I’ve learned a lot from reading a bunch of first chapters in a row. (I started this discussion here. ) I maintain I can’t teach anyone to write, but I sure can point out the problems I’m seeing over and over and over again. So here’s a brief list.
1. Inexperienced writers almost inevitably START THEIR STORIES IN THE WRONG PLACE.
Now, please, please remember – I am not talking about first drafts, here. As far as I’m concerned, all a first draft has to do is get to “The End”. It doesn’t have to be polished. It doesn’t have to make sense to anyone but you. At the Southern California Writers Conference this weekend screenwriter and novelist Derek Haas referred to his first pass of a story as “the vomit draft”. Exactly. Just get it all out – you’ll make sense of it later. (for more on this: Your First Draft Is Always Going To Suck)
BUT - when you’ve gotten to the end, you will probably want to start your story 20, 30, 50 pages later than you do. And this is partly why:
For some reason newer writers think they have to tell the whole back story in the first ten pages. Back story is not story. So -
2. NEVER MIND THE FUCKING BACKSTORY!!!!!
With almost no exceptions, you should start your book with an actual scene, in which your main character (or villain, if that’s who you start with) is caught up in action. You should put that scene down on the page as if the reader is watching a movie – or more specifically, CAUGHT UP in a movie. The reader should not just be watching the action, but feeling the sweat, smelling the salt air, feeling the roiling of their stomach as they step into whatever unknown.
We don’t need to know who this person is, yet. Let them keep secrets. Make the reader wonder – curiosity is a big hook. What we need to do is get inside the character’s skin.
Here are two tips:
3. IDENTIFY THE SENSATION AND EXPERIENCE YOU WANT TO EVOKE IN YOUR READER – AND THEN MAKE SURE YOU’RE EVOKING IT.
I cannot possibly stress this enough. We read novels to have an EXPERIENCE. Make yourself a list of your favorite books and identify what EXPERIENCE those books gives you. Sex, terror, absolute power, the crazy wonderfulness of falling in love? What is the particular rollercoaster that that book (or movie) is? Identify that in your favorite stories and BE SPECIFIC. Then do the same for your own story.
Now that you know what the experience is that you want to create, start to look at great examples of books and films that successfully create that experience FOR YOU. In other words - Make A List.
4. USE ALL SIX SENSES.
A great exercise is to make sure that every three pages you’ve covered specific details of what you want the reader to see, hear, feel, taste, smell, and sense. All six categories, every three pages.
5. SHOW, DON’T TELL.
This is one of those notes that always annoys me until I have to read 15 pages of “telling”. Then I realize it’s the essence of storytelling. If your character has a conflict with her brother, then let’s see the two of them fighting – don’t give me a family history and Freudian analysis.
6. DETAIL THE INTERNAL DRIVES OF YOUR CHARACTER AND SET THE GENRE.
You don’t need to detail the family tree or when they moved to whatever house they’re living in or their great love for their first stuffed animal.
What we need to know their DESIRE and WHAT IS BLOCKING THEM. We need to feel HOPE AND FEAR for them. We need to get a sense of the GENRE, a strong sense of MOOD and TONE, and a hint of THEME.
7. SOMETHING HAS TO HAPPEN, IMMEDIATELY, that gives us an idea of WHAT THE STORY IS ABOUT.
You can do this to some extent by setting mood, tone, genre, hope and fear, and an immediate external problem, but also I mean you should get to your INCITING INCIDENT and CALL TO ADVENTURE as soon as possible. Especially if you are a new writer, you cannot afford to hold this back. It can make or break your submission, so find a way to get it into the first few pages or at the very least, strongly hint at it.
And for more discussion and examples of all of these terms, see ELEMENTS OF ACT ONE.
In the next few posts I'm going to get even more detailed about these story elements.
Hope everyone has a great holiday. I'm - well, obviously - working.
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- Barnes & Noble/Nook
- Amazon UK
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