Wednesday, June 26, 2013

WIFYR Recap #1: Jennifer Nielsen on Creating a Memorable First Chapter

I just got back from a terrific week at the WIFYR Conference. This year my workshop instructor was Martine Leavitt, award-winning author and faculty at Vermont College of Fine Arts. We all had an amazing experience in her workshop. Martine taught us how to look at our own manuscripts in a totally different way, and I know many of us had important plot epiphanies. Our workshop group was also full of terrific, talented writers, and the critiques were both positive and helpful.

I've got a manuscript to revise following Martine's specific instructions for me, and I thought as I go over my notes, I could post some of what I learned on this blog.

In no particular order, I'm starting with Jennifer Nielsen, author of THE FALSE PRINCE series. In her afternoon lecture, she gave us tips on how to make our first chapters stand out.

Include at least one of these elements for a good first chapter/scene:

  • emotions—fear, anxiety, worried about character’s outcome. 
  • anticipation
  • curiosity—mystery element—get hero in such a bad fix, don’t know they’ll get out of it.
  • surprise
  • use one of these in first pages to hook agent
  • the moment right before the first kiss, holding breath kind of anticipation. 

Ways to do this include:
10 ways:
1.Make a great hero. (protag) 
  • in trouble, but not stupid trouble they could have/should have avoided
  • likely to lose
  • goal
  • fatal flaw
2. Great villain
  • no villain is ever just crazy. round character.
  • likely to win.
  • have an advantage the hero lacks.
3. Add mystery or a big question

4. Foreshadowing of something bad that might happen. 
Game of Thrones: because viewer knows author is willing to kill off his good characters, increases suspense that main guys won’t always be safe. 

5. Exploit relationships
  • romantic tension
  • friction between characters
  • betrayal
  • suspicion
  • loss of Mentor (the hero’s journey)
  • has inner demons
6. Raise the stakes. You should constantly be looking for ways, in each scene, to make things worse. 
Caveat: heroes fortunes must rise and fall. (but mostly they are falling). A steady decline from bad to good is boring and predictable. The inconsistency is what makes a story unpredictable. 

7. Shorten the timeline—like Dorothy and wizard of Oz, the big hourglass, timeline builds tension. constantly remind hero of the time limit, then cut timeline in half. slow down key scenes. 

8. Create unexpected turns—perfect example—Katniss and Peta, can let two people survive, but then the capitol changes it and says only one. Twists and turns must be logical. If use a gun in act 3, better be on mantle in act 1. and if it’s in act 1, have to use in act 3.

9. Setting

10. Dilemmas –Jean Val Jean—Mayor of town, people rely on him, but if I speak I am condemned, if I stay silent, I am damned. 

Great suspense comes from cruel authors. Be willing to be tough on your characters—I noticed Jennifer Nielsen does this in her first book, which I'm reading—she kills off one of the boys early on to show the uncertainty of an antagonist who is willing to do that. 


Alice said...

Thanks for sharing your notes!

Becca said...

You are welcome. I'll try to be consistent this year and post more.