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Stakes

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If you’ve read any of Donald Maass’ work, you may be familiar with the idea of “bridging conflict.” It’s a small bit of conflict before the inciting incident (the event that launches the plot) comes along. I want to talk about it in a little bit more detail.

But first, some empathizing. Writers are bombarded with advice (guilty as charged here, I know I’ve definitely contributed to this). Jump right into the action. Don’t just right in. Let’s have the inciting incident within the first 10 pages. You’re rushing into it! We need a physical description of your protagonist on the first page. You’re focusing on details that don’t matter! Don’t tell, show! Don’t show, tell! AAAH! It’s crazymaking.

And I’m seeing the effects of this confusion on writers who are trying to check all the boxes that they may have read about on well-meaning blogs and in helpful books. One symptom of this that I want to discuss today is starting too big. Yes. This is going to be one of those bits of advice that is controversial, because it seems contradictory.

Everywhere you look, you see blogs telling you to start with action, start big, and get readers hooked right away. And there’s a lot of good to this advice. It’s a great kick in the rear for writers who like to begin with twenty pages of chit-chat and backstory before anything actually happens. This is telling upon telling, and it’s likely your readers aren’t sticking around until your first plot point.

So is the natural antidote to this an explosion on page two? That might seem like a good idea. And I’m seeing it more and more. But let me tell you why it’s a well-meaning thought gone awry. I liken this situation to a first date. You meet a guy or gal at a restaurant after chatting online for a bit. In this situation, you’re very much like a fiction reader. You liked the cute cover, you liked the interesting blurb, you want to give this book a shot and devote a few hours of your time to it. You start some small talk, and, if you’re on a date with one of those slow-starting manuscripts, your date is likely to talk for the entire duration of dinner, filling you in on their entire life up until this point. That’s undesirable, right? Well, let’s talk about the flip side. What if your date suddenly has a massive episode and flops to the floor, seizing, before the first round of drinks arrives?

How do you feel (other than, you know, horrified because you’re a nice person)? It’s bizarre to imagine. Why? Because it’s too big. It’s an event but it’s too high stakes, too dangerous, too sudden. You don’t even know the guy. If he were to be hauled off in an ambulance, you wouldn’t know who to call because you just met him!

In opening a novel, it’s all about balance. You don’t want to blab for three hours, but you also don’t want to open with “Hey guess what, there’s a prophecy and you’re the chosen one to save the world. So, you know, get to it, kiddo.” One is too small on plot, one is too big. That’s why smart people like Donald Maass advocate for “bridging conflict” to start. You want to start with some action to get tension brewing. Maybe a conversation with one’s crush, or anxiety about an upcoming test, or a sibling getting in trouble and asking for help. Let that be the focus of the first chapter. And if this conflict is related to the main plot, even better. But it’s not the main plot, not yet. Because we have to care about the character before we’ll follow them through a really rigorous plot full of stakes, ups, and downs. Just like we should probably get to know our unlucky date a bit more before we’ll hop into the ambulance and follow him to the hospital.

Because before we have established a connection using some smaller, more manageable conflict, the protagonist is just a kid. The reader hasn’t bonded yet. The intricate relationship between the fictional entity and the audience is still too new, too tenuous. But once we get to know the hero a little bit, we start to invest. Just like if the date goes horribly wrong near the end of the night, it’s not just some guy who’s having an attack, it’s Pete! Who grew up three blocks away from you! And he’s allergic to peanuts! And why, oh why, did you order pad thai for the table?! And you’re that much more likely to care, to feel, to buy in. Keep it manageable at first, then ramp up the stakes and really get rolling on your main conflict.

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There’s a book that I recommend over and over called SAVE THE CAT by Blake Snyder. One of the central ideas is that you can never start building character sympathy too early. And you can’t do it by telling, either, or sharing what the character thinks about himself, or even what other characters think about him. Two of the biggest vehicles for showing (read my perennial post on “Show, don’t tell” here) are choices and actions.

