Listen. Come in here. You want to know about this. - Steven King
I have learned, in my wise old age, that one should apologize when one is a jerk.
I am a jerk and I am sorry.
I disappeared off the radar (ok, maybe not the radar but from blogging sight at least) for far too long. I could provide you with exactly seven excuses for my absence, but I will just bite the bullet, admit to being blogaphobic and move on to bigger and better things - Like my new line up of hot blog-tastic topics!
After attending When Words Collide last weekend (a weekend of bringing together amazing talent from all over Canada - and the US and the UK from what I understand- to hash out all sorts of writing woes and answer a million questions from aspiring authors and writers alike), I have found renewed vigor to hit my keyboard (not literally) and generate insightful, witty and slightly stolen writing tips for all of my wonderful followers.
I have a really exciting line up of topics for you all over the next several weeks (yes I said weeks… I am going to do my best to get back to a regular posting schedule. This is where you would insert cheering and words of praise).
I was trying to decide where to start with the abundance of knowledge I have discovered, and I have chosen to start at the most logical place… the end!
I would not lead you so far down the rabbit hole so quickly. We are going to start at the beginning.
The opening to your work in progress (no matter what it is that you write) is going to set the tone for your reader. Those first few pages are going to build the expectation for the entirety of the book. They need to be good!
Dwayne Clayden, one of the amazing presenters last weekend, explains the opening pages as a pop up book. The setting, the characters, and the inciting incident need to jump off the pages at your reader and grab them instantly.
We live in a world of instant gratification, don’t we? No one seems to have time to waste. The general public certainly does not have the patience to slug through four chapters of setting description and beautiful prose describing your protagonist, before something exciting happens!
This is more or less true depending on the genre you tend to read/write. Romance for instance, will spend more time on details before jumping into action, whereas a mystery will typically open on a dead body (the good ones anyways).
Your opening needs to grab, entice, frighten, mystify, or amuse. Your reader needs to feel as though they are in the heart of your story, from the starting line.
Your task, as the author, is to create a world, and characters, so intriguing that you get your reader to the end of the first chapter. (And beyond of course)
So how do you do this? How do you open a story with such unattainable expectations?
You start with the first line.
Authors- the good ones - can spend weeks and months obsessing over those first few words. The hook, or the first line of a work in progress, is an authors opportunity to grab a reader. If you can get their attention, now all you have to do is hold on to it, right??
Easier said than done!
A well written hook will be incredibly interesting, and probably pose several questions in an instant for your reader. There are several tricks to achieve this.
You can begin with a question, maybe the narrator is asking the reader, maybe the main character is asking themselves, maybe it is truly brilliant dialogue. “How does one determine the colour of a dinosaur’s skin?”
You can begin with description that is so vivid the reader is swept up in the scene immediately. “Gasping for breath and inhaling nothing but the briny salt of the angry Atlantic ocean was not how George had imagined his life ending; but as the sails of his twenty-three foot daysailer disappeared between swells, he had little doubt that this was it.”
Or you could create mystery, giving your reader just enough information to get them curious, but leaving the rest up to their imaginations. “Standing on the peak of the mountain, Jojo stared out in awe of the world below her, completely oblivious to what, or who, was watching her.”
You want to read on, don’t you?
This is your chance to heighten your opening chapter with action and excitement. In your next paragraph, you would capture the reader so that they refuse to put the book down.
A good writer will catch a reader with their first line, intrigue them with the first paragraph, and captivate them with the first chapter.
Now, I am not saying to put all of your effort into perfecting the first chapter of your book and forgetting about what comes after, but there are critical details that need to be addressed in those first pages.
Your reader needs to be situated in your story right way. They need to know who’s story they are reading, where it’s headed, and when and where it takes place.
Keep the action going throughout that first chapter. Never, never, never jump into back story in those first few pages. The opening of your novel should always remain in action. There are times where these rules can be broken, but for new authors, learn the rules, once you know them, then you can break them (after you’ve proven you can follow them).
Make sure that you are including everything a reader needs, to get into your story, within the first five pages:
1. Grab the readers attention
2. Introduce a character readers will care about
3. Set the story's mood/ tone
4. Establish the story tellers voice
5. Orient the world of the protagonist and enable the reader to picture it
6. Lock into your genre.
If you can achieve all this in your first pages, all while telling a story that is interesting, and unique, you are setting yourself up for success.
As a closing thought, one thing that Dwayne mentioned got me thinking, and noticing in my own work.
One thing that a lot of writers overlook is the power of a hook at the end of a chapter. Sometimes this is considered a cliff hanger. If you can hook your reader at the end of each chapter, how likely are they to flip the page and jump into the next chapter to see what happens? How many times, as a reader, have you gotten to that last line, and had to read on into the next chapter? The next thing you know it’s 3am and you are still turning pages. If you can achieve this in your own work, success is yours for the taking!
(credit for a lot of content above comes from Dwayne Clayden's presentation. The wit and cheek is all mine!)