June 21, 2018, 11:07:57 AM

Author Topic: Post-disaster first chapters  (Read 463 times)

Offline Peat

Post-disaster first chapters
« on: January 08, 2018, 10:56:27 PM »
(warning - this is a kinda thinking aloud post)

I've been playing around with first chapters recently and noticed I'm frequently going with the aftermath of a disaster for my first chapter.

Now, I feel this is slightly unusual. Most books seem to start with either

a) An "action" sequence; usually either with a disaster happening, or something seemingly good but eventually catastrophic happening.

b) Everyday reality into which a disruptive element is dropped in.

Its not that I don't think post-disaster can't work or anything like that. Every murder story that starts with someone at a crime scene is post-disaster; every story that starts with someone waking up on a battlefield or in jail.

But I am wondering whether its harder. Whether the reactive nature of the situation makes interjecting a hook more difficult. I'd have thought that it would make it easier - he's in a jail! Be hooked! - but it doesn't seem to work that way. I mean, obviously it doesn't when you think about it. Being in jail is where he is - the hook is what he does about.

And I feel like that there is a problem here in that it adds to the descriptive burden too much because not only do you have to introduce character, setting, hook, you also have to explain why the hell they're there; what disaster happened.

I do like the idea of it though and its effects when it works. It sets stakes really early and because it features the character thinking more than acting, it introduces the character better. Well, for my money, at least if they're a thinky character.

Does this make sense to people? Can anyone think of some opening chapters that really worked for them in this vein? Is there anything I'm missing about the strengths and weaknesses of this approach?
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Offline Nora

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Re: Post-disaster first chapters
« Reply #1 on: January 08, 2018, 11:35:39 PM »
I'm surprised you see first chapters that way. In general in what I read, the first chapters install the characters and the situation. There is often no disruption until later on. It's not uncommon to have two or three set up chapters if not more.
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Offline The Gem Cutter

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Re: Post-disaster first chapters
« Reply #2 on: January 09, 2018, 01:51:55 AM »
I do like the idea of it though and its effects when it works. It sets stakes really early and because it features the character thinking more than acting, it introduces the character better. Well, for my money, at least if they're a thinky character.

Does this make sense to people? Can anyone think of some opening chapters that really worked for them in this vein? Is there anything I'm missing about the strengths and weaknesses of this approach?

Yes. As for openings, my own worked well for me, because I chose an intrusive first-person narrator. Without all the specifics, no suggestion will be remotely reliable, though. Speaking of that, there are several points I can present that might or might not be useful, in no particular order.

I have heard one must make three decisions:
1: the story one wants to tell; this is more about character than plot
2: the setting/genre/milieu in which it will appear; this being mostly about plot, tone, and feel/mood
3: how one wants to tell it; this is both technical and the execution of the tone and feel.

Some of the questions you pose suggest you've not made up your mind on 3 because the conventional beginnings (action or status quo+disruptor) do not work. Perhaps you need to abandon the current obsession with these two beginnings and look to the countless other ways a story can begin. Fact is, not every story has an antagonist; not every story begins with an earth-shattering boom; and every single other "rule" is just baloney with thousands of popular exceptions, old and new.

For example, this bit made me think of a huge storytelling opportunity:
And I feel like that there is a problem here in that it adds to the descriptive burden too much because not only do you have to introduce character, setting, hook, you also have to explain why the hell they're there; what disaster happened.
You DON'T. Many stories begin with the obvious strangeness UNADDRESSED - on purpose. And that, believe it or not, IS the hook.

I know I come across as a lecturer, so I'll sign off with the best idea I have: keep developing the story idea and it will lead you to how it should be told, just as coming up with the idea of a plane or automobile will drive how that vehicle must be assembled, what it must be made of. The issue is, if you dream up a space-shuttle-like car, but insist on shoving it through the standard production line in Detroit, you're going to see a disconnect - unless you open yourself to other approaches, however uncomfortable with them you might be. Hope this is helpful.
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Offline JMack

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Re: Post-disaster first chapters
« Reply #3 on: January 09, 2018, 02:16:15 AM »
I love Gemmy’s Advice about developing the story more. I’ve read about authors who only understood where to start a story after they’d written much more than they might decide to put inside the “frame” of the book.

I’d say, stop worrying. I might even try writing the disaster itself, and then see how the post-disaster feels.

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Offline Justan Henner

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Re: Post-disaster first chapters
« Reply #4 on: January 11, 2018, 03:45:55 AM »
Does this make sense to people? Can anyone think of some opening chapters that really worked for them in this vein? Is there anything I'm missing about the strengths and weaknesses of this approach?

I'm also a fan of this and thinks it can work well.

Fifth Season did this really well. It has a prologue that somewhat sets up the disaster, but really the first chapter and the real "post-disaster" is largely unrelated:

Spoiler for Hiden:
The book starts with the MC having already found her dead child, presumably murdered by her husband.

The hook is the strong emotional connection to a horrific event that has already occurred and visceral first person prose that pulls you into a sense of - "What if this was me?"

Agree with Gem that obvious strangeness is a great hook, but this is an example where the hook is in the relatability - in the fact that it's a situation that almost anyone could imagine themselves being in. (and because the disaster itself is a fascinating one.) Not to mention, it's simple, which avoids the need to backfill in order to set it up.
« Last Edit: January 11, 2018, 03:47:46 AM by Justan Henner »

Offline Ryan Mueller

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Re: Post-disaster first chapters
« Reply #5 on: January 13, 2018, 04:15:42 AM »
I enjoy that kind of opening. I don't think there's any issue with it.