by Leonard Bishop
If the writer doesn’t write for his own Time, she is not ahead of her time, she is way behind. In this era the opening of the novel is the most important chapter that is written. Characters should be placed in critical situations that conflict with their interests you or welfare. There is no time to dawdle with lengthy “preparations for situation” to eventually emerge. The novel must begin immediately.
If this novel was being written in the 1920s up to the 1950s. The writer would open with the character sitting inside a train window thinking about his predicament. His background would be explored. How he met his wife, the birth of their children, his ambitions, why he desires the sexy young woman, etc. After 10 pages he would leave the train and drive home, and continue thinking. The writer is preparing the reader for a big scene.
An opening of that type, today, would not get past the first reader of any publishing house. A literary agent’s assistant would reject it. The opening chapter should begin with an incident that places the character under unique pressure – – causing him to behave dramatically.
The purpose of the opening chapter is to compel the reader to want to read further. While today’s reader may not be more literate than those of former eras, they either read more than those of a former era, or have more to read. With the prolific duration of television and other portable home entertainments, the public has become exceptionally visual and impatient. They want what they want when they want it – right at the opening.
An attitude that is obsolete is: if I tell what my novel is all about, right away, I will eliminate my chances for creating suspense. You interest the reader by what you reveal, not by what you promise reveal. Suspense, in fiction, is not created by evasion or elaborate preparations for a dramatic event. Suspense is gained from content that urges the reader to want more of that content – and still more.
The opening chapter begins with an event that moves the character and plot-line in a noticeable direction. (Arthur preparing to leave his wife.) Then an incident occurs that suggests the idea of a secondary plot. (A phone call that troubles Arthur.) The chapter returns to the original direction and still another incident occurs that opens up another secondary plot line. (His wife gives him a letter.) Then the chapter ends.
The writer has opened with the tense situation. As that action continues, he has planted another plot-line that complicates the action and reveals more about the character. As the chapter continues, he further complicates the action with another plot-line, revealing still more about the character. So much is happening in the first chapter that the writer has given himself material for a second and third chapter.
In the contemporary novel, the character development is accomplished while the character is performing the action. The writer does not first “character develop” and then produce an action. Nor does the writer stop the action to “character develop” and then continue the action. Characterization and action happen simultaneously. The dramatic pressure imposed on the character reveals his depth by what he does and how he responds to the crisis of conflict.
If there are changes in the tradition of writing, or in the general rules–they are established by the Time in which writing is being created. Writers can be as creative and artistic as they choose, but they must also be realistic. A novel is written to be paid for, published, and read. But if you can not get the reader to finish the first chapter, they will not begin the second chapter.
© 2013 the estate of Leonard Bishop
(first published April 20, 1986 the Manhattan Mercury)