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.
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.
As promised, today is the big reveal of the Grand Prize winner for the Kidlit Novel Beginnings Contest! Without further ado, I present an entry by Mary Danielson, a (light) paranormal/mystery YA called THE SHERWOOD CONFESSIONS. This entry embodies the voice, tension, and intrigue that I like to see at the beginning of a novel. While we haven’t gotten a scene yet — which I’ve always said is very important at the beginning of a novel — I think that one is coming, just by the set-up. Find out why this book sounds compelling enough to read “from beginning to end.”
The funny thing about Mary Danielson, today’s winner, is that she actually entered the contest twice. For my initial judging, I like to keep entries anonymous. Lots of my frequent readers — whose names I recognize from comments and the like — enter the contests, so I don’t want to be biased when reading their entries. Either way, I whittle down the entries to about the top 25 or so without looking at names. Then I start to really analyze the top choices. And, by some incredible stroke of either luck or genius, two entries from this selection of the top 25 (out of more than 400!) belonged to Mary Danielson! And both entries were so good that it was difficult to choose just one to place among the winners that I’ve posted here.
Read on to find out what caught my eye… twice!
Five weeks before his disappearance, Miles St. John pushed me up against a locker and kissed me. Hard.
I really enjoy the voice here. And we have a disappearance already in play. There’s a lot of action in this sentence, and that “Hard,” for emphasis, is a nice touch.
This didn’t exactly make it into the police report. A lot of things didn’t. Not that night, not our plan, and especially not this little fact: I could have saved him.
Lots and lots of mystery! And the danger element of lying to the police. And the high stakes idea of her being able to save him. There’s immediate tension!
Even the reporters, who descended on Verity with their news vans and power ties, didn’t discover our secret. They badgered witnesses and dug up rumors, but still not a single tabloid mentioned my name.
And this character has managed to fly under the radar. I want to know a whole lot more about that.
In a few hours, I could be away from it all. Suitcases and secrets in hand, I could get on that plane to Texas and never be caught. Those stories would stand and you people could go on guessing and wondering, your theories swirling around and around until pretty soon everyone loses interest. It would be yesterday’s headline.
It would all be a lie.
Now she’s running from it, “suitcases and secrets in hand.” But will she get away with it? Will it be a clean severing of ties? And what will the emotional ramifications of all this secrecy be? I’m already so invested in this character’s story and I’ve only read a few sentences.
And if there’s anything my time at Verity Prep taught me, it’s this: a lie, even one that no one suspects, will do more bad than good every time. So, this isn’t going to be like before. I’m telling the truth now.
Lots and lots of tension again. My question from my last comment — about the ramifications of her lie — still stand here. I find that when the reader thinks something, and then the author mentions it and picks up on it, that’s a really well-written manuscript. I was just thinking about how the lie would impact her, and then it turns out Mary has thought about it too, and mentioned it right as it bubbled up in my brain. There’s the risk here, also, of this character finally telling the truth. I’m guessing this is the “confessions” part of THE SHERWOOD CONFESSIONS. What does this have to do with her impending escape? There’s also tension with the mention of “before” that piques my interest, and I want to know more about Verity Prep, where they’re apparently teaching whole lessons on lies and scandal instead of calculus and chemistry.
Not just about Miles, but about everything – the robberies, the fire, the curse.
And there’s a CURSE! *swoon* I want to know about all these things, but especially the curse.
But I’m getting ahead of myself, aren’t I? Uncle Dash says that the best quality in a good journalist is that she gives all the facts – from the very beginning, when things first get fishy, all the way until the villain’s confession.
I also like that she’s a journalist. If I hadn’t know this, I would still have noticed the way she talks about reporters and the news, abov,e and guessed that it was one of her interests. It’s cool to see a character’s narrative through the lens of their passion, and her interest in journalism is clear even before she says it outright. Good voice here, too.
So, here it is – from my beginning to his end — the confessions of Evie Archer: amateur sleuth, freak of nature, and criminal mastermind.
Great button for this excerpt. I want to know about all three of these roles that she’s taken on for herself.
So there you have it, folks! Congratulations to all the winners and the entrants… it takes a lot of guts to share your writing and put it out there into the world. I’ll do a bit of a “deconstruction” post for this contest on Friday, with some of my lingering thoughts on novel beginnings. Thank you all for playing along with this great exercise!
