The Making of a Hero

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Most people are followers, sheep to use a Biblical reference. Your protagonist (also known as viewpoint character, he or she through whose eyes your world is illuminated) cannot be a sheep bleating through life, must not be, or your story will fail to engage the reader.

Your responsibility as a creator is, foremost, to engage the reader through the eyes of your main character; otherwise, the story—regardless of word skill or plotting prowess—will fail.

Create a hero, one who leads by example, a character others will gladly follow, and you have the nucleus of a successful story. Other story attributes must also be present, of course, but the protagonist is where all stories begin.

Your protagonist should, in some ways, exist apart from the world they occupy. By having the main character not part of the crowd, they take on a unique, larger-than-life appearance. How do you shine a bright light on the character you have chosen?

Focus on the character’s moral compass.

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A good example of this is the Masterpiece Theater production of Poldark, a historical series based on the novels of Winston Graham.

Ross Poldark returns to Cornwall, England, after fighting in the war against the upstart Americans across the seas, and finds his father dead and his once opulent life teetering on ruin. Talk about conflict—poor Ross has many daunting obstacles.

In a scene early in the story, a group of blood-thirsty commoners rip the dog from a child’s arms, ready to pitch the poor mongrel into a circle against a teeth-baring dog intent on a fight. Amidst the leering people, the camera shows the smiles and licking of lips. The scene is a frightening one, especially for the child whose beloved pet will soon be killed.

Coming upon the jeering crowd, Ross pushes through, pulls the child from the grips of men restraining her, and barks for the people to stop and go about their business, thus saving the dog. The writer of the story has, in one scene, highlighted Ross Poldark’s moral compass.

That moral compass holds true through several plots and sub-plots of the ensuing story.

You must do the same. Pit your lead against the world, and make them battle to right the wrongs. That is their job, their purpose, and thereby a hero is born.

A hero is a person others admire, even if they do not like them.

Not every story’s protagonist is a hero, but even when creating an anti-hero, in some way there must be a barometer the reader can associate with, an understanding how and why a character does the things they do when faced by adversity.

My next post will explain the four ways writers create and show the heroism of the lead character.

See You on the Next Page,

Rick

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The Only Writing Goal Needed For 2017

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Hundreds of blog posts preaching goal-setting methods for writers have appeared the last weeks. They expound many of the same things, the obvious old-hats we read every year. I wrote such a blog post at the end of 2015.

Many of the suggestions are sensible and will help, but they all miss (or glaze over) the one problem all writers share, beginners and professionals alike.

The problem often ignored is all in your mind.

There lay the subterfuge needling the will to write, punching holes in plot developments, and pushing over cardboard characters like props on a stage.

Writers wear three hats: creator, reader, editor.

The problem writers share is confusing the third hat (editor) with one that should have never been bought, and certainly not worn—the critic hat.

The critic is the voice in your head that tells you writing is a waste of time. The critic is a sneaky bastard, the master of clichés, whispering “that’s been done a hundred times” or “nobody wants to read what you have to say” or “you will never have the necessary skills.” In effect, the critic is a doubter, a wet-blanket, a party-pooper, a liar.

That is not to say you should not be critical of your writing. Taking a critical approach to your prose (word choice, sentence structure, plot, character, etc.) is an essential aspect when wearing the editor’s hat.

The difference between the two? The editor is analytical, the critic is emotional (with a heavy dose of negativity). Adopting the editor and denying the critic is a matter of changing your attitude.

The problem I vow to master in 2017 is Mind-Set. It will take effort, and quite a few reminders throughout the hours and days ahead while hunched over my keyboard.

I have hung on my study wall two reminders that I am a writer: a copy of The Accomplice, my published short story, and the acceptance letter.

Those are my reminders. Yours might be a favorite quote from a published author or simply the words I AM A WRITER above the monitor. Perhaps you are not quite so bold, so you have inspiration on a wall to your side, or maybe on a wall behind which forces you to swivel in your chair when attacked by doubt.

Be bold, and go where you have never gone before—place your inspiration where you can readily view it as a constant reminder of what you wish to become. What, no inspirational reminder? Find something and make it your own.

