After the First Chapter: Direction

As I’ve been reading partials this week, I’ve noticed some common missteps that I’d like to talk about. If you are one of those people who has a good request rate from agents that keep turning into rejections, then follow my blog as I do this series about things you can do to make your manuscript awesome (even without a Pitch Wars mentor.)

One thing I’ve noticed is that you people really know how to write great first chapters and you’re getting to your inciting incident right on time. That’s awesome! But what comes between the inciting incident and your first turning point (somewhere around the 25% mark) is hugely important and can be very hard to get right.

What I see happening a lot is the main character just sort of wandering, rather aimlessly through the book. They’re actions are all reactions. Often, we spend the first 50 pages simply reeling from the inciting incident. You can do this for a few pages, but when it goes on too long, your reader feels restless and starts thinking, “Okay, where is this going? When is something going to happen?

You want the first quarter of your book to feel like it has direction. It needs to moving towards something. I want to feel as I’m reading, like we’re building and building and building to that first turning point.

So how do you do that AND introduce all your characters AND lay down all your foreshadowing details AND set up your subplots. There’s so much you have to do in those first pages!

The reason your book might feel directionless in the first quarter might stem from a few different things. So I’m going to talk about possible reasons and some strategies to diagnose and fix.

  1. Your character must always want something. Unfulfilled desire is what creates tension. Tension keeps readers reading. Your book, of course, has one big unfulfilled desire that the entire story is about. (Harry wants to defeat Voldemort. Katniss wants to survive the Hunger Games. Hamilton wants to create a legacy. Despereaux wants to be brave and noble like the knights in fairy tales.) But your character must also have smaller, micro-desires for every scene and every chapter. (Harry wants to read that mysterious letter. Katniss wants to take her mind off the games by going hunting. Hamilton wants to move up the ranks in the military. Despereaux just wants to be curious and read the fairytale book.) If your MC has goal or desire in a certain scene, then it will feel directionless. It will lag. People will get bored.

So how do you fix this? Maybe try out a scene map. It sounds intimidating but it doesn’t have to. Write down, in order each scene in your book and then identify what your character WANTS in that scene. Don’t know? Time to revise. Then, after you identify your character’s desire, make sure they are pursuing it in that scene. The goal can simply be not letting other people know how sad they are. Or not thinking about something painful. Or getting the person they’re talking to to admit something. It doesn’t have to be huge or action packed and it doesn’t even have to be what the entire scene’s action is about. Something else may be going on entirely. But your MC’s desire must thread through in internalization, in reaction, in all of it.

2. Things are coming too easy for your MC.

Okay, so you’ve made sure your character has a goal/desire in each scene but people are telling you the pacing isn’t right. It might be because your character is achieving their scene goal way too easily. There should be an obstacle to every scene goal. Don’t let your character off the hook! So go back to that scene map. Can you name what the obstacle is for every scene? (Uncle Vernon won’t let Harry read the letters. Hunting is forbidden and they could get caught. War is dangerous and Hamilton keeps getting passed over for promotions. Curiosity is frowned upon by mice and Despereaux’s sister doesn’t approve.) Remember, your character should always have a goal. So, once they accomplish the goal set for that scene, they either need a new goal or the scene needs to end pretty quickly.

 

3. A lot of threads but no binding.

This is so easy to do in the first quarter of the book and I have issues with it, too. You are trying to set up your subplots. That’s important. The thing is, each time you bring in a new thread to the story, I need to feel like it fits in and not like the story is going in a bunch of different directions. I need to still have a feel for the long term direction of the story. As your book continues, you will braid these story threads closer and closer together until by the end they are like a tight rope. All supporting and relying on one another for the resolution of your story. In the beginning, I just need to have a small idea that the subplots are connected. I don’t have great process advice for this, just try and think, “How does the main plot LEAD me into this subplot. Does the MC’s unfulfilled desire lead them to need to talk to someone and that someone is involved in something? Do they need help from another character and that character will only help if the main character does something for them? Could the subplot be a result of certain rules or expectations at home or work that get in the way of the story goal. Whatever it is, just make sure the reader sees up front the relationship of the story goal to the subplot. whether it’s that the subplot is a reaction to the goal, an obstacle to the goal, or helps with the goal.

 

If you have all these things in place, then the first quarter of your book is going to move along at a really nice clip. Yay!

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6 thoughts on “After the First Chapter: Direction

  1. Thanks, Amanda! These are the exact kind of helpful bits of advice I’ve been floundering for. Now that it has clicked I am on my way to improving my ms.

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