If you’re writing a novel or a memoir, the following exercise might be helpful. It came up recently while I was working with a Fresh Pond writer on his memoir. This writer was really trying to nail the opening chapter, and so I suggested that he select five of his favorite memoirs (published by others) and analyze the first 15 pages.
I suppose you could expand this exercise to the first chapter, but we decided on 15 pages because oftentimes, everything you need to know to keep reading is already present by page 15. The exercise is simple; just answer these questions:
For each piece, write down:
- What is the main action?
- What characters, including the narrator, are mentioned? List them and what their relationship is to the narrator.
- By the end of the 15 pages, what do you know about how the narrator feels about those characters?
- What are the exact words the narrator says that give the reader an idea about what’s to come in the rest of the piece? These words are usually a few sentences that provide the reader a more sweeping, general sense of the narrator’s life and what may be in store.
Now, take the first 15 pages of your memoir/novel and answer the same questions. Compare.
I was surprised to find that some memories begin with an inciting incident, while others begin with an anecdote that represents the story’s bigger picture, a microcosm of the relationships that will be explored in the rest of the memoir.
I suspect if you did this exercise with a novel, you’d have a clear inciting incident and by the end of the first chapter, the trajectory of the characters would be clearly set in motion.
If you do this exercise, let me know what you find.