Saturday, August 7, 2010

Act First, Explain Later

Gone are the days when fiction readers were willing to read pages of description and lead-up before being introduced to the characters and the plot. Readers, agents, and publishers today don’t have the time or patience to wade through pages of backstory and description, so you need to grab their interest right from the first sentence and first paragraph of your story.

As James Scott Bell says in Revision and Self-Editing, about the opening paragraphs, “Give us a character in motion. Something happening to a person from line one. Make that a disturbing thing, or have it presage something disturbing.”

Here are twelve dos and don’ts for making the first page of your novel more compelling:

1. Don't begin with a long description of the setting or with background information on your main character. Do begin with dialogue and action; then add any necessary backstory or description in small doses, on a need-to-know basis as you progress through the story.

2. Don't start with a character other than your protagonist. Do introduce your protagonist right in the first paragraph.

3. Don't start with a description of past events. DO jump right in with what the main character is involved in right now, and introduce some tension or conflict as soon as possible.

4. Don't start in a viewpoint other than the main character’s. Do start telling the story from your protagonist’s point of view. It’s best to stay in the protagonist’s point of view for the whole first chapter, or most of it, and don’t change the point of view within a scene.

5. Don't delay letting your readers get to know your protagonist, or present her in a static, neutral (boring) situation. Do develop your main character quickly by putting her in a bit of hot water and showing how she reacts to the situation, so readers can empathize and “bond” with her, and start caring enough about her to keep reading.

6. Don't start with your character all alone, reflecting on his life. Do have more than one character (two is best) interacting, with action and dialogue. That’s more compelling than reading the thoughts of one person.

7. Don't start with your protagonist planning a trip, or traveling somewhere, in other words, as a lead-up to an important scene. Do start in media res — jump right into the middle of the action. Present her in a meaningful scene.

8. Don't introduce a lot of characters in the first few pages. Do limit the number of characters you introduce in the first few pages to three or less.

9. Don't leave the reader wondering what the characters look like. Do provide a description of each character as they’re introduced, so the readers can form a picture of him or her in their minds.

10. Don't have the main character looking in the mirror as a device for describing him/her. This had been overdone. Do work in the description by relating it to his or her actions or interactions with others.

11. Don't wait too long to introduce the hero (love interest), in a romance or romantic suspense. Do introduce the hero by the end of chapter one.

12. Don't spend too long leading up to the main conflict or problem the protagonist faces. Do introduce the main conflict (or at least some significant tension) within the first chapter.

Remember, you can always start your story wherever you want in the draft stage, if it’ll make you feel better. Then in the editing stage, you can go back and cut out the first several paragraphs or pages or even most of the first chapter, so that, in your final draft, your actual story starts after all that lead-up (some of which may appear later, in snippets here and there).