Repeat after me:

I am a Writer.

Because I am a writer, I write whether convenient or not, regardless of my mood.

My skills will improve if I write; whining about why I can’t write makes me a better whiner. Effort extended will make me better at what I spend my time doing. Better Writer or Better Whiner? I Decide.

Know this: you have the skills to succeed, and any problems or mistakes in your writing can be fixed. Now go write, and become what you are destined to be.

See you on the next page,

Rick

No Writer is an Island — Two Years Later

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Two years ago I wrote of a special friend, Jeany, a retired English teacher, who helped edit my fantasy novel, The Returning. She spent long hours with no payment, with nothing other than a willingness to help me improve my writing skills. We met every couple weeks, spending an hour or two dissecting and improving my story. I have heard from friends I was not an isolated case, which made her invaluable and kind help even more special.

At a recent birthday party for a mutual friend (see, I do socialize, you doubters), Linda and I hoped to see Jeany, knowing her health had declined over recent months. Instead, we found that she had died three days earlier.

The last time I saw Jeany was on Mother’s Day when her daughter took her to the park and enjoyed an outdoor lunch under clear skies. As always, her warm smile and encouragement brought gratitude, and for the hundredth time, I thanked her for the invaluable help she so graciously showed me.

No writer is an island, I’ve said before, and Jeany proved that to me once again.

We writers are a solitary sort, often a requirement given our passion for the lonely creative process. However, what we write encompasses life and the people populating this crazy world, and one cannot adequately and truthfully portray a character’s dilemmas and foibles if we do not have a briefcase of information to draw upon—people provide the necessary information.

Jeany reminded me of that.

Knowing people and how they respond to disappointment, grief, joy and hope is what makes our stories real, our characters stout and full-bodied. Within people pumps motivations and dreams, but each manages them differently and for different reasons—it’s what makes us unique, and so should our characters be as well.

For this reason, we must live, we must mingle with humanity as they are the paints applied to the canvas of our stories.

During this time, when gathering with family and friends amidst toasts to the dreams of an upcoming new year, be on the lookout for character traits, instances, dialogue, the hopes and fears of the people around you—you may find interesting tidbits for a future story.

I can imagine Jeany leaning over to me while passing a platter of food: “Did you hear what they just said? That’s story gold.”

Knowing Jeany made me a better writer, and I hope a better person as well. Her enthusiasm for helping others “gain the power” of the writing craft and improving skills was her mantra, and her love of teaching was one of the catalysts for the creation of Knights of Writ.

Jeany emphasized we should not be alone, cannot be alone in our creation, and I will always remember her for that.

See you on the next page,

Rick

Writing — Whatever it Takes

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This morning I had a long discussion with myself about writing—the why’s, the how’s, the what for’s—and found I was talking to an idiot.

The idiot told me not to write today: “It’s too hard,” he whined. “I’m not ready.”

I nodded. Some days thoughts and ideas bubble forth faster than I can type, a fast-moving river carving new landscapes; other writing days resemble a muddy puddle—today was the latter.

The murky writing days are not caused by the proverbial Writer’s Block—ideas and sentences do exist in my mind—but pulling them from brain to page requires a will not damaged and lethargic.

“Maybe read a book,” the idiot suggested, and that made sense because reading often loosens the creative spirit and lubricates a tired will. “There’s also the Netflix movie that just arrived,” he added.

Brainless entertainment. “That sounds good,” I agreed, and as soon as I voiced the words, realized I was being manipulated. I sat up straight, fingers arched over the keyboard. “This is writing time, damnit!”

It was a dark and stormy night . . . redrum, redrum . . . It was the best of times, it was the worst of times . . . .

“It sure is the worst of times,” the idiot pointed out. “There’s not an original thought in your head.”

“I have my own thoughts,” I countered, a defensive resolve tightening through my shoulders,  “and they are unique to me. I have to share them.”

“Why?”

“Other writers may be having trouble right now. Perhaps I can help the same way you helped me?”

“What?”

“Having this conversation has opened the wellspring, you know, the writing tap is flowing again.”

“You used me?”