We have our first announcement of a Kidlit Contest winner for this round. I know you all have been very excited to see what novel beginnings I’ve chosen, and I’m excited to share them with you. Once again, this contest features novel beginnings… those tricky but super important first few moments of your manuscript. All of these winners, in my opinion, do it right, and for that reason, I am featuring their entries in their entirety so that you can learn from them.
This doesn’t mean these winners are the only submissions of merit I received… far from it! But these do exemplify what I look for in a novel opening and all have a lot to teach writers.
The first winner is an Honorable Mention. The author’s name is Joan Stradling, for her paranormal YA, WOLFSBANE AT MIDNIGHT.
I’m posting her submission with notes from me below. The text is in italics and my notes are offset below each paragraph. I’m pointing out things that caught my eye about this submission so you get a sense for what I notice, why I notice it and how it works in the overall story.
The cries from a flight of ravens echoed through the forest as they clamored to escape from the trees behind Scarlet. Fabric ripped as she jumped away from the tree and spun around. She scanned the edge of the clearing.
Great tension here. Good sound details and action. Instead of weather to set mood and convey tension, Joan is using the landscape. We get that something bad is happening without there having to be a storm.
The ragged figures of scarecrows danced in the fall breeze, but nothing else moved. Their waving arms must have startled the birds. Scarlet took a deep breath. The islanders’ stories of wolf attacks unnerved her, but being mauled by wolves wasn’t her only concern. Zev, the woodcutter, roamed the forest, and Scarlet wanted to avoid him too.
Lots of effortless worldbuilding here. We learn about a) the season (fall), b) the general setting (an island), c) a troubling problem in this world (wolf attacks), d) the story’s main antagonist so far (Zev, the woodcutter)… We also learn a little bit more about Scarlet, the protagonist. She’s scared in these woods and, for some reason, wants to avoid Zev. We also have the image of scarecrows to underscore the dramatic setting and tension established in the first paragraph.
He had threatened to cut off a few of her fingers if he caught her stealing from him again. As a result, she’d only taken small branches he left behind.
GREAT tension! We learn a lot about Zev and Scarlet here. We learn that he’s ruthless (threatening to cut off fingers) but we also learn that she’s a bit of a troublemaker (“if he caught her stealing from him again,” emphasis mine). We get a sense that she’s been toeing the line and trying not to get into too much trouble… but something has happened today, on the day the manuscript starts, to change all that. We call this the “inciting incident” and I can’t wait to learn just what has made this day, in this creepy wood, different.
This is a shorter entry, but I hope you can see just what kind of impact 132 words can have. Check back on Wednesday to read the Third Place winner’s entry!
Mmm… sizzlin’ steaks… Oh! Hello! What? Were we talking about something? (A great example of low tension, BTW.)
Tension and stakes are two absolutely important elements to a novel if you want your readers to keep turning the pages. A lot of stories flounder simply because the author hasn’t thought of adequate stakes for their characters or infused their story with enough tension. Let me quickly define both terms for you. Tension is a feeling of unease, of something unresolved, that usually bubbles under the surface of the story. Sure, there is more overt tension that is contributed by plot — like the gang of roving vampires out for your sweet, sweet blood — but there also has to be tension in every paragraph, on every page, in every scene and chapter. The greater dramatic arc keeps readers engaged on a book-length level but the smaller tensions of characters and relationships are what connect the dots between larger plot points. Stakes are very closely tied to tension. We want to feel like our characters matter, like their choices are important, like they are always on the edge of danger. Stakes — what will or will not happen in a plot, for a character, in a moment — are key to keeping tension high. Without stakes, there is usually low tension. Without tension, there are usually low stakes. Let’s explore both a little more.
We’ve all heard of stakes, but where do they come from? What makes for compelling ones? Read on:
Personal Motivation: When a person wants something, they need to have enough motivation behind it to make it compelling. In other words, they have to really want what they want. If they do, it becomes important to the reader, too. And when the character gets thwarted (as they should, nobody wants to read a story about a person who gets everything they want whenever they want it), that setback will ache for the reader. We’ll start to care. We’ll start to want to see the character succeed. We’ll want to avenge them and smite their enemies! High stakes.
