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  Lesson 1: Plotting from Chapter 1

The Juggling Act: Plotting from Chapter One

If a novel or book of narrative nonfiction is a juggling act, then one of the most challenging parts of writing the first chapter is getting the balls up into the air. Plot begins not just on the first page, but in the first paragraph.The essential elements of character, setting, inciting action, conflict, and theme need to be present in the beginning.

Timing is everything. How many balls can you launch into the air in chapter one? At what point in the narrative should you bring each ball down?

These are interesting but mind-boggling choices. In terms of the novel as a whole, they are structural choices that will require a great deal of finesse. In terms of the opening, however, your choices will be largely influenced by instinct. What do you feel the reader needs to know now? What can wait?

Waiting is at the very center of the reading experience. Waiting is, in essence, suspense. Waiting gives us pleasure. It is an intellectually satisfying act. We wait because we want to know what happens next.

The good news is that your opening chapter, like every other part of your novel or nonfiction narrative, is open to revision. You'll probably come back to it many times during the course of writing your book. Things that you discover during the writing of the book will later be echoed in the revisions you make to the opening.

One of the biggest changes is likely to have to do with conflict. What appears to you, in your first blush of writing, as a perfect beginning, may later feel too slow. You may discover that you've written a chapter midway through the book that is so explosive and opens up the narrative in such an intriguing way that it deserves to be your opening salvo.

In my latest novel, the original opening was a wedding scene. When I revised the novel, I realized that the wedding scene provided too slow of a build for the kind of novel I wanted to write. I wanted to drop the reader, unprepared, into something unsettling and scary. So I took a later scene, in which a man wakes up, disoriented and bloodied, the only passenger on a tiny aircraft. That became the opening chapter. It's only three pages, but it lets the reader know that this is not a quiet wedding novel. If it were a quiet wedding novel, I would have left the wedding scene at chapter one. By withholding the wedding scene until chapter two, I've attempted to provide the reader with clues to what kind of novel this will be: a novel of psychological suspense.

For now, just keep in mind that the opening paragraphs of your novel or nonfiction book are like the entryway to a home. They should be inviting. They should inspire people to come in, look around. They should include enough clues to let the visitor know what kind of world she is entering, but they shouldn't be so packed with stuff that the visitor gets sensory or information overload.

What A First Chapter Should Accomplish

Let's look a bit more closely at the responsibilities of your first chapter, and, more specifically, your opening paragraphs. What do the opening paragraphs of a novel do?

  • Introduce conflict
  • Establish setting
  • Introduce the protagonist
  • Establish point of view: Who is telling the story? From what distance?
  • Establish tone
  • Indicate the scope of the novel
  • Suggest a theme

While the beginning of the novel may not do all of these things, it must accomplish some of them. Let's look at each item more closely.

The opening chapter must introduce conflict, or at least the promise of conflict.

(Please note that titles that appear in green are Amazon purchase links. None of the linked-to books are required, but links are provided in case you'd like to read the first chapter on Amazon or purchase the books for further study.)

There is no plot without conflict. If every novel begins with trouble, with something out of the ordinary that will challenge our protagonist, then one of the primary responsibilities of an opening chapter is to introduce conflict: the conflict that will drive your plot from the beginning to the end. It may be done subtly, or it may hit you in the face from the first sentence. Either way, the suggestion of conflict should be present.

The Stranger famously begins with a death:

Maman died today, or was it yesterday? I don't remember.

Crime & Punishment begins with our protagonist trying to avoid his landlady:

He was helplessly in debt to his landlady, and was afraid of meeting her.

The setting described on page two heightens the sense that the narrator is suffocating. From this suffocation comes an intensification of the conflict:

The heat in the street was terrible: and the airlessness, the bustle and plaster, scaffolding, bricks, and dust all about him, and that special Petersburg stench, so familiar to all who are unable to get out of town in summer.

The first chapter may establish your setting.

Locating your story in place and time is an essential part of making readers feel that they are entering the narrative on solid footing. Setting naturally includes sensory details, which serve to immediately make the scene more real to the reader.

Shine Shine Shine, by Lydia Netzer, takes us literally out of this world in the first sentence:

Deep in the darkness, there was a tiny light. Inside the light, he floated in a spaceship. It felt cold to him, floating there. Inside his body, he felt the cold of space. He could still look out the round windows of the rocket and see the Earth...

