Monday, 12 September 2011

Chapter One: Rosemary's Baby



The latest genre in my series of Chapter 1 Analyses is horror. Rosemary's Baby was written in 1967 by Ira Levin, and was made into a hugely successful movie. It is a supenseful supernatural chiller set in a modern city with a cast or urbane characters. It is not an out and out blood and gore type of story, but it is horribly effective at getting under the reader's skin.

It is quite short at 195 pages. Chapter one is about 8 pages. There will be spoilers.

The opening lines are:
Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse had signed a lease on a five-room apartment in a geometric white house on First Avenue when they received word, from a woman named Mrs Cortez, that a four-room apartment in the Bramford had become available.

The opening is not particularly scary. In fact the whole first chapter is about the couple trying to get out of their lease and move into the Bramford. The actual story doesn’t start until they become residents, and the novel could easily have opened with them moving in. So why didn't it?



Even though there are some subtle details to give the opening a slightly unsettling vibe, these are only obvious if you’re looking for them (they include a man with fingers missing, the previous tenant who died, a blocked off closet which turns out to have nothing in it except a vacuum cleaner, and a mention right at the end of the chapter of gargoyles on the outside of the building). They add a mild spookiness, but on their own they aren’t enough to convince you this will be a terrifying read.

Most of the chapter is light, witty and about typical modern concerns (for that time and for now). They’re a young couple who want to live in a cool place, and they’re willing to lie a little bit to get what they want. No harm, no foul, right?

So, how will the reader know what kind of story they’re reading? What will make them wait to see if things get interesting? Where’s the hook?

First, there’s the stuff outside of the book. Reputation, reviews, the book jacket, even the title hints at the kind of book it is. Quotes on the cover and inside the jacket say things like:

...so fiendish it made me sweat...
...the most unnerving story I’ve read...
...it is a terrifying book...

Marketing works, and the hyperbolic type clearly works best of all. I think once readers are confident something worthwhile is up ahead they relax and are patient with an opening. This gives the writer time to ease them in with less exciting moments which enable him to establish setting, characters and relationships, and also set up contrast with future events. If things go crazy later, you need to show them normal first, otherwise there’s no frame of reference.

How does this help a new writer trying to impress an agent/publisher who is unlikely to read more than a couple of chapters? In most cases they push for an immediate plunge into action and complain about slow starts (I suspect because it means more work for them), but I think a well-worded pitch highlighting the genre and the direction it’s going in will help, maybe even with a little hyperbole?

I think there are basically two goals here. What the book is about, and what the chapter is about. The book is about the scary stuff of a normal couple in the middle of a coven of witches, a pregnant woman becoming paranoid about the safety of her baby, and the lack of anyone to turn to in a big, bustling city.

The chapter is about an average couple trying to get out of a contract so they can move into the coolest building in Manhattan. Although this is not very scary, it is interesting. More so because it’s made very clear they’ve signed the papers and they can’t get out of it. She wants the new place, he says they’re stuck with the old place, what she wants is impossible, THEN he makes it happen.

That I think is the hook. To set up a goal, clearly indicate there’s no way to achieve it, and then show how he gets it for her. And in doing so reveal his character.

“You see how you can think of thing?’ Rosemary said. ‘You’re a marvellous liar.”

Which beautifully foreshadows how he manipulates and deceives her into fornicating with Satan. Ah, young love...

So, foreshadow the big plot, but construct a clever and satisfying small plot. Don’t have the characters hanging out at the start of the book just chilling, have them doing something specific, that’s hard to do (in fact the more seemingly impossible the better), and then have a character do it in a revealing way. Oh, and get some fantastic quotes for the book jacket.


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You can find more Chapter One breakdown in the Chapter One Analyses page. Other genres covered are Crime, Thriller, MG, YA, Romance, Transgressive. Books include The Hunger games and Harry Potter.

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My own wip is up at Critique Circle now. If you are a member please give it a look (Planet Janet in the Horror queue). If you aren't a member but have a manuscript you'd like feedback on, you should seriously consider joining. 

18 comments:

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Interesting. So many points that are hidden. I've never read the book, but I do remember the movie. A little dated but still creepy.

Donna K. Weaver said...

I think it was also a different age in book beginning expectations. I wonder if Ira would even be able to get an agent if that first chapter was submitted in today's market. Seems expectations are a bit different now.

