Monthly Archives: March 2015

Sucking Readers into Your Story: the Narrative Hook

204NeverlandThe narrative hook is how you grab readers’ attention from the onset. It’s a speedy way to draw readers into your story, making readers want to know what’s going to happen. This literary device is what keeps readers reading.

A narrative hook is important because readers, literary agents, and publishers dedicate very little time toward deciding if a book is worth reading. Sometimes this time is as little as a few seconds! Your story needs to grab people right off the bat.

One of the best ways to utilize a narrative hook is to have it pose a question in readers’ minds. This doesn’t mean literally writing a question into the text, but showing the readers a scene that formulates questions. Here’s an example:

“Across the room a woman holds her front teeth in the palm of her hand.”

  • Ron Rash, “Not Waving, But Drowning”

From this opening line, readers want to know what happened to the woman. Why is she standing there holding her teeth? Etc.

Narrative hooks arouse readers’ curiosity.

“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

  • George Orwell, “1984”

It’s likely you’ve seen an analog clock at some point in your life. Have you ever seen one strike thirteen? It’s doubtful. Clocks don’t strike thirteen, so why are they doing so here?

Great narrative hooks hint at something more. They intrigue readers by showing there’s more than what’s on the surface. They should set up expectations, and then follow through on them. If you mention the protagonist’s kid sister in the first paragraph, she should play a big role in the story.

“When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.”

  • Suzanne Collins, “The Hunger Games”

Prim isn’t physically in the novel for long, but she’s the reason why Katniss, the protagonist, enters The Hunger Games. Prim is the reason the entire novel occurs.

Plus, readers want to know what “the reaping” is.

Narrative hooks should be used early on, usually in the first sentence, sometimes the first paragraph, and rarer, at the end of the first page. Remember, it’s very easy for readers to bail on a story. If they’re not pulled in immediately, they won’t consider the book worth their time. There are agents, editors, and publishers who will reject an entire novel based on the first sentence! That’s a lot of pressure for the opening line, and a very good reason why your opening should be phenomenal.

Typically your original opening is not the one you end up with. As you gain a deeper understanding of your story and characters, you’ll be able to write a better opening. If you write a great hook, readers will have a hard time pulling away from the story.

What are some great narrative hooks you’ve read?

(Photo courtesy of Wikia.)

That Critical First Page: Grabbing Readers Attention in Seconds

The first page, whether it’s a novel, short story, research paper, proposal, etc., is extremely important, if not the most important page in a piece of writing. The first page paves the way for all the other pages. It’s what grabs readers’ attention, or turns them off.

The first page sets the stakes, tone, pace, voice, and setting. It lays out the mood for the entire piece of writing. If you’re writing about a world that has magic, the first page will have magical elements to it.

Similar to how agents spend about three seconds reading a query letter, readers spend seconds on the first page. If the story hasn’t grasped their attention by the end of page one, they’re unlikely to keep reading.

The first page should:

  • Set up point of view. Is this first person, third person, second person? Is there one point of view, two, three, more? (If you are writing a multiple point of view story, it’s usually better to write in third person.) Is the point of view more limited or omniscient?
  • Article Lead - wide62398472115ew6image.related.articleLeadwide.729x410.115eyw.png1413437505967.jpg-620x349Show setting. A story begins where and when it does for a specific reason. If the opening page shows your protagonist standing, staring out the fourth floor window of a hospital, while it’s raining and the entire world seems a wash of gray, why is she there?
  • Give conflict. This is what’s at stake for the main character. Without conflict there is no story.
  • Establish the protagonist. Is the protagonist female or male? How old is the protagonist? What’s her name? Age? Why is she the protagonist? You don’t have to get into the specifics of what the protagonist looks like on the first page, but readers should know what the protagonist looks like very early on.
  • Present the tone. Is it unhappy, comical, sassy, peaceful, depressing, angry, or hopeful? There can be layers of tone within a story, especially in novels, but the overall tone remains consistent.
  • pacing trIntroduce pace. Pace is the speed at which a story occurs. Look at detective novels, events in that type of book moves quickly. However, in historical fiction, the pace is generally slower. In Young Adult literature, the pace tends to be fast, while in adult works the pace can be a little more unhurried. Does the novel jump straight into action and drama or does it meander there?

Since the first page is so crucial, it won’t be perfect the first time through. In fact, writing the best first page possible probably won’t happen until you know the entire story. So much of making a story suspenseful and surprising is hinting at what’s to come. Sometimes the foreshadowing is obvious, while other times it’s very subtle, but it’s there. And the only true way to hint at what’s to come is to know the entire story, and the better you know your story, the clearer picture you have of all those elements the first page should contain.

How do you go about writing first pages?

(Photos courtesy of The Sydney Morning Herald and Fiction University.)

Developing that Photograph: Knowing Your Characters

ws_Developing_a_film_1440x900Just as it takes time to get to know a friend, it takes times to get to know your characters.

