Monday, 20 April 2009

The First Chapter

The Orange Peelers: Maria Pace-Wynters

This has been torturing me. For some reason I have begun to doubt my opening chapter.
Here's the killer question:

Is it a bad idea to open with exposition. If so, why?

To palliate my thoughts, I've been reading the opening chapters to recent Man Booker nominees and winners (because they are my chosen genre and they are hopefully representative of reasonably contemporary reading trends). I've also pored over relevant chapters in my library of 'how-to' books. And I did a little research online.
So what do you reckon?

I'm not concerned about rewriting. I'm happy to rewrite. And, if I conclude that I need to hide the exposition and open differently, I'm confident such that I've learned how to hide exposition and engage the reader. (When I say 'confident', I mean 'deluded'.)
I just need to know which way to go. I need to be at peace with my decisions.

Let's start with Sunset Bickham.
He says Don't Warm Up Your Engines!
And what he means by that is begin with forward movement.
That's to say, don't open looking backwards, and don't open in a static manner (descriptions!). Open with someone's response to threat.

In a good few Man Booker winners/nominees, you'll find people sat around drinking tea* and chatting in the first chapter (e.g. Hyland's Carry Me Down, Desai's The Inheritance of Loss) or thinking back to something that happened (e.g. Enright's The Gathering [N.B. In the second chapter, Enright has her characters sat around drinking tea]). None of these books open in the middle of a bloody battle, and they all contain descriptions, some of the sky, some of the walls.
How come?

Robert McKee helps us expand on Sunset's advice:
A Story Event creates meaningful change in the life situation of a character that is expressed and experienced in terms of a value and achieved through conflict.

McKee goes on to suggest that, ideally, every scene is a Story Event.
And that's how we can determine exposition.
If a scene contains no change of value - if there is no swing from happy to sad, or wisdom to stupidy, or anger to peace, etc., then the scene only describes and its inclusion probably needs to be reconsidered. Scenes turn, from positive to negative, or negative to positive.

It's that word again: CHANGE.

In Hyland's Carry Me Down, John is inviegled into assisting his father in the humane destruction of kittens, and by the end of the first chapter, he discovers that he can tell whether a person is lying or not.
In Desai's The Inheritance of Loss, Sai and her family are menaced by gunmen and they learn of a gathering insurgency.
Enright's protag in The Gathering is haunted by the past and its devastating effects on her and her family, and prepares to exorcise her ghosts.

Value charges switch from positive to negative, or negative to positive.
Lives are changed in all manner of ways, but always by some form of external or internal conflict.
The lives of these characters are different by the end of the first chapter (possibly the second in the case of Enright's protag). The old life has gone, and a new one opens before them.
It's important to note that each opening chapter points towards the protag's future; each opening chapter suggests to the reader that the journey has just begun!

Clearly, there is a place for description (and we don't need to go into that here), provided that the author understands that it stops movement.
Yes, the author needs to set stuff up, and that can be a pace-drainer too.
And the reader requires this stuff early on, otherwise they'll just go off and fabricate their own preconceptions. (For a frightening example of this, check out the mass reaction to Susan Boyle's appearance on Britain's Got Talent, and consider the similarities between preconceptions and prejudice!)
All of these things are okay.
Just be sure that they are wrapped in change, and that the change which concludes the opening chapter points a fat finger towards the following chapters.

To my question:

Q. Is it a bad idea to open with exposition?
A. Yes, because exposition is devoid of change and does not inherently pave the way for the rest of the novel.
My question was flawed, however, because I took set-up and descriptions to be exposition in their own right, and neglected to consider the entirety of the opening chapter.

So, for now at least, I have found comfort and am happy with my chosen path.
However, as ever, I would gratefully welcome all thoughts on the matter!

*Check out the tea-making and see how many things are actually achieved in each case!:

I walk to the far counter and pick up the kettle, but when I go to fill it, the cuff of my coat catches on the running tap and the sleeve fills with water. I shake out my hand, and then my arm, and when the kettle is filled and plugged in I take off my coat, pulling the wet sleeve inside out and slapping it in the air.
[The Gathering: Anne Enright.]

Eventually, the fire caught and he placed his kettle on top, as battered, as encrusted as something dug up by an archaeological team, and waited for it to boil. The walls were singed and sodden, garlic hung by muddy stems from the charred beams, thickets of soot clumped batlike upon the ceiling. The flame cast a mosaic of shiny orange across the cook's face, and his top half grew hot, but a mean gust tortured his arthritic knees.
[The Inheritance of Loss: Kiran Desai.]

There is a pot of hot tea in the middle of the table and we each have a cup and plate. There are ham and turkey sandwiches on the plates and, if we want more to eat or drink, there is plenty. The pantry is full.
[Carry Me Down: M.J. Hyland.]

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