Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Evolution of an Opening Chapter

This post is a sort of continuation of Davin's post from yesterday, about First Chapter Blues. I don't know if I have any sort of advice or wisdom to impart with what I'm going to say today, but it might be interesting to other writers. Might not; time will tell.

When I first began my book, I thought I would ease my way into the story the way a good 19th-century author would, starting at some distance from my protagonist and his tale, and gradually bringing the reader closer. This, then, is the way the first draft of the book began:

The Elbe River rises in the Giant Mountains, east of Prague in the land of the Czechs, on the frontiers of the Holy Roman Empire. The Czech realm is a barbarous place of infidels, pagans and mislaid Christians forever at war, battling to the death over land of little value to any. Here the Elbe rushes down mountain-sides and through steep valleys, past savage villages of straw and mud, under the eyes of savage villagers who cannot imagine the seven hundred miles this river courses, arcing across Europe through lands of civilized men, running beneath bridges of ancient stone, her waters reflecting here and there the spires of great palaces and cathedrals, her currents washing everything lost in her out to the cold North Sea on Germany’s coast.

The Elbe is fed at first by the lesser waters of the Labe and the Sazaba, then by the Ohre between Prague and Dresden; the Mulde joins her at Desau, the Saale near Schoenebeck, the Havel a hundred miles north of Magdeburg, and the Elde a hunded miles further on, before the great river forces her way through the canals of Hamburg and rushes home to the ocean.

Midway along her journey, between the savage Czech headwaters and the chaos of the North Sea, the river runs for a time directly westward through Saxony, a land of civilized men; there the course of the Elbe cuts the Duchy in half, north and south. On the north bank of the river, in a region of low forested hills which rise to a plateau further north near Berlin, sits Wittenberg. Named for the white sand found in the soil of those hills, this is the city where I would have remained forever had not I become involved in the history I will unfold.

I like the writing here and I like the image of the river cutting across time and geography, but this doesn't work as an opening to the story. There is too much emphasis on the river, and the river does not return as a setting of any importance in the novel. Gunter Grass could make the river into a character, a personality of its own that interacts with the story, but that's not what I did with my book. So I decided that the river as focal point was out, and I wanted instead to begin with the protagonist himself, his social and historical situation, and some conflict. Here is how the second, third and fourth drafts all began (notice that I still begin at the river):

When I was a lad, I would sometimes steal away from my father's house and follow the sandy banks of the Elbe to a small backwater a mile east of town, there to settle among mounds of wildflowers in the shade under the many trees growing along the water’s edge, and watch a man fish for eels in the shallows. I do not know the man's name, nor did I ever; all I did know was that he was one of the royal fishers in the employ of the Duke. The Duke had an insatiable taste for the shimmering green eels: boiled into soups, soused in brine and served with lemons, breaded and fried, smoked, jellied, grilled over open flames, or diced and baked inside game birds; there were few ways to prepare them that did not please the Duke's palate.

During the cold months, the eels would burrow into the mud and the fisher would use a long, barbed spear to bring them up, knocking them off the tines into a wooden box where they wriggled and fought in sawdust and salt. In the spring a net was used, thrown out into the water near the strong river current, then hauled back to check the catch. On hot summer days, when the fisher was too lazy to work for the eels, he would open a filthy oilskin sack he'd brought from town and pull out the head of a horse which he'd gotten from a stableman or butcher, knot a rope through the horse's mouth and throat, then weight the head down with an iron bar. This he'd throw out into the river, tying the other end of the rope to a tree on the bank. The fisher settled down to wait then, eating his breakfast, drinking the wine he'd brought along, often sleeping for an hour or so. When he'd grown impatient enough, or if the day was too hot for him, the horse’s head would be dragged back to shore, filled with dozens of voracious eels, writhing in the air, their sinuous bodies glistening green. The fisher pulled the eels from the head on which they'd been feeding, dropped them into his wooden box, and after untying his rope and setting aside the iron weight, cast the bit of horse back into the river for the other eels.