To create a character who the reader will relate to, even if it’s an unreliable narrator, unlikeable protagonist, secondary character or villain, put them in the situation to choose or act as early and as often as possible. This opens up a whole world of potential for you. Do they say one thing and do another? Do they want one thing but choose a path away from getting it? Are they always consistent with thought, speech, and action? All of these things teach the reader about your characters.

Choice and action are very powerful because they show about character, but they also move the plot forward. While it’s possible to take a choice or action back, most will have ramifications. The best choices and actions will be clear dividing lines between a “before” and “after” in your story, whether it’s with a plot, a relationship, a feeling, your character’s self-knowledge, etc. The bigger the choice or action, the more significant it will seem to the reader.

For example, your character is a princess who threatens to run away all the time to escape her responsibilities. Rather than talking about it, or holding it over the heads of those around her (the more often a threat is made without follow-through, the less effect it has over time, per the Law of Diminishing Returns), get her to a place where she has to choose/act. What does it tell us about her if she runs away? What does it tell us about her if she stays?

A type of plot I’ve run into a lot recently has been the “hands tied” or “crash test dummy.” These are passive plots in which the character either can’t do anything because of their circumstances, or gets dragged through the plot by fellow characters or circumstances without contributing much. If your character is in jail, they obviously can’t really choose or act much. That’s a very difficult situation to render in an effective way. Their choices and actions will most likely deal with their inner life (choices reflecting who they are) and relationships (if there are any to be had in the dungeon). At a certain point, though, if your character can’t make any choices or take any action, you need to look at your premise as a whole and decide, honestly, if maybe it’s too limiting to create the sort of dynamic fiction today’s market demands. Sometimes writers back themselves into a corner with a story that’s self-limiting. A “crash test dummy” plot has the opportunity for choice, but the character doesn’t take a stand or act with agency, for whatever reason. It may run into some of the same problems as the “hands tied” type of story unless the character can begin to take the wheel.

Think about whether your character can be described as active or passive. How much do they move the story forward through their will and actions? What plot points has your character spearheaded? Can you call much of what they do or say binding or consequential? If not, you may be underestimating these very powerful tools in crafting character and plot.

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This first line comes by way of a freelance editorial client and is used with her permission. It’s not often that I showcase client work but I just had to talk about this line and what makes it such a grabber:

If a tree falls in the woods…Zeke backed his bike into a stand of mountain laurel… and no one hears it….He stood motionless…is it still a crime?

First, some context. This is a MG story dealing with some environmental topics. In this scene, the main character, Zeke, witnesses some vandals felling a very old tree with an active eagle’s nest on top. You get some of this in the line itself, but since you don’t have the benefit of a query or synopsis, I wanted to fill in the rest. Also, for the sake of clarity, italics indicate verbatim thoughts. You can see here that we’re in third person but we’re still getting interiority (thoughts, feelings, reactions) from Zeke because the writer has chosen to interject them. The italics keep everything from running together.

What works here for me? First lines need to grab. One way to do that is to turn something familiar on its head. This is done here with the old “If a tree falls in the forest” phrase. Instead of being a serene mind puzzle, this cliché becomes new and edgy by introducing the idea of a crime happening. Great!

There’s also tension in what Zeke is doing. It’s obvious from how he backs away from the scene and stands motionless that he’s not supposed to be there. Whether he’s a participant regretting his involvement and attempting to run or whether he’s a passerby stumbling onto something sinister, we don’t know yet, but there’s certainly an element of added danger: He is not like the people committing the crime, and that makes him vulnerable. The stakes rise.

