Saturday, 15 August 2015

Opening Chapters: Trap, Pamper or Gatekeeper.

First chapters of a novel -- or indeed the first paragraph, first sentence, first word -- are very important; every writer knows it to be true. We sweat and labour over them like you wouldn't believe. Blood has been known to be spilled getting the first chapter just right, and it's not always the author's! Often the last thing to be completed on a novel is the first chapter. Every author wants the reader to finish their book because, hot damn, they spent a year+ of their lives writing the bloody thing -- a year that could have been spent drinking beer, playing with the kids, having kids, listening to music, flicking cards against a wall or getting a degree in economics -- and to have them stumble at the first chapter, well that's just wrong. They want the reader to like the book so they will pick up his or her next book, and the one after that, and the one after that. Also, canny readers who still frequent book shops (heroes, even single one of them) will often pooh-pooh the cover and the back-cover blurb and go straight to the first chapter to see if it's really what they're looking for; and if it isn't, well back onto the shelf the book goes and on they search.

But here's the thing: there are three types of opening chapter.

The first type is what I shall call the Trap Chapter.

The Trap chapter is there to capture the reader's attention, preferably in the first sentence. Usually the Trap chapter will start in the middle of the action, or present the reader with a mystery that won't be resolved until much later in the novel; maybe not until the very end of the novel. Descriptions and dialogue are often terse and to the point, sometimes verging on the daft, or overly-dramatic. Lots of exclamation points! Thrillers, mystery, horror and adventure novels often use a Trap Chapter in the hope of hooking the reader into the narrative. "What happens next?" screams the reader in frustration. “Give it to me now!” Ha ha, you've gotta wait, chummy! The problem is that sometimes the Trap has been tacked on simply for that purpose: to get that credit card out of your wallet, and it's not until you reach the end of the book that you realise that the Trap was either addressing a relatively minor aspect of the book, or it simply had nothing to do with the story at all, or failed to resolve the mystery in a satisfying way. You've been duped, buddy!

Books with Trap opening chapters are NEVER found on coffee tables, and infrequently in bookcases, as if one is ashamed to be seen with them, but frequently in bedrooms, on aeroplanes, trains and beaches. Such books are usually given away with undue haste and later found in jumble sales and charity stores. They are often well-thumbed, with broken spines and more than a few coffee stains. Their authors usually live in yachts floating somewhere off the coast of the Caribbean, or chalets in Switzerland.

Next up, the Pamper Opening Chapter.

Unlike the Trap Chapter, the Pamper Opening Chapter is there to beguile the reader with its sheer beauty: the beauty of the prose, the beauty of the characters; the lyrical, almost poetic dialogue, although the novel might not actually be about beautiful things but about war and nastiness, because war and nastiness can be beautiful too, you know, if you look at them in a certain way. Pamper chapters are usually well written, maybe over-written, and the description of a sunset over a lake can take up as much as two pages, bombarding the reader with such sights and smells that they can actually imagine themselves being there. The power of nostalgia and wanting is important here.

Such books are often found on coffee tables just after their glowing release, and then quickly bundled away when their star has faded, or, in the bookshop’s recommended section if they have endured. Their authors live in North London.

And then, finally, there's the Gatekeeper Opening Chapter.

The Gatekeeper opening chapter is the opposite of the Trap. It's like a test the reader has to endure, an obstacle course of words that needs to be cleared before the rest of the book opens up. In essence, the gatekeeper opening chapter says: if you can get through this, then you're ready to proceed. Often the opening sentence will be about something really clever that will make the reader's mind boggle and think "wow, this writer is one damn clever cat, I better read more, it might rub off on me", but for the life of him he won't be able to actually fathom what the chapter was about, and take that to be a sign of his own stupidity, because it had to mean something really deep, man. In fact the whole chapter will make little or no sense, but give a veneer of logic and intelligence that the reader of these novels will be irresistibly drawn to. Quite possibly the narration will be occurring in the head of a person in a mental asylum, or a wounded soldier on a battle field, ruminating on the craziness and futility of life, or even from the perspective of an inanimate object, like a pencil sharpener. Things will pop in and out of reality and the dead will talk riddles and dogs will talk philosophy. Dialogue will be obtuse and sentences will be constructed in such a way that nobody will ever be able to tell if they're actually well written or not. By the end of reading the first chapter – or indeed the opening paragraph – one will probably have a throbbing headache; but that will be perceived to be a good thing in that the brain has just received a judicious stretching.

Such books are always found on coffee table, often with a bookmark placed about quarter of the way in, but the pages are pristine, as if no human thumb has ever thumbed them. They have usually won many major literary prizes and their authors live a perilous existence in Parisian garrets, chain-smoking Gauloises and drinking espressos outside Shakespeare & Company on the Rue de la Bûcherie while they fix the hole in their shoe with a stale croissant.

Of course this is all very tongue-in-cheek nonsense, or is there some truth to it? Hmmm. You decide.

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