Monday, August 29, 2011

My “First Four Chapters” rule

Just recently there's something I've been noticing about my writing habits that (for some strange reason) I find extremely fascinating. It is the fact that my stories have (quite unconsciously – or perhaps subconsciously – on my part) started to form a stylistic pattern within the writing. Now, every writer has their own style of writing… or (if you are beginning writer) you will eventually develop your own style of writing with practice. Often times, writers think of "style" as simply word choice and a type of character development... perhaps your style revolves around short, concise prose, or your style is more first person rather than third person. *shrug* However, what I think we often overlook is story structure, which can be especially overlooked by pantsters (including me) who write almost everything straight off the top of their heads and try not to over-think plotline, character-development, and story building in the general sense. Pantsters don't plan story structure… we just take off. It's my belief that a book should be written as if it's being read; otherwise much of the excitement and mystery is taken out. (Outliners will probably argue with me. And don't get me wrong either… I totally respect outlining; I just don't do it well with creative writing.)

What does all this have to do with style though?

Now that's interesting. I'm a pantster talking about story structure and trying to relate it to style. Sound a bit ironic to you?

But the deal is – I've discovered that my subconscious has created a type of patterning story structure for my WIP's even though I write most things straight off the top of my head. I've only just (like within the last two weeks) started to take note of these patterns and they seem to largely accumulate in the first four chapters. So, being the extremely creative person that I am, I've decided to call the patterns my "First Four Chapters" rule.

Quite the original title, if I must say so myself. What, what?! *strikes basil stag-hare pose*

Here's how it works:

(And please note before we go much farther that these observations aren't actual "rules" to write by so much as they are consistent patterns that my writing seems to follow. I refer to them as "rules" because the occurrence has happened over the span of three to four rough drafts and revisions of different stories. Therefore I assume that these are patterns that my writings will continue to follow into the future, even though the act of following them may be subconscious. That is also why I refer to these patterns as "structures" in my stories, and associate them with my writing style. Just sayin'.)

We'll start with the first chapter.

In the first chapter I usually meet my characters where they are in that point of their lives. It's not always convenient for them, or completely normal, but it usually is where their stories start.

For instance, in SOTD, we first meet Curron in a tavern where he was called on as extra help, even though he usually works in the stable – this is also where he first sees Caellahn and overhears an interesting and dangerous conversation. In Eldrei, we meet my MC Tibain when he's having a sparing lesson in the early evening behind his house; as he and his guardian, Dakore, go back to the house, they are informed that some men (who are being rather secretive) have come to talk with Tibain's guardian, Dakore… which hardly ever happens. In The Spinner's Apprentice we find Aura and Ganeff (my rover MC and her supporting character) preparing to sack a merchant cart when a fae lord suddenly appears in front of them.

I continue working on the first chapter by building a setting and creating an Enabling Problem around my character and his (or her) actions, adding some shallow back story to the conflict – nothing too deep right yet; just enough that (hopefully) my characters and their problems start to feel solidified in the readers' minds. (Actually, in two of my stories, this has been accomplished with the main character listening in on a conversation he wasn't really supposed to hear… which is difficult if you eliminate most of the MC's sense of sight. <_<)

At this point in the story, I'm being descriptive, but I'm also trying not to reveal too much… especially about the main character: I don't want to give everything away right off the bat… instead, I want to build up a sort of mystery around them, just giving out enough information at the start that (hopefully) the reader starts to get interested in the character. I will work in more information as the story progresses, revealing more and more about the characters and the plot until finally the story ends with the last chapter. I want to have my MC's personality and back-story unfold with his choices and actions over the course of the story, leaving some mystery and intrigue in the first few chapters so as to encourage the reader to continue to the end of the book.

