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The First Chapter Syndrome

Do not fall victim to the First Chapter Syndrome!

As a story consultant (UPDATE: I’m not currently taking any story consulting gigs. Thank you.), I’ve met with so many people who start a two-hundred or three-hundred or even a 1,000-page graphic novel but get stuck about thirty pages into it. They spend months, if not years, nit-picking dialogue, character histories and page layouts but never get further than act one. This is what I call the First Chapter Syndrome.

Why? Why would they do that to themselves? The two best answers I can come up with are:

1) They had no guidance in writing. Many graphic novelists are not aware of how difficult writing can be. They’ve practiced drawing for hours and hours but haven’t practiced writing nearly as much, if at all. So, when they jump into writing a graphic novel, they get stuck and keep returning to act one looking for answers. They just don’t know how to keep the story moving forward.

2) They intimidate themselves out of trying. They never actually try to wrestle through the challenge of act two and act three, where an idea is pushed to the limit and characters are forced to face inner demons and mature. Act two and act three are where a story proves its depth and worth, and if a potential graphic novelist has been holding on to an idea or characters for years, loving it for the potential story it could be, it’s scary to put it to the test and perhaps fail, proving the idea wasn’t that good in the first place, of worse, that they are not capable of giving the idea the life it deserves. It could fail us or we could fail it. Either way, it’s scary and act one is safe.

Act 1 is where the idea is still cool. It’s where we can work on our characters, where we can fiddle about with what we’re trying to say because there’s so much potential. We could say anything… but we’re never challenged to speak.

We are writers because we have things to say about the world around us. Whether that’s humorous, dramatic, deep or shallow, it doesn’t matter. Say it! Readers read in order to hear what writers have to say. That’s the pact.

If you don’t know where to take your story, ask for help. Get perspective from people who have run the gauntlet before. There is no shame in it. We’ve all been there. That’s what writing groups are for: support!

If the idea fails you or if you fail the idea, it sucks, but try. If tragedy befalls you, mourn it and move on. There will be more ideas. They are not in limited supply. Each of our creative minds has an infinite well of new ideas hidden within us. Fear is the only thing that keeps them hidden. And who knows? Maybe after a few projects under your belt, you’ll see something in the idea you hadn’t before and you’ll be more capable to make it work this time.

Do not fall victim to the First Chapter Syndrome. Keep going!

Categories: Blog
  1. 01/28/2013 at 3:22 PM

    Interesting post.

    My advice for someone in this situation (beside “keep going”) is to work on the ending. At least a first draft of it. It gives perspective on everything else.

    Also, don’t overlook structure in helping put one stone after another on the way to completion. One of the best on structure: Blake Snyder. he’s a screenwriter, but it’s all story anyway. 🙂

    • 01/28/2013 at 10:02 PM

      Well said, Rono. To add to that, I’ve been listening to John August’s podcast, Scriptnotes. He’s the screenwriter of Big Fish, Frankenweenie, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and many others. He says that once he has completed his first act, he immediately writes the third act. By doing so, he knows where the story will end and he won’t get lost in the second act.

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