I couldn’t contain the smile. “That’s right. I started typing our conversation, and here I am, almost done with the blog. And it’s given me a new idea for my novel.”

“That’s pretty underhanded, if you ask me.”

“I didn’t ask you, and I won’t, but when it comes to writing, whatever it takes to get the words down is fine with me. After all, you internal critics are idiots, so what does it matter?”

Now, off to work on that new idea for the novel . . . .

See you on the next page,

Rick

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You Will Offend Someone

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We live in the world of the thin-skinned. Regardless of what you write, you are bound to offend someone, perhaps many someones. Although most people consider themselves open-minded and/or progressive, it is seldom the truth—simply another mask worn at the appropriate time.

When Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone was first published by Scholastic Books, droves of people were appalled a well-respected publisher of children’s books could promote such offensive material for youthful readers—sorcery and witchcraft, by God!

“Our children should not be subjected to this kind of material disguised as entertainment,” someone said.

That was 1997 and much has changed: the envelope has been pushed, and in many cases, set on fire.

Often, visual entertainment leads the way, the “keeper” of the envelope. What had been kept off major TV networks is now commonplace (sex, violence, and drugs, oh my), and in many cases are present solely for shock value with little purpose to plot or characterization. Books have followed a similar path.

For me, as a writer, everything needs to have a purpose within the greater context of story, whether to expand characterization, plot, foreshadowing, or theme; otherwise, it’s just fluff.

Some rejoice censorship is all but lost, others have cut their cable ties rather than sit through what they consider indecent or trivial programming.

I am not a prude or a puritan, but have little use for what passes as entertainment in today’s society: the foul-mouthed and profane just for its own sake, the half-dressed actors (or less as in the case of shows like Spartacus, Game of Thrones, and Orange is the New Black) whose writers exemplify the ultimate envelope pushers. As I said, these things make me neither queasy nor angry, but prompts a head shaking because most of it has no bearing on the plot and characters; instead, appealing to the mass voyeurism so prevalent in today’s world.

I recently finished Stephen King’s book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, and was surprised by how many swear words he used. He wrote the book in 2001—a few short years after Harry Potter appeared—and I wonder if he used his influence to push the envelope a little further into what had been considered off limits. I’m sure I will never get the chance to ask him . . . just curious.

How does this all relate to your writing?

I encourage you to be honest when writing, and by that I mean if the plot or characterization warrants the use of profanity, use it; be aware that overuse will water down the impact, which is the purpose in the first place, right?

As to scenes where people have a sexual encounter, I like to lead up with enticing sensual and sexy language, but close the door before the actual act. Why? Because no matter how well you describe the anatomy and the characters panting, the readers—most who have had sex, after all—can imagine (or remember) better than your portrayal.

Do not worry—or even consider—how you may offend others, whether intentionally or accidently, because as the detective would comment, “that shows motive.” You do not want to telegraph your motives; like theme, what you say should be an underlying sense and not a head-thumping lecture. But it must pertain to the characterization and/or plot— otherwise swearing, overt violence, or implicit sex acts are added only for shock value and will make the writing trite and predictable.

There are instances when we should be offended and even prompted to action: the abuse of a child or animal (anyone for that matter), flagrant inconsiderate behavior toward a loved one, and any number of others. After all, our conscience exists for a reason, a moral compass of right and wrong.

As an artist, there are times when you must write what’s in your mind and your heart—as long as it translates to characterization or plot—and just say, Fuck it, and the offended be damned.

See you on the next page,

 

Rick

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Writing is not Linear

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Writing a novel—even a short story, for that matter—is not a linear process. An idea reveals in a thousand different ways: a character, a scene, a bit of dialogue, perhaps a title or theme. From whatever point a writer starts thinking about a potential idea, the path to completion takes many directions, and the journey is seldom a straight line.

With the advent of NaNoWriMo two days away, the common advice will say, in one way or another, “Get the first draft down in whatever form (paper or Word document), knowing it will be crap and will require drastic revision.”

I am one of those expounders, yet my first draft does not normally follow from page one through to page 400. Within the writing of the first draft, there are times when the chronological order does not work; I have to shift from the linear view to a more scattered accounting.