Every single person on this planet is different. We are all born with a set of personality traits and then the environment, our experiences and how we interpret and respond to them, affect our personality. An easy way to think of this is that each personality trait we have, whether it’s agreeableness, adaptability, or domineering, is a ruler. Our genetics set the ends of that ruler, while our environment gives us an exact position on that ruler.

For instance, let’s look at trustfulness of others. Zero centimeters equals one-hundred percent trustful. Twenty centimeters equals one-hundred percent distrustful. You may have been born at zero (completely trusting of others), but your life experiences (and your interpretation of those experiences) have shifted you to fifteen centimeters. You are now pretty distrustful of others.

But your maternal twin sibling, who has the same genetics as you hasn’t had the same life experiences. Therefore, your sibling, though starting at zero is now at an eight. Your sibling is a lot more trustful of others than you are.

The same applies to characters. They begin at one point and as they continue on in life (during the course of the story) they change. The best way to have them change? Let bad things happen to them.

There’s nothing stronger than good characters being forced to take action against bad things. Just as people make mistakes and don’t have the perfect responses to every situation, so do characters. Each action has a consequence, and with each decision a character makes, and each ramification that character must then face, you get to know that character a little bit more.

When you begin a story, there are certain things you must know about your characters.shutterstock_101695738-Medium-491x300

You don’t have to know their souls right off the bat. The essence of a character gets revealed through the difficult decisions they have to make, and you probably won’t be able to figure out what decision they’ll make until they’re faced with it. However, some things to know from the start are:

  • What does your character look like? Age?
  • What’s the first impression they give off? (If a stranger was walking down the street and spotted your character, what impression would that stranger get of your character?)
  • What does your character care most about in the world?
  • What’s their personality at the beginning of the story?

people-with-question-faces-150x150

What your character does and says is a direct result of who they are. If your image of your character is fuzzy, it will be fuzzy for readers.

Like a photograph, make sure your characters are fully developed before you show them off to the world. After all, your characters hold the story together.

How do you get to know your characters?

(Photos courtesy of WallPaperStock, Selling ASAP, and CareerDirections, LLC)

Ka-Pow! Writing Action Scenes in Novels

Think back to some of the most exciting scenes in novels you’ve read. Most of those scenes probably have a lot of tension and include some sort of action. I can think of Harry Potter facing off with Voldemort, Katniss with the tracker jackers, sword fighting in The Princess Bride, the Battle of the Hornburg (aka Battle of Helm’s Deep) from The Lord of the Rings, Fight Club, etc.

Kapow

What is it about these scenes that make them memorable? Why are they successful?

  1. They are fast-paced.

A quick pace makes for heightened tension…and readers flipping through pages because they want to know what’s happening. Just make sure you don’t move so fast that readers get lost. You want your characters, and the plot, to move forward. Sometimes you want there to be chaos – for instance, if you’re writing a war scene with soldiers and explosions – but you want an organized chaos. You, as the author, need to know what’s going on at all times, even if your characters don’t.

  1. They advance the plot.

Action scenes can and should provide vital pieces of information, whether it’s about the protagonist or the antagonist. They should move the plot forward. If an action scene doesn’t serve a purpose, why is it in the book? To just show how cool the protagonist is? That’s not a very good reason on its own. However, too much information becomes extraneous, can slow down the pace, and clog up the action. During action scenes concentrate on the main characters, their senses, emotions, and movements, and the new piece(s) of information.

  1. The protagonist is forced to take decisive action/make quick decisions.

Whenever the protagonist is forced to make decisions based on instinct rather than logical analysis, the tension ratchets up. Instinctual responses, such as fight or flight, create faster responses, quicker pacing, and can produce unexpected consequences (both good and/or bad). By having unexpected consequences as a result of an action scene, drama is increased.

  1. They have an underdog.

UnderdogHave you ever seen a wrestling match? It’s pretty boring. Whenever you have two or more evenly matched opponents the stakes aren’t high enough for the action scene. There needs to be an underdog, and that underdog must find a way to rise above the odds and win. If the underdog (most likely your protagonist) is fighting to stay alive, to save another’s life, for freedom, or for some other purpose, then readers have someone to root for. More than that, readers have someone they want to root for.

  1. Characters are revealed.

How the protagonist fights, whether he chooses to fight or not, etc. shows readers a lot about the protagonist. You know the old saying of actions speak louder than words? It applies here. Your protagonist might be a black belt or have served in the military, but may choose to not fight. Knowing that the protagonist could seriously injure the opponent, but chooses not to says a lot about that character. Same goes for someone who would rather mind her own business, but then sees an injustice occurring and can’t let it go.

When a character is forced to make quick decisions, his true personality comes out. This is because he doesn’t have time to think about what he should show the world. He doesn’t think about what he wants to show the world. He just acts.

Bottom line: think about what you’re saying/showing about your characters through their actions.

  1. The fighting/action is unique.

I read a novel a while ago where within the first five chapters there were two action scenes. However, they were nearly identical, and both ended with the same result. It was repetitive and unnecessary. When you have action scenes, make them unique. Each scene should have a different outcome. Make each fight/action scene (because fight and action scenes aren’t always once and the same) special. You want readers to remember each action scene. If they can’t, then you need to go back and make sure each conflict is solved in a different manner.