Choices… and Consequences: We want to read about characters who make choices. Maybe not always good choices. But the thing that makes choices seem important, that makes moments seem important, is the fear of consequence. All choices in your story should have consequences. Not After School Special consequences, mind you, like Little Abby taking one sip of a wine cooler and ending up pregnant, in jail and pumping gas (all at the same time, somehow) but real consequences. Characters can’t take their choices lightly because they know they might burn bridges, get punished, break the law, ruin friendships, screw up in front of the cute boy, etc. They might make some good choices, sure, but they should make a bad one at least once. They should lose something important at least once. Each choice, then, gets a gravitas to it. High stakes.
Relationships: Relationships between people are never static. This is almost a repeat of the above, but characters do derive stakes in a situation from their relationships with others. When we add friendships, relationships, families, rivalries, enemies, etc. to the mix, involving people who want different things in different moments, the stakes should automatically get higher. So think of all the ways that you can find conflict in a relationship, in people’s wants and needs, in a scene. Whenever two people come together, the stakes should be pretty high. A group of great gal pals getting along swimmingly really doesn’t make for compelling fiction. Not even in picture books.
Now that you have a slightly better understanding of stakes (I hope), let’s move on to what stakes play into: tension. Here are the biggest sources of tension and areas where tension needs to be high:
Beginnings: As we discussed in my post on beginnings, beginnings are usually best when they start in the middle of action. Each of your chapters (and especially your novel’s actual beginning) should start in a way that puts us in a scene or situation so that the reader hits the ground running. A lot of people begin with description, character sketches, backstory and other “throat clearing” (as it’s usually called in the industry). There’s not a lot of tension in straight telling. Make sure your beginnings have impact and action, then layer in necessary information as the chapter and story continues.
Scenes: Scenes are full of people and people are full of complicated wants, needs, goals, desires and notions. They rub against each other and, more often than not, cause static. Or they should, if you want to keep tension high. I’m not saying you should have a book full of catfight scenes, unnecessary drama, people bitching each other out and otherwise shrilling at the top of their lungs. That’s exhausting to read. But every time you have two or more complex and fleshed out characters in a place together, they’re going to find ways to disagree or pursue different things. And this is where tension is most often subtle. An offhand remark, a gesture, an action that shows a reader which side a character is really on, how they actually feel. The best dialogue has subtext worked into it — the stuff and deeper meaning that runs below the surface — and is truly an art form. If you read a scene in your mss. and feel this nice, complacent pleasantness afterward, then your scene isn’t doing the work it needs to be doing.
Endings: Each chapter has to have at least one thing happen in it that further the plot, shows us something new about our characters or otherwise leaves us in a different place and with a different understanding of the story than we had when that chapter began. That’s why endings are so important, too. You’ve given the reader a great chapter/scene/paragraph and now there’s a natural pause. They could easily stick the bookmark in, wander off to make tea, turn on the TV… and never come back to your story. Life could get in the way. Chapter endings are the worst, because they’re a natural stopping place. So don’t let your reader stop. It’s a careful balance. You don’t want to end each chapter on an insane cliffhanger and give your reader a heart attack every 10 pages, but you have to leave the chapter on such a note that they must turn the page and start another chapter. Does a character get thwarted? Does a plot complication arise? Does a surprise happen? Does a scene get heated? Does the tension simmering underneath the surface finally break wide open? Work your chapter endings, or “buttons” as I call them, until even you, who knows exactly what happens next, want to read on.
So here’s tension. As you can see, it is a perfect mix of how character and plot come together and interact. When you’re revising, you have to keep all of these three things in mind because they are very closely tied together. On Monday, I will tackle a book’s ending. That will then wrap up our main building blocks of the story — plot, character, tension, from beginning to end — and then I’ll start in on other writing mechanics like dialogue, description, showing vs. telling, all that good stuff. If you have any revision questions for me in the meantime, don’t be afraid to ask!
Many writers get stuck on how to write a novel plot. How do I know? I’ve seen thousands of plots, and very few that worked well enough to sell. Plot is one of the most important elements of any story, from picture book to chapter book to middle grade to young adult.