This is one of the most beautiful opening paragraphs I've read in a long time. It is out of the ordinary. It is tactile. There is conflict--boy, is there conflict: a man alone in space. The setting works on a metaphorical level. It elevates the novel from sentence one. Space is vast, and yet, for this moment, we are inside the spaceship, in the darkness with this unnamed man. It is as if the camera lens has floated through all of space to come to this one point, "a tiny light."

The Emigrants, by W.G. Sebald, opens with a more Earthly description of the town of Hingham:

For some 25 kilometers the road runs amidst fields and hedgerows, beneath spreading oak trees, past a few scattered hamlets, till at length Hingham appears, its asymmetrical gables, church tower and treetops barely rising above the flatland.

Sebald then goes on to describe the house that the narrator is going to rent with his wife Clara.

The door was painted black and on it was a knocker in the shape of a fish.

So specific, so memorable: that door knocker shaped like a fish!

I would advise against writing pages (or even paragraphs) of setting at the beginning of the novel. Instead, give us setting in a sentence or two or three, so that we feel grounded but not bored. (Yes, I said it, the dirty word of plot: bored. Don't bore your reader!) Too much setting at the very beginning (of course, there are plenty of exceptions to this) may slow the novel down too much at that crucial moment when you want the reader to feel desperate to turn the page.

The opening paragraphs usually introduce the reader to the protagonist.

All great long form narratives are character driven, a premise that we'll discuss further in our section on character. For now, just remember that when readers open a novel, they want to know pretty early on whom to root for. The protagonist usually appears in the first chapter, maybe even the first sentence.

Richard Bausch's terrific novel The Last Good Time begins:

On the outskirts of a great northern city there lived an old man who kept a small apartment, alone, because that was the way his life had gone...He was retired, he lived on a monthly pension check from the city's symphony orchestra...

How much we learn about Cake in these few sentences! Bausch doesn't describe his hair or his clothes or his voice. The descriptions are less about appearance, and more about the very essence of Cake. In this opening paragraph, we feel that we know the man, the retired symphony man who is full of surprises.

Moby Dick opens with a clear, strong, presentation of a protagonist.

Call me Ishmael.

Instantly, we know who is speaking. In those three words, there is already a sense of the protagonist's voice. He is conversational. He is going to tell us a story. We are instantly invited to come along for the ride. Those three words also create suspense: who is this guy, Ishmael, and why is he speaking directly to us?

Give us a strong character, and you've given us the promise, or at least the possibility, of a strong plot. You've given us a reason to turn the page.

The opening establishes point of view.

One of the most important decisions you will make in your novel is the point of view. Who is telling the story, from what distance? Your choice will be one of the following

  • A first-person narrator who is at the center of the action
  • An omniscient narrator who is able to go into the thoughts of any character at any time
  • A limited third person narration that sticks closely to one character
  • A second person narrator, speaking directly to the reader (this p.o.v. is rarely used, and it's quite difficult to pull off)

In The Stranger, we are able to empathize with the protagonist, Mersault, despite his seeming coldness, in large part because the first-person narration brings the reader straight into Mersault's mind. We understand his motivations from his own point of view, and, as a result, actions that might otherwise seem reprehensible begin to make sense to us.

I find that the best point of view tends to be the one that feels most natural to the writer. Think of the novels you enjoy. Are most of them limited third person, first person, omniscient? The kind of novel you are drawn to will offer clues for the kind of novel you want to write.

The opening paragraphs establish tone, scope, and style.

Tone is all about attitude. What is the implied relationship between the speaker and his subject? Here are a few possible tones a novel may take. You can think of many more as you consider novels you've read and admired.

Formal (Marcel Proust, Swann's Way)

Informal (Richard Bausch, The Last Good Time)

Somber (Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle, Book One)

Jocular (Nick Hornby, How to Be Good)

Inquisitive (William Gay, The Long Home)

Nervous (Ellen Sussman, The Paradise Guest House)

Menacing (Marisha Pessl, Night Film)

Intimate (Mary Gaitskill, Veronica)

Removed (Ian McEwan, On Chesil Beach)

The opening paragraphs naturally indicate the scope and style of the novel.

  • Will it be chilling, like John le Carre's The Spy Who Came in From the Cold?
  • Will it be uncomfortably intimate, like Mary Gaitskill's Veronica?
  • Will it be political, like Louise Erdrich's The Round House or Ismael Kadare's The General of the Dead Army?
  • Will it be epic, like Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See?
  • Will it be operatic, like Anne Patchett's Bel Canto?
  • Will it be scandalous, like Robert Coover's Spanking the Maid?

