Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Perfect First Chapter

Yep, that's right.  I wrote it. 

And then I woke up.

Alright, what's happening is that I'm trying to write it.  I've got this story that I just love and that I wrote last year and now I'm revising and editing and polishing (and completely rewriting the ending *wrinkles nose in distaste* 'cause it reeks).  Being the clever chicky that I am I thought I would apply all the great tips I've read on various blogs plus all the advice posted by Harlequin editors for the New Voices comp last year AND try and deconstruct a few first chapters from some great authors.  So I ordered, and have received, Nicola Marsh's Deserted Island, Dream Ex, Kelly Hunter's With This Fling (both Rivas - so I can check out the new 'voice' and line) and two of Maisey Yates' books: A Mistake, A Prince and A Pregnancy and The Inherited Bride.

I am limiting myself to the first chapter in each book and just reading it over and over again.  I highly recommend doing this because the results have been amazing.  Each time I read the chapter I learn or see something new.  So I thought I would share why the first chapter from The Inherited Bride (the first book I started to read in my experiment) is perfect.

1. Get the Hero and Heroine together as quickly as possible:  Isabella and Adham meet in the very first sentence.  You can't get much faster than that.  And it's a non-cliched meeting so it feels real.
2. Introducing the characters to the reader:  In the third sentence on the second line of the page we are given both Isabella's name and her title so already we know a little bit about her but not too much; it's a teaser making us want to know more.  The first two paragraphs are a description of the very tall, dark and handsome stranger so we're in the same situation as Isabella - impressed with what we've 'seen' but we don't know who he is or what he wants or why he's here (more teasing).  In fact Adham's name isn't used until almost the very end of the chapter but before that we find out he's the brother of the man Isabella is engaged to and he tells us some very important things about himself - all of which serve to build a picture of him.  Most of this is achieved via dialogue, in conversation with Isabella and it's cleverly done.  No "Well I'm a man of mystery with a dark past and no room for love in my life because ....well I can't tell you because I'm a man of mystery" sort of thing.  It's what he says and how he says it that we come to know these things about him.  Isabella on the other hand is so easy to relate to because what she wants is simple but by going after it she's potentially caused so many problems and we feel for her.  I'm trying to isolate the words, phrases and tools that Maisey uses to make the reader so empathetic towards Isabella (excellent skill to have).  Again through dialogue we see that Isabella's a woman who understands about honor and duty and we respect that but at the same time she's a human being, not just a pawn and the unfairness of her situation really pulls you in and onto her side.  So by the end of the chapter, although I'm intrigued by Adham, I'm totally with Isabella when she tells him she wants him to go away.  Maisey's written a character I can relate to even though I'm a million miles away from Isabella character-wise.
3. The attraction: It's there, simmering under the surface but complicated by the fact that Isabella doesn't know what it is or what to do with it.  Adham is attracted but she's totally off-limits plus a clumsy attempt at flirting/wheedling by Isabella makes Adham believe she's not a nice girl.  We know why Isabella's feeling what she's feeling even if she doesn't and it made me feel a bit protective of her.  And I know what she's in for once she does know what to do with those feelings.......ooooh the anticipation!!!
4. The back story:  Obviously each of these characters has an entire lifetime of experiences and have made decisions that have led them to being in this place at this time and we want to know about them.  Maisey has offered just a few hints of the past - instead of dumping great paragraphs of back story in the first chapter, they are sprinkled cleverly across the chapter: a line here, a small paragraph there, just enough for us to start to fill in some blanks and also to tantalise us.  We know a little more and as a result we have more questions.  Instead of just asking "who are these two people?" we are now asking "why is she doing this?" and "why is he here?" and "why does he look like that?" and "what happened in his past to make him react like that?" and "what kind of life has she led that she would think that?"  All questions we want answered which means we want to read on.
5. Dialogue: There's a goodly amount of dialogue in the first chapter mixed with descriptions and thoughts and reactions.  Via the dialogue we learn so much about the two characters but more importantly we see how they interact with each other.  His verbal, and non-verbal responses to her and hers to him effectively demonstrate showing and not telling.  He may say "The sky is blue blah blah blah" but he's interrupted her to say it, cutting her off showing us he has little patience, and that he's not happy about why he's there. 
6. Pace: The first chapter moves at quite a clip because Maisey has made us feel how Adham is rushing Isabella.  The theme of time is evident in the chapter.  The amount of time left until the wedding.  The time she wants to take for herself.  The time he is prepared to give her to get out of the room.  The time she needs to convince him to let her stay and so on.  While I never felt rushed, I did feel Isabella's desperation that she wasn't being given the time she wanted as well as the time she needed to make the decisions Adham was demanding of her.
7. A strong likeable Heroine: I do like Isabella.  She is in a position of weakness but she shows us she has backbone and in her situation I'm not sure I could be as self sacrificing so I find her admirable as well.  You've got limited time to ensure your readers relate to your heroine.   If they don't relate few of them will read past the first chapter so there needs to be a balance.  If she's smart mouthed then the back story or the situation needs to give hints as to why; if she's shy we need glimpses of the ballsy chick she hides inside; if she's doing something wrong then we need a few hints as to why she's doing it for the right reasons.  Maisey has done this with Isabella, she's dutiful and honor bound but the feisty girl inside her peeps out for just a moment, long enough to take back her polite greeting and tell him what she really thinks.
8. Conflict:  In this first chapter we see two major conflicts and one minor one.  Major conflict #1: Isabella's internal conflict - what she wants versus what she knows is the 'right' thing to do.  This conflict is set up very neatly: when is it right to do the wrong thing and vice versa beautifully illustrated by Isabella's situation.  Major conflict #2:  Isabella wants to stay and Adham is intent on taking her away - they each have their reasons and each believe they are in the right.  This places them in opposition but they are both able to see things from the other's point of view (if somewhat limited).  Minor conflict: Adham's attraction to Isabella.  It's only minor at the moment but it's there and he knows it's wrong and so do we.  He's determined to do the right thing too so it sets up that whole I-know-what-you're-going-to-do anticipation for the reader.  It's delicious because we suspect it's going to get a whole lot messier very soon - yet another reason to keep turning those pages!
9. The Hook: If you only knew the willpower I have had to exert not to keep going after chapter one!  I think it's a sign of a good book that when you're reading the chapter for "research purposes" and trying to deconstruct what the author has done to make it work so well, that you keep forgetting that's why you're reading it and repeatedly get caught up in the story.  There's a promise made in the first chapter (both literally in this case and metaphorically speaking in other stories).  The literal promise in this case is one that sets up the hook - the thing that makes you want to keep reading.  Will Isabella keep her promise and get what she wants and will Adham keep the promise he made to his brother and the one he made to Isabella?  I need to I will keep reading.  The metaphorical promise the author makes to the reader in the first chapter is this: I promise it will be worth your while to keep reading, it only gets better and better and you will enjoy reading this book.