In conclusion, here’s a little rule for writing compelling fiction:
Act first, exp
lain later.
~~~~~~~~~~~~

Jodie Renner is a former English teacher and librarian with a master’s degree and a lifelong passion for reading, especially fiction. For the past several years, Jodie has been running her own freelance manuscript editing business, specializing in fiction. She is also the copy editor for two magazines. To find out more about Jodie and her business, please visit her website at http://www.jodierennerediting.com/

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40 comments:

  1. Great post! Written in understandable, easy to follow style.

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  2. I have an "attention grabbing" first chapter. It's short, sweet and has magick written all over it.
    However, I read this blog just now and yikes...

    check, dang it, check, check, check... "Don't start with a character other than your protagonist. Do introduce your protagonist right in the first paragraph." I have all the bases covered but this one. My first chapter, reader-catching as it is, is about the hero, not the protagonist. And it is told in a different perspective than the rest of the story... more like an epilogue, I guess.

    I am toying with the idea of making it a vision-dream bit so that I can involved the protagonist right away. Ahhhhhh!

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  3. I agree with all, except that I have heard you can also start with the antagonist. I don't do that, but that is what I've heard.
    Nancy
    N. R. Williams, fantasy author

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  4. Thanks for your comments, everyone.

    Michelle, without reading your first chapter, I don't understand the difference you have between "hero" and "protagonist". They're usually the same person - unless of course, your protagonist is a woman - the heroine.

    In any case, your first paragraph and first page really should match the tone and perspective of the whole novel, in general, and should start in the point of view of the main character - in a meaningful situation, and preferably in conversation with someone else.

    Starting with the antagonist would be interesting, too, but a bit chancey. In general, unpublished writers should stick with the techniques that agents and editors seem to prefer. Once you become published, you can go out on a limb more.

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  5. These are all great tips, but one thing to keep in mind is that there are always exceptions to tips, rules and general guidelines, especially if you are not writing genre fiction. There are also exceptions depending on what genre you might be writing for.

    Welcome to the blog, Jodie. You are obviously a good addition to our group of editors.

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  6. Thanks, Maryann. I'm honored to be in such great company!

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  7. Good list of how to get things going and maintain momentum. It's so important to not get bogged down in slow passages. You're right, the readers won't stand for it.

    Thanks

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  8. Excellent reminders for me since I'm in the revision stage of a manuscript, Jodie. Thanks for a very helpful post.

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  9. I'd say that 2., 3., and 4. are most often violated in mysteries.

    Start with the crime. It might be in the past. It definitely could be a victim other than your protag.

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  10. Thank you for your comment! Ah, sorry for the confusion. My hero (love interest of my main character, a female) is where I started in the first chapter. And I now understand what you mean. :)
    Thank you again for this list!

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  11. Good point about mysteries, Marva! I was thinking mainly about mainstream fiction, romances, most YA fiction, romantic suspense, historical fiction, and suspenses.

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  12. All wonderful advice and what writer hasn't used at some point one of these ill-advised beginnings you mention? But it also makes me wonder why we have gotten so impatient and don't luxuriate anymore in description etc. I just finished reading Saul Bellow's Augie March and that's essentially what he did for the first 100 pages. Yes, another time etc., but I am sorry we are losing that kind of writing.

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  13. Yes, modern readers want action, in books and in movies, too. We as writers can learn a lot from analyzing movies. Action is character, character is action. That's the first dictum of screen writing.

    Thanks for a thoughtful post.
    Ann

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  14. So true! Especially points 2 and 4. I got so annoyed with a well-known author reading a book where the first POV character introduced was a police officer who never appeared again. What a waste of the reader's attention getting into the headspace of a walk-on character.

    Elle
    Word 4 Writers on HearWriteNow
    Blood-Red Pencil

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  15. Thanks for all your great comments! I've enjoyed my first guest blogging experience here at Blood-Red Pencil, a blog I always find interesting, insightful and thought-provoking.

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  16. Good reminders. If someone is inclined, another article idea would be exceptions to remember. I recall a novel that started with "John. I need a war." It was the first line of the story. It wasn't my type of story but otherwise, I thought it was quite a grabber.

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  17. Thanks for that great first line, Frank. That one doesn't seem like an exception. It's definitely a grabber! I'm in the process of collecting some compelling, attention-grabbing first lines and first paragraphs of fiction.

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  18. ...as part of an article, citing the author and book title, of course!

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  19. Those are great tips to keep in mind. The physical description part is a tricky one, trying to fit it in somehow without being too obvious.

    Morgan Mandel
    http://morganmandel.blogspot.com
    http://facebook.com/morgan.mandel

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  20. Great check list and explanations for how to craft an opening!!

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  21. Great article, and some useful tips here, thanks.

    I would take exception to the advice (read elsewhere as well as here) that you absolutely have to jump right into the action though - agreed, there should be some hint at the conflict to come, but I believe, for a certain kind of story, there is still a place for some gentle scene-building.

    Of course, I'm not pitching a YA/vampire/werewolf/shape-shifter book, so that puts me firmly in the minority anyway!

    Nice post :)

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  22. This was such a great post. I'm in the midst of revising my YA manuscript and this is a great list to check salient points against. I seem to be on track. Thanks.

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  23. I agree with you, Terri. For a more thoughtful type of novel, a more gentle, descriptive or introspective start can be nice, and will set the scene for the style and mood of the story.

    As several people have mentioned, there really are no hard-and-fast "rules" for writing fiction, but agents and editors, from what I've read, seem to be looking for a compelling "hook" at the beginning, to draw the reader into the story. Readers today, especially younger readers, seem to be more impatient and demanding.

    The opening should of course fit the tone of the whole book, so a suspense story would really need to grab the reader upfront, whereas a more thoughtful story would take a different, more appropriate approach.

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  24. June G - Anica Rissi had a great article in the May-June issue of Writer's Digest called "Before You Submit" with a great list of "what you can do to increase your book’s chances of making it out of the slush pile and into the spotlight."
    It's aimed at YA fiction authors, but applies to almost all genres. If you contact me through my website, I can send you a copy of the article, which is excellent.

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  25. Thank you for the wonderful tips. I am in the process of rewriting my ms's first chapter and this helped immensly.

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  26. Great advice.

    Thanks for sharing, Jodie :)

    Jon Gibbs
    (couldn't post with my LJ ID)

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  27. Very interesting, however I noticed that one of the best selling books of the year "The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo" broke almost all of them.

    Just thought it was funny.

    http://www.ManOfLaBook.com

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  28. I need to print out your blog and post it somewhere I can see it every morning when I start writing. So many good tips, so hard to follow.

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  29. Thanks, Kay, and I hope you'll check out my blog, too, on advice for writers: http://JodieRennerEditing.blogspot.com.

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  30. Man of la Books ("good name!") - Sometimes it seems like the top-notch, best-selling authors can almost write their own rules.

    However, those of us who've never been published or who want more royalties should probably to pay close attention to what the agents and acquiring editors are asking for. And what a lot of today's readers seem to demand.

    Hopefully, there will always be a place in publishing for a more thoughtful book as well.

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  31. Pardon the little typo in my last post!

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  32. Yeah! Tips for a **** book, that in the future will be forgot. Like Davinci code. We don't need more of that crap!

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  33. These are excellent tips, Jodie, and very well laid-out! I'm going to revise my first page and chapter, with this advice in mind. First, I'll cut out a bunch of the description and scene-setting I started out with.

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  34. Good tips, Jodie.
    I especially like your last paragraph. Keeping the tips in mind, write the 'Draft' with as many slow, descriptive words as you like, and then do the chopping in the re-write.
    I found that to be effective recently.
    Thank you.

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  35. Look at the top 10-20 NYT Bestsellers (I typically read YA or MG) and you'll find that they almost all break %80-%90 of these rules.

    Half of them, in my opinion, are cliche.

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  36. True Dat, as Omar would say. All good advice. I listen to what Jodie says regarding construct of my novels. She's a great source.

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  37. Okay, I'm going to throw this one out there, and see what you think. My opening line is a family fight about who gets stuck with Liz, the 41 year old spoiled and immature baby sister. She has to listen to the entire conversation because she's trapped herself under the tablecloth, trying to avoid listening to the whole conversation. You learn a whole lot about her family's opinions of Liz, a little back story, as well as the conflict and foreshadowing of the story to come. It's Liz's POV,but she's not in the conversation until later in the chapter when she's consoled by the nice sister. Her two sisters and mom in this opening scene are minor characters. You don't meet the other MC until chapter 2.

    Your way makes a lot of sense, and this deviates from it a little. Do you think it'll work?

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