Openers & Character Intros

Remember when I said that subconsciously my creative efforts wanted to be redirected toward revising? For the past several days I’ve been indulging them, and it’s going slow but well. Everything I read about in articles and in all those books about writing seem to have diffused into my head and culminated, because those tips are coming out on paper in ways I didn’t know I could orchestrate.

I’ll give you an example.

Before:

Only as my roommate carelessly discarded her blanket on my sleeping form, the rough material slapping abruptly across my face, did I blink myself awake in startled confusion. Forcing myself from my sleepy stupor, I sat upright on my mat and rubbed the sleep out of my eyes. Blearily I searched out the bare mat beside me and deposited the offensive blanket upon it. Reluctantly relinquishing the warmth of my own blanket, I stretched and stood, shaking off the dredges of sleep that still clung to me. I folded my blanket and placed it back on my mat, before following the other servant girls out of our room. Waking later made me one of the last from the room, but I did not rise so late as to be late to the dressing room.

There were several dressing rooms. Since I was young, the dressing room I was assigned to contained only washbowls and small towels. I knelt on the stone floor before a bowl of water and rinsed my face, hands, and feet, drying them with the small towel provided beside the bowl.

This happened, that happened, I saw this…tell, tell, adverb, describe, explain. This is at the beginning of chapter 2. It’s like a temple life info-dump. Not horrible, but not exciting either. You’re either caught in the lull of rhythm, or you’re trying to make a list to keep track of all the details in your head, or you’re employing patience until you can find out why all this matters.

After:

I jolted awake when a weight dropped onto me. Howls still echoing in my ears, my eyes snapped open, half expecting to see some unnameable creature ready to pounce.

My assailant was…a blanket.

I flopped back onto floor with a groan. One of my many roommates had ditched her blanket on top of me again. Seriously, how hard was it to put it back on her sleeping mat? Or in the laundry? Or folded up in a corner?

Alright, I sighed, shucking my own blanket. Enough grumbling. What if one of the taskmistresses hears you? There’ll be hell to pay.

I stumbled into the next room with the others, kneeling in front of a basin to splash the sleep from my face. Unfortunately, the cold water could not wash away my dream. No matter; I knew how to hide such things. By the time I dabbed the last drops from my face, my mask of neutrality was carefully in place.

It’s a mundane morning routine, but I made-you-look with fake suspense, kept you with her attitude, and then used her attitude to point out stuff about the room and drop hints as to what her life is like. And this is all in the first few lines of the first chapter! I read that wake-up scenes have been overdone as openers in fiction. But hopefully, since I scared the pants off of you by making you think the main character was getting woken up by a wild animal pouncing on top of her, you feel blindsided rather than clichéd.

Hopefully a bit more attention-grabbing than this:

Before:

All living beings are governed by relationships. But sometimes one relationship does not just affect two beings, or create a small ripple in the sea of time. Sometimes one relationship affects the world.

Neither of us was destined for great things. We were outcast, pariah, hidden away from the world. But the winds of change lulled me away from my assigned path, to the childlike feet of perhaps the most dangerous man alive. Had I ignored the wind’s guidance, or stood like stone, my life would have been a very different story.

I was a very unremarkable child, ordinary in appearance and unnoteworthy in ability. The temple drafted me into service at a very young age, offering me food and shelter in exchange for a life of monotonous dedication. I doubt I thought much on the offer of whichever magnanimous soul deemed to reach down into the dirt and rescue my scrawny form from starvation, though truthfully I cannot remember back that far. The temple became my life, and it was not for me to question the ways of it.

I guess it could be fine, as far as a world-scale recollective intro goes. I was going for a taper effect: starting with “all,” funneling down to “we,” and then focusing on “I.” But it doesn’t connect you to Labriella; you’re not really trekking through the crap experiences with her. And it doesn’t leave you at all in suspense of what is going to happen next. I do go on to say “until [she] met him,” and other vague things that imply change. But now you know that whatever else happens in the story, this character has to get out alive to tell the tale—which would not otherwise have been a given (especially since I can switch to the beast’s perspective at any time).

