I mentioned on Facebook recently that I finally got a used copy of Twilight to scribble in. Back when I read it (apparently in 2008, didn’t realize it’d been that long), I didn’t like it but I also couldn’t put it down. I kept meaning to analyze it to find out why I kept flipping pages when I dislike vampires, werewolves, and romance.
Then at Gen Con (last year, I think), I went to a talk by Brad Beaulieu where he talked about tension on every page. He analyzed The Hunger Games (which I have to admit I thought was cheating, because of course a life or death battle has tension (don’t yell at me, he still has very good points)) in pretty much the same way I wanted to look at Twilight. A while later I randomly acquired the issue of the SFWA Bulletin where Brad wrote up his analysis as an article.
Tension on every page, at least phrased in that way, comes from Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel. It’s based on the idea that when tension decreases, the reader’s attention wanders–so low tension scenes should be avoided. Anyone who has read my books is probably thinking, “We told you that years ago, Elizabeth!” Well yeah, but I can only work on one writing problem at a time. Besides, my tea-drinking scenes are different.
So anyway, Twilight. This is one book that is well-served by its prologue, excuse me, its preface. In half a page we find out that the protagonist is about to die for someone she loves. There’s a whole lot of questions there–will she die? Why? What was the awesome life she had before this? What makes her love worth dying for? Plus, dying in his place engenders sympathy.
Then, chapter 1…well, I wrote “dragging” in several places. And “reeallly dragging” once. The question of whether this girl who seems determined to make herself miserable will fit in and have friends in school is…not as exciting. At least, once I wrote “reeallly dragging” at the bottom of one page, I flipped the page and the next one starts with Bella seeing the vampires (and then two pages of description about how beautiful they are, and then two pages about who they are, and then a page about Edward specifically, and then the rest of the chapter is about how Edward thinks she smells awesome or whatever (but we don’t know that yet)). I suspect I kept reading past chapter 1 on my first read because I tend to give books 50 pages before I give up, and the preface, at least, had set its hooks into me. Or fangs, as the case may be.
So what I’ve learned so far: if your first chapter does not live up to the excitement of the rest of the plot, consider adding a very short prologue that raises a whole bunch of different questions to give the reader something to be curious about. Though I’d have to say I’d award bonus points if the first chapter did live up to the rest of the plot.