Essay 8 – Chapter 2
Last article, we discussed the first chapter of your novel, which is without question the most important chapter in your book. It’s the chapter that has to grab the reader by the throat (sorry if I use this cliché again and again, but it’s the exact right one for the situation – you DO have to grab the reader by the throat or some other equally sensitive area) and convince them with that one section that they MUST continue reading. The first chapter of a novel serves as the coming attractions for the rest of your book. Years and years ago, audiences might have been more patient and less demanding but that’s definitely not the case these days. One chapter is all you get, so that chapter better be good. Previously, I mentioned hitting the reader over the head with a club to get their attention. If you don’t like the club analogy, then think of your first chapter as a (hard) slap in the face, or a bucket of cold water poured over the reader’s head. The idea is the same. By the finish of that chapter, you need to have the reader sitting up and turning the pages. Half the battle of writing and selling a novel is fought in the first chapter. Unfortunately, wars aren’t won by one battle and books don’t rise or fall on the basis of one chapter. While the sale of your novel depends primarily on your first chapter, it’s the SECOND chapter that makes or breaks your career. It’s in the second chapter where you are forced to prove you’re a novelist. Without question, it’s the hardest chapter to write in a book. The only other chapter nearly as challenging in the big conclusion, which we’ll discuss later on.
Now, to remain perfectly honest, I have to pause before continuing and state that as always these opinions are mine and I am not Stephen King or Dean Koontz or any of a half-dozen best-selling horror authors. Every writer structures their books in a certain manner and writes them the way they feel works best for them. There is no ONE formula that will enable you to write a best-seller, or even write a book that is sure to sell. But, at the same time, many many books, especially in the horror and fantasy fields, follow a particular structure and style of storytelling. In conducting this class, I’m trying to relate how this method of writing a novel works. It’s a fairly straightforward process and it is especially useful for people who have difficulty finishing what they’ve started. I am surely not saying that it’s the only way to write a novel. Hopefully, it will inspire you to seek out other books describing how other writers compose their books using different techniques. I’m not saying mine is the best way, and it surely is not the only way. But, for now, it’s me and my methodical approach. So, please understand, I’m not saying these articles describe the ONLY way to write a novel. It’s just one way. Whether it’s the method for you, that’s a decision only you can make.
Now, let’s jump back to chapter two. What makes it so difficult? Strangely enough, the answer is at least in part, chapter one. Chapter one is the whirlwind start to your book, the James Bond high voltage action sequence before-the-titles show on the screen clip, the passionate embrace on the beach and roll-around-in the-sand until the tide comes in scene, and usually those scenes are not that hard to write. No question, they need your full attention and you need to work hard on them to squeeze every bit of passion, emotion, horror, or madness into those first half-dozen pages. But, for most of us, those type of scenes aren’t the difficult ones. Once you have the right idea, the intense emotion you need to make that scene work, putting it down on paper is often a race to see if your fingers can type as fast as your mind can dictate the words.
It’s not that action scenes or first chapters can be just written in an hour and forgotten. They need plenty of attention, especially in regards to using the correct words and not repeating yourself in three different spots. But, they’re also the scenes that almost write themselves. At least, they have always been that way for me and most authors I know have expressed pretty much the same thought. In THE BLACK LODGE, starting from when the Dark Man emerges from beneath the overpass to the end of the chapter, the pages were written in a white heat. I knew every exchange, every thought, every detail of the rest of the chapter. I replayed the shooting scene a dozen times in my head while writing it, thinking hard whether there was any way to make it more dramatic. I settled on “My turn,” the first pass and there was no doubt in my mind that the line would remain. It fit perfectly. I zapped the first chapter and fifteen years later there’s just about nothing in it I would change. But, then came chapter two, and I had to face the real world.
In chapter two, the plot of THE BLACK LODGE begins. The lead character of the book, Sidney Taine, is introduced and the main mystery of the book is presented to the reader. A menace of some sorts is made clear and other characters, even if they do not appear onstage, are mentioned. Equally important, at least to my concept of storytelling, there was seemingly no connection at all between the actions of the first chapter and the second. Hopefully, this lack of linkage caused the reader to wonder what did the first chapter have to do with the book? This notion tied in with what we discussed earlier.
EVERY chapter in your book must (repeat: MUST!) relate to the plot of the book, even if the reader does not realize that until much later. If the first chapter of your book is just an action scene but has no real connection to the plot of the rest of the story, then that chapter does not belong in your book. The first chapter not only has to start the book off with an action scene, it also has to start off the plot of the novel, though hopefully in a manner that the reader won’t understand right away. Chapter one introduces the murderous Dark Man killing drug dealers. Chapter two introduces Angel Caldwell searching for the mysterious Arelim and worrying about the Lodge meeting planned by her father and her husband. By the end of chapter two, the reader needs to be wondering what connection does the Dark Man have with the Lodge? Or with Arelim? Or Angel Caldwell?
Chapter Two also serves introduces the main character of the book, Sid Taine, and describes him well enough that he doesn’t need to be described again. He’s a big man, tall and graceful, and knows a good amount about the occult. For some reason not made clear, he is of interest to Victor Caldwell. Though Taine is presented as a smart, sometimes ruthless character, he never once uses physical violence in the novel. One or two scenes where he appeared somewhat menacing (in the bar and at Willis Royce’s headquarters), my editor suggested I tone down and I agreed. The cuts only amounted to a few paragraphs, but whereas Taine talks a good game, he never actually commits any violent acts in the entire novel. One of the points of the book is that Taine is too smart to rely on physical violence to solve his problems. A true master of Kabbalistic magic doesn’t need to punch people to make an impression. It’s a notion that rarely gets noticed when people read the book, but it’s an underlying theme of the story. Violence isn’t the only answer to violence, as Taine uses the force of God’s name to defeat his enemies instead of some powerful black magic.
Along with introducing Taine and several plot elements, the second chapter also includes several clues to the mysteries and crimes discussed in the book. The Black Lodge, of course, is mentioned with both Victor and Harmon as members. Angel, who is no angel, mentions how evil things happen there, and who better to say something like this than a schemer like Angel. There’s also the puzzle of why Victor Caldwell would be interested in psychic detective, Sid Taine. Plus, we’re presented with the fact that Taine solves most of his cases and uses occult (or at least New Age) methods to do so. How does that tie-in with the Lodge and the Dark Man? All are questions that are raised and need to be answered in the story. But, there’s one other point of importance.
When Taine is talking to Angel about who she wants found, she casually mentions that her older sister and mother were killed in a boating accident many years ago. It’s not a comment that attracts much notice, especially since Angel also mentions how she hates children and drops lovers. But, it’s the first clue scattered throughout the book about the death of a child belonging to a wealthy family. Those deaths become much more focused when Janet remembers the death of her brother, but it’s not something picked up by many people as being an integral secret of the novel. Just as the death of Willis’ Royce’s son seems to be nothing more than a bizarre incident about a drug dealer’s son and not another link to the chain of sacrifices.
Going back to a point made much earlier: knowing the end of your book and knowing the deep secrets of your plot before you start writing the book, enable you to write plots with depth and complexity otherwise not possible. Since I knew before I wrote the first word of THE BLACK LODGE that entry to the Lodge demanded that the member sacrifice the eldest child in the family, I was able to place such information in chapters in minor conversations, in histories of the characters, in otherwise innocent statements. Important clues need to be hidden from the reader, and the best method of hiding clues is to put them in plain sight but make them read so innocent that no one ever realizes they are a clue. Position your clues right and your book will sing. And your second chapter will have done its job.