So I think you will agree that Maisey has ticked all the boxes for a perfect first chapter.  I'm going to read the first chapter a few more times just to see if I pick up even more gems and then I am going to treat myself and read the rest of this book all the way through.  And knowing Maisey and the standard of book she writes, it will be exactly that: a treat.


Maisey said...

Probably I'm a dork for commenting on this, but I really have a serious happy over this post, Elissa. I'm so glad you've enjoyed what you've read of The Inherited Bride. Even happier it's ticked all these boxes!

Elissa Graham said...

I'm really glad you liked it. I treated myself to a few more pages past the first chapter and I'm so loving it. Now if only I can get my first chapter (and all the subsequent ones) to tick the boxes then I'll be a happy camper......except I hate camping......?.....whatever!

And the dork detector didn't go off, so you're cool.

Nas Dean said...

Hi Elissa,

Thanks for this post and for the tips re reading only the first chapter and shredding the whole chapter out and working through, dialogues, plots, the back story, pace, conflict, hook etc.

Elissa Graham said...

You're most welcome Nas, I found it to be a really helpful exercise (best done with a new book so your brain doesn't fill in the blanks).

Aideen said...

Would you believe that I've never actually approached a book like this? Might explain why I'm unpublished I guess. Anyway, excellent post and take it from me, the rest of the book is equally brilliant.


Elissa Graham said...

You're unpublished because your turn hasn't come yet.....but it will! I'm doing everything I can to make sure that this ms is going to be as good as it can be before I sub and this is just one technique I'm using.

I'm using the book as a reward - when I edit to a certain part of the book I'll let myself read some more of it. It's pure torture but I hope it works :)

Jackie Ashenden said...

Just echoing Aideen in that I got to read this book in all its wonderful glory and I know the hard work Maisey put in to make it so great. A great analysis of it too, Elissa!

Talei said...

HI Elissa!

Great post, you've been busy here! ;-) I totally read First Chapters all the time, bookstores, at home, in libraries - its great research and I find it a great exercise to improve my own writing.

Have a lovely week. ;) x

Beth said...

Great blog! You've done a lot of work. Great post.
I'm your newest follower.

Elissa Graham said...

Talei - You're right, first chapters are great research. It's a pity we can't write off buying books as research for tax purposes!

Beth - Welcome aboard and I'm glad you like ;)