Post-Disaster First Chapters

Peat

Journeyed there and back again
#1
(warning - this is a kinda thinking aloud post)

I've been playing around with first chapters recently and noticed I'm frequently going with the aftermath of a disaster for my first chapter.

Now, I feel this is slightly unusual. Most books seem to start with either

a) An "action" sequence; usually either with a disaster happening, or something seemingly good but eventually catastrophic happening.

b) Everyday reality into which a disruptive element is dropped in.

Its not that I don't think post-disaster can't work or anything like that. Every murder story that starts with someone at a crime scene is post-disaster; every story that starts with someone waking up on a battlefield or in jail.

But I am wondering whether its harder. Whether the reactive nature of the situation makes interjecting a hook more difficult. I'd have thought that it would make it easier - he's in a jail! Be hooked! - but it doesn't seem to work that way. I mean, obviously it doesn't when you think about it. Being in jail is where he is - the hook is what he does about.

And I feel like that there is a problem here in that it adds to the descriptive burden too much because not only do you have to introduce character, setting, hook, you also have to explain why the hell they're there; what disaster happened.

I do like the idea of it though and its effects when it works. It sets stakes really early and because it features the character thinking more than acting, it introduces the character better. Well, for my money, at least if they're a thinky character.

Does this make sense to people? Can anyone think of some opening chapters that really worked for them in this vein? Is there anything I'm missing about the strengths and weaknesses of this approach?
 

Matticus Primal

Journeyed there and back again
#2
Are you taking prologues into account in this theory, which (IMO) are usually the inciting incident, just without the context (WoT, for instance)?

I'm trying to decide if most books I've liked begin (ie post prologue) post-crisis/ en media res, or opening at the "average day in the life" that then later gets disrupted. GoT and WoT were definitely the latter, as would I say Farseer (though there is hints that he's going to survive since he's writing it, so you could argue that it's post-crisis). Harry Potter too. At least in the movies since I haven't read the books. LOTR and Hobbit are day in the life too if memory serves.

And now that I've gone down that mental alley, I can't think of any that are post crisis off the top of my head.

In films you traditionally have the day in the life disrupted opening, while in ongoing television series it usually opens mid-crisis (ie first day of school/ work/ alien invasion, etc), which is sort of funny since plotting-wise a novel series should cleave closer to the TV series, yet seems to follow the movie structure closer.
 

Peat

Journeyed there and back again
#3
I wasn't, partly because some people skip them, partly because I've been on a streak of books that don't have them... and partly because I forgot.

Elizabeth Bear has some post-crisis ones - man on battlefield surrounded by the dead - and the book I just finished reading had a post-crisis (man wakes up in jail) although it never really followed that crisis but instead launched him on a new one so I'm not sure it counts.
 

Tanniel

Hired Nicomo Cosca, famed soldier of fortune
#4
I've never thought about this angle of approach to first chapters before, but it's interesting to consider, now that you've got the ball rolling. I think I have the same tendency as you, that is, beginning the story with the aftermath of something happening (The Eagle's Flight opens up a few months after the death of the king, and my current work in progress also begins with our protagonist in jail - I'm not gonna pretend that's an original idea of mine). I think it stems from my desire to skip what I consider "predictable" events in the story. E.g. your example with murder mysteries; as a reader, you know someone is going to get murdered. The actual, interesting story is how it gets solved. That's why it makes sense to skip the actual event (the murder) because the reader knows fully well it will happen, it's entirely predictable. To loop back and talk about myself again, the blurb of my story explains that the protagonist gets released from jail to perform a service to someone influential. I'd just be annoying the reader by describing what they already know if I started the story describing him getting caught and thrown in jail - it just seems like better pacing and more economical storytelling to start the story at the next step.

I don't think it necessarily becomes a problem in terms of having to explain the disaster at the same time as setting, plot, character etc. On the contrary, it can act as a great hook by postponing it. Imagine a character walking up on a battlefield and staggering off, swearing revenge against those who betrayed him. You'll have explained something about the setting (the slain and the weapons used), you'll have introduced your character (a grim, embittered veteran) and the plot (he's off for revenge). All of that can be pretty standard and perhaps not catchy on its own. But why and how was he betrayed? By whom? That's the details of the disaster that will make the reader curious to read on.
 

Peat

Journeyed there and back again
#5
Yes! That sense of "Well this ends one way" is a big subconscious thing for me in terms of picking post-disaster and I never quite realised.

Although you can get that with some post-disaster ones too. I think being in a jail is particularly bad for that - you know they're getting out or there's no damn story.