Novels are quite the tricky kettle of fish. We’ve already talked about character, but characters mostly add internal conflict to a story when left to their own devices. They sit and contemplate how lonely they are, or how unpopular, or how much they want something exciting to happen. So what do we do? We give them external conflict: plot.
How to Write a Novel Plot in Four Key Points
I’ve had the tremendous luck to study with middle grade author Lewis Buzbee in my MFA program. Not only is he a very talented writer but he’s an excellent teacher. This way of looking at plot is cribbed almost entirely from him, because I think it’s just that good. (But he often gives this workshop in person and, if you ever get the chance, do listen to him talk about it… my version will be a pale imitation.)
So, basically, what Lewis teaches and what I believe is that there are only four key points to a plot. This is that “dramatic arc” that you hear so much about. Some writing teachers subscribe to a “three act” structure, some like five acts, some like to choreograph your plot right down to what should happen in a story when. I think these micromanaging techniques miss the point.
All The Novel Structure Your Need, With None of the Gimmicks
Put whatever you want in your plot, run your characters through the story that’s in your imagination, but when you’re reading your manuscript over again, make sure it adheres to this very simple arc:
Do you like my lovely drawing? I never said I was visually gifted, mind you. Let me explain what’s going on here, point by point:
Normal: This is your character’s baseline. At the beginning of a story, your character is usually their normal self in their normal circumstances (as much as possible). Something has probably happened to knock them off balance but they are making do. They might even be doing well. Even if they’re starting on their first day at a new school, they’re making a friend or two, they’re not completely failing their classes, they discover a magic shop where the owner seems very interested in them, etc. This leads us to…
The Rise: This, for the near future, is as good as your character is going to get. You want to spend some time, maybe the first quarter of your story, building relationships, exposing your character and their goals and motivations, creating a world and planting all the seeds of plot, story, theme and character that will be important later. If your story is longer, maybe spend only the first 1/5th or 1/6th here. Then get ready for…
The Fall: But things were just moving along so nicely! Oh well. We don’t pick up books to read about nice people in calm, tranquil situations. All that stuff that you’ve established in the first quarter, fifth or sixth of your story… screw it up. Things go from okay to bad, from bad to worse, and from worse to impossible. The character’s relationships get troubled, their goals and aspirations are thwarted at every turn, they make dumb decisions and have to deal with the consequences, etc. The very bottom of this point on the graph is usually the climax of the story, aka. when things seem hopeless or so bad that they can’t get any worse. Then, the character triumphs, and…
The Evening Out: No, not a nice night out on the town with a date. This is the getting back to some kind of equilibrium again. It shouldn’t be the same equilibrium because, hopefully, your character has changed over the course of their journey. It is a new normal, a new way of living and thinking and existing in the world of the story.
There you go. Now, you’ll notice that the graph outlines more of an emotional journey than specific plot points.
Focus on Character Emotions to Get the Most Out of Your Plot
Unfortunately, I can’t sit here and tell you all the things that must happen in your story. I don’t know. They have to be born from the character who’s starring in your book and the story that you want to tell. But take this four-point structure to heart and make sure that the plot you’re creating puts your character in roughly this emotional state over the duration of your story.
How you get them to these emotional highs and lows, to these particular experiences, is up to you, but make sure you’re massaging and revising your story into the above shape. It is the most effective and a great starting place, even if you do want to experiment later.
How to Write a Novel Subplot
Subplots don’t need to be quite as dramatic — the highs shouldn’t be so high, the lows shouldn’t be so low — and they don’t have to span the whole length of the book, but do make sure that they follow some semblance of this graph, too. Subplots are usually generated by secondary characters. Let’s say the plot of your book is American Pie-esque… a guy, Joe, trying to get laid before the end of his senior year in high school.
That quest will form the main plot. Let’s say, though, that he’s got a best friend, Sam, who can’t seem to stop getting laid, and he’s been hiding all his various girlfriends from each other.
Sam’s subplot is that he wants to simplify his life and get rid of some of his attachments. This subplot could interact with the main plot because Sam might try to pawn off girls on our hero Joe, for example, or one of the girls pretends to like Joe just so she can get back at Sam. So subplots usually belong to other featured characters in your story and have this same trajectory. The moments when they interact with the main plot should serve to move the main plot along.
