Construction of a Novel: Chapter One

So it’s been a while since my last ‘Construction of a Novel’ post, but that’s mainly because it’s taken me some time to get the opening chapter finished. I’ve been working on several short stories and haven’t been able to give the new novel my full attention. But I finally completed the first chapter and figured it was time for the next in this series of posts.

First chapters are tricky. They have to grab the reader from the outset. They have to introduce major characters and the novel’s setting. They have to provide some insight into the conflict to come. They have to set up all the pieces and put them in motion. And they have to keep the reader hooked to the end and eager for the next chapter. (I guess all chapters have to fulfill that last part, but I think it’s most important in the opening chapter. If readers don’t begin to invest emotionally in the characters and start to enjoy the world and scenario you’re setting up, why should they carry on with the rest of the book?)

I hope I’ve managed to achieve all this in my opening chapter. I’m pretty pleased with it at the moment, although there might be elements to tweak later on. I’m highly invested in these characters now and I know I have to stick with them for the long run.  I’m realising I have a lot of elements to juggle here. It’s spec fic, but it’s set in this world. It’s sci-fi, but it deals with deep, emotive, human issues. It takes lots of ideas that I’ve long wanted to write about and puts them all into one melting pot, which is a little daunting at this stage. But exciting… I’m enjoying writing about these things and looking forward to the elements I have yet to introduce. (Even if I’m occasionally struck by the thought that I’m writing a science fiction coming-of-age government conspiracy thriller – HOLY CRAP WHAT AM I DOING?! Deep breath.)

I have a dedicated notebook for this one, which I started a couple of weeks ago. During my last novel, my desk was awash with notes. Random pages, bunched paper, hastily-jotted points, scribbled maps, a detailed timeline of events, character profiles, dates, blah, blah, blah. This time I’m determined to be more organised and a single bound book in which I can scrawl whenever I need to seemed much more sensible. Plus I can take it anywhere and instantly have all my notes to hand. Also… notebooks are wondrous and I’m delighted to have an excuse to have a new one on the go.

So that’s chapter one. My characters are already going through some scary stuff. And argh… so am I.

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Emotional Resonance

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the connection between fiction and emotion. It seems that really, when you peel back all the layers of style and genre and character and plot, the main reason we read is to feel something. To feel something that we don’t necessarily feel in our everyday lives, or to feel something that we wouldn’t want to feel in our everyday lives, but enjoy experiencing through the safe medium of fiction. The horror genre is one I’ve never really understood, because I don’t consider fear an enjoyable feeling. (There’s an irony in the fact that my first published fiction piece fits the label of psychological horror… I didn’t set out to write a scary story, but it sort of evolved that way.) But then I realised that sadness, anxiety, disappointment, shock and anger aren’t enjoyable feelings either, yet I love a story that immerses me in those emotions.

I think horror bothers me because fear isn’t an emotion that I want to be left with when I walk away from the story. I do get immersed in good fiction. It stays with me, and I’m not great at separating fiction-induced feelings from reality-induced ones (is there even a difference?). So a scary movie will make me jumpy and nervous for a while afterwards, despite my rational mind’s protestations, and I hate that. But a sad story can have the same effect, and I don’t mind it nearly as much. Perhaps that’s connected to the fact that a good cry is therapeutic… I don’t know. Maybe there’s no rational reason for my preferences.

But I do want stories that make me feel. Stories that immerse me in wonder, joy, love or hilarity. Stories that leave me reeling, pull the rug out from under me, tear my heart out. It’s no coincidence that my favourite book is one that wrecks me every time I read it. (Fool’s Fate by Robin Hobb, if you’re interested.) Fiction that lacks emotion is fiction that often falls flat. The writing might be superb, it might have a killer hook and watertight plot, it might have a fabulous setting, but if I don’t feel anything for the characters and their situation, it’s missing a crucial element.

I’m not sure why this isn’t discussed more in writing circles. There’s a mass of advice on plot construction, character development, world building, dialogue structure, pitfalls to avoid, voice, style, grammar, word choice, editing techniques, first sentences, last sentences, how much to write in a day, what time of day to write, whether or not to wear your lucky socks, writing with the door closed or open?, etc, etc, ad infinitum. But I don’t think I’ve ever read any advice on the importance of packing an emotional punch and how best to achieve that. (I’m sure someone will find me just such an article and link it now, but I’ve yet to come across it.) Maybe it’s not something you can describe or teach. Maybe you just have to find it on your own. Some writers are certainly better at it than others.

I’ve been watching Channel 4’s TV drama of Ken Follett’s World Without End, which I read when it came out a few years ago. I really like Ken Follett’s books. He may not be the world’s greatest writer, but he’s a magnificent storyteller. He writes superb characters and creates some of the most loathsome antagonists you’ll ever read. I’ve read his books with a constant feeling of sickening doom as the baddies continually manipulate their way through and destroy good people along the way (things always turn out right in the end, but he doesn’t half put everyone through the wringer first). I was watching the latest episodes the other night and it struck me that one of the reasons his stories are so good is purely because of that intense emotional punch. It’s painful watching Prior Godwyn lie, cheat, and worm his way into power – literally destroying lives along the way – but somehow that pain and dread keeps you hooked. And when good things finally happen to the good people, the payoff is that much bigger because of all the hardship and bitter disappointment on the way.

Is that the key? The full spectrum of emotion? Horror stories always start with everything all bright and lovely, just so they can tear it all away. If it was horrible at the beginning, what happened to the characters wouldn’t matter nearly as much. Character transformation occurs through conflict which forges the characters into a new mindset or situation. Conflict equals pain. Pain brings a whole flood of emotions you can draw on as a writer and experience as a reader. And overcoming that pain brings an entire set of opposing emotions that make the whole story worthwhile.

It’s that emotional rollercoaster that I revel in as a reader and a writer. I’m disappointed in a story that doesn’t make me feel anything. And it can’t just be me… can it?