Of course, most of these goals are subconscious at the time I start writing, and so the actual process of writing the first chapter is not nearly as complicated as this post is making it appear. <_<

However, I have run into trouble in the past with the fact that I want to leave the majority of my MC's history in obscurity while I'm writing the first chapter. This is because (as readers have told me) I seem to describe outward details and the history of supporting characters as seen through my MC's eyes, rather than expounding on my main character and his (or her) plight within the first 3 – 5 pages. Instead, it would seem that I try to show my character's personality through actions and thought throughout the first chapter, rather than subtly included back story right away… or, if I do include back-story in the first chapter, it's revealed mostly through my MC's thoughts, rather than having it given to the reader in order for the reader to picture the character. (Does this make sense? Or is it just repetitive? O.o) According to what I've noted in my own writings as well as a few other books that I've read, this is not necessarily a bad style to follow, but apparently it is a rather complicated one. Unfortunately it also (apparently) means that it's harder for readers to relate to my MC's problems right off the bat. I'm working to remedy this little quandary, and hopefully before long I will have found the perfect balance between back-story and mystery.

I guess the easiest way to say it would be that I "set up" for the story in the first chapter, meeting my characters where they are in that point of their lives, and then I work on from there. Chapter one is also usually "lighter and brighter" than chapter 2 and 3 (as you will see in a minute).

On to the second chapter.

(My explanation of the first one was getting a bit confuzzling. If it confuses you, don't pay too much attention to it… Some of you know how it is when you are a writer… things happen in your story and during the writing process that you aren't exactly sure how they came about, or why, or how to explain them. *head-desk* Yeah… I'm pretty much your average aspiring author. ;D)

Moving on! ^_^

It's in the second chapter that I start to work in more character-background and I really start to give my MC a hard time. Another pattern that I've noticed in my stories is that there always seems to be an enabling problem at the beginning of the story that forces my characters into action. The "Enabling Problem" is a crisis set up at the start of the story that will end up compelling my character to drive the story forward, and that will also eventually force my character to pick up the mantle of Hero or Heroine for the book. (Usually my characters aren't quite there at the beginning of the book… building a hero or heroine from the ground up is not always easy, but it's so worth it. ;D)

While the REAL plight (and plot) of the story might be touched upon within the first chapter, it isn't really expounded upon until a bit later when my MC is (usually forced into) the thick of things. However, the Enabling Problem thickens within the second chapter and really helps to develop my character's personality and motive; it's usually (and subtly) introduced towards the end of the first chapter, and then builds up in the second chapter until something happens. Rather like one of those rubber-band boats I used to make as a kid with note-cards… the tension winds tighter and tighter until it can't wind any farther and either the rubber-band breaks, therefore disabling the boat, or the boat suddenly shoots forward in the water. My goal with the Enabling Problem is to use it in order for make my characters move farther into the story.

Make sense so far?

After all, you'll never really know a person until you've seen how they handle conflict and tension. Or, as my Grandpa would tell me, "If you REALLY want to get to know a guy, steal his wallet." How a person handles
conflict says a whole lot about their character and personality. And, as many writers know, conflict is also the most effective (and fun) way to move a story forward. It's also a great way to reveal certain traits about your characters that otherwise might not have been noted. The closer to the beginning of the story that these traits are revealed, the less likely that they will suddenly appear out of no-where when your character hits tension later in the book.

Believe me, I've read books that do just that. The character seems good, strong, sometimes even level headed… and then, maybe 6, 7… maybe even 9 to 10 chapters in, conflict hits and the character explodes. This just makes me feel like the character wasn't really thought through. By introducing tension at the beginning, you are actually subtly introducing character traits and personality traits to the reader so that they won't be overly surprised later on, and by the end of your book, they will feel satisfied with your character.

Besides, conflict and tension is fun to write and it induces action. No matter what reaction your character has to the problem at hand, it's what they do about the problem that moves the story. Sometimes (perhaps most of the time) my characters act out in the wrong way, thus forcing themselves into a different (maybe even dire) situation that sets up for the third chapter. (Sorry guys, but I do find it intriguing to torture my characters… They hate me for it, I know, but I just can't help it! *cue evil laugh* ;D)

So yeah… basically my second chapter = a serious problem rising up that forces my character into action and helps build up his personality within the story's setting. Usually he/she reacts to the problem in a way that causes more trouble for him/her.