The instances when I halt forward movement inevitably occurs when an event or moment in the story future must be written now because, (1) the scene occurs with a fever-pitch need to get written for fear it might be forgotten or diluted if I wait, (2) the instance is revealed full-blown, and/or, (3) there is an important goal to shoot for, probably because of current plot foreshadowing.

At times it is enough to simply make a note about a future scene, a jot to jar my mind, a moment where I know there is something I wish to portray, but the particulars remain misty. The idea dwells in the kernel stage and needs time to grow within my subconscious—those are not the times I’m talking about.

When a full-blown future scene assaults me during the chronological writing, those instances when characters and plot congeal in that perfect adrenaline rush kind of way, I have to put the linear view aside and jump ahead 50, 100, even 200 pages further into the story; the linear story line awaits my return.

I work with a nominal outline, filling in scenes and weaving conflicts as I go. At the outset, I know where the story travels, though never is the journey crystal clear—the journey (how my characters get to the end) is what I enjoy the most about writing, the not knowing for sure how my characters will succeed. In this way I am both creator and reader, the former hoping to surprise the latter.

As I have said many times, the most important thing is to write every day. This is the main thrust of the November writing challenge, that is, to prompt writers to develop the habit of writing each day, and especially those days one is not inclined. NaNoWriMo is also a great time to try a new genre or style, something I plan to do this year.

When you sit down to write, start where it feels most natural; you might find a scene goal that fits perfectly at a future time in the story line, or more often than not, you will begin at chapter one. Either way, do not restrict yourself by only thinking and writing linear—the scenes and instances that surprise you in the middle of writing are often the most fun to write.

See you on the next page,

Rick

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Fall Into Something New

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I love autumn: trees shedding golden leaves crunching beneath my feet, pale blue sky sharing space with billowy gray clouds, flocks of birds soaring overhead on their yearly journeys, and bushy-tailed gray squirrels leaping from thick oak branches to thin pines.

For the writer, fall is a perfect time to close the door and write while rain taps against the window, or curl up with a favorite book and a steaming cup of hot chocolate in front of a dancing fire.

These months leading toward the end of the year offer many writing activities such as NANOWRIMO—an acronym for National Novel Writing Month—and How Writers Write Fiction, a free writing class from Iowa University. I encourage you to seek out both to help improve your craft.

Most of all, though, the present season is a great time to review, to reflect, and to create.

Take a courageous step to write in an unfamiliar genre or style, test yourself and journey into potentially uncomfortable territory—searching new things will make you a better writer.

If you normally write fantasy, try a hard-boiled mystery; should romance be your forte, write a science fiction story (with romance thrown in, of course); a historical fiction writer may find a shoot-em-up western a nice complement. Whatever you write, fall is a great time to experiment; you might find interests broader than you realize.

The main thing, as always, is to write daily.

I have a snippet file, a document where I note anything not associated with a current project: observations, characterizations, bits of dialogue; possible story, novel, or article titles; thoughts about the craft, scenes, plots and their twists, a shopping bag of succinct and interesting tidbits.

Often during the year—and especially this season—I open the snippet file and read through my collection. Some are trite, a couple may prove semi-profound, but always interesting. Inevitably I find an item I can either adapt to a current work-in-progress or something that prompts me in a new direction—and it’s kinda fun.

I carry a 3×5 lined notepad wherever I venture, and it fills with snippets scrawled in the heat of the moment. When I sit at my computer, I add these bits of writing to my snippet file, which has now grown to dozens of typed pages and hundreds of entries. Notes such as:

Dale walked on tip-toes as if his heal harbored a painful splinter he dare not put weight on, like a mouse dancing across cactus.

Mournful groans of the emotionally afflicted.

Mourners wailed and groaned as the casket carried by eight pall-bearers passed by.

The rich know not the travails of the poor, who dream of being like them one day.

“I like your beard; it covers your face.”

Unimaginative and of little value by themselves, perhaps, but one may provide a springboard to something more. If you do not have a snippet file (and every writer should, in my opinion), start one and review it occasionally—you will witness improvement to your wordsmithing skills, and it might even trigger a new project.