Finally, there’s the simple idea of starting in action. We’re right there in the moment. We get the character’s thoughts (internal conflict) and the character’s physical situation (external conflict) in one sentence. There’s no introduction, no easing into the moment. (“Zeke did what he always did when he couldn’t sleep: he snuck away to visit the eagle’s nest. But this early morning, something was different. He drew nearer and heard a peculiar sound. Chainsaws. He peeked through the underbrush to find…” blah blah blah blah blah) Instead we are thrust into things and we have to catch up but–and this is important–without being disoriented. There’s a mystery (Who is doing this? Why? What’s he doing there?) but we have enough information still that we can attach ourselves to an instant story.

Great stuff, overall! There’s one way this misses, though, and it’s in the follow-up. I use the next line in the manuscript with the author’s permission as well:

But he’d heard it. The sounds of the ruckus – the chainsaw, the muffled cheers, and the thud of the tree – still sent reverberations from his brain to his spine.

If a tree falls in the woods, let us actually hear it in the moment instead of introducing the event, skipping past it, and giving us the protagonist recalling it in compressed narration. Instead of The Event that we’ve been primed to expect, the tree falling is reduced to a list of fleeting images. The reaction to the event is till there but…no event. You should never make a big deal about something (making it the subject of your first line is an Automatic Big Deal) only to discount it soon after. This client doesn’t lose all the tension she created for herself but there’s an automatic deflation when we go from “in the moment” to “wow, that moment was intense but we skipped right over it.”

The bottom line: Grab the reader but make sure you have the follow-through to capitalize on what you’ve created. Otherwise, it’s like setting the stage and turning the lights on only to have the curtain fall. My thanks to Debbie for letting me use her as a guinea pig. A lot to unpack in two short sentences!

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This post relates to notes I’ve found myself giving to writers and it’s along the lines of my Pimp Your Premise post last month. The theme is the same: You’ve done all this work, created this thing, so why not get the most out of it?

The note that originally elicited this response was a scene with high emotional potential that, for some reason, didn’t live up to its potential. Rather than becoming a sensitive life wire of emotion, the character drifted through, basically, the climax of the story with all of the interiority and sensitivity of a crash test dummy. (For all those who are new to my story theory rhetoric, I define interiority as having access to your character’s thoughts, feelings, and reactions. This is possible to accomplish in either first or third person.) The emotions were definitely possible in this intense scene, but the writer wasn’t going there.

More and more, my advice to writers can be summed up as: GO THERE. If you set up a premise with a really unique element, exploit that element to the fullest and design as many plot points around it. If you’re writing a grief story and there’s a lot of potential for your protagonist to hit rock bottom, have them crash into it at high speeds. If you’re writing a love story, give us that moment when he loses himself in her eyes entirely and becomes vulnerable for the first time ever. There are a million story opportunities for your characters to become a raw nerve.

As a group, writers–and don’t think I’m insulting writers here, this sentence could just as easily read “humans”–like to play it safe. They have their pet storytelling techniques, their favorite plot twists, their go-to phrases, their easy physical clichés that they deploy instead of having to write about the messy world of emotions. But the writer’s role job isn’t to play it safe. It isn’t to tread the familiar path, because the familiar path isn’t going to electrify readers. Artists in general search for the truth of the human condition by getting out of their comfort zones…and by taking their audiences with them.

If you yourself are unwilling to GO THERE, your reader’s potential to suffer, triumph, and understand diminishes. I’m constantly impressed by how many manuscripts scratch the surface in precisely those moments when they should be plunging in. Interiority flourishes during a boring classroom scene but is oddly silent when it’s time to visit Dad in the hospice, for example. Or we spend a lot of time on happy emotions but completely sidestep anything negative. (Reverse this dynamic for a dystopian manuscript!)

Let me get down to it: The scene that feels the hollowest in your manuscript should either be cut or you should screw your courage to the sticking place and GO THERE with it. Especially when the events transpiring call for high, noble, intense, painful, or otherwise uncomfortable emotions.