Leave Room for Tension, Mystery, and Surprise
This brings me to my last consideration about how to write a novel plot. Readers like to be surprised, they like suspense, they like the unexpected. Your plot shouldn’t be so linear. That’s why I like using the emotional highs and lows of your story for guidance. For me, as long as you hit these emotional points, there’s a lot more room and flexibility for an interesting plot. Ally Carter, in a workshop I went to, talked about surprises. They’re characters and plot points that dig into the story you’re telling and spin it around, shooting it off in a completely different direction.
Make sure you’ve got key places in your story where a character or event acts like a bumper car and sends the story in a new or unexpected place. Let’s say Joe, our high school virgin, is about to ask his dream girl to the prom — where he’ll try to seal the deal — but she asks Sam, blissfully unaware of his Hugh Hefner tendencies. Now Joe is caught between his loyalty to Sam and wanting to save Dream Girl from Sam’s clutches. This creates a whole new wrinkle in the story.
Complications! Surprise! You don’t have to be zany for the sake of zaniness here, like I have been, but do try to keep the tension and suspense of surprise alive and well in your story.
Wondering what to do with your specific novel plot? Get one-on-one, in-depth feedback on your manuscript when you hire me as a fiction editor. I can look at your synopsis, a partial, or your whole novel to really drill into how you’re using plot.
Let’s begin at, well… enough smart-assery for today. But seriously, let’s talk your beginning. The first sentence of your novel. The first paragraph, the first scene. This will, in most cases, determine whether an agent reads on or not. Whether an editor reads on or not. Whether a reader picks you book up, scans the jacket and then the first bit, and buys it… or not.
Before I tell you what to do, I will tell you what not to do, in no particular order:
Waking up: DO NOT. DON’T. Don’t even think about it. Many of the manuscripts I get begin with a character waking up. Why are you making this choice? Most good stories begin with a character who has just been knocked out of their usual equilibrium or is going into a tense situation. Surely, you can begin in a more interesting place than waking up. And even if the character is waking up into their strange new situation, just change it. Make them awake. Do you really want to be exactly like everyone else I reject today? On that note…
Regaining Consciousness: This is also a no-no. I know a lot of people like starting their books moments after a character has just received a blow to the head. Here’s the problem. A reader wants to be grounded when they begin a story. They’re looking for basic information: Who is this character? Where are they? When are they? What’s going on with them? A little bit of confusion is fine, but that doesn’t play well with a reader, especially at the beginning of a story, because all the reader wants is information. If your character is confused, your reader is confused, they’re working hard, they’d rather put your book down and go have a cookie. You have to hook them… not give them a headache. So if your very own character is asking “Who am I? Where am I? What year is it? What’s going on?” then your reader will not have anything to hold on to. They’ll put your story down.
Scene Setting: People care about characters, not landscapes. Start your story with a person, not with beautiful prose about the glorious rolling hills of I Don’t Care. This especially goes for weather. Remember how “It was a dark and stormy night” is lambasted as being the worst first sentence ever written? Lots and lots of people start out talking about the weather… especially stormy weather… because they think it’s dramatic and will heighten tension. No, relationships between two people who want different things, in a scene together, are dramatic and heighten tension.
Emotional Scene Setting: The same goes for a long description of a character’s emotions. I read a lot of manuscripts that begin with things like, “He was so depressed. Depressed-er than depressed. Things were so wrong, they’d never be right again. He felt like he’d been plunged underwater, all the colors and the sounds and the joy… gone!” (Obviously, this is bad on purpose.) Well, this is fine, but we don’t know why things are so terrible for Emo Boy, so we don’t care. It’s a bad place to start.
Normal: This is perhaps the biggest cliche I see in novel openings. “Jimmy was just a normal kid, everything about his life was so totally normal. He woke up when he typically does and walked the normal path to his normal school. ‘What a normal day!’ he told his usual friends, Norm and Al…” etc. And then, something completely changes him into an extraordinary kid!!!! WOW!!! Okay, so, granted, this is usually how a book starts. A character’s “normal” way of life, their equilibrium, has been knocked off-kilter. Now they have to find a new normal. That’s fine. BUT DON’T TALK ABOUT IT! SHOW US! (More about showing vs. telling later.)