I’ll be honest: Labriella is a troublesome character to write. Rome can show his thoughts (or the opposite of his feelings) with his actions. But Labriella is more likely to reflect her feelings by what she doesn’t do. She’s a trained servant who’s used to being bullied, so she’s not typically going to voice her opinions or fix her best friend’s annoyingly frizzy hair. She’s in survival mode, and she should be at least slightly sour or depressed underneath that because, as far as she’s concerned, a life without her best friend/crush is noticeably lacking. Trapped or depressed people don’t spontaneously decide to seek closure. So following Kitiora’s advice to go see Rome is probably a no-go—especially after what happened last time.

 

Rome? Let’s just say he’s not going to feel any more inclined to visit the village than he did when he was younger. But certain things can irk him into action. Like an ex-friend/ex-crush returning from a several-year absence to scream for him on the edge of his territory. Or having to live with his conscience if he were to knowingly let her suffer at the hands of human men, only a few feet from his reach. That’s enough for him to make a brief appearance.

 

In case you didn’t catch the implications of the above statements, I’ll be ditching chapters 1-3 (to be alluded to later), and rewriting chapters 4-6 & 10. That should shave off a few thousand words by getting rid of lengthy backstory and explanations. And, if I play my chapters right, the first chapter will rope you in, and by chapter 2 (a.k.a. like 12k words in) you’ll be in the heart of the story. Chapters 7-9 will get pushed back until after that, and probably interspersed between noble events.

I’m also toying with the idea of shorter chapters. Usually I aim for 7k-word chapters—which seems to suit my readers just fine as long as I routinely update, or if a delayed chapter ends up as 11k words to hold them over. But at this point I’m thinking scene breaks might come more naturally at half that amount, which would get updates out to my readers faster. So I guess I’ll see where I can naturally end chapter 1, and try to judge from there.

How long do you guys prefer chapters to be?

Long enough to hold you over?
Or short enough to feel accomplished for getting to the end?

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19 responses to “Openers & Character Intros

  1. Personally I think chapter length should be at the author’s discression based on what is trying to be conveyed in that particular timeframe. That being said, while I do prefer longer chapters to shorter ones (more character/plot development opportunity), I am by far a bigger supporter of regular updates. So if shorter chapters are easier for you to update, then by all means. 🙂 At the end of the day though, this is your work and we are all just lucky enough to tag along for the ride.

    • Thanks! It’s hard for me to stick with a consistent chapter length, because sometimes the natural break seems to be after 3k words, sometimes after 7k, and sometimes after 11k. O.o Maybe that just means I need to go back to writing cliffhangers…as long as I can update on time. 😉

  2. Anywhere from 10 to 20 pages is fine by me, so about 2,500 words to 5,000.

    By the way, I for one found Labriella’s story of how she came to the temple pretty interesting. Just get rid of the cliche “winds of change” and you’ll be fine. 🙂

    • Thanks. I’ll keep that in mind. 🙂

      Interesting? Really?! …Huh. Well thanks; that’s good to know. Before I ditched the recollective opening altogether, I was working on an alternate recollective opening that I felt was more specific to Labriella’s perspective. This was what I had so far:

      Over the years, I’ve found that my memories sharpen rather than fade. I can only suppose that I have a certain beast to thank for that. It seems only right that I share these vivid memories. Perhaps, if they are captivated in a book, they will become a tale and, in time, a legend. I think I owe him that much. So does the kingdom. Had I not been lured to the childlike feet of perhaps the most dangerous man alive, my life would have been a very different story, and the kingdom a very different place.

      Then it would lead into that paragraph about how Labriella came to be at the temple. The intro would have to end shortly after that, though, to make way for you to dive into Labriella’s head.

      What do you think? Would this be any better?

      • With your idea of starting big and ending small, do you think you could start with paragraph “All living beings are governed by relationships….” and end with paragraph “Over the years, I’ve found that my memories sharpen rather than fade….”? You could edit out repeated sentences in either one.

      • You mean like this?

        All living beings are governed by relationships. But sometimes one relationship does not just affect two beings, or create a small ripple in the sea of time. Sometimes one relationship affects the world.

        Over the years, I’ve found that my memories sharpen rather than fade. I suppose I have a certain beast to thank for that. It seems only right that I share these vivid memories. Perhaps, if they are captivated in a book, they will become a tale and, in time, a legend. I think I owe him that much. So does the kingdom. Had I not strayed to the childlike feet of perhaps the most dangerous man alive, my life would have been a very different story, and the kingdom a very different place.