To call upon a book outside the kidlit canon, this was my biggest problem with THE MEMORY KEEPER’S DAUGHTER, an insanely successful adult novel by Kim Edwards that came out in 2005 and was incredibly successful. (SPOILERS) While it is a very emotional story, there is one glaring missed opportunity, a moment begging the author to GO THERE that was never realized. Briefly, the story is about a husband who immediately realizes that one of his newborn twins has Down’s syndrome. This is another era and he quickly spirits the girl away to a nurse, then lies to his wife, saying the second child died. Flash forward many years and the secret is close to coming out. Just as I was expecting the BLISTERING reveal and ensuing confrontation between husband and wife, the husband dies suddenly. The wife finds out another way and rages at his memory.

I know plenty of people who loved this book. But I really, really, really would’ve loved to see the scene where husband and wife stand naked before the truth. It’s one thing to rage at someone’s memory, it’s another to confront him in the flesh. And not just him, but the pastand the future. I would never call this author a coward, but I wondered what kept her from GOING THERE and giving us this highly emotional scene using both characters, not just one.

So if you’ve got a premise that’s locked and loaded with the high-stakes potential for emotion, don’t just skirt around it or do the next best thing. It’s going to be challenging, because you have a lot wrapped up in these characters and part of you probably wants to protect them, but you have to think of the most emotional points in your plot as an invitation to unleash those feelings without holding back. GO THERE.

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One of my favorite ways of getting really good stakes going is by establishing ramifications for an action way before (ideally) that action takes place. The most obvious example of this that I can cite is the opening to The Hunger Games. Please excuse me of using such an obvious example, but I wanted to pick something that people had a good chance of having read. Suzanne Collins masterfully establishes what “the reaping” ceremony is from the first paragraph on. The ramifications of getting chosen at the reaping are very clear: you will go to the Hunger Games, and you will probably die.

We learn all about the reaping ceremony, and its risks. We hear in detail the lengths that people go to in order to avoid getting reaped. We start to fear the reaping–and, by extension, the Hunger Games–because Katniss fears the reaping and the Hunger Games. (We also start to love Katniss as a protagonist despite her thorny exterior because she fears the reaping and the Hunger Games for her little sister more than she fears it for herself. There’s that compassionate core to her that we see again and again with Peeta and Rue in the arena.)

So by the time the reaping ceremony arrives, we are extremely anxious about it. Not just because the narrator is extremely anxious, but because Suzanne Collins has established the ramifications of getting chosen. She has done her job right and the reader knows exactly what will happen: an Everdeen sister will be chosen in the reaping. Even though we are able to sense and call this inevitable plot twist very early on, I hesitate to call it predictable. Since the stakes our so high and our anxiety is so high, we dread the reaping and yet can’t wait to see how the characters will react and, eventually, get themselves out of this horrifying situation. When Prim is chosen and when Katniss volunteers, our initial anxiety (knowing what’s coming and knowing the ramifications of this plot event) is resolved, because something the author has built up has finally come to fruition, but then we’re shot into a whole new stratosphere of anxiety because now those ramifications are about to happen. Reading the opening to The Hunger Games is a thrill ride precisely because Collins has prepared us so well for the reaping.

Think about establishing ramifications when it comes to your own work. If your character is going to get kicked out of their house should they bring home anything less than a perfect grades (an exaggerated example, perhaps), the anxiety of this ramification has to be in place LONG BEFORE report card day. Then it is your responsibility to make sure the plot takes a turn in the direction of a bad grade. The stakes will be high as a result because the readers knows exactly what to expect, fears it, and is now worried about what will happen. And–it should go without saying–the consequence you established must come to pass. Sure, it may not be nice, and it may not be fun to do to your character, but that’s how you keep that all-important tension high!

If you have a bad report card or a reaping in your story, make sure the ramifications are established long, long before, and then play your reader’s anxieties for all they’re worth!

