Yesterday I wrote that Perry Moore's debut novel Hero suffers from "much too much going on." That seems particularly evident in the book's opening. As Thom Creed starts telling his story of coming out as a superhero and a young gay man, he introduces many (though by no means all) of the book's themes and plotlines through a meandering, ultimately confusing, series of descriptions, flashbacks, and backstory hints and explanations.
Starting in the book's first paragraph, we read about:
- Thom looking back on all the experiences in the novel ("I never thought I'd have a story worth telling...").
- Thom playing a high school basketball game in which he's scored 22 points.
- Thom's father's past as a costumed hero.
- His father's meetings with people who recognized him after he retired.
- His father's encounter at some point with a wife beater.
- A basketball game four years before.
- The night Thom's mother "disappeared for good."
- The other basketball team's past legal transgressions.
- Earlier in the current game.
- Thom's growth spurt in fifth and sixth grade.
- Thom's first epileptic seizures.
- Thom's father choosing where to buy a house and raise a child.
- "Last summer," when Thom found a crack pipe in his yard.
- A break-in at the house after Thom has had knee surgery.
- When Thom's dad saved the country from "telepathic starfish-shaped aliens."
- Thom signing up to work as a tutor at the community center.
- Thom reading The Lorax to a group of kids at the center.
- Thom being reassigned to another job at the center the following week, and meeting someone he recognizes at the basketball game.
- Thom having trouble making friends in school because of his father's notoriety.
Pages 19 through 28 portray a bench-clearing brawl, a terrible injury, the first manifestation of Thom's superpower, the approach of an epileptic seizure, a last-second victory, someone calling Thom "that gay guy," his father realizing that he really is gay, a superhero flyover, and a woman slapping Thom's dad for some unexplained deed he'd done as a hero.
And then comes chapter 2.
I fear that's asking too much of readers: too many facts to remember, too many conflicts to follow, too many problems to care about. Many readers are intellectually capable of tracking all those issues, but the real challenge for an author is getting readers to buy in emotionally. We need good reasons to care about the protagonist, but too many reasons dilute and divert our attention.
Writing the first chapter of a novel, I think, is like launching an airplane. You don't want to be weaving back and forth across the runway and going back to the terminal to pick up more stuff. You want full power and forward momentum.
I've found myself struggling with that challenge in some of my own writing projects, and I see it in other people's manuscripts, too. The first chapter has so much backstory, so many themes and characters and situations to establish, that it never gathers much momentum. Flashbacks are a particular temptation and trouble. Some of the solutions:
- Take some ideas out of book 1 and save them for book 2. (In this case, we really don't need the Lorax scene.)
- Find a different starting-point, one where the most important information grows naturally from the scene.
- Move some flashbacks into the present or into later chapters, after the story has started moving. (Why not combine the abusive husband and the slapping wife?)
- Splice instead of knotting. Use a single detail or episode to introduce two or more themes or facts instead of creating new details for each. (Thom's healing could attract more attention, and lead directly into the gaybaiting.)