See you on the next page,

Rick

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A Time-Tested Story Format

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Search the stories of antiquity when actors traveled the countryside entertaining small crowds with their plays, and you will notice the writers understood the validity—lo, the necessity—of the Three Act format.

The Three Act format remains a mainstay of modern storytelling, dramatized on screen in movies and even most 30 minute sitcoms. Why? Because three distinct acts (or sections, if you prefer) works to keep the viewer or reader involved as the story unfolds, scene by scene, one act to another, seamlessly to the satisfactory conclusion.

There are other proposed formats, but I will stick with the Three Act structure because other descriptions are merely variations of the original. Some describe the Three Act format as Beginning, Middle, and End, which can be useful, although that definition is a bit simplistic for our study.

The Three Act format can and should be a road map for the creator, sign posts to keep the writer on a logical path to the end of journey. When first developing a story, I ask myself these questions:

  1. Where does this story begin?
  2. What problems and conflicts will the character(s) have to overcome?
  3. How will this story end?

By this time a character has already formed in my mind, and I have the gist of where I want to go. Although I may know where I want the story to go, I may not know how to get there—the Three Act Format assists to define the direction and outcome best suited to the needs of a particular story.

The opening Act introduces the character(s), the setting, and the initial story problem.

Act Two complicates the problems, digs deeper into the character—adding flaws and situations to overcome—and initiates more roadblocks.

Act Three, which is often the shortest of the parts (in term of word count or, in the case of film, minutes), shows the character resolving the story-problem and a look to the future. Do not miss that last part, a look to the future, as that story attribute gives the reader an enhanced sense of resolution.

ACT ONE

The last two weeks my posts have focused on the all-important story opening: How to Grab the Reader, focusing on the Hook, and stirring the Story Stew, new problems and action drawing the reader deeper into the story or novel.

Both are parts of Act One, but not the totality. In my story, Nychelle’s Gate, Act I ends when Nychelle escapes her clan and begins a solitary journey into a frightening and unknown world.

Think of the first act as the set-up of the story, that all important invite to your reader. Of all the sections, the opening is the most important—a reader won’t continue reading if they are not drawn into the story by the Hook and stirring the Story Stew. By contrast, the Hook is gone after its appearance, the stirring of the stew continues throughout.

ACT TWO

The transition from one act to another will appear naturally if done with planning and forethought. Even something like, Three hours later, Fred and Gwynn reached the cabin on the lake, and although a time transition mostly, is a way to get the characters to the next scene where something dramatic happens.

The second act introduces new obstacles the characters must overcome on their quest to solve the main story problem. In the example of Fred and Gwynn, perhaps they are taking a much needed weekend together to solve their marital problems. The question arising in the reader’s mind (will they save their marriage?) is the mystery you, as the writer, must solve. Think of it like a puzzle where you add the pieces—harsh words, misunderstanding, appearance of another relationship straining the marriage, or intruder that draws the couple closer—one by one until you solve the problem previously laid out.

ACT THREE

The third act is where you bring all the obstacles and foreshadowing to a successful conclusion by solving the mystery piquing the reader’s mind.

Going back to the mention earlier of a look to the future, your conclusion should point to the character’s future because, of course, the character’s life continues after the story’s last word; unless killing off the character is your conclusion, which is a hard sell in most cases.

Readers want to know that life goes on for the characters with whom they have developed an intimate relationship. The character’s future is an important addition to the end of a story, one which gives the reader a sense of continuity and hope.

Next time you are writing and don’t know where to go, try to break the story into the three distinct Acts, each separated by a door into the next.

See you on the next page,

Rick

Story Stew

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Once you grab the reader using the main story ingredients—character, setting, initial conflict—it is necessary to pull the reader past the Hook and deeper into your story world. To accomplish this, give the character more problems (conflicts) to overcome—I call this stirring the Story Stew.

We all have problems. Characters in novels and stories must have more than their fair share, problems complicated by their own actions (or lack), by their decisions (often times poor choices), and by roadblocks the antagonist puts in front of them, the more and increasingly harder the better.