        I was a very unremarkable child, ordinary in appearance and unnoteworthy in ability. The temple drafted me into service at a very young age, offering me food and shelter in exchange for a life of monotonous dedication. I doubt I thought much on the offer of whichever magnanimous soul deemed to reach down into the dirt and rescue my scrawny form from starvation, though truthfully I cannot remember back that far. The temple became my life, and it was not for me to question the ways of it.

        Until I stumbled upon a boy in a forest.

        But that was a time far behind me – or so I thought.

      • At first I couldn’t really see how it was going to enhance the progression, but I decided to cut and paste and move things around a bit…and I actually think I like it. It wouldn’t be so much of a jump to transition from this as an intro, into the other opening where she wakes up on the day that everything starts to go sideways. I would certainly be able to keep the reflective flair.

        The only other question in my mind is whether it’d be better to start with the beast’s perspective, since he’s the immortal one. But since what happens to Labriella is what sets everything in motion, perhaps it’s best to start out in her viewpoint, so that the audience can see what Rome does not.

      • It all depends on how much you want the reader to know going in. I struggle with that too, because I want the reader to be surprised with my main character, but I don’t want them to be so confused they get frustrated.

      • Yeah…I’m working on learning how to drop little tidbits of information here and there, to clue my readers in gradually. I myself am the kind of person who likes to know everything up front, so I can build a visual on my head of the set characters before the action starts rolling. Whenever I pick up a book, and the first line drops me into action I have no context for (which seems to be the Teen book trend right now), I get confused and frustrated. Recollective works can be confusing too, if the character is talking about mundane things in the beginning that have no connection yet to what’s summarized on the back of the book. I guess I’m trying to strike a balance in between. I know I can be too detail-oriented, so I’m trying to space out the details in a way that draws more attention to them, and keeps people reading.

        I want Rome’s history to be a mystery, but I also want Labriella’s fate to hang in the balance. It’s a hard balance of surprises to keep – which is what has made me think that maybe a recollective approach is not the best way for this story to be told. But on the other hand, I feel like with all my characters’ insecurities – especially in their relationship with one another – the reader needs the reassurance that somebody’s going to turn out ok.

      • Personally, I’m okay with starting with action or setting the scene, but either approach needs to establish the characters in an interesting way that keeps me engaged. Basically, I don’t care what the author throws me into, as long as I’m getting to know the characters.

        Either way, it is VERY hard to get the right balance.

        The reader doesn’t have to know everything is okay–sometimes the uncertainty is what keeps them reading!

  3. My first two paragraphs could be what is called ‘false tension,’ and that scares me a lot. But we are constantly told to hook people in early. It certainly doesn’t drag on for long. ( Basically she refers to her roommate as the devil – but this is the way she talks, and it does set the tone. ) I personally like beginnings where the MC is musing about something. It gets you inside their head. But I just don’t know anymore. I know my beginning will get up some agents noses.

      • I think it’s like when you set it up to be something and then it’s a dream. I just get so scared that I’m going to do the wrong thing. I’m sure a sentence would be fine 🙂 I need to change my own which goes on for a few paragraphs. 🙂

      • Hmm…I guess, then, that my new opener creates some false tension as well. But the howls do actually have significance. It’s a sound-memory that my main character’s mind keeps revisiting in or at the end of dreams. By the end of chapter 1, she will have an encounter with the source of those howls – though she won’t know the connection yet. I don’t know if that means it counts as true “false tension.” Delayed-significance tension, maybe?

      • It’s something to think about but I still think they mean when they read pages and pages of a scene that is not what it seems. They also say that the first few pages should set the tone for the whole chapter and book. So I think we both are fine :). But everyone has their pet peeves. Like anything, as long as we are aware, we can make informed decisions 🙂

      • She is overdramatic, and fairly quickly you realise she would call the guy she’s interacting with the devil. But will they give me chance to get to that part ? *shrug*

      • Ahh. Yes, I can see how that would be confusing for the reader. That’s why I skipped all of the dream but the howls.

        That’s the question, isn’t it: Whether we can intrigue the reader and build enough trust in a few short lines or pages to lead them into the good stuff. So hard!

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