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I’ve been reading a lot of novel beginnings for webinar critiques lately, and I must applaud some of my students for diving right in there and starting with action. Some of these guys are just off to the races…we’re plunged into the middle of a scene, into a world, into new terminologies, into names and places that we haven’t encountered yet, etc. Kudos! Most novel beginnings have the opposite problem–they are too information-heavy, with lots of backstory or telling or explaining. Boo. I’ll take an action-packed opening that drops us into scene any day.

But!

Yes, there’s a “but.” It’s all about balance, actually. Because too much action and not enough information can be alienating to an audience that expects some grounding facts right at the beginning of the book. If we’re thrown into a story with no context or frames of reference, we are likely going to end up confused. And as I like to say, “If you confuse us, you lose us.” Especially at the beginning of the book. Nobody wants to pick up an object that they just paid $16.99 for and be frustrated or feel out of the loop. We want to be tickled, intrigued, our interest piqued. Think about a meaty mystery from a detective’s point of view: they have some clues, but not all most of them. And it’s that tantalizing yet puzzling amount of information that keeps them digging. That’s what you want to give readers right off the bat.

So, to repeat, some of these writers who do plunge the reader right in are taking a risk. They know that unanswered questions and tension and mystery are like catnip for readers (if readers were cats…though they often act like cats, curling up in various nooks, etc.). This is very true. If you start with action, you’ll most likely have tension or mystery working to your advantage, because the reader will want to follow and know more about what’s happening. It’s a natural instinct. But if you give us no grounding information at the beginning–if it’s all action and no context–you run the risk of confusing your reader with not enough information.

The best way to gauge where you fall on this spectrum is to run your opening by people who know nothing about your book (but who are writers or teachers and otherwise qualified to provide valid writing feedback). If they end up feeling like they get what’s going on at the beginning, or get it a little too much, you’ve got just enough or even a surplus of information to get the reader going. Maybe pare down some of the telling and work on increasing tension, action, and conflict to make it even more exciting. If your reader comes at you with lots of questions, on the other hand, or if they seem confused, maybe you should take a few well-placed pauses and slip in some context (without doing too much telling, of course).

Basic formula: Confusion, bad. Mystery, good. The two are not the same.

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This doesn’t seem like a very real headline. The problem with immortality? What problem with immortality? I know that I, for one, would love to be immortal. *bares neck for any vampires that might happen by*

But in fiction, immortality is a huge problem for stakes. If your characters are immortal, they can’t die, and therefore one of the worst things that could befall someone is out of the question. When your characters are immortal, stakes plummet.

The same goes for scenarios that are larger than life. It’s very hard to wrap one’s mind around a global apocalypse, when you really think about it. Think about those charity ads for starving children. If we hear the same mind-numbing statistic of “XX million children are starving in the world,” it’s almost too much to process. And it doesn’t stir our hearts for long. But those ad campaigns that highlight a particular child in a particular place and tell us their story, those are the ones that engage us into putting a specific face on world poverty and hunger.

So if you have an immortal character running around screaming, “The world’s going to end! Gaaah!”…I don’t know if you’re going to get the kind of reader-hooking reaction you want. The stakes you say are present (death/end of the world) are too big, and therefore they start to mean nothing, after all.

Let’s say you are writing a story about an immortal character or the end of the world. Should you put down the quill and sulk because it’s hopeless? No. The trick is to build in a framework of things (probably people) that your character cares about more than life itself, and put them in very real and immediate danger that is much smaller, more menacing, and more specific than some malformed looming apocalypse.

Through your character’s relationships to these people and their willingness to risk all for what they really care about, we will start to get invested in their story. After all, immortality is one thing, and it’s pretty boring, turns out. But the event that threatens to make immortality shallow and meaningless for your character? That’s what I’m interested in. And an apocalypse isn’t scary to me because it’s too huge. But the thing your character can’t bear to leave undone before the world grinds to a halt? That’s what I want to see.

Writers keep hearing advice to up the stakes, but it is possible to make your stakes too high and impossible to care about. If that’s the problem you’re battling, give your characters other more immediate things to despair over.