Backstory: A long prose-filled retelling of the backstory of a character, place or event isn’t a good start, for me. I don’t know the character, event or place yet, and I’d rather see it with my own eyes, see it in action, than being told about it. Work backstory and context into the prose later, but not in the very beginning (and not too much of it).
I bet you’re asking yourself: “Well, what’s a good place to start my story?” If you hadn’t gathered from the above, a good beginning involves tension, conflict, relationship and characters. In other words, a scene would be a very good place to start! You have a main character, you have what they want, you have what’s getting in the way right now, and you have another character. Toss them like the Chaos Salad they are and give us a scene to launch your story with action.
It’s called in medias res in Latin. And no, I don’t know a lot of Latin, just enough to make me seem slightly pretentious. It means “in the middle of things.” Launch right into some conflict with more than one character and catch the reader up with backstory and quick flashback as needed. Start with a scene. Most movies start like this, so do most plays. You don’t often go to a movie and see the main character monologue for 15 minutes before the action starts, right? The same should be true for your book. Start with a scene that shows the reader, a) who the character is, b) what they want and c) how things have changed for them recently. Try imagining this scenario for your characters and writing a scene for the beginning of your story. It’s hard, but beginnings are often the most time-consuming and most-frequently rewritten bits of a novel.
Speaking of which, there’s also a little something called the “promise” of a novel that you need to consider in the opening pages. I need to know, after the first 10 pages, what the rest of the novel will be about. This is the promise you make to the reader when you start out. You don’t have to say, explicitly, “The rest of this book will be about alien warfare.” But little Jimmy should at least be gearing up to fight aliens or in alien warfare class or something so that, in my head, I get a sense for where you’re going with this. Don’t start the book off with Jimmy in alien warfare class and then make the rest of the story about his passionate fight to save the redwood forests of the Pacific Northwest. Both stories are fine, but you need to make sure you make a promise to your reader — my book will be about _____ — and stick to it. We won’t know how far you’ll go or where your plot will take us, but if we’re prepared for the general idea of your story from the first page, we’ll follow you very far. Up next… plot!
Today in Revision-o-Rama, I want to talk about how to create a character. What makes a good one? A publishable one? First, let me say: book elements do not exist in isolation. Talking about them one by one is just the way I’m organizing my posts this month. So a stellar character must be put into action with great plot and dialogue, a fascinating plot must have great characters to act it out, etc. etc. etc. Character, for me, is most important, so I’m starting here.
How to Create a Character
Every story has a main character. If the story is written in the first person, the character is also the narrator. If it is in third, I’d argue that there still needs to be a main character to anchor everything, even in omniscient narratives. (Or two main characters… LEVIATHAN is a good example of a narrative balanced fairly equally between two characters.)
A character-driven book usually focuses on your character and their life, and it is the character who dictates what the plot is. Other books toss a character, a John Everyman, say, into an aggressive outside plot that determines the course of the book.
Questions for Character Development
In either case, I say that the writer needs to have answers to the following questions:
What is your character’s nature? Are they shy? Gregarious? A homebody? A great girlfriend? A backstabber? (Examples of personality and nature are endless…)
What is your character’s physicality? Are they fat? Thin? Awkward? Do they have some kind of physical issue? Are they a slouch? (Also endless…)
What is your character’s self-esteem? Is there something about themselves they want to change? Why?
What are your character’s secrets? Are there things they’ve never told anyone? Do they wish they can tell someone? Why?
What does everyone else know (or think they know) about your character? Is it true? What does your character wish everyone knew about them? Why?
What are your characters goals in life and moment to moment? Their wants in life and moment to moment? The character’s needs in life and moment to moment? Their frustrations in life and moment to moment? Why, for all of the above?
What is their motivation in life and moment to moment? Why?
What is their “normal” baseline? What is life usually like? (This usually gets disturbed pretty early on in the story.)
What are your character’s relationships with other characters? What is the most important relationship? The best? The worst? The most fulfilling? The most frustrating? The one the character most wants to change? The one that will never change? Why?
What is the character’s unique perspective on life? (I will talk more about this when I talk about voice.)
What is the character’s past? What is their present? What is their future?
Character Development Exercises
When you’re reading your book over, feel free to use some of the above questions as writing exercises to brainstorm. I’ve tried to avoid questions that would trigger simple “yes” or “no” answers. Drill deeper than that. You probably don’t have to be so thorough about every character in your book.
