So, Nano, Day 6! Those of you who are doing it should be deep into your Act I by now. And I was going to do a general reminder of the Elements of Act I, but there are a few elements of Act I that are so very key that I'm going to do a few focused posts first.
Of all the many things I love about e books, I may love this feature the most: sampling. I'm a voracious browser and when I want something to read, unless I know exactly the book I want, I'll often go through a few dozen first chapters of a few dozen books in a row to find something that grabs me.
This is a fantastic exercise when you're struggling with a first chapter of your own.
I read through a bunch of first chapters last night, a couple dozen
books at least, and it was pretty shocking how few of them grabbed me
enough for me to want to keep reading.
Now, I'm not
saying these books are badly written. The prose is fine, really. I'm
just like everyone - there are very few books out there
(proportionately) that I'm actually going to take the time to read. I
like certain things in a book and if they're not there, I'll move on.
Nothing wrong with that AT ALL - the wonderful thing about books is that
there ARE books that deliver the exact or almost exact experience we're
looking for. So of course we look for those over less satisfying ones.
I'm perfectly aware that just as many people discard MY books after
the first few pages because I'M not delivering the experience they're
looking for. I'm certainly not for everyone's tastes.
there was something I was noticing in book after book that I started
and then discarded last night that was just a structural error that
could so easily have been fixed to - I think - increase the number of
people who would want to keep reading. It's pretty simple, really.
I couldn't figure out what the book was about.
Or why I should care, either.
was missing in the first ten, or twenty, pages I was reading was the
INCITING INCIDENT (or the term I prefer - CALL TO ADVENTURE).
Inciting Incident is basically the action that starts the story. The
corpse hits the floor and begins a murder investigation, the hero gets
his first glimpse of the love interest in a love story, a boy receives
an invitation to a school for wizards in a fantasy. (More discussion on
this key story element here).
SOMETHING HAS TO HAPPEN, IMMEDIATELY, that gives us an idea of WHAT THE STORY IS ABOUT.
can do this to some extent by setting mood, tone, genre, hope and fear,
and an immediate external problem, but there is something about that
first action that lets us know, at least subconsciously: "Oh, I get it.
That teenage girl was murdered and that cop is going to find the
killer." "Oh, I get it. There's a shark out there off the coast eating
tourists and that police chief is going to have to get rid of it
And once we know that, we can relax. It is a very disorienting and irritating thing not to know where a story is going.
means in general 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. And I would argue it's critical to get
it out there if your book is or has any chance of being an e book, too,
because it's just so easy to go on to the next e book on your reader.
fiction is popular because we go in knowing pretty much what the story
is going to be about. The kid is kidnapped and the detective has to get
him back. The house is haunted and the new residents are going to have
to fight to survive. But setting your book in a certain genre does not
always guarantee that the reader is going to know what the story is
going to be about (as evidenced by what I was reading last night.)
I'm suggesting - find a way to get that critical inciting incident into
the first few pages or at the very least, strongly hint at it right up
Reading a bunch of first chapters in a row points out a lot of common errors, actually. So here’s a brief list.
1. Inexperienced writers almost inevitably START THEIR STORIES IN THE WRONG PLACE.
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. Screenwriter and novelist Derek Haas refers to his
first pass of a story as “the vomit draft”. And that's what Nano is about. 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)
- 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:
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!!!!!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
6. DETAIL THE INTERNAL DRIVES OF YOUR CHARACTER AND SET THE GENRE.
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
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
So while you're writing your brains out today, take a few minutes to ask yourself these key questions:
Do you know where your inciting incident
is? Is it soon enough? Honestly?
Do we KNOW where your story is going by page ten of your book?
Can you maybe do a little rearranging to make sure this happens, before you move on?
And for more discussion and examples of all of these terms, see ELEMENTS OF ACT ONE.
Screenwriting Tricks for Authors and Writing Love, Screenwriting Tricks for Authors, II, are now available in all e formats and as pdf files. Either book, any format, just $2.99.
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