Now, yeah, sure, you can totally do stories where everyone knows what will happen and the question is how. But uncertainty is a powerful spice.
 

Noor Al-Shanti

Is a wondrous friend of modest Kruppe
#6
I don't think it necessarily becomes a problem in terms of having to explain the disaster at the same time as setting, plot, character etc. On the contrary, it can act as a great hook by postponing it. Imagine a character walking up on a battlefield and staggering off, swearing revenge against those who betrayed him. You'll have explained something about the setting (the slain and the weapons used), you'll have introduced your character (a grim, embittered veteran) and the plot (he's off for revenge). All of that can be pretty standard and perhaps not catchy on its own. But why and how was he betrayed? By whom? That's the details of the disaster that will make the reader curious to read on.
I think you're on to something important here. It's not so much where exactly you start as how you use that to hook the readers. A post-apocalyptic or post-disaster story can start off by describing the "ordinary day" in the life of someone who lives in this post-apocalyptic version of our world and so it can slowly introduce the differences between our world and the one in the story in a way that kind of subtly hooks the reader and makes them think "how did this come to be?" kind of questions like for example "why do they have smartphones but not cars?".

That would be a very different approach from the waking up right after the battle example where the character is clearly still trying to come to grips with what happened and their feelings and reactions to the disaster that just happened are more at the forefront.

I think either can be used to hook the reader in its own way, depending on what story you're trying to tell, the feel of it, and the nature of the disaster and setting.

I do think opening post-disaster is much more powerful than starting in the middle of the action. An older version of the novel I'm currently supposed to be editing started right in the middle of a battle which was an important turning point in the main character's life, but that assumed interest/hook I thought I could get from that kind of start just wasn't there for the readers and after leaving the story for a few months and re-reading it I started to agree with them. At the same time I was struggling to make a short story in the same world work for me. I knew in great detail what happened in it and all the scenes, but I just couldn't figure out how to make it "interesting" even to me. I eventually found a fix for both these problems by merging the two stories together and starting the new version of the novel just before the main issue/disaster happened to the short story character...

The same major events and feelings and settings and characters and conflicts from both stories were still there, but just by shifting the starting point by a few minutes in relation to the short story starting point and handling it a different way I got an opening and a hook that made the story work much better for me and for my first readers. And in this case I found this starting point by focusing on the biggest emotional hook rather than trying to hook the reader with action or with world-building type questions.

So yeah, don't know if any of that made much sense with my personal examples, but I do think post-disaster can work really well if you play it right.

It's all in how you look at it. Speaking of which I think Harry Potter could be considered post-disaster if you look at it a certain way. After all we have this character who is only a baby and he's being left on the doorstep of some unpleasant relatives because his parents just died. That's a personal disaster if ever there was one. However, J. K. Rowling chose a bit of a slower approach to introducing the whole thing and focused more on the hints of magic in the first few paragraphs when she described McGonagall spying on the Dursleys in her cat form. So yeah, the main character's parents have just died, but the story starts off by introducing her magical element and some of the characters with a bit of humor.

The harder question is: how do you hit on the right angle/hook for your opening scenes? All I can suggest is to keep trying different things until one approach clicks.

/post that is far too long ... sorry about that! You definitely got me thinking with this topic, Peat!
 

Tanniel

Hired Nicomo Cosca, famed soldier of fortune
#7
Although you can get that with some post-disaster ones too. I think being in a jail is particularly bad for that - you know they're getting out or there's no damn story.
That's very true; in my current work, my protagonist is out of prison by page 2, and I don't try to make any kind of fake tension about it. Readers are smarter than that.

In any case, I don't see any trouble with you starting your stories post-disaster. I'm quite a fan of it myself, obviously.

It's all in how you look at it. Speaking of which I think Harry Potter could be considered post-disaster if you look at it a certain way. After all we have this character who is only a baby and he's being left on the doorstep of some unpleasant relatives because his parents just died. That's a personal disaster if ever there was one. However, J. K. Rowling chose a bit of a slower approach to introducing the whole thing and focused more on the hints of magic in the first few paragraphs when she described McGonagall spying on the Dursleys in her cat form. So yeah, the main character's parents have just died, but the story starts off by introducing her magical element and some of the characters with a bit of humor.
Harry Potter is a strange case in this context, now that you point it out. It starts post-disaster, but also with a prologue, meaning the actual story begins with slice of life. Way to cover all your bases.
 

Peat

Journeyed there and back again
#8
Have to say, I see Potter as the slice of life, because I keep forgetting prologues but yeah, the prologue itself is a good post-disaster. Wheel of Time follows the same model.