You don’t really need to spend valuable time figuring out the deep, life-defining secret of the guy your character borrows a pencil from on page 37, for example. But your main character? Yes. The important parent/guidance figure? Yes. The best friend? Yes. The love interest? Yes. The enemy? Yes.
When you start brainstorming, you’ll be surprised at what you find out. That’s the great thing about creating (See? You do get to be creative during revision!). When you start thinking about some of these things, your mind will just come up with answers you never anticipated. And they’ll feel right. Give it a try. Maybe answer one of these questions a day. When you comb back over your draft, figure out places where you can reveal whatever answers you want your readers to know.
Character Development Brainstorming
A lot of these things may never make it into the manuscript itself. And a lot of them, like the goals and motivations, will come out in scene, but below the surface. A character’s past will emerge through backstory. Relationships will come out in dialogue and plot. Secrets and yearnings, other private thoughts, will come out in narration (if in first person… if you’re writing in close third, the narrator can peek into your character’s head).
I’d say that, out of the above questions, the answers that will make a huge difference to your story page by page are the questions of goals/needs/wants/frustrations and their motivation. A human being changes from moment to moment. In one scene with their crazy mom, they might want to stick it to The Man. In another, they might just want a parent who can listen to them.
Character Objective and Motivation
As you go through your plot and through ever scene, ever action your character takes, think about what’s driving them in this moment. What needs/wants/goals/frustrations are in play. Those will usually factor into why they’re doing something — the motivation. And every scene and moment in your story — as well as the larger story arc — needs motivation.
Now, the tricky part is, all this stuff is hidden. We never walk into an argument with someone saying: “I want such and such and I plan on yelling at you until you give it to me!” No. First we might flatter. When that doesn’t work, we might get nasty and say something mean. When that backfires, we’ll try to guilt trip the person, and so on and so forth.
In college, I got a theatre degree (as well as an English degree). It was the best thing I ever did because I got to take playwrighting and acting classes. I highly, highly recommend this to any fiction writers, because you figure out just how essential motivation and goals and actions are to character.
Character Development and Subtext
If you think about the stage, every moment has to be alive, to keep the audience engaged (and awake). How to do that? Lots of tension, lots of subtext. Every moment has to have something larger running underneath it. This comes from a character’s wants and needs. If you put two people who usually like each other into a scene and they want totally opposite things underneath the surface… voila! Tension! Drama! A page-turning read!
We all understand this on a fundamental level. There are very few times when we’re just bantering with someone without any ulterior motives. That sounds bad but it isn’t. We are all built to care about our goals/wants/needs/frustrations a lot. And when we do things, we’re primarily motivated by what will serve our goals/wants/needs/frustrations. Be aware that your character would, too. That’s how to create a character, in a nutshell.
From moment to moment and scene to scene, make sure you map out their goals/wants/needs/frustrations and see what their motivation is at the beginning of the encounter. What do they want? What are they going to do to get it? Do they get their objective by the end of the scene? (Sometimes they will, but that’s boring… it’s better if they don’t and then they have to try something else, try another action, fall flat on their faces again… Tension! Drama! A page-turning read!)
Character Development and Plot
And so, with a character who is fleshed out and has strong motivation, you can start to string together scenes and moments. As you go back through your work, make sure you know what’s operating below the surface, what’s important and at stake for each character. What each character is really doing in a scene.
If you have a lot of scenes of people hanging out, making small talk, not moving toward their goals, not caring about their wants or needs, not advancing away from their frustrations… you’re probably creating less tension than you could be. Go scene by scene, moment by moment. And always keep your character’s interests at the front of your mind. This way, you slowly start assembling next week’s topic: plot!
Want personalized help with how to create a character? Come to me for book editing services and we can dig into your protagonist together.
Here are some very simple benchmarks for when to cut something out of your manuscript. If you are agonizing over revisions and trying to decide whether to keep a paragraph, scene, phrase, character, line of dialogue, etc., run it through this checklist.
(Hint: if people are telling you that your pacing is slowing down or if a scene is running long and boring to re-read during revisions… Pay attention!)