The eel man and I did not speak much. He didn't mind my company, and sometimes when he drank more than he was used to, he would tell me stories of taking his eels back to the ducal residence, rubbing their bodies with salt to clean off the slime, cutting long slits in their backs to pull out guts and spines. He did never once give me any eels to take home, as all the eels coming from that particular spot along the Elbe belonged to the Duke, who was a powerful man, jealous of his property. Nor did afternoons spent in his company fill me with any desire to fish for eels myself. Though they have beautiful skins, fine shirts crafted of a million flecks of emerald, eels have wicked faces and eyes like snakes, and I did not like to touch them.

“Wherefrom have you taken the horse?” I asked him once.

“This fellow,” he answered, looping his rope through the mouth and throat of the immense brown head, “Were the proud mount of a noble. Broke his leg two days past; the gentleman shot a pistol ball in its brain--see this hole, right here by the eye? Sold the horse to a butcher, an' he sold me the head. A fine head, too. Marry, I'll have twoscore eels eating his brains in an hour or two, lad.”

I must have looked greatly sad, as the fisher eyed me with some kindness. “Mourn not for this dead horse,” he said. “He served his master well enough, I warrant, and now his head does service for the Duke and the great ones the Duke will feast with the eels I'll bring home. We all serve our masters, lad. This horse yet does honorable duty.”

“I'd sooner be the Duke than the horse,” I said.

The fisher cuffed me hard, on the ear. “Watch your tongue, that I don't use it for bait,” he said. “Your lot is to obey your masters. Learn a trade, and mind your place in the world. Remember you this: you are the horse, not the rider. If the Duke cuts off your head and feed it to the fishes, that's his godly right.”

I was quite pleased with this opening gambit, and the beginning of the book stayed this way for some time. This is how the narrative began when I found an agent; these are the first pages he read. But my agent asked me if I could do anything to deepen the protagonist's character, to sharpen the conflict. He didn't specifically ask that I do anything with the opening, but I wanted to somehow have conflict in every scene so I took the passages I had above and forced some conflict into it:

On the day that my wife Astrid gave birth to our daughter, I carried our son Justus, who was but a year old, down to the banks of the Elbe. We followed the river to a small backwater a mile east of town and I found the very spot where, when I was a lad, I had often settled among mounds of wildflowers under the trees along the water’s edge. Many a day had I spent there, watching a man fish for eels in the shallows. I do not know the man’s name, nor did I ever. All I did know was that he was one of the royal fishers in the employ of the Duke, who had an insatiable taste for eels.
As the eel fisher so wisely noted, I was of no importance; the poor never are. I sat on the river’s north bank and held my young boy to my breast, promising him that I would not let our little family live and die in poverty. Justus smiled to hear me speak but understood nothing of my promise. He knew nothing yet of poverty, neither of despair nor fear. I had long since passed such innocence, and I knew that after I carried Justus home and fed him his gruel, after I kissed his mother and newborn sister as they slept, I would commit an act that would change the fortunes of many men, for both good and ill. My name is Horatio Johannes Andersmann, and I was born on December 27 in the year of our Lord 1571 in the city of Wittenberg, in Saxony. I would have remained in Wittenberg forever had I not done terrible things to protect my Astrid and our children. I shall reveal everything.

This does not work. It's a cheat, announcing to the reader that there is drama to come if you'll just bear with me. It's the same sort of cheap trick a lot of prologues play, and I never did like it. It says, "I don't so much have compelling characters or a great premise to draw you in, so here's a bit of a mystery that will remain unresolved for a couple hundred pages." Like I say, that's just cheating the reader. Which is why it's been cut, all of it. My current rewrite begins with the action of the story itself, my character in the situation lamely hinted at above, in real conflict in the "story present." I am opening, this time around, in medias res, with the action already underway. My plan is to take all the backstory I have cut and, if I think I really need it (and likely I don't need most of it), work it back in around page 100 or 150 or so.