I'm still musing about this more from an academic point of view than anything else by now. Its not whether I can do it, its what I should think about what I do. Something I think that is good about the post-disaster is it gives you a lot more flexibility in terms of talking about the inciting incident - different view points, skipping over the boring bits, adding new bits to it throughout the story. Potter is a fine example of that.
 

Maark Abbott

Journeyed there and back again
#9
(warning - this is a kinda thinking aloud post)

I've been playing around with first chapters recently and noticed I'm frequently going with the aftermath of a disaster for my first chapter.

Now, I feel this is slightly unusual. Most books seem to start with either

a) An "action" sequence; usually either with a disaster happening, or something seemingly good but eventually catastrophic happening.

b) Everyday reality into which a disruptive element is dropped in.

Its not that I don't think post-disaster can't work or anything like that. Every murder story that starts with someone at a crime scene is post-disaster; every story that starts with someone waking up on a battlefield or in jail.

But I am wondering whether its harder. Whether the reactive nature of the situation makes interjecting a hook more difficult. I'd have thought that it would make it easier - he's in a jail! Be hooked! - but it doesn't seem to work that way. I mean, obviously it doesn't when you think about it. Being in jail is where he is - the hook is what he does about.

And I feel like that there is a problem here in that it adds to the descriptive burden too much because not only do you have to introduce character, setting, hook, you also have to explain why the hell they're there; what disaster happened.

I do like the idea of it though and its effects when it works. It sets stakes really early and because it features the character thinking more than acting, it introduces the character better. Well, for my money, at least if they're a thinky character.

Does this make sense to people? Can anyone think of some opening chapters that really worked for them in this vein? Is there anything I'm missing about the strengths and weaknesses of this approach?
I refer you to the start of Gardens of the Moon and the aftermath of Pale.
 

jo zebedee

Journeyed there and back again
#10
I do this in Inish Carraig. The alien invasion is over, the great change has already happened. (At one point I was planning a collaboration with an author who fancies writing the invasion but I decided I liked the idea too much to share in the end ;))

Three things I did: get the early hints in that SOMETHING has happened to get readers interested
Have a second POV character (Carter) who knew what had happened and was in the position to be talking with people about it
Have an inciting incident at the end of chapter one which caused a personal disaster (as opposed to the world disaster) and raised the stakes for a bunch of kids (everyone likes kids in danger!)
 

ExTended

Journeyed there and back again
#11
I am trying to stay away from such chapters to the best of my abilities. Mainly because I have little faith in the current attention span level of the average reader, which doesn't really differ from my attention span, really, we are spiled bunch of entertainment consumers. Secondly - because the stories I've happened to put the start to, didn't warrant such kind of approach.

My main story is opening up the scene in an interesting location, at odds with my main character's inner workings, and we get to see his awkward side and his awesome side take turns during the first few pages, and afterwards it skips scene to a bum bum bum sequence. Since I've needed to place many, many questions in those first few pages, I've decided against disaster-happening prologue to make my life easier. I loved the disaster prologue idea I've had, but it's not worth it, since it doesn't go well with the consecutive beginning of the book. And while I love the WoT prologue approach, and the LOTR movies opening scenes approach, that's something my story should go without, because of my preference not to lose half of the potential readers in the first paragraph. :) Fantasy has moved on from the Prologue disaster + The Shire first chapter approach. It still works - WoK is a good example, but only when it doesn't get in the way of the main story, but rather - helps it being more intriguing.

In my second series I have a Hunt in the wood prologue beginning with a minor character, which scene I am using to show the magic system early on, then a disaster is happening( to one of the main characters), then a self call to action is answered by a 2nd main character, and I skip a few years forward, into an everyday life + some tension incoming at the end first chapter. So here I do use this, but in a way which doesn't add to my work-load for the first chapter, but rather, lessens it a bit. Since heavy info-dumping is one of the things that jars me away from the story the most as a reader, I do my best to always be conveying as much information as possible through medias-res action scenes, so that I won't be forced to deal as much with it through navel-gazing or dialogue.
 
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Peat

Journeyed there and back again
#13
Not to quibble too much, but something like Inish Carraig wasn't what I had in mind. There life has had time to normalise after the apocalypse and the disaster and the setting are one. Its the very personal, very immediate disaster that I'm thinking of. To use Kenubrion's example - I don't think The Broken Empire starts that way (its a kinda weird intro actually, its a rare sighting of a MC immediately being competent and doing what they like) but I do think Prince of Fools is an example, in that we start with the MC having to run away and survive something going wrong.

Thank you all though :D