You should probably cut it from your manuscript if:
It does not advance our understanding of the character. Does this piece of writing show us something new about or a deeper layer of your character? Everything you write serves a purpose (and no, that purpose is not to boost your word count). If nothing new is revealed as a result of this being in the manuscript, cut it. If no new nuance emerges, give it the axe.
It is just so darn clever. Find the part you love so much because it is witty. Cut it. That’s you showing off as a writer and I’m willing to bet that it does not advance our understanding of the character (see above) or advance the plot and tension (see below).
It does not advance plot or raise tension. Every piece of fiction needs plot and tension to keep the reader going. Some things have very little happen in them but they’re readable. That’s okay, I guess. In the same way that elevator muzak technically counts as a composition. “Readability” is not what we’re striving for, though. So make sure you are turning out plot points and upping the tension with every scene you write.
It does not reveal anything new. In terms of plot, or backstory, or foreshadowing or our immersion in the world of the book. If something doesn’t give us more meat to chew on, it’s just fat and gristle.
This is a very reductive view of revision. But honestly? I’ve been reading some manuscripts this week where I’ve wondered long and hard: Why is this in here? Whether it’s been a particular bon mot that the writer couldn’t cut (KILL YOUR BABIES!) or a scene where the same wrinkle in a friendship dynamic is replayed over and over (“I just need to know I can trust you, man!”/”You can trust me, broseph!” for like five scenes straight…), I have developed a wicked itchy delete button finger.
And what happens after you trim all the unnecessary fat from your manuscript?
You’ve freed up some room in your word count and it gives you anxiety?
Go forth and fill it with important, varied, nuanced and truthful stuff! Because if what you’re writing isn’t any of that–if it is just taking up space in your manuscript–then those are dead words anyway. It’s better if you cut them when you see them, as they’re placeholders for something more awesome.
Writers, I’m sure I don’t have to tell you, of all people, about dramatic arc. But maybe I will, just so we’re clear. Dramatic arc looks like, well, an upside down check-mark, actually, more so than an arc, with the pointy part making a mountain near the end.
The story starts off on ground level, then slopes up nicely until the climax (the mountain) and then slopes quickly downward to a nice resolution.
A large part of this nice, inverted-check-mark shape, is the sloping. As the novel builds and builds, the tension and the stakes and the action rises toward a climax. Yes? Yes. Then, after an exciting climax, things decelerate quickly and we have a satisfying conclusion.
The key point of getting that great building action in your story is that the reader is aware of what’s at stake. They know what the characters want and they know, pretty much, what is going to turn into a dangerous situation near the end. In other words, they have an idea where your story is going and what your climax is going to be about, pretty much after the first 50 pages. Some people would ask: “Doesn’t this make your novel predictable?”
No. It gives the reader something to fear, something to anticipate, and something to care about. And if they know what could possibly be at stake and what kind of danger could possibly transpire, they’ll be that much more eager to read and find out exactly how it all goes down for the characters that they’ve grown to empathize with.
This brings me to the one thing you never do in a manuscript (there might be more of these, but so far, this is the high and exalted One Thing).
Do not introduce an event or person or thing or consequence in the last 50 pages (or so) of your manuscript if that event/person/thing/consequence will become instrumental to the climax. (The only viable exception to this is introducing a villain who has, up to this point, remained hidden or shadowed or otherwise dark and creepy.)
Ideally, the same stakes and goals and characters and threats that you build from the very beginning of the manuscript should be the forces involved in the climax. The whole point of the climax is that you bring everything that you’ve worked so hard developing and making irresistible together…and that comes from the reader having spent a whole book with these things and really, really caring about what happens to them.
If you introduce something a few pages away from the climax and hinge the climax on that thing, you’re going to lose some readers because they simply don’t care. For example, if you’ve been building up to a battle for the main character to avenge their father’s death for the whole book, then you interrupt the story ten pages before the battle with some bad guys who burst on the scene and want to steal the Magical Decanter of Shmegoo (that we’ve never heard of before in the book, or only heard in passing once or twice) and then make the battle about the Decanter instead of the hero’s father, you’re shooting yourself in the foot.
By all means, introduce new complications, villains, conflicts as your book develops. But don’t introduce something that becomes instrumental in the climax near the end of the book and expect us to care about it. More often than not, your readers will be let down in a big way.