If you're looking at horror, you might want to check out Dan Wells' "I Am Not a Serial Killer."

Sarah Pearson said...

I haven't read the book either, although I have seen the film. I think readers are a lot more forgiving of a slow start than editors. As long as we think something good is coming, we'll wait a bit. Or maybe that's just me :-)

Michael Offutt said...

Of even more interest is Roman Polanski's real life (the director that brought the film version of this book to light). First Charles Manson murdering Sharon Tate while he was abroad starting Helter Skelter...then the rape of a young girl in Jack Nicholson's mansion...the life on the lam as a movie producer/director in Europe, etc.

mooderino said...

@Alex-it's worth reading as a masterclass in pacing and holding teh reader's attention.

@Donna-I relaly don't think times have changed that much. It's obvious from the first page you'r reading a story. It's engaging and enjoyable and it deosn't really matter what the genre is. I agree though that there would be certain types of people who would rip it apart for not following various 'rules' but story should always come first, i think.

@Sarah-i agree, editors want to get to the point quickly because they have things to do, lattes to drink, etc.

@Michael-not sure there's much to learn from him about writing first chapters though.

Alleged Author said...

That was what I noticed when I checked this novel out from the library a couple years ago. I even set the mood to be freaky before reading and the first chapter threw me for quite a loop.

mooderino said...

@AA-ultimately it's a satire and a very dark comedy, more to do with the horrors of having intrusive neighbours than Satan's spawn. It works on a lot of levels, which is the sort of thing the publishing industry tries to discourage. Dumb and simple sells a lot better.

Libby said...

I have to say, I'm kind of shocked. I always thought the first chapter of Rosemary's Baby would be freakishly scary. Though the man with missing fingers does intrigue me...

Suze said...

The more impossible, the better? Really?

Arlee Bird said...

When a story is scary I think it helps to build the tension and increase the horror by starting out with normalcy and the mundane. The reader can relate to typical life events and then the security is shattered with the arrival of the spooky stuff.

Lee
Tossing It Out

mooderino said...

@Libby-the finger-missing guy was the man who showed them around the apartment. Apart from his missing fingers he was very plesant and helpful.

@Suze-In terms of providing a hook, the more difficult something appears to be the more interest it generates, and the more satisfying it is when it is achieved by means we weremn't expecting. Straight-forward and obvious stuff on the other hand is less interesting.

@Lee-the spooky stuff never really shatters their normal life until towards the end. I think he holds the tension at a very high level without really resorting to overt horror, and makes it more 'real' by doing so.

Crystal said...

I agree with Sarah up there - a first chapter like this probably wouldn't get past an editor/agent these days. Honestly? It's a bit of a shame. It sounds like the author did a great job using this chapter to subtly introduce the creepiness as well as creating that false sense of calm/all-is-well that gets shattered later. Obviously such an approach wouldn't work ALL the time, but as with most things, if it's well done? It really works. Ah, well!

Lisa Potts said...

Oh, silly me. I didn't even realize Rosemary's Baby was a book first. I'll have to put it on my TBR list.

I haven't been to Critique Circle in forever, but I'll see if I can review before the deadline. If not, I'll catch the upcoming.

Anne Gallagher said...

The copyright date on any book can tell you how much the publishing field has changed over the years. I'm sure half the books before 1990 wouldn't be published now.

You asked a question on my blog I tried to find your mail address - not listed. Shoot me an email, I'll see if I can explain it. piedmontwriter at gmail dot com.

LD Masterson said...

I remember reading Rosemary's Baby decades ago, before I got into the habit of analyzing what makes a story work or not work. I should re-read it now.

nutschell said...

Great analysis, though I don't think I'll ever read horror stories. I'm too chicken! :D

nutschell
www.thewritingnut.com

mooderino said...

@Crystal-i think if it's well done, people will consider it, it's just that middle ground where it could work with a little help that I think they balk at. I think that's true of most things these days, if it needs a chance to grow and be nurtured they'd rather not bother and go for a copy or 'reimagining' of soemthing that worked previously.

@Lisa-it is a very good book, and short!

@anne-thank you for the info.

@LD-I'm finding Ira Levin's work to be very instructional.

@nutschell-not all that scary, more unsettling and creepy.

thanks for all the comments, much appreciated.

James Everington said...

‘You’re a marvellous liar.”

I love that line. Levin could do so much in just a few words...

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