  1. The scene(s) can be visualized and felt.

fraser1Give a close in view of the fight. Does the protagonist hear her jacket being ripped? Does she taste blood in her mouth? Is there a crack of a bone breaking? What’s going on her head? Providing both external and internal images and feelings allow readers to experience the action along with the protagonist. Plus, by keeping a close in view (think of it as pulling a camera in close) you heighten tension. The protagonist may not know what happened to her partner or the person she’s trying to protect. There may be so many attackers or so much going on that she can’t see more than a few feet in any direction.

Something to watch out for is balance. Action scenes are great. They’re necessary in stories, but they must be balanced out by other scenes. If there are too many action scenes, or if the action scene stretches on too long, readers will skim the scene in order to find out what happens.

For clarity in action scenes, why not try blocking them out? Use your friends and/or family. Have them each take on the role of a character and stage them in a room or backyard. Move them around as you would actors or chess pieces. This will help you visualize the scene and will allow you to hear input from your friends/family about whether or not they think a character’s movements are realistic.

Remember each character, no matter how small of a role they play, have motivations, dreams, fears, and goals. Their movements, especially in tension-filled action scenes reflect all those things.

What’s the most important part of an action scene to you?

(Photos courtesy of Yellow Hall StudioJeremy Epstein, and Reeling.)

Author Takes on Alzheimer’s Disease in Debut Novel

Congrats to my friend Ellen! I had the privilege of reading an advance copy and can’t wait for it to be released.

DLaraSmith

Ellen_picI introduce to you Ellen Smith, debut author of Reluctant Cassandra. I had the opportunity for an advance read, and it is an intriguing story (and includes a cute dog!) that I thoroughly enjoyed. Ellen takes on big issues, drilling down to what they mean on a very personal level. Here’s more:

What is Reluctant Cassandra about?

Unwilling clairvoyant Arden McCrae must learn to stop avoiding her visions of the future and tackle life head-on. As her family and her town begin to fall apart, Arden discovers the strength she never knew she had.

Would you say this is a book about change, then, and how we handle change?

I would say so- in fact, I’d take it one step further. I think the book explores the conflict of when to move forward versus when to fight for what you had. Each of the characters explores that dilemma to some…

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That Sagging Middle: What You Can Get Away With & What You Can’t in the Middle of a Novel

There’s so much focus on writing phenomenal beginnings and endings for novels. You have to hook readers right away and then leave them with their mouths hanging open at the end (in a good way). But what about the middle section of a novel? You know the one I’m talking about…it takes up the majority of the story.

I’ve read more novels than I’d like where the action in the middle of the story seems to come to a standstill. There was an amazing, fast-paced opening, where I was whipping through pages, but then, BAM! We hit the brakes, skidded off the road, and are in a ditch, waiting for the tow truck.

rsz_nap_time

Ah, nap time.

Eventually, there’s an incredible ending, but the middle nearly made me throw the book out a window a la “Silver Linings Playbook” style.

Let me first talk about what you can get away with in the middle chapters:

  • The pace can slow down, a bit. There can be pauses in the action, where backstory gets filled in because you’ve already set up the story’s cadence, chapter length, tension, etc. at the start of the novel.
  • You can have fun in the middle section. Just because the pace slows down doesn’t mean tension does. You can expand on readers’ expectations by complicating expectations, adding a twist, turning them upside down, and more. As long as the bread crumbs remain consistent, feel free to play around.
  • The middle orients readers more to the story.
  • As with all well-written slower scenes, they prepare readers for what’s coming next. The urgency ratchets up in the following scenes, and we know the preceding slower scene is leading to all hell breaking loose.
  • The middle shows the stakes characters are facing.
  • The middle chapters are what make things real and believable, especially with character interactions/relationships.

Now on to what you can’t get away with:

  • Letting the tension slide. Yes, your protagonist is in training, preparing to fight the big battle. But readers tire of hearing who was wearing what, how many girls hate the protagonist because she’s somehow more special than them, how petite the protagonist is, how the protagonist is torn between lovers, etc. Get to the battle, please. Better yet, make us believe we’ve reached the final, balls-to-the-wall battle, and then throw in an even bigger, more badass battle afterward.
  • Information dump. Don’t pile on information. Backstory is important, but as with the beginning and ending readers don’t want to be told everything. We want to experience it. Make the information an active part of a story. As the protagonist is climbing a mountain – real or metaphorical – make the backstory applicable to present day events.
  • Having too narrow of a focus. Novels are long. They have only one main plot, but there are several smaller plotlines. And let’s not forget that our goal as writers is to make it seem impossible for the protagonist to achieve his goals. Adding variety and mixing it up breathes new life into an otherwise stagnant middle section.
  • Leaving in the boring sections. If you’re reading your own writing and want to put it down, imagine how readers, agents, and editors will feel. Axe the boring bits. Either replace them with something more exciting or just get rid of them. There’s only so much philosophical musings readers can take.

What do you do to keep the excitement flowing in your middle chapters?

(Photo courtesy of Devon Cottages.)