The Rules of Writing. The crucial first chapter.

posted in: On writing | 12

I’ve been doing a *lot* of editing lately and, I confess, a bit of writing and some reading. As a result, I’ve become a tad introspective about the Rules of Writing. You know the ones, my authorial friends; thou shalt not use adverbs, thou shalt minimize adjectives, thou shalt not reveal Back Story in the first chapter, thou shalt mesmerize your audience from the first word.

Actually, I do agree with the last one. In fact, within reason, I tend to agree with many of these so-called rules. But what has really caused this post is the subject of first chapters and “back story”. Like many of us, I have struggled with these two things. As you may know, I recently decided that the story I told in two books and then tried to tell in one, shorter book was really two books. But where to start?

The Rules of Writing state that thou shalt start where everything changes. Hmmm. Sounds simple, does it not? Take ‘Morgan’s Choice’ for instance. I know you’ve never heard of it – it’s my soon-to-be-published book. I had two, maybe three points where ‘everything changed’. Which to use? When I started with ‘first encounter with aliens’, some readers wanted to know how Morgan got there, out in the back-blocks of space. And I could (and did) write an exciting chapter to show that part of the story.

At this point, I shall discuss one of the best known books in the fantasy genre, J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’. For me, this was a ‘can’t put down’ and I really, really mean that. My first time through this novel consumed every bit of free time I had. I read obsessively. And after I’d read it the first time, I read it again. And again, many times.

Okay, let’s assume, like me, you don’t read the long, involved introductory chapter which explains what Hobbits are and their history. Not the first time through, anyway. I read the prologue many times after I’d read the book. And then I went and bought the Hobbit.

Back to LOTR. Let’sdive right into the story. Remember, accepted wisdom is that one starts the story ‘where everything changes’. Fine. We start at the eleventy-first birthday party. And yes, everything does change. Bilbo disappears and passes into… back story. Frodo takes over and we read quite a bit about this and that until Gandalf turns up and describes the history of the One Ring. Sure, you could argue that this piece of ‘back story’ is part of Frodo’s tale. Whatever. Then Frodo leaves the Shire. Do you see the problem? We have, in effect, three instances where everything changes; the birthday party, Gandalf’s return and Frodo leaving the shire. I could make a pretty solid case for number three.

You want a more recent example? Let’s look at the first Harry Potter book. It starts, I’m sure you know, when Voldemort has been defeated and Harry is delivered to his aunt’s front door. The point where Everything Changed. But then we watch Harry’s excruciating childhood until we finally learn he is a wizard. Now I could probably, if I were so inclined, come up with an argument that the story REALLY starts when Harry gets that letter, that the rest is back story which could be revealed through the rest of the book. But the kids who read ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’ didn’t know that. So they read it anyway.

What do I think is the mark of chapter one? Pretty simple, really; suck the reader in, get them interested in your world, in your characters, so they’ll keep reading. And if you happen to tell them some back story along the way, there’s a good chance the reader won’t even have noticed.

Which brings me to another Rule of Writing; thou shalt edit out everything which does not ‘belong’ to the story. Sounds sensible, doesn’t it?

Back to Professor Tolkien.

Hearts thumping, we have accompanied Frodo and his companions as they evaded the Nine and escaped across the Brandywine. And then we enter a billabong, a back water, a swamp.

Neither Peter Jackson in his much-acclaimed movie version of LOTR, nor his predecessor who created a truly horrible animation of the first half of the book, included any of Frodo’s escape into the Old Forest, the encounter with Old Man Willow, Tom Bombadil or the drama in the Barrow Downs. One might ask why Tolkien’s editor did not excise whole chapters which (let’s face it) were irrelevant in the unfolding of events. Yet I loved those chapters and was disappointed when they were left out. And what about Aragorn’s references to events in the distant (irrelevant) past? Let’s remember, too, that Jackson makes a point of starting the movie with two slabs of back story; first, the history of the ring which in the book is simply a narrative told by Gandalf, then he proceeds with the prologue, for pity’s sake, that loooong chapter where Tolkien describes Hobbits and their history. Why? Because then the people watching the movie know what he’s on about.

I wonder, too, what writers of thrillers make of this rule. Elements are deliberately introduced to wrong foot readers, to keep them guessing. Of necessity they are not part of the story.

