In our quest to understand what exactly the publisher is looking for in those first 3 chapters that are sought as a sample, we have already looked at:
Within the first chapter we must have an introduction to one of the 3 main characters.
Your first chapter must have the HOOK
The third thing on your list follows from the second
The best writing in your book must be in those first three chapters
First, let me explain how this follows from the second point. As we have seen, the narrative HOOK is the dramatic action that “hooks” the reader’s attention and prods him to read on.
All dramatic action is embodied in threat. The more imminent the threat, the more dramatic the HOOK is.
All threats however, aren’t created equal. A person hanging from the Brooklyn bridge is not really under the same threat as your middle aged protagonist who has lost his job. What makes these threats equal or apparently equal, is the writing.
Your writing is the HOOK.
Second, and I am elaborating on this just to help you relax your raised eyebrow. When I say, the best writing in your book must be in those first three chapters, I do not mean that they have to be restricted to those chapters alone. If you can, have great writing throughout, but if you can’t, let those first three chapters be the best ones.
To not be “because I said so” about it, let me cite a practical application of this: Scribd notes that more than 30% of all reads on its subscription program is less than 10% of the book. That is, almost one out of every three readers set down a book after reading the first 20 – 40 pages!
THREE Chapters, that’s all you get to transform your tame threat into a raging question through your writing.
When we talk about your best writing, I do not mean you describe ‘the sun setting in a crimson haze beyond the barren and snow dusted pines’ Your writing has to make the threat and dire consequences that could follow more palpable. Which is why, at least for the first three chapters, the less ‘frilly’ your writing is, the tighter the threat.
If your HOOK is not your biggest bind, then the main problem must occur within the first three chapters
The biggest bind or the main problem is the problem you want resolved at the end of your novel. Your climax must provide a satisfactory resolution to this main problem. The problem must be resolved one way or the other.
Nicholas Sparks in his most famous work, The Notebook, starts off with a HOOK that is also the main problem. It is a superbly understated HOOK and a perfect example of how the main problem in a story is also the HOOK in a romance novel.
“There is always a moment right before I begin to read the story when my mind churns, and I wonder, will it happen today? I don’t know, for I never know beforehand and deep down it really doesn’t matter. It’s the possibility that keeps me going. And though you may call me a dreamer or a fool. I believe that anything is possible.”
A lot of novels however, do not start with the main problem. And that’s fine, as long as you proceed quickly to the hook. Remember the fictitious HOOK I had warned about? A HOOK that isn’t the main conflict can easily lose its way and become the fictitious HOOK.
The first 3 chapters must show off your understanding of story structure
Of course story structure or narrative structure is critical to captivating the reader, what makes it most critical in the first three chapters is the fact that editors and discerning readers alike will rarely plod through a book that doesn’t care about story structure.
Narrative structure of SETUP-CONFLICT-RESOLUTION has always been under attack, not least for being ‘formulaic’. I don’t get the antagonism. No one’s suggesting that narrative structure is a creative formula. It isn’t; it is a structure formula. Once in a while you will come across a book good enough to make you ignore the structure, but by and large structure wins because at its heart is storytelling.
This 5th and concluding point is not only critical but also very rarely understood. Think back to any fairy tale that you read as a child. There is a setup, usually a disadvantaged beautiful girl who is being tormented, then the major conflict in reaching her goal, usually meeting the love of her life, and the final resolution. The simple words “Once upon a time” and “They lived happily ever after” are such strong indicators of setup and resolution respectively that their mere mention evokes curiosity and satisfaction. Fairy tales satisfy the most discerning audience, children. It wouldn’t be stooping if we learnt a thing or two from them.
To bring it all together in a single sentence: the first three chapters should have completed the setup or at least taken it to an exciting place.
To sum up
Introduction to your principal character
The principal Conflict