For many writers, possibly most, the second chapter of a book is a big problem. One of the main reasons for this problem is that writers spend an inordinate amount of time perfecting their first chapters, this in order to grab an editor’s attention and make a sale. After all that energy and rewriting, one is exhausted and has no idea what to do with the second chapter.
Some writers really love flashbacks and secretly long to start their stories with this device. But it’s usually better to start a novel in the middle of action — not with something that happened in the past. So it makes sense that many writers, frustrated with that backstory they couldn’t put into chapter one, stuff it into chapter two. It’s very common to read a novel in which the second chapter is backstory.
That could be good, or it could be bad. Most second-chapter advice suggests that chapter two begins not with backstory, but with a twist on chapter one; or with the introduction of a new character or incident. Other advice suggests that the writer think about complicating the inciting incident of the first chapter. And/or introduce somebody who will be critical to the main character’s life and decisions.
When I first started to write novels, I leaned toward putting that backstory up front, but as I learned and developed I came to understand the importance of introducing a key character or key incident in chapter two. So that’s what I did in The F Words.
I’ve written before about the inciting incident of chapter one, and also about the foreshadowing in chapter one. But until now I haven’t written about chapter two
Chapter two of The F Words begins with Ms. Delaney, the school principal. In fact, it begins with her question: “Did you spray paint those words on the school wall, Cole?” Right there, with the first line of the chapter, a key character in Cole’s story is introduced. Moreover, a question is introduced that Cole must respond to. If he tells the truth, that he did tag the high school wall with the F word, Ms. Delaney will, at the very least, give him a suspension. As a result he will no longer be allowed to run cross country.
If he says he didn’t spray paint the words, then he would be telling a lie. That doesn’t feel right to him. Lying is not something he feels he can do. Cole has a real dilemma here, on the first page of the second chapter.
Luckily for Cole, his parents have taught him about the right to remain silent. And that is the option he chooses. No matter how Ms. Delaney threatens or cajoles, Cole keeps asserting his right to remain silent.
The right to remain silent is a crucial right won by the English nobility in the late 1600s. Before that time the ruling class (in Britain’s case the monarchy and the church) could force a person to answer. If you answered yes to a crime such as, say, conspiracy, you were beheaded. If you answered no, it was assumed you were lying and you were tortured until you confessed. And then you were beheaded. The ruling class always wanted a confession, because once a person confessed, his lands could be confiscated by the royalty or church and added to that establishment’s wealth. It was obviously in the interests of the Crown and church to find people guilty.
The lords who were arrested and tortured fought for the right to remain silent, so that their lands would not be taken away if and when they were accused of a crime. So that their children could inherit.
The practice of torturing citizens until they confessed, so that the ruling class would benefit by confiscating any wealth of the accused citizen, was also practiced in the United States during the witchcraft trials. Arthur Miller depicts this beautifully in his powerful play, The Crucible.
The right to remain silent is an aspect of freedom of speech. In a free society there should be no censorship of what one says, writes, sings, paints, or performs. Nor should one be forced to speak when accused. If you watch cop shows, you will usually hear this stated as part of the Miranda warning, in which the police tell a suspect whom they have in custody that he or she has the right to remain silent.
In The F Words Cole Renner is fifteen years old, going on sixteen. He learns the importance of the right to remain silent through personal experience: he made a mistake, but he corrected it by cleaning the wall. He does not want to be punished for his mistake. Whether this is right or wrong of Cole is not the point: the point is that he does have the right to remain silent, and he employs it. Not only in the second chapter, but also later in the story.
You can read beyond the second chapter by purchasing The F Words from the publisher, City of Light Publishing; from IndieBound, the site for independent bookstores; from Barnes & Noble; or from Amazon. To get updates, writing tips, and the latest news on The F Words, subscribe to Barbara Gregorich’s Newsletter.
2 responses to “The F Words: The Freedom of Silence”
Barbara, I really enjoyed this blog. I did not know about that aspect of the witch trials. I’ve read the Celebrated Cases of Judge Dee (an authentic 18th Century detective novel, translated by Robert Van Gulik.) Seems the Chinese judges followed suit, often torturing suspects brought in front of their court until they confessed.
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I love the Judge Dee books and have read them all at least twice. Probably due to go another round. I imagine torture of this kind was used by many regimes around the world.
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