Monday, July 2, 2012

Nobody Reads A Book To Get To The Middle

By Reece Hirsch

The first chapter of a crime novel is tricky because there are so many things that the writer typically wants to accomplish in a short space that it’s easy for the thing to get cluttered or out-of-balance.

            Ideally, the first chapter should:

(1)               introduce the principal character and begin getting the reader interested in who they are (without bogging the chapter down with too much backstory);

(2)              establish the tone or voice of the story (without neglecting the plot);

(3)              “set the hook” for the plot by providing a precipitating event that will propel the story forward (without neglecting the characters); and

(4)               draw the reader into a unique or interesting world that you seem to know (without spending too much time downloading your research).

And I know that this sounds terribly formulaic, but in a crime novel it never hurts to kill someone off in the first chapter.

I tried to balance these elements as best I could in the first chapter of my first book.  You can judge for yourself whether it worked, by checking out my Goodreads page, where you can either read the chapter or hear me read it in a YouTube video:

As I was completing my second book, I began with a chapter that similarly tried to check all of the proper boxes.  But then I decided to add a new first chapter fairly late in the writing that now precedes the more traditional first chapter.  The principal character doesn’t appear until chapter two now and all of the boxes are not checked, but I believe that the new chapter creates a sense of threat and stakes that needed to be in the reader’s mind moving forward through the book.

Lately, I’ve been constantly dipping into “The Secret Miracle:  The Novelist’s Handbook,” edited by Daniel Alarcon, in which 54 excellent writers provide brief responses to a series of questions, including “What Should A First Chapter Accomplish?”  Here are a few of the responses that I particularly liked:

Michael Chabon:  “It should render the reader helpless to do anything but read on.”

Colm Toibin:  “A novel’s job is to hit the reader’s nervous system.  The job of a first chapter is to get this going.  Nothing else.”

George Pellecanos:  “From the author’s standpoint, reading it should inspire you to continue writing and push on.  You should look at it and say, I’ve got something here.   I’m not talking about that the-first-paragraph-of-the-novel-should-hook-the-reader bullshit.  [Note:  see above for that.]  I’m saying, the voice should be strong and it should be compelling.” 

Paul Auster:  “… I feel it is imperative that the writer get down to business quickly and draw the reader in to such a degree that he or she will not want to stop.  I once ran into the crime writer Mickey Spillane at a book fair in Sweden.  In his gruff barroom manner, he said something that has stayed with me ever since:  ‘Nobody reads a book to get to the middle.’"

Andrew Sean Greer:  “It should make the deal with the reader in terms of tone, imagery, scope, and theme.  If it’s a magical story, for instance, there should be a little flash-powder on the horizon.”

Now take Greer’s quote and (1) substitute “crime” for “magical” and (2) replace “flash-powder” with “gun powder,” and I think you have something that we can work with here at Criminal Minds.


Meredith Cole said...

I love Michael Chabon's quote “It should render the reader helpless to do anything but read on.” One of my biggest thrills is hearing from readers that I kept them up all night because they had to finish...

Reece said...

I agree, Meredith, that is absolutely the best thing about getting a book published.