The complications a character faces needs to be dramatic, the type of conflict that, if unresolved, will destroy them. The impending destruction can be death, great loss (friend, family member, job, validity, integrity, etc.) but should be devastating if not overcome.

The problems the character faces are integral to everything a story must do, that is, keep the reader reading. To do this, a conflict resolved early must be replaced by another, larger problem.

Thickening the Stew

Continuing the stew analogy, once you have introduced the main story ingredients, add items that will enhance the overall flavor. If not careful, the ingredients will fight against each other, and too much of one will taint the outcome. When making a beef stew, you probably do not want to add pineapple unless you have a specific reason, such as experimenting with a dish incorporating Hawaiian flavor. But let’s say you want to make a regular, all-American beef stew: chunks of beef, potatoes, carrots, celery, onion, and spices.

A great stew is thickened. If not thickened by roux (a mixture of flour and butter or oil), the end result is a watered down concoction that is not a stew at all, but a soup. It’s all about consistency. A true stew reaches the proper consistency when you can write your name by dripping the sauce from the ladle. Story consistency happens when all ingredients merge into a delicious whole.

Every bite (scene) ideally will include all the stew’s ingredients, each a perfect blend enhancing the overall flavor.

Again using my own story, Nychelle’s Gate, from last week’s blog—because I can state emphatically the motivations of the creator—my hook showed Nychelle (character) stumbling (action) into her parents tent (setting), those who forced her into the elder’s bed against her wishes (conflict).

Stirring the stew involved increasing the tension, showing Nychelle’s reaction, and her decision to act, and thereby, a new conflict.

“How dare you, girl,” her father sneered, his hand raised to strike if needed.

Nychelle dug her toes into the soft earth and pushed herself back against the small table. “I won’t be his fifth wife, the lowest of his shemsha. I won’t be sent off like one of your goats.”

Mother stood behind her father, always dutiful. “He’s the Elder,” she said. “Any woman of the clan would be honored.”

“Honored?” Nychelle laughed, heard and tasted the disgust in her voice. “Then let another have him. He’s vile.”

Her father took a step nearer. He would beat her into submission and drag her, cowering like a child, back to the Elder. That would be the easy part. She glanced around and saw the bone knife used for cutting meat lying on the table. Her hand found the knife without effort; she wheeled toward her father and waved the pale white blade in front of her.

His canted eyes squinted, the black pupils lost in the surrounding blue, his mouth vanishing in yellowed mustache and beard.

Nychelle felt for the table with her free hand, pushed herself to her feet, and crouched like a tiger ready to pounce. “I know how to stick meat,” she said, her words slurred because of the swelling lip. “I have often butchered your beasts.”

“You go way beyond, girl,” he snarled. “I’ll not let a man talk to me like that, and I’ll take a lot less from you.”

He lunged at her.

Each character action, followed immediately by a reaction, pulls the reader further into the story and world created. Simply, one sentence moves to the next, paragraph by paragraph, action and reaction, to the rousing climax.

The four word paragraph, “He lunged at her” is warning of something to come, a promise of continued action. Even though you might not be entranced by this particular type of story (fantasy), the blending and stirring of the necessary ingredients is needed for any story type. As creator, you may take a more leisurely approach, and if done right, can work. The main thing is to show the world and the people solving major problems in their life—deciding what color dress to wear to the prom is not normally enough, in itself, to hold interest.

Events must be happening, and within the story framework, a character facing a dilemma whose resolution is imperative to their well-being. Toss in all the ingredients in proper measure, and the story will work.

See you on the next page,

Rick

How To Grab The Reader

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Patience is a virtue most people don’t have time to wait for—this is especially true of readers.

Life in the twenty-first century is hectic, so as a writer you must grab the reader and yank them into your tale, lest they be drawn away by any of a thousand distractions vying for their attention. (I read a study that determined, on average, people check their cell phone over 200 times a day!).

While writing for newspapers, I learned the basic tenets of news and article writing. My edgy, squinty-eyed editor explained that news stories are built as an inverted V, the most important elements listed at the pointed top: Who, what, when, where, why, and how. Fiction writing is much the same.

