Recently, I asked a reviewer I met on KUForum if she would like to review my novel, Secrets From The Dust. She replied to say that it was not the sort of book she normally read, but she would have a look at the sample. A couple of days later she contacted me to say the sample had left her on a cliff hanger, and she needed to know what happened next. So I sent her the kindle eBook, and a few days later, she wrote a wonderful review admitting that she had been late for work because she wanted to finish one more chapter. I started to wonder, what had happened in the first chapter of the book to hook the reviewer? After thinking about a number of books that had drawn me in, I realized that it was more than just my wanting to know what happened next, the early pages of the books had created a desire in me to see a certain outcome.
Let’s take a look at some examples:
The Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck The Jode family are good folks struggling through the deprivations of the 1930s’ depression. I want them to succeed in their journey to California to find decent paying jobs that will allow the family to live a dignified life.
East of Eden – John Steinbeck Adam is a good man, who is abused by both his half-brother Charles and his wife Cathy. I want Adam to get over his character flaw of accepting this kind of abuse, and to forge a happy life for himself.
No Country for Old Men – Cormac McCarthyA basically decent man who has not had any good fortune in his life, lucks out by finding a pile of drugs money in the desert, but there is a killer after him to retrieve it. I think we wish we could luck out in a similar manner and are rooting for him to get away with it.
The Road – Cormac McCarthy A man and his son travel the road in a post-apocalyptic world, in search of other good people with whom they may establish a safe community, but there are gangs who have turned to brutality and cannibalism out to stop them. I am sympathetic with their plight and hope they will make it to safety.
The Help – Kathryn Stockett Three women defy the racism of the 1960s by joining forces to write a book about the mostly despicable, but sometimes decent, way in which black servants are treated in the South, as this will help to bring them some dignity. I fear for their safety and hope they will succeed without getting hurt in the process.
Atonement – Ian McEwan
We desire for the truth to be known that Robbie is not guilty of the crime he has been accused of, and for the proud Robbie and headstrong Cecilia to be together.
The Steinbeck examples above were first published in 1939 and 1952, and they created the desire I am speaking about over many pages, sometimes chapters. In today’s fast paced world, with readers having millions of books to choose from and many other distractions, I think we need to create that desire within the reader within fewer pages, and certainly by the end of the first chapter. This is especially so, as the first chapter is now often given away as a sample to draw the reader in. In essence, the setup is a protagonist who has some admirable human qualities, but they also possess character flaws which they may need to overcome in order to achieve their real need (I make a distinction between a character’s material need—that is what the character thinks they want, and their real need—which is what the reader will come to realize the character really needs in order to move forward. In the East of Eden example above, Adam’s material need is to be with Cathy, but we the readers know that if he is truly to be happy, his real need is to stop accepting the abuse and be rid of her). The reader is given a hint of the real need in a way that makes them desire that outcome for a character they are beginning to like. Now, once that desire has been created and the writer has gotten the reader’s attention, obstacles to the achievement or non-achievement of the desire can be thrown in. You might even want to include a twist which makes the reader change their minds about the desired outcome. But many readers will never reach that point in the novel if the writer fails to create a desire early enough.
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