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These last few weeks have been very hectic for me for a wonderful reason! I just sold a really exciting deal for my debut author client Emily Hainsworth. As announced in Publisher’s Weekly a week ago, and in PM this week, THROUGH TO YOU and a second, untitled book, sold to Alessandra Balzer of Balzer + Bray/HarperCollins, in a good deal, at auction.

(Photo credit: Matthew Lowery Photography)

Emily and I first made contact last summer, when she queried me with a YA. I read it twice, really loved her voice, but it wasn’t quite there yet. It had some issues and I didn’t know if I wanted to take Emily on without seeing some revision skills first. So I told her to go back into her writerly hidey-hole and return with her next project. She did. It was THROUGH TO YOU. A brilliant, high-concept premise paired perfectly with her strong, literary writing voice. Dreamboat! I fell out of my chair, read it the same day (a busy November Saturday in Chicago when I kept sneaking away from an event to read my Kindle in a locked bathroom stall…true story!), offered representation, and won the opportunity to work on this awesome book.

I gave Emily revision notes, she worked on it for about a month, sent it back, and then we were ready to go out in January. I drummed up some excitement by pitching to editors in person at ALA, then sent it out on Friday, January 14th. Here’s an excerpt from my pitch letter, where I positioned THROUGH TO YOU as a cross between BEFORE I FALL and THIRTEEN REASONS WHY:

The day grief-stricken high school senior Camden Pike sees a ghost is the day he assumes he’s finally lost it. For the last two months, he’s been torturing himself after walking away from the car accident that killed his girlfriend, Viv. She was the last good thing in his life: helping him rebuild his identity after an injury ended his football career, picking up the pieces when his home life shattered, healing his pain long after the drugs wore off. He’d give anything for one glimpse of her again. But now there’s a ghost at the accident site…and it isn’t Viv.

Cam quickly realizes the apparition, Nina, isn’t a ghost at all. She’s a girl from a parallel world, and in this world, Cam is the one who died, and Viv is alive and well. Cam’s wildest prayers have been answered and now all he can focus on is getting his girlfriend back, no matter the cost. But the accident isn’t the only new thing about this other world: Viv and Cam both made very different choices here that changed things between them. For all Cam’s love and longing, Viv isn’t exactly the same girl he remembers. Nina is keeping some dangerous secrets, too, and the window between the worlds is shrinking every day. As Cam comes to terms with who this Viv has become, and the part Nina played in his parallel story, he’s forced to choose–stay with Viv, or let her go–before the window closes between them once and for all.

I still get chills reading this synopsis, because the story really is that good. Luckily, I’m not the only one who thought so. One week after submission, we had our first offer. The next week, we went to auction. The same day I sent out auction rules, my hard-working foreign rights co-agent Taryn Fagerness closed a huge pre-empt from German publisher Goldmann. She sold Italy later that week. The next week we closed the auction and THROUGH TO YOU officially went to its home at Balzer + Bray.

There have been even more top secret developments for this book since then, but I figure this is great news for now. Emily (website, Twitter) has her own write-up of the experience here. And here’s what Alessandra Balzer, Emily’s new editor, has to say about reading THROUGH TO YOU for the first time:

When I read Mary’s description of THROUGH TO YOU, I thought — OK, this sounds very intriguing. A parallel reality is a hard thing to pull off in a convincing way, though, so I stayed a little wary. I started the manuscript and from the first page I immediately liked Cam’s voice and felt drawn in. But still, I wondered — how will this play out? Then, when Cam sees the girl by the site of the accident — I expected it to be his dead girlfriend. When it wasn’t — when it was actually a new character with secrets to reveal to Cam about his own life — that’s when I knew I was hooked. Emily has created so many great and unexpected twists and turns in this plot — you really don’t see what’s coming next. I also love the idea of choices in this novel — and how one bad turn can lead you down a path that you were never meant to be on.