There is also some more back-story worked in throughout (of course… because remember, I'm still trying to get the reader to relate with the character and care about him/her. Eh… I'm still working out the kinks. <_< But if you want an example of back-story done well in the second chapter, check out "The Fellowship of the Ring" by J.R.R. Tolkien.)

Now for the third Chapter:

My third chapter is where the enabling problem gets really serious and bad (think darkest hour, terrifying, you-would-wet-yourself-if-you-were-my-story's-character sort of stuff). Sometimes (actually, a lot of the time it would seem) the end of the second chapter gets much darker and more dangerous in order to prepare the reader for the third chapter. In other words, I (as the writer) buckle down and start writing the Enabling Problem into a rockin' climax. So you might actually say that in reality this step in my writing process happens over the course of two chapters.

However, whether it's my character totally and completely freaking himself out in the dungeon as he awaits his execution and remembers the horrific lynching of his guardian (as is the case with SOTD), or my characters running for their lives through the black of night with hungry (and angry) demon fire-wolves on their trail (Eldrei), or my MC trapped in a tiny box of a wagon in pitch darkness as a Living Nightmare tries to get in at her while her best friend fights the creature for both his and her life (The Spinner's Apprentice), my third chapters always contain the worst, darkest, and/or most dangerous part of the enabling problem. Always. I haven't quite figured out why yet. <_< But the pattern has remained unbroken for three stories, so I'm assuming it's something I do quite subconsciously, and I'm also assuming it's something that will probably continue to happen in further books.

Yet even though I don't understand how I always seem to have my Enabling Problem's climax fall on the third chapter, I do know this: sometimes you have to take your character into the darkest recesses of their minds in order to show readers who they really are. And much like with the second chapter and building the tension, it's best to reveal at least some of these character traits near the beginning of the story. You don't have to make them completely obvious (I don't think I've ever even tried to do that… <_<). You don't even have to have all of them out in the open… in fact, I highly suggest that you leave some reactions and thoughts for the later moments in the story when your character falls into the deepest darkest pit of despair and is being beset upon by his/her own personal demons… After all, the best part of this process is that with a dynamic character, your characters responses can change over the course of the story, or can at least become more developed and in-depth. The responses of people in real life are constantly changing and growing as time passes, so why not have the same thing happen with your characters?

Also, upon reaching the climax of the Enabling Problem, my character usually must make some sort of choice, and that choice will continue to push the story forward (like with the rubber-band boat).

So to sum up – chapter 3 = Enabling Problem's climax which serves two purposes: forcing my character into a dark, tight spot… and forcing them to make a choice which will ultimately lead into the rest of the story and the story's One Prominent Issue. (You know… that one huge problem that you build your whole story around… that one big problem that your character must eventually fix… that one. ;D)

Then, with the third chapter finished, I can start work on the fourth chapter of course.

The forth chapter may start out dark as I ease into it from the third chapter, but it usually lightens up a bit somewhere in the middle, when the Enabling Problem is (momentarily) resolved and the character is forced to move on into the story's much more Prominent Issue. This always happens differently, of course; no two stories are the same, or ever will be. Sometimes the Enabling Problem remains resolved for the entire story and that's the end of it. And sometimes (as is the case with Eldrei) the Enabling Problem is just a smaller piece of the Prominent Issue, and must be brought back later in the story in order for it to be resolved. Whatever the case is, my fourth chapter always works on resolving the Enabling Problem and moving the character forward into their initial role in the story. (You know which one… that role that you have sitting there waiting for your character to pick up… usually he/or she doesn't know about it at first and then certain events happen that force your character to pick up that role and become the hero/heroine [or perhaps villain/villainess] by the end of the book? That role. :D)

So, chapter 4 = resolved Enabling Problem and character moving forward to pick up the mantle of the hero/heroine of the story.

