Friday, April 22, 2011


In my last post, I wrote about killer endings for chapters.

Another thing I've been trying to pay attention to in my own reading is how authors start their chapters and what techniques really pull me in.

I noticed a great one while reading To Kill a Mockingbird this past winter. (For the first time!) Now, TKaM exemplifies many writerly skills to engage the reader, not the least among them, create characters who are real, flawed, and who you can't help cherishing. But for now, I'm just concentrating on this one thing that really stood out for me: you don't have to start a chapter at the beginning. Instead you can start it after some action is already underway.

That's counterintuitive to me as a writer-funny, how so many of my lessons in learning to become a better writer have to do with throwing out what initially makes sense. Case in point: it doesn't make sense to confuse your readers. This is true, and so you might then think: Well, I should start at the beginning; if I throw the reader into a scene that has already begun, they won't know where they are or who's there with them. They'll be lost; being lost is scary; they'll be angry at the one who got them all confused, frightened, and lost-like; they'll throw the book across the room and let the cats gnaw on the corners.
But, it turns out, sometimes plunking your reader abruptly into a scene can work. And work brilliantly.

Here are a nice example from the start of chapter 9:

"You can just take that back, boy!"
This order, given by me to Cecil Jacobs, was the beginning of a rather thin time for Jem and me. My fists were clenched and I was ready to let fly. Atticus had promised me he would wear me out if he ever heard of me fighting any more; I was far too old and too big for such childish things, and the sooner I learned to hold in , the better off everybody would be. I soon forgot.
Cecil Jacobs made me forget.

We know hardly anything about the setting. Are Scout and Cecil inside or outside? Are they alone or surrounded by other children? Maybe there are adults there too? And most importantly, we don't know what Cecil has said that's pissed Scout off. And that not-knowing is a large part of the force that drives the reader on. (So much the better that Harper Lee's also got the humor-drive and the Scout-drive going at the same time.) Had Lee explained it all chronologically, it would have been flat in comparison.

Lee only uses this particular method of pulling the reader in a couple other times in the book. Which probably speaks to not overusing any one technique. Significantly, she employs it in the first chapter:

When he was nearly thirteen, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow. ...
When enough years had gone by to enable us to look back on them, we sometimes discussed the events leading to his accident. I maintain that the Ewells started it all, but Jem, who was four years my senior, said it started long before that. He said it began the summer Dill came to us, when Dill first gave us the idea of making Boo Radley come out.

And right off the bat we have mystery: what happened? how did it start? who's Dill? making Boo Radley come out from where, and who is Boo anyway? That's a lot of questions for the first two paragraphs, but those lot of questions motivate us to keep reading so we get the answers.

My own opening raises a lot of questions as well. And many of my writing workshop readers haven't liked that. My guess is that if the writing is good enough, and you start answering some of those questions right away, they'll stick around. So, in the end, I'm suggesting we provoke questions, but have our characters, language, setting strong enough that those questions create reader-quests, rather than reader-confusion.

And now I'm off to make my writing good enough for the questions I want to raise.


Jon said...

"Make your writing good enough for the questions you want raised."

That's a good mantra

Qlaudie said...

This is great, Lisa, and since I'm in my 2nd draft - and forming chapters is a big part of what I'm up to... timely too!
I'm fond of the technique, and I realize that good authors use it often.
I'm re-reading Martin's Storm of Swords right now, and he'll leave a character in a tense moment where they've just, say, learned some important, shocking piece of information - but then the next time we see that character, they're in the middle of a battle, and it isn't until the battle is over that he'll go back and explain their reaction to the information, and the fallout from what they've learned. In this way, I think he propels the book forward more effectively, especially because he switches POV so much. I think if he continued with the character right where he left off, it would feel stagnant, like they were standing still the whole time, waiting for us to come back to them.
Moving forward with my draft, I'm trying to allow myself to jump around a little more: be less linear.