Friday, May 29, 2020

The main character comes on stage later

In my novel, the inciting incident is a car accident that occurs at the end of chapter 1. A lot happens in that first chapter; it is crucial for setting up/beginning the main plot arc and several subplots. Most importantly, it shows the life this family is struggling to recapture through the rest of the book.

My problem is the protagonist of the novel isn't in that chapter. He comes to town to help after the car accident. There are several reasons why starting the novel with his arrival wouldn't work.

My questions:

The query focuses on the protagonist, not the pov character in chapter 1. Will agents reject my query because the opening pages don't start with the protagonist?

If so, should my sample pages be chapter 2, rather than chapter 1?

This kind of question will get you into all kinds of trouble because the correct answer to all query questions is: Do what works.

Sometimes that means you start your pages before the main character steps on the page.
Sometimes it means you start the query with the setting, not the plot.

I will say this about your worry on insta-rejection: agents aren't reading in a vacuum. We understand that the story doesn't always begin with the main character. Look how long it takes Romeo and Juliet both to get on stage!

The purpose of pages is this: entice me to read more.
What I look for in pages is whether you can tell a story with elan and style, and whether I want to read more.

That's it.

I don't have a checklist for any of those things you hear me rail about: starting with weather, driving, phone calls, waking up.

That all falls under "elan and style".  Boring is not a style I'm looking for. (I'm guessing no other agents are either.)

Don't start with chapter two, no matter what.

If you're in a true crisis about this, get to a writing conference where you can get your query under an agent's eyeballs, and ASK if it's effective.

Alternatively, there are often charity fundraisers that offer query crits in exchange for a donation.

Also backstory doesn't need to always be on the page.
It can sometimes create a lot of tension if the reader doesn't know everything.
Over-explaining is one of the biggest problems I see in pages. It can kill the pacing.


Melissa Alexander said...

Thanks, Janet! I appreciate it!

E.M. Goldsmith said...

I had same problem. Main character not in first chapter - it was the antagonist and so I was getting rejections because agents hated the antagonist without having ever met the protagonist. I changed the query to talk about the protagonist but that confused agents. He isn't in pages.

So I am considering a rewrite again. I put my pages back in workshop and got same reaction over and over again. They hate the antagonist. And they should but still, they did not want to continue reading. I felt sick about it because I loved my opening. No one else did outside my last two beta readers. So back to drawing board again. I don't want to burn through all my list of agents with pages that don't work. It is critical to get that first chapter right.

Anyhow, it is a lot of rewriting and revision for me. On the edge of putting this book aside (third book in a row that I would put aside) and going with the next. I am in a bit of writer despair right now. I love my latest book. Love it. Apparently, I am the only one in the known universe that feels that way so that sucks a lot.

Going through the pain of rearranging, revising, and trying to get readers to attach. New beta readers, new workshop. Getting those first few pages right is so important because that is what will get you through the door. But it is so hard to make sure your first few killer pages don't kill the rest of your book. And I have put aside dozens of books that had great openings and NOTHING else going for it. I have also loved books where the beginning is just yeah, ok and builds slowly into a master piece.

So much of publishing is walking a tight wire over a flaming pit of lava filled with fire dragons waiting to eat your barbecued remains and poop you out as ashes.

I am running out of barbecued remains for the dragons to eat.

KariV said...

A lot of it depends on book and genre. My sequel starts with my antagonist, but I think (read: hope) readers will connect with that out of curiosity.

But I've read MANY books that start with the antagonist, specifically thrillers. Most recently "Thirteen" by Steve Cavanaugh, although "Red Dragon" by Thomas Harris also comes to mind. Those antagonists are horrible but I read on desperate to see how they'd be stopped.

EM - have you found comps in your genre where the first pages feature the antagonist? What are they doing that maybe you aren't? If you want direct feedback, I'm willing to look at your first chapter and query. Just email me.

mhleader said...

E. M. Goldsmith, I totally feel your pain. Been there, done that. BUT...think about this. You love your opening chapter. The reason others don't (except your two beloved beta readers who definitely deserve some ice cream with sprinkles) is (you're pretty sure) because they introduce the antagonist readers are supposed to hate. I'm gonna suggest a couple options that might work. If either does, go for it!!

First, you're clearly giving away the bad guy right up front. (I'm thinking COLUMBO TV series here.) Is that necessary? Is there a way to either not make baddie appear awful so early--or leave him/her ambiguous? Can you soften what he/she does in that opening chapter so the reader isn't all that sure if they're an innocent bystander who tries to help (but fails), or accidentally comes on the scene? Something like that? Or even keep the identity of the baddie unclear up front? Who is this person? Reader doesn't know. Reader knows they hate this guy/gal, but not exactly who it is they're hating on... Try various combos of this to see if you can make that opening chapter work.

Second option: What if you break that opening chapter into fragments--lilttle snippets. And instead of opening with the whole horrific thing, you start more or less where your Ch 2 starts, but have tiny little flashbacks to that opening. FOR EXAMPLE (I'm gonna assume this is one of those horrific murder (or torture/abuse) situations, so if that's not what you're doing, adapt for your story's situation): Suppose you open with a minor character (like a cop or cab driver or passing innocent bystander) discovering the dead body. Hero gets called onto the scene. They start investigating. And then there's this little snippet (chage of POV) of the horrible opening-that-was, with the baddie (we don't know who it is, but someone among the dozens of people present), remembering a flashback of how the dead person screamed when baddie was In fact, maybe that passing innocent bystander really is the baddie. Or somehow put the victim in the way of the baddie so bears some level of guilt. I dunno. You could work it a lot of different really effective ways.

IOW, the second option again means we do NOT know who exactly the baddie is, but we get snippets through the first few scenes/chapters of what baddie experienced when doing his/her horrible thing.

This is a long post, and I'm sorry about that. But put your thinking cap on to find a way to both save your opening prose but also not exactly open with it. I'm betting you can figure out a way to do it!!

John Davis Frain said...

Oh, what I wouldn't give for new episodes of Columbo.

One more thing...

E.M. Goldsmith said...

mhleader I am thinking of taking the approach of peppering in the details of the antagonist. For now, I believe I am going to put the book aside and get some distance while I work on my WIP which I am really enjoying right now. I spent four years with the last book, the one I have been querying, and I am just not up for another revision just now.

But that opening chapter, so hard. So hard to strike that right chord.

mhleader said...

E. M. I'll just wish you all the best of luck with your current WIP. I hope when you come back to this one, you'll have a fresh take on it and it'll be a little easier. Take care!

KDJames said...

OP, I think it's important to decide whose story this is. From what little you said here, it almost sounds like it's the story of the family recovering from traumatic events, which would make the "protagonist" more of a helper -- an important role, but not the main character.

The main reason to start with the protagonist is that the reader will generally attach to the first character they encounter (unless that character is clearly awful, like in EM's story) (EM are you sure your antag isn't really the protag? the protag isn't necessarily "good" you know-- think Macbeth) (or in a thriller where everyone in the first scene dies) (sorry for my convoluted parentheticals).

But if you're really sure that the protagonist IS the protagonist and it really IS his story, that story starts on the day that is different (for him). Which I'm assuming is the day he learns about the car accident and is motivated to act. You don't need to lead with us being immersed in or witnessing the accident. You just need to show the effects of it in the first scene, when the protag learns about it. You can filter in all the details and impact of that event as you go. At some point he'll need to ask, "What happened here?" As the protag learns about those crucial details, so will the reader.

I don't know whether this will work for your story, but it's one way to begin with the protag and also incorporate the important aspects of the accident very early on. Best of luck with it.

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