that what is coming will knock your socks off.” No, your reader will insist on being engaged by your prose at once. It certainly seems unfair, but ask yourself if you have ever read a boring or poorly-written first chapter and said, “I’ll bet this fellow is only warming up. I’ll give him another hour or two to make his case.”
You haven’t. I haven’t. No one has unless perhaps they are family or close friends, or their patience has been expanded by an unbelievably compelling sell-sheet or blurb on the inside front cover. (The last exception is a topic for another time.) No, as a rule, the few initial paragraphs at the beginning of your novel’s first chapter will, literally, tell or untell the tale, no matter how well-written or entertaining what follows may be.
In that sense, a stout beginning is even more important than a powerful ending. Without one, no one will read the ending.
Chapters are the building blocks of novels. As such, it is not enough for a chapter to be simply entertaining. Each must fit and further the narrative’s progress. There are a few famous exceptions. Those who have read Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, perhaps the first true novel ever written, are aware of that wonderful author’s egregious insertion of several amusing anecdotes into the action, told around a campfire and lasting perhaps a hundred pages, none of which had a thing to do with the plot!
If you are a Cervantes, you may certainly do as you please. (And why are you reading this post?) The rest of us will be better served by sticking to what works. A famous author (whose name I no longer remember) once admonished aspiring writers to “Be kind to the reader,” kindness achieved by writing clearly, simply and with good pace; by fitting his role, as Singer says, as a storyteller, not aspiring to be a scholar or redeemer of mankind,
Future posts at this, the “Chapters” archive at writeJeremiah.com, will dissect several individual chapters in my novel, Jeremiah’s Last Call, especially the first, which is always the most difficult. I plan to include many embarrassing examples of my several false starts as I wrote, along with what I am hopeful now comprise at least eventual, partial victories. If interested, stay tuned.