My agent, by the way, likes the eels. But he's wrong, and I'm no longer starting with them.

While I feel confident that I am right in changing the way my book begins, I make no claims that a book shouldn't begin with back-story. I have read (and continue to read) a lot of classic literature which does not obey the currently popular ideas of structure and story-telling, and these classics have aged well. This is just the choice I have made, and I thought it might be fun to share the evolution of my book's opening.


  1. Scott,
    Your writing is so visceral and beautiful that I would probably love any place you started! But you are right that it must be what fits the propelling conflict. Perhaps the eel story will slide in naturally at some point and please your agent (and me!). Thanks for sharing your writing and your first-chapter journey.

  2. Thanks for sharing! Very cool to see how this process works for other writers.

    Love the writing on your first draft as well, but I think you made the right choice for sure. Your later drafts made me feel more personally involved through your character. Awesome work.

    I like the eels too, so I have to say I'm with Tricia on hoping they make it somewhere. :)

  3. You said you don't care for prologues because it flaunts a mystery instead of compelling characters and a great premise...so what if the story HAS compelling characters and a great premise, and the prologue essentially does shove the reader into the action right away? Does that mean it is not really a prologue, but a first chapter?

    I know, we've been here before and I'm arguing this point because I love my prologue. I can't help it. It probably doesn't help that I am stubborn. I'm working on that :)

  4. Scott,
    This is great. I'm very fascinated by this journey. So many times I've wanted to ask how the writers I admire get to their final (or at least later) drafts. This is very useful to me. And, it looks like you've got a lot of eel fans, including me.

    Morgan, I love that you are being stubborn! I'm pretty sure most people will say that if a prologue works, then a prologue works. I do wonder why yours won't fit as chapter 1, but maybe there's a big time jump or a POV shift or something. It doesn't matter. If it makes the book better, then keep it. I myself always feel a little slump in my heart when I open up a new book I'm planning to read and find a prologue waiting for me. But, that doesn't keep me from liking or not liking a book by any means.

  5. Tricia: Thanks for saying nice things about my writing. If the story demands the eels later on, I'll include them, but until then I consider them a blind alley, so to speak.

    Erin: My new opening, which I haven't shown here, is even more directly involved in the character and central conflict. It foreshadows the entire story and has the added benefit of being a comic scene.

    Morgan: First, I heave a world-weary sigh. Not having read your prologue, I can't comment as to its suitability to your story. But I will say this: So far this year, I have cut about 13,000 words from a novel I considered "finished." I loved all of the passages I cut. But my duty to my reader is greater than my duty to my own ego, so if a gorgeous passage didn't help the story I was telling, it had to go. I wipe away my tears and know that I've made the book better.

    But here's a test for the appropriateness of prologues: Let someone who's never seen your novel read it, but don't include the prologue. If your reader doesn't miss it, you don't need it.

  6. Fascinating!!

    You got me thinking.....do you suppose the reason books we love from long ago seem to take our hand and gently lead us into the story is because there were not as many books and the writers were aware that readers wanted their books to last longer....books reader could ease into and spend a long time in? Whereas today, if you don't grab a particular reader right away, there are so many more books for them to choose from that they'll drop yours and find one that grabs them by the shirt collars and pulls them in.

    Also, I was so glad that the draft where you wrote, "I am Horatio....and I was born in....." was dumped. I was afraid for a moment that it was the real one and I felt robbed!

    Mark me as another eel fan.


  7. Shelley: I think books in the past were simply often written with long lead-ins, though I don't think that was necessarily even in the majority of cases. A lot of "classics" jump right into the action. But I do think there is a habit of confusing "the story of Sam at the mountain" with "Sam's story" with "Sam's life story." If you see what I mean.

  8. I really like your writing alot, Scott. The second example you provide is my favorite, and I personally think there was nothing wrong with it. I was caught up in the story, I could visualize the imagery, and I was intrigued to read more. I also liked the eels, every part of your depictions of them. But as you say, it is your work and you will adjust it as you must. If the quality is anything near what I see here, this will be a great book. Thanks for allowing us a glimpse of your works.

