Hook, Line, and Sinker (2)

A good opening is difficult to analyze but easier to recognize. If the opening holds your attention, it is a good one.

In this blog, I have already introduced several openings I have written. One about the witch, one about the alienated son, one about a black samurai, and one about an honest African American in trouble with the police.

I do write a lot of first chapters. (Not as many last chapters, unfortunately.) I have been writing practically nothing else for the past forty years, so I should be pretty good at it by now. Now, let me extract the first sentence from each one.

The dirty secret of my family was that my father was violently sodomized when he was seven years old by a close and respectable relative.

The sun set warm over the stench of glory.

Deep in the middle of the twentieth century, it was still a tough game to be an honest Negro in the Land of the Free.

Each one has irony, sadness, anger, and pain. I do not plan it this way. It just seems to end up this way when I feel that the sentence sounds right, unless I am trying to write a comedy.

Each story the opening sentence is followed by a conflict and a mystery, establishment of time and place, and ends with a cliffhanger. Hook, line, and sinker.

The way I see it, they are not so bad. Opening chapters are not my problem. My problem is maintaining the tension for the chapters that follow.

Another problem is probably confidence, because after a while, I start feeling that my stories are silly and feel that I am making a fool of myself.

How do I write a good second and third chapters? The problem with second and third chapters is that they can have a lot more variation than the first chapter. Unlike the first chapter, there is no simple list of essential elements for the second and third chapters.

For example, a second chapter does not have to be a continuation of the first chapter. It can flashback in time or describe a completely different story. If the first chapter is about a bomb being hidden at a city hall in Belfast, the second chapter can be a heated conference at the KGB headquarters in Moscow. In that vein, the third chapter can be a sting operation in the black market in Paris. Then the novel can alternate between three story lines until they eventually come together. (Master story teller Arthur Hailey tended to write this way.) Or if the first chapter is about a bomb in Belfast, the second chapter can back track and follow the life of the bomb squad officer up until he is tasked to defuse a particularly clever bomb. Or maybe, the second chapter should be a continuation of the first chapter. In the first chapter a bomb is hidden in Belfast, bomb squad officers and their daily lives are exposed in the second chapter, a child stumbles on the bomb in the third chapter and the bomb squad is summoned.

With all these possible variations, what defines a good second chapter? The second chapter can be any number of things. In most books I have read (and admired), the second chapter tend to be calmer and more descriptive than the first chapter, which tends to be more breathless. But if the second chapter is actually a first chapter to a different story line, it could be the same breathless introduction as the chapter preceding it.

It is only my opinion, but I believe there is no universal answer to what makes a good second or third chapter. But there are certain requirements applicable to any chapter of a book: If the reader stops reading, it is a lousy chapter.

Every chapter should have at least three “beats”. Each beat must be connected with either “therefore” or “but”. If any of the beats need to be connected with “and then”, that break should fall between chapters. A bomb was hidden in Belfast, “and then”, a heated conference happened in Moscow, “and then”, a black market sting was botched in Paris. Within a chapter, beats should not be connected with “and then”. Hideyoshi’s army was victorious, “but”, the Black samurai was dissatisfied because Mitsuhide got away, “but”, he captured a young samurai belonging to the enemy, “but”, he revealed that the Hideyoshi was also a traitor.

Given that, each chapter should follow the “sinker” of the first chapter. A novel needs a consistent attitude throughout. A Raymond Chandler book needs to sound like a Raymond Chandler book from beginning to end.

That should carry me through at least the first three chapters. But after the fifth chapter, I will have to deal with the problem of pacing.




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