We’re all thrilled with the success of THROUGH TO YOU so far, and hope you will pick it up and discover the twists, turns, thrills, and secrets for yourselves when the novel hits stores in Fall 2012!

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I’m not a real estate agent, but I do know there are things that real estate agents do to sell a house: they play up the important features. Their other favorite thing to talk about, if it’s good, is the neighborhood and the location of the property. After all, isn’t it all about location, location, location? Well, these considerations are applicable to novel craft, because once you know the important information features and the prime locations for material in your story, you can play around and really present your reader with important information, in a way that seems important, and in places that will make it seem even more important. Let me explain…

The way you present information impacts the way a reader interprets its importance. For example, if a character goes on and on about the Thanksgiving turkey, describing its crisp brown skin, succulent aroma, the bedding of rosemary twigs upon which it rests, the legs tied together with twine, etc., and completely glosses over the conversation that reveals that the character’s parents are getting a divorce, what do you think will be memorable in that scene? The more descriptive (and scene) space you give something, the more characters think and talk about it, the more important it will become in the reader’s mind.

This can work against you — if you’re not aware of this and spend lots of time describing stuff that will not be important as the novel progresses — or for you — if you are aware of this and use this to craft where your reader’s attention goes. In other words, prime real estate in your novel is anything that takes up a lot of space (it’s good and noteworthy to have acreage, you know?). Readers will automatically equate space and words spent talking/thinking about something with its overall value to the book.

The other consideration is location. The prime real estate in any novel is: the first page of the novel, the first paragraph of a new chapter, and the last paragraph of a chapter. These spaces are special and should not be treated like any others in your manuscript. After all, a real estate agent who has a property with panoramic city views, a Central Park West address, or a location with a private beach, goes above and beyond when listing this special location. The ad is glossier, there is a whole album of pictures, the font is more refined, etc. You should lavish care on your entire manuscript, of course, but pay special attention, after you’ve polished everything, to the prime real estate listed above.

Whatever you put on the first page of your manuscript will seem really important to the rest of it. If you start with something that never appears again (and this is where prologues can get hairy) or if you give the reader all description and no character, that is a missed opportunity. The opening paragraphs of subsequent chapters are your chance to ground the reader in what has just happened or what will happen for the rest of the chapter (a post on “grounding the reader” later). The end of a chapter has one job and one job only, just like that house with the panoramic city view: sell. You need to give your reader a new detail, a cliffhanger, or just enough tension so that they immediately flip to the next page instead of using the chapter break as a natural resting point and putting the book down.

Most novels that have strong narrative really use the prime real estate as a special opportunity. It’s there to keep the reader informed, to highlight important information or characters, to keep the reader hooked, and to otherwise anchor the structure of the novel. Make sure you’re paying special attention to the prime real estate you’re working with, just like a real estate agent would.

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Okay. Our previous discussion about trust still stands and I’m really happy with how you guys have been interacting in the comments. Here’s our next workshop, Mike Bloemer and his manuscript, EXODOUS OF HOPE. Yes, I am going to feature some male writers and POVs on purpose. I do agree with what happened during my last contest — male voices have been underrepresented on this blog.

Mike’s issue with this manuscript is simple: I don’t know if this is a good beginning or not.

Let’s see! Here’s the material:

***

“Ororo, get down!”

I yanked my girlfriend to the ground as gunfire whizzed over our heads. Her prosthetic arm slammed into my side, causing my eyes to tear up.

A really visceral beginning. With three sentences, one of them dialogue, we establish action, relationship, and something unique about one of the characters — the prosthetic arm. We’re in the moment right away and it’s a very physical world.

Ororo started talking to me, but all I heard was rat-a-tat-a-tat-a-tat-a-tat! I shoved her face into the mud so her brain wouldn’t splatter all over Africa.

Good sound details. Now we know where we are, too. Again, great action.

