Thursday, October 11, 2012

Good First Chapters Hide Their 'Tells'

In poker, a ‘tell’ is a change in your opponent’s demeanor that gives a signal to what is held in his hand. It’s important as a writer to realize we also have tells. I’ve noticed this phenomenon in some of the first chapters of the manuscripts I’ve been critiquing lately, and it made me realize something fundamental about starting a novel: every novel must begin as two stories.

When we sit down to put the first indent on the first page of chapter one, there’s a desire to get to the meat of our tale: the instigating event, the bizarre coincidence, the arrival of the mysterious stranger. We want to draw our readers into the amazing journey we’ve planned for them, and so it’s easy to focus singularly on setting the stage to get there. Often what gets left by the wayside is something that should be equally compelling, and that’s our main character’s other day, the one they were supposed to have, before this author jerk butted in and ruined everything with the alien invasion or the visit from the vampire hippy cousin.

Often, I’ll read characters who don’t really have any other plans, other than to be swept to another planet. The ‘tell’ is that the author didn’t bother to make any for them, because the author knew from word one that there wouldn’t be pep rally at 2:15 in the quad. So what was the point of giving them dreams, aspirations, appointments that they would never be able to make? But really, our main character’s other day, the prosaic boring ordinary one, should be just as compelling as the one they get thrust into. It’s this very day that distinguishes a fully-developed and compelling character from a passive, flaccid, acted-upon one. In our excitement to dazzle with whiz-bang plot complications rather than day-to-day minutia, we hobble the person hefting the weight of our story: the protagonist.

So what would YOUR protagonist be doing if the world hadn’t ended at 10:11 a.m.? Do you know?


  1. You make a very valid point. The mc needs a goal before the knife wielding blackbird men send her running for her life, even if it's only getting her mother to stop planning her wedding.

  2. Great post Sean. One thing that always grabs me in a good book is when the protag is someone we meet and we develop a bond with. That's what chap 1 is about. Bonding. Seeing if we like them. Getting to know them and slowly discovering something strange is afoot in their life, which the day BEFORE had been mundane.

    Very thought-provoking. Thanks Sean!