On Writing: Rocks, Rocks, and More Rocks

There are no bad drivers on the road. All drivers consider themselves to be good drivers, because whatever skill they possess — fast driving, adhering to all traffic rules, weaving in and out of traffic — that is their measure of a good driver. Writing is the same. We use our own skills to determine what is or is not good writing, hence we are all good writers. But some skills supersede opinion: the basic elements of story telling, for example.

The granddaddy of all story elements is conflict. Without conflict you have a story statement, you have a description, you have meaningless dialogue. What you don’t have is a story.

Because of the contests I have been involved with, I have been privileged to read the first chapters of many books by new authors. I’m sorry to say that most of them couldn’t hold my interest. Perhaps reading a chapter or two is not a fair way to test a book, but it is the only way. As readers, we need a book to capture our interest at the beginning then give us a stake in the story and its outcome so that we continue reading. Otherwise, we put the book aside and forget to come back to it.

Most of the new writers offered rebuttals, trying to prove me wrong. To them, their first chapter was important: it set the scene, it introduced the characters, it gave vital information. Perhaps that is all true, but to me, as a reader, the chapter was meaningless. I didn’t know the characters, didn’t care about them, developed no interest in them because there was no conflict. Unless characters want or need something, have something they care about, we don’t care. And if the characters get what they want or need without working for it, we don’t care, either.

Even if your first chapter has no other purpose than to set up the story or to introduce characters, it still must have conflict. According to Donald Maass, agent and author of Writing the Breakout Novel, there should be some conflict on every page. Sometimes authors use arguments between characters to show that conflict, but unless the argument changes the character in some way, no matter how small, the argument comes across as verbiage. If the argument is important to the book, then make it important by tying it to the characters needs and wants or move it to a less crucial part of the book.

One author described a story as getting a character up a tree, throwing rocks at it, then getting it down.

So do yourself and us readers a favor. Get your character up in that tree in the first chapter and throw a rock at it. Then we’ll read further to find out what happens next. That’s all we want. Rocks, rocks, and more rocks.

Lack of good driving leads to road rage. Lack of good writing leads to reader apathy. Both conditions are dangerous.

2 Responses to “On Writing: Rocks, Rocks, and More Rocks”

  1. lynn doiron Says:

    I have read more than once that often a novel does not, when all is said and done, begin with Chapter One, but begins somewhere further along. The Chapter One business and often Chapters Two and Three and even Four, they get moved along and incorporated IF they are vital to “story” when [again] “all is said and done”. First drafts get the story down, pretty much, in my opinion, and later drafts bring the best, best, very best writing of the whole shebang to the front one third [more or less] of the book; second very-best writing makes up the last third [give or take, maybe the last fifth rather than third]; and the simply really, really good but not very-best takes up that middle, more informing but still compelling, middle ground.

  2. Bertram Says:

    I think that most new writers (and a lot of published writers) need to dump their first chapter and, as you say, incorporate any vital information later on in the book. The beginning is crucial. If I, as a reader, cannot get into the story within a chapter or two, I usually stop. On the other hand, if the beginning intrigues me, I will continue to read even if the writing is not as good toward the middle because I am into the story. But the ending better be worth it!

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