After that, I really have no plan. <_< As a pantster, I allow my story to unfold however it will. And even with these four seeming and subconscious "rules" guiding me through the first four chapters of my book and helping me with character building and setting and initial plotting, I still don't usually know what's going to happen from chapter 1 to chapter 2, or from there on out. Sometimes I write out notes to help me brainstorm ideas, and sometimes I journal my ideas down on paper (I almost never go anywhere without a notebook and a pencil.) Most of the time, however, I just sit down and start to write. If I already have a rough draft of the story, then I use that as a basic guide to help me work through the story's problems and pot-holes, and to continue to build up the story and setting into a believable world. If, however, I'm working on a brand new story… then I just start writing and it's almost like I'm watching a very detailed and complicated movie unfold before my eyes.

I didn't write this post trying to be all that instructive, or to establish any sort of new writing "rules" that should be followed. Rather, I just wanted to document something that I've been noticing in consistence within my own writings. I hope the information can be helpful, but if you are having trouble working through all of it, don't worry!! ^_^ Sometimes my thoughts can be confusing, I know: I have to live with them. ;) So if it seems like I started rambling and you can't work through the mess, just ignore it. I don't mind.

But to those of you who can understand it, I hope it is helpful as you continue studying the processes involved in creative writing.

Happy Writing All!!! *salutes writing friends with an elvish bow*



Galadriel said...

Very interesting. You definately have more structure in your work than I do.

Star-Dreamer said...

lol! ^_^ Not on purpose!!! But thank you. ;D

Jake said...

Great post!

While I do have a bit of similarity with my first few chapters (in all of my novels, my MC starts out in relatively normal life, etc.) I seem to veer from what I've done before and run to a different path.

While all of my stories have an inciting incident, they all like to manifest in different ways. In my first trilogy (y'know, those books shrouded and mystery and dust, probably going to stay that way), I started out the first book with the main character disappearing from his home after getting lost. In the second, a New Guy Comes to Town, and the MC kills a dangerous beastie. In the third, my character's father is presumed dead. Etc.

Basically, my writing likes to be different than things I've written before. I have two different styles of writing first person, and developing a third "modern teen" first-person POV.

One last point to this long post; while I like the idea of keeping an MC shrouded in mystery, it doesn't seem to pay for me in most of my mian characters. Sure, I can have a mysterious supporting character, but since I'm in someone's head, they know all about themselves, right? Showing backstory (note the lack of telling there; telling and I are mortal enemies, and telling backstory makes me wince) is one of my favorite ways to flesh out a main character.

Star-Dreamer said...

Ah yes! :) Good points, Jake!

I never do the same things with my books either... they all start off differently and they all have differently plots and stories that they follow. In fact, they are all quite different with very few (if any) similarities... other than the fact that I seem to write my first four chapters like this: you know, meet them, enabling crisis, dark hour, move the story forward into the next part.... (Hmmm... I wonder if that makes sense?)

Showing backstory is what is difficult. *nods* especially with SOTD. I'm working on revising a bit of chapter one right now to reveal more of Curron's backstory, (because I posted it over at a forum called "writeoncon" several weeks ago, and got about 6 or 7 reviews all stating that they felt like they needed to get to know Curron closer to the beginning... get to know his predicament and history) and I'm finding out just how extremely tricky such a thing can be. But hopefully I will get to post a piece of it soon so that I can see what you guys think. ;)

Imogen said...

I love how your story naturally structures itself. have to admit that any sort of planning or structure makes me feel queasy (not including natural structure). I'm an out and out pantser.

Backstory is probably one of the hardest things for me. It's easy at the moment for me to keep my main character a secret, but there's so much backstory that has to be show gradually. It doesn't help that I don't know much backstory either. Ah the joys of being an outright pantser.

Anyway, I really enjoyed reading your post!

Philip Nelson said...

I try to write what I've got, whether it's outline level only or detailed scenes. When I do that, I find creativity "back-filling" the space left by what I just got out of me into writing, and I have more I can write.

I also find it helpful to work on multiple projects in parallel: if I get tired on one, I can let it rest and work on another one. When I get back around to the first project, it's fresher to me, and I find I have more to write.

I don't know how that correlates to a "pantser"; I never heard of that word until now. :) But I like to outline and create histories.