In any good story we have to care what happens to the characters. They have to start off in one place—either literally or emotionally—and find or fight or grow their way to a better place. They have to have goals and motivations to get them moving and obstacles to stand in their way. In a romance, both the hero and the heroine have their own separate journeys to undertake as well as the journey they take together. This is in addition to the plot, which can take the form of space opera, horse opera, soap opera or historical drama.
Okay, so far, so good and Genre Fiction 101, you say. Yeah, but who knew you had to put all that stuff in the first chapter of your novel? Celebrated romance novelist Carrie Lofty, for one, who argued the point in her presentation at the Virginia Romance Writers’ meeting in Richmond September 8 on “The Essential First Chapter: Making a ‘Selling’ First Chapter”.
Lofty writes historical romance under her own name, paranormal romance/SFR (with Ann Aguirre) as Ellen Connor, and erotica as Katie Porter. With advanced degrees in both history and English, she is also uniquely qualified to help struggling writers with some of the thornier problems in commercial fiction. Her Pitch Witch workshops (with agent Kevan Lyon and others) are always filled to capacity at RWA National conferences. In 2011, Lofty sold a paranormal trilogy, tentatively titled The Dragon Kings, at auction based on the proposal alone. Says Lofty, “I credit Chapter One as key to the flurry of interest.”
What made her first chapter so compelling? What makes the first chapter of any book so gripping you just don’t want to put it down? If you’re a Hollywood screenwriter you’ll shout out “Action!” and throw in a chase scene. If you’re new at romance, you’ll have your hero and heroine scratching each other’s eyes out and call it conflict. If you’re a fledgling SF writer, you’ll spend ten pages describing the planet of Despairion. No. No. And, please, no.
According to Lofty (and noted screenwriter/speaker Michael Hauge), the key to compelling lies in the change we need to see in our characters and the writer’s ability to predict that change. Yep, the reader needs to see a little bit of where we’re going and want to go there. It’s as if we’re building a bridge or drawing a map. We don’t have to complete it or take the entire journey, but we’d better have a destination in mind that’s clear to the reader or they won’t go along.
Lofty calls these bridges the four arcs: the heroine’s arc, the hero’s arc, the romantic arc and the external arc (or plot). Others call them journeys or transformations, but it amounts to the same thing. You have to have a hint of each of these arcs right away, if not in the first chapter, then surely within the first 50 pages. The longer you wait to address the key pieces of the arcs, the longer the reader will be left to wonder, where is the heroine going? Where is the hero going in his life? Why are they together? What is the conflict that will keep them from being together (the plot)?
All of those questions, of course, give you GMC—goals, motivation, conflict. If you can’t answer those questions for your hero and heroine (and your villain, too, by the way), your readers will not be drawn in. They won’t know why; they just won’t be interested.
Look at an example, a clichéd one, perhaps, but an easy one. Gruff, angry lord of the manor, a widower, hires prim, proper governess for his child. They are attracted, but his estate is entailed and he must find a rich wife to save it, etc. You get the picture. From the first chapter we know the stakes. He has to learn to love; she has to loosen up and find her passion. They have to overcome society’s strictures against their love plus the money problem. We know where this is going. And historical romance fans everywhere are onboard for the ride.
Yes, there is a fine line between a good predictability and boring routine/cliché. Critics outside genre fiction harp endlessly about the “formulas” we use. But the hero’s journey is a “formula” every literary form uses. The hero must change in some significant way from the time we meet him (or her) to the end of the book. Lofty’s point in “The Essential First Chapter” is that we must give the reader some clue to that change from the outset, or the reader will not take the journey with us.
New writers will be tempted to tell us all about their heroes and heroines and how they need to change in that first chapter. The real trick is to show us instead, to let our characters act and speak and live on the page as they are in the time before something happens that forces them into the change. Pieces of their backstory emerge and they reveal themselves to the reader. Then, gradually as they interact with each other and the plot progresses, they become new people.
For paranormal and science fiction romance writers, worldbuilding is also a concern in the first chapter. The scene has to be set right away—where and when are you? What does it look like, smell like, feel like? But, like character-building, worldbuilding can’t be done all at once in a massive download of info-dumping. Your readers will retain the details of the world your characters live in much better if they absorb them in small doses along with the other elements of the story—dialogue and short description and action.
Well, you may be saying to yourself, I can do all this, but it’s gonna take me five chapters to do it! Okay, but the agent or editor you’re trying to snag stopped reading four chapters ago. Lofty started her presentation by asking for a show of hands: How many people wished the Golden Heart contest allowed for more than 50 pages? She said if our hands were up we were in trouble. You should be able to capture the essence of your story in that first 50 pages and really be on your way.
I had to admit at first I wanted to raise my hand. Then I thought about it. Fifty pages is really enough. It’s more than generous at two, almost three chapters. If you’re not able to introduce your hero and your heroine, show where they’re going and what might get in their way in that amount of time you’re just wandering in the desert. Time, perhaps, to draw a new map.
For more information about author Carrie Lofty and her work, check out her official website at http:\\www.carrielofty.com.