As bullets ravaged my eardrums, I struggled to figure out what the hell was going on. Ororo and I had been playing soccer with some of our friends when hot lead suddenly rained down upon our heads. Three of my friends were shot right in front of me. The U.N. peacekeepers standing guard at the front of the camp had been blown away with bazookas. Ororo and I would have been killed, too, if we hadn’t jumped into a ditch.

Now we jump the chronology, but this is okay. We’ve been grounded in one moment, and we can go back to what led up to this moment. I think you’ll agree that there’s no confusion here. There is confusion for the character, but it’s a controlled confusion so that the reader can play along.

Also, you have a lot of opportunity for emotion here, but he glosses over the deaths. I think that might be wise. Don’t get bogged down here, save the emotions for later. He’s probably numb by this point, anyway.

Finally, this is what I mean when I talk about stakes. These are really high stakes. One wrong move and THEY COULD DIE. There aren’t many stakes higher than that. This gives the scene a lot of tension.

This sure wasn’t a place for two fifteen-year olds. What were my parents thinking dragging me to a refugee camp outside of Darfur, one of the most dangerous places on Earth? Oh yeah, that’s right, my parents were mentally insane.

Introducing ages is always a tricky thing and almost always feels forced. This is okay here. And we get some more backstory. I think the last sentence is trying to be the trendy “too cool teen” voice a bit too hard. It doesn’t seem natural compared to what we’ve already seen from this character.

Okay, maybe I was exaggerating a bit. My parents were actually famous environmental activists. They traveled all over the planet
speaking out against climate change, deforestation, and wildlife trafficking (that is, when they weren’t hawking their New York Times bestselling books).

And you lose the momentum here. Aren’t they still in a hail of gunfire? Didn’t a lot of people just die? There has to be another place to work in this information. Be careful of using parenthetical phrases, too. If you’re going to use parenthetical asides throughout the story, keep it. If you only occasionally use this, drop it. Consistency is important.

After spending a week tracking poachers in Congo (and nearly getting shot too many times to count) my parents and I stopped at the Kalma Refugee Camp to meet up with Katanya Khartoum, Ororo’s adopted father. Katanya was a climate change activist who many claimed to be the salvation for all life on Earth. He was rumored to have come up with a fool-proof plan to stop global warming. Katanya was scheduled to be the keynote speaker at next week’s climate change summit in New York. He wanted my parents to look over his plan before revealing it to the world.

Again — aren’t they in a hail of bullets? You can DEFINITELY put this elsewhere. Honestly, my eyes glazed over by the time we got to “keynote speaker” and “summit.” I don’t care about Ororo’s adopted father in this scene… I care about Ororo. You started out with such a vivid moment and by this point it has completely unraveled and lost momentum. Yes, that is something that happens, even within a 250-word sample.

That was why we were near the Darfurian border. As to why we were being shot at? I hadn’t a clue. But I shouldn’t have been surprised. My parents had made so many enemies over the years that they made Batman looked like an amateur.

Here, the writer’s instincts kicked in and he took us back to the action. A wise move that could’ve happened much earlier. The mention of enemies piques my interest, but the mention of Batman is suspect. Again, it seems out of place, just like the snarky teen line above. The tone needs to be consistent. I don’t know if the scene you described makes little jokes and flares of attitude the most natural tone choice. If there’s going to be humor, maybe work it in more organically? Not every moment has to be funny. Here, it feels awkward. Tone and voice are super important to keep under control. Teens have a built-in BS-o-meter and they might roll their eyes and see this as an attempt at humor where one doesn’t belong.

***

As you can see, there was a really strong beginning here, but then the tension and pacing fell before rising again. In a beginning, these elements are super important. For other writers playing along at home, this is an issue of balance, the eternal question. How much backstory versus how much action belongs in a story beginning? Same with: how much description vs. how much scenework? All of these balances are crucial to nail. This author is almost there, but should be really careful of how he’s injecting backstory.

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