  9. Eric: Thanks for the compliment. The problem with the second version of the opening is that it's backstory; it begins with my protagonist's childhood, which is not where the novel's story begins. I mention the social/historical backdrop and give a glimpse of my protagonist's relationship with his world, but I show all of that when he's an adult just as easily and more effectively for the story. So I cut all of this stuff.

    Is a post like this actually useful to anyone?

  10. I honestly think it's useful. Well, perhaps useful isn't the right word since everyone sort of has their own writing journey. But, I find it reaffirming. I take that back. It IS useful to see how other people make writing decisions. I'd actually love to have more writers post original and final drafts and discuss the decisions they made along the way.

  11. Scott, I really appreciate this post. I have a really hard time putting up my writing in a public place, let alone writing I've changed and don't think works anymore. However, I do see what you're doing here, and your examples are finely written. I agree with Tricia. I like your writing so much I'd probably sit through anything you trudged me through at the beginning!

    I also love the eels, but I agree with you in the end. You need to begin the story where it promises what's coming. And I'm guessing the eels don't make that promise, nor do they deepen your character right off the bat.

    I can see what your agent meant by adding depth and sharpening the conflict. I wasn't getting a clear sense of where you were headed with the examples you've shown. Although I'd be willing to read on and discover where you were headed, I'm not sure most readers would be. So many readers these days get impatient, which is why there might be a stigma against many literary classics.

    I love your line in your comment about your duty to your reader being greater than the duty to your own ego. That is one of the reasons I've cut a lot of back story from Monarch and instead focused on the REAL story. I did love that back story, though. It's saved in a folder, of course.

    Morgan: I had a prologue in my second novel that started out in the middle of the action. It was short, effective, and to the point. It's not a prologue, because honestly, there was no reason to call it a prologue. I had just called it that because it was short. Now I've fleshed it out and made it a beautiful chapter. Yay! Sometimes it's just a matter of studying what a prologue is supposed to be and really is. I did that and realized that my prologue was really a chapter.

    Maybe we can do a post on this. If you'd like that, go ahead and ask your question in the Just Ask section. :D

  12. Scott: I love that line: "my duty to my reader is greater than my duty to my own ego." I completely agree, and once I get some beta readers, I will work towards a finished product that is true to the heart of the story. I like the test that you mentioned, and I will have to try it out. My husband has already agreed to look at my work and he can be pretty brutal (nothing measures up to Tolkien in his eyes). I'm sure he'll give me an honest opinion. I'm still rooting for my prologue, though :)

    I wanted to add that I loved this post, and as I have been indulging in a lot of YA fiction lately, it was like going from a diet of fast food to fine dining. Your writing is excellent and it gives me incentive to pursue quality in my own work.

    David: I'm always stubborn at first until I get a chance to really think things through :)

    My prologue is a 1500 word description of a nightmare that is driving one of my main characters crazy. The POV, starting in chapter one, then shifts between the girl suffering from the nightmare, and the assassin who has been hired to kill her. Each chapter runs about approximately 5000 words. I guess the nightmare really represents the theme of the novel. It also is quite explicitly horrifying, and the feedback I've received from the few friends I've shown it to is that it left them wanting to know just what in blazes was going on. Maybe it is a rotten trick, but don't we want to intrigue our readers with a bit of a mystery?

    Lady Glamis: Thanks for your insight :)

    A post on prologues would be wonderful. Actually, I'm full of questions, so I will have to restrain myself from asking them all at once!

  13. Davin: "I'd actually love to have more writers post original and final drafts and discuss the decisions they made along the way."

    Word. We talk about abstract ideas too much here. Some concrete examples would be good.

  14. Just discovered your blog by way of your mention of Proust. I have never tried to write like Proust, but it would be interesting to try. Loved the story of the eels and the horse's head. What an image!


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