The Opening Pages Establish the Ground Rules of the Novel

The opening chapter of If On a Winter's Night a Traveler, by Italo Calvino, alerts us to the fact that this will be a meta-fictional novel, to be read in a different manner than the manner in which one would read a more realistic novel (although every novel, by its very nature, must contain elements of realism in the form of verisimilitude).

Calvino begins with a direct address to the reader. The author speaks as himself about the experience of reading the novel.

The novel goes on to break every basic rule of the novelistic construct. It is in fact comprised of ten different novels, each with a different plot, author, and yes, style; each interrupted at a suspenseful moment, not completed.

Calvino gets away with it because he is a master of language, suspense, and innovation. But part of what makes the novel successful, despite (or because of) its utter strangeness, is the fact that the ground rules are clear from the beginning. The rules as established in the very first paragraph are: this novel will break every rule.

It is successful because we are not suddenly ripped away, in chapter three or four, from the fictional dream of the novel. From the beginning, we have been aware that the fictional dream would be interrupted, that the reading of the novel itself is the dream, that we are in the hands of someone who is not going to lead us along an ordinary path.

The Opening Pages May Suggest a Theme

Your opening paragraphs may introduce a theme, either directly or indirectly. When it comes to theme, I generally tell my students not to think about it too much when you begin writing the novel. Write the story, and the themes will begin to emerge. Theme is intricately related to plot, just as plot is intricately related to character. It's all intertwined. That said, when a theme makes itself known to you in the very beginning, it's a beautiful thing. You will then have that theme in the back of your mind through all of your days of writing, and it will probably help to keep your novel on track.

A Note on Fiction vs. Nonfiction

Whether you're writing a novel or narrative nonfiction, your attention to the elements of narrative craft and to the workings of plot will be much the same. The difference, of course, lies in the facts, or in the lack thereof. When you write a novel, of course, you're making up the events of your plot. If you're writing narrative nonfiction, the story exists already, in some form, by virtue of its being factually true. In both cases, you'll be making choices about which true things to reveal at what time, and how to best dramatize them.

With nonfiction, you'll be deciding which real-life characters deserve a spot in your story, and who will be portrayed as your protagonist. If you're writing memoir, the protagonist is likely you. What you won't be doing, if you're writing memoir or investigative journalism or some other type of narrative nonfiction, is making stuff up. There's plenty of discussion about how much leeway is too much leeway, but my feeling is that if you call it nonfiction, it ought to be true! Anything less is playing fast and loose with your reader's trust. (Mary Karr has plenty to say on this subject in The Art of Memoir).

For those of you writing memoir, I highly recommend The Situation and the Story, by Vivian Gornick. Among the many gems of wisdom in this short book is this:

What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense that the writer is able to make of what happened.

If you think that already having a ready-made set of events frees you from the necessity of constructing plot, think again. You must still construct a plot, one that is both emboldened by and limited by the actual events that occurred. But beyond that, the memoirist has a particular duty, more so than the fiction writer I think, to make sense of those events.

Throughout this course, when I say "novel," you may also substitute the words "narrative nonfiction." Because what we are concerned with for the next eight weeks is narrative craft, in particular craft as it relates to plot; and all of those things that go into a novel must also go into making a true narrative: characterization, setting, dialogue, structure, pacing, plot, style, etc.

Final Thoughts

In her illuminating text Wired for Story, Lisa Cronn writes:

When we pick up a book, we're jonesing for the feeling that something out of the ordinary is happening. We crave the notion that we've come in at a crucial juncture in someone's life, and not a moment too soon. What intoxicates us is the hint that not only is trouble brewing, but it's longstanding and about to reach critical mass.

What struck me most about Cronn's observation is the idea of coming to a story at a moment that is "out of the ordinary." When the reader approaches the first page, there needs to be a definite sense that it is not business as usual.

As a reader, one of the most frustrating experiences is getting to page seven or eight and still wondering, "Why am I reading this? What is special about this moment? Why does this story have to be told at this particular time?" So as you proceed with the opening chapters of your novel or nonfiction narrative, think about what makes this story feel necessary at this moment. What is out of the ordinary? What makes this story worth of being read?