There will always be parts of any book that some readers could do without. If I could end this rant with a quote from Tolkien:

The prime motive was the desire of a tale-teller to try his hand at a really long story that would hold the attention of readers, amuse them, delight them, and at times maybe excite them or deeply move them. As a guide I had only my own feelings for what is appealing or moving, and for many the guide was inevitably often at fault. Some who have read the book, or at any rate have reviewed it, have found it boring, absurd, or contemptible; and I have no cause to complain, since I have similar opinions of their works, or of the kinds of writing that they evidently prefer. But even from the points of view of many who have enjoyed my story there is much that fails to please. It is perhaps not possible in a long tale to please everybody at all points, nor to displease everybody at the same points; for I find from the letters that I have received that the passages or chapters that are to some a blemish are all by others specially approved.

So… I’m not going to let myself get too hung up on the Rules of Writing. Readers don’t.

12 Responses

  1. Sue Quint

    I’ve been a fantasy fan since I was about 11 but was never being able to get through Tolkein’s book because I found them far too slow (great story but poorly told in my view.)

    I do appreciate the sentiment about “the rules” however. I think novice writers latch onto rules they don’t understand and spread them like butter on bread. To be honest, I’m not sure I ever heard the one about starting where everything changes. I’ve heard about starting en media res, but even that tends to be overdone by folks who don’t understand it.

    I’ve been studying story structure recently and the wisdom I’ve seen is that everything changes at plot point 1, which is the end of Act 1. What comes before that is set up. I recommend the Save the Cat! books by Blake Snyder because he’s clear and uses lots of good examples.

    Following any rule without knowing why the rule exists just gets you in trouble.

  2. Dee Savoy

    I really enjoyed this post. And I wholeheartedly agree with your final statement–as long as you give the reader a great story, no one cares how many rules you broke.

  3. Janice Seagraves

    I’ve read the forward in LOTR and the nitty gritty afterwards too. Love it. Read it three times.

    Tolkien had originally wanted the three book in one huge volume. Can you imagine how huge that would be? Thank goodness he agree to the three books. But if it was published today it would be edited down and those wonderful scenes would be gone.

    Thank goodness it was published when it was. 🙂


    • Greta van der Rol

      I have the whole book (including the foreword and the appendixes) in one India paper volume which looks no bigger than an ordinary book, despite its over 1,000 pages, I had already chewed through a paper back of all 3 books in one, and a set of 3 paper backs of the 3 books. That India paper volume is pretty tattered, because I’ve read it so often.

      Yes, you’re right. Sp much of that rich tapestry would be gone. A lesson, I think.

  4. Kim Bowman

    I couldn’t agree more. For me, the same goes with cliches. We all use them, it’s part of our normal dialog, and I don’t mind one thrown into a story here or there. I also agree about Lord of the Rings!!!

  5. Monica Stoner

    Rules of writing: Write. ReWrite. Edit. Submit. Repeat as necessary. Thanks for the fabulous blog.

  6. Greta van der Rol

    Oh, rest assured, Margaret, I read the introductory chapter, too – on my second and subsequent reads; and all the appendixes, some of which Jackson incorporated into his movies. Yes, you’re right. It gives a richness, a depth that is sometimes missing from modern books.

  7. Margaret Fieland

    Loved this post. I’m a big Tolkien fan– and yes, I read that introductory chapter, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I’m glad Tolkien left in all those digressions — the book wouldn’t have been the same without it.

  8. Greta van der Rol

    Thanks for your comments, ladies. I think it just goes to show this writing business is an inexact art. We need to be careful not to be too distracted by so-called rules.

  9. claudia celestial girl

    thank you for this fabulous post! I am with you on this all the way. I’ve run into the same issue that you mention – namely when you start where you think the excitement begins only to have readers want to know more about how the characters got there before they can go on — or worse, that they don’t understand the character’s motivation so they really can’t go on. Or to have them say — I need to see how this character became (example so cynical), so I want to go all the way back to core events!

    I sort of think it is a battle between reader and author over the telling – what I want to see vs what I’m willing to show you. And you have to stand up to editors and publishers also and be willing to start off slowly, not with the proverbial bang — with enough to, as Tolkien so wisely said, entrall from the beginning.

  10. Alexis Morgan

    First of all, I had to smile about your need to read, read, read when you first discovered Tolkien’s trilogy. My then-boyfriend, now husband of many years, introduced me to the Hobbit and the Trilogy right before finals one semester in college. One of my clearest memories was sitting on the floor outside of my Asian Civilization class surrounded by people busy cramming for the test. Me? I was caught up in Frodo’s adventures, more worried about how he’d manage to escape than I was if I would ace the test. I think I got a B.

    When I’m going to start a new story, I do think about the moment when everything changed. But what I think is more important, for me anyway, is finding a moment that starts in the middle of action that leaves the reading wondering how the character got there and what’s going to happen next.

    Great blog!

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