Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Showing C.A.R.E. in Your First Chapter

Last year I had the opportunity to participate in my first speaking engagement as a writer. I lecture often in my job as a university instructor, so speaking on Autism or Speech-Language Pathology to a group of people isn't such a big deal.
But presenting about writing? Well, that was new. Fun, but new.

As I was preparing to chat with a writer's group about the importance of first chapters, I thought of a cute acronym to go along with my teaching.

So - what keeps the readers reading in your first chapter?

Showing C.A.R.E. as an author. That's what!

C - Character relate-ability - If readers don't care about our characters in one way or other, they are less likely to keep reading. This doesn't necessarily mean that our characters have to be noble and righteous. It means they have to be relatable. An 'aha' moment of "I know how that feels" or "I've felt that way before", or "I've been there or done that" before. Somehow we have to relate.

So, if we enter the world of Narnia with Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy, a reader might can't relate to the fears of WWII or stepping through a wardrobe into a magical world, but we can relate to being scared of something (like the children were of the bombs dropping in London) or of being in a new place (like in the Professors house), and we can remember 'dreaming' of imaginary places. It's wonderful.

A - Arrest the Readers Attention - Within the first page (preferably) an author must grab the reader's attention. Beginning your story in the beginning is not the best place, usually. Beginning the story IN MOTION is vital. Fairytales of years gone by which started with Once Upon a Time and then were followed with a five page narrative about the poor lost girl whose life was miserable, aren't hooking readers' attention or curiosity anymore.

Example: How do producers hook viewers for a 1-hour weekly series? The first five minutes (or less) of the show (before commercial break) begins with some arresting development. A body drops from a twelth story window onto the car of the hero/heroine; a recap of last weeks' ending reminds us that the heroine walked in on her boyfriend kissing another woman. Somethng happens to grab our attention and hold us through that commercial break.

The same is true for our writing.

R - Radiate a Sense of Place - Story Worlds are powerful places. From Middle Earth to Scarlet O'Hara's Deep South, to Dickens' London, or Brian Jacques' Redwall Abbey, place plays a big role in a reader's immersion into our stories.

One of the BIGGEST reasons why fiction readers read is to escape their world  or be entertained by someone else's story. Creating Story Worlds that do just that feeds the fiction reader's need, and makes them want to keep reading.

E - Emotions Draw Readers In - Relatability is one thing; An Emotional Connection is another. When the reader has an emotional response, he/she is usually hooked into reading more. If the response is caring, then great! If it's intrigue, good. If it is shock or fear (not my favorite ones, but some people like them), then they are more liekly to keep reading.

Jamie Carie begins her novel, Love's First Light, in the middle of the French Revolution with the hero's sister being executed. Emotional? Oh yeah! Mary Connealy usually begins her novels with the characters in peril. Emotional? You bet. Laura Frantz starts her novels off with historical beauty and depth of characters that create longing. Emotional? Definitely. And let's not forget humor! Like Janice Hanna Thompson or Deeanne Gist.

So, what do we need to do as writer?

Show our first chapters (and our entire books) a lot of C.A.R.E. and we'll really set the stage for a beautiful story.

Of the above 4 elements, which do you think is most important? Which one are you good at writing? Which one do you find most challenging?


Jillian said...

Thanks for this great post! I think all four of these elements are crucial, but it is always very important to grab the reader's attention right away. Having some sort of conflict in the beginning usually pulls the reader in.

Mostly, I need to work on an emotional connection. It is mentioned on the first page of my current story that the main character's father had passed away. I guess one could consider that intriguing, yet I still think I need a stronger emotional connection.

Beth K. Vogt said...

Terrific acronym, Pepper!
How to choose the most important one out of the four ... can't do it, you'd end up with a misspelled word!

SF said...

I have reached a point where I've revised my first chapter so many times that it is probably about as good as I can make it. But these are great things to think about! I think these will help me go through that opening one more time and make it even a little better.


Cindy R. Wilson said...

Good post, Pepper! This is a great way to teach the basic and most important parts of a story. I think I need to work on grabbing the readers attention right away. I still struggle with that sometimes :)

Unknown said...

This is all so good, Pepper! All four are so important. I definitely think caring about the character, for me, is the most vital thing. Even if the plot starts with a bang, if the character doesn't in some way grab my sympathy, I just don't really care. :)

Great examples, too!

Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

Love the post, Pepper! I would have loved to have heard you give this talk. :)

They are all important, but caring for the characters is a MUST. If you don't care about the character, then what's the point in reading about them? I need to work on this one, definitely!

Joanne Sher said...

What a super acronym, Pepper! Gonna remember this one for sure.

I'd say my biggest struggle is the sense of place. It's way too easy to be either too descriptive or not enough. But I need help with pretty much all of them. That's why I'm learning!

Gabrielle Meyer said...

You've given some great examples, Pepper! C.A.R.E. is easy to remember and so important - all of it! I love the idea of radiating a sense of place (and Laura is soooo good at that one!) - I write about the area I live in and it's so easy to establish a sense of place because I know it so well and love it completely (mosquitos, blizzards and all). After I've created that place, it's so much easier to set characters into it and arrest the reader's attention!

Pepper said...

One of the things I've heard most throughout this writing gig is to 'hook the reader'.
And it's true for me as a reader too.
I want to be caught - whether it be by the plot, characters, or simple beauty of the writing, I need to be caught :-)

Pepper said...

LOL, Beth...
Just don't seem to fit as well :-)

Pepper said...

WTG Susan,

Pepper said...

Thanks, Cindy.
It was fun to create! :-)

Pepper said...

AGREED! I must care too!

Pepper said...

It was a lot of fun! :-)
And I would have loved for you to be there!

Pepper said...

Creating a sense of place can be really challenging, but what a reward!

Pepper said...

Wonderful Gabrielle.

I write where I live too. Isn't it so much fun!

Ava Walker Jenkins said...

Great checklist and easy to remember. I would have loved to hear that lecture, too.
Character relate-ability is top of my list and something that is starting to come easier.
Hands down, the easiest for me to write and describe is setting.
Thanks, Pepper, for the reminders.

Pepper said...

Thanks, Ava.

Btw - I have a character in the works with your name.
It's such a pretty name

Ava Walker Jenkins said...

Thanks, Pepper. Funny you should mention the name. Last fall I attended a conference and met Gail Gaymer Martin. When she autographed my copy of one of her books, she grinned and said "Ava" was the name of the heroine in her current WIP.

Just picked up that very book last week--in the LI series-- "A Dream of His Own." I can't tell you how weird it is to see my name printed over and over in those pages. It's a name on the rise. Hope you have a lot of success with your "Ava".

Pepper said...

Cool, Ava!

I've seen my name in print my whole life... in restaurant menus ;-)

Marney McNall said...

Hey Pepper,

I think a relatable main character is THE most important, although all the aspects you mention, build on each other. My hardest is plot, arresting the reader's attention.