The beginning of your story or novel (those first few words or couple paragraphs) is called the Hook, and is critical to your success. I refer to it as the “calling” or the “invite” where your job as creator is to tantalize the reader and pull them deeper into the story.

Entice the reader with excitement at the outset. This is not the place for Backfill, which is often called “Info Dump.” The history of your world and characters, ideally, should be sprinkled throughout the action, shedding bits of light as the story grows and clarifies. There is time for backfill, but gone are the days of James Fenimore Cooper’s technique of spending pages of description prior to getting to the point, and thus forward movement.

Grab the reader by the lapel and force them into your world. Here’s the first paragraph of my short story, Eyes of Destiny.

Kolvett’s stomach recoiled, churning, the mealy bread threatening to lurch onto slick planks as the Emperor’s war galley lifted and fell on the rolling sea. Shuffling with small steps measured by chains connecting his ankles, Kolvett squinted past white caps at land peaking above the horizon—the shore was the gondrag’s destination, and for whatever reason, him with it. He glanced at his wrists where bloody sores reminded him there are shackles other than steel that bind men.

 This opening paragraph attempts to do several things:

  1. Introduces the character, Kolvett, whose story this is. In most cases, I like the character tag in the first sentence because character is what all stories are about in the end. If the reader cannot associate with the character and does not care what happens to them, they won’t continue reading. Losing a reader is the worst thing for a writer.
  2. Gives the setting and implies an earlier time in history: Emperor’s war galley lifted and fell on the rolling sea. At this point, time and placement is unknown and will be revealed later in the story.
  3. Sets up a problem: Shuffling with small steps measured by chains connecting his ankles . . . Kolvett is bound and being led somewhere, but does not know where or why—the shore was the gondrag’s destination . . . The use of the word, gondrag, which was earlier described as the Emperor’s war galley indicates the fantasy element of the story.
  4. Mystery: . . . and for whatever reason, him with it. Every story needs an element of mystery, if nothing more than the reader’s question of, What is going to happen?
  5. A promise of something more: He glanced at his wrists where bloody sores reminded him there are shackles other than steel that bind men.

One of the best tools you can use as a writer is adding items in your beginning that start your reader asking questions: Who is Kolvett? Why is he bound? Where is he being taken? Why has he been kept alive, and who are his captors?

Another example from a work in progress, a story entitled Nychelle’s Gate.

Nychelle staggered through the tent flap, gasping, and fell to her knees on the dusty floor. She spun to face her mother and father. “I won’t do it,” she spat out, tasting blood from the Elder’s backhand. That was not the worst of being “taken,” though, nor the most painful, and far from the most humiliating. She shuddered at the all-too-recent memory, and ignored the stickiness down there.

Again, the opening paragraph attempts to accomplish the following:

  1. Introduce the main character, Nychelle.
  2. Gives the setting, at least at this point in the story, being the tent and probably that of her parents. Using “tent” implies they are nomadic and have not yet reached the advanced culture of developing towns or cities. Or they are outsiders. Either way, there is some mystery as to the situation of the people that populate the story.
  3. Confrontation by her dialogue, “I won’t do it” shows a problem, and that her parents are at the center of it. This conflict is geared to raise the tension of the scene.
  4. There are other hints within these 64 words such as the hierarchy of the culture (Elder), which indicates a clan rather than a kingdom, that she had been struck (tasted blood from the Elder’s backhand), and that she endured something cringe-worthy, (she shuddered at the all-too-recent memory, and ignored the stickiness down there).
  5. It hints at Nychelle’s character: strong and defiant, even against great odds of opposing her parents and the Elder.

There are many ways to start a story—the important element is convincing the reader early on that the time put into reading your story is well spent. To do that, accomplish these five things:

Begin your story with action, “something” happening to your character.
Put your character in a time and place (setting).
Through conflict, show the character’s problem as early as possible.
Hints (foreshadowing) are good.
An element of mystery will draw the reader forward into the next story section.

Take a look at the beginning of a current work in progress to see if you have enticed the reader; if not, rework the piece with the items discussed at the forefront.

See You on the Next Page,

Rick

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