Tag Archives: how to write a novel

The High Stakes of First Sentences

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You probably already know that a story’s first line is of upmost importance. Not only does it set the tone and expectations for the rest of the novel, but the first line also introduces tension and hints at bigger things to come. Your story’s first line introduces readers to your world, and if readers don’t like what they read, they may not go to the next sentence.

That’s a lot of pressure for one line!

The best way to learn how to write phenomenal first sentences is to read a lot of first lines.

Here are some great examples:

“I tell Mama I waitress in the Village so she don’t have to cut me out of her heart.”

–Kiran Kaur Saini, “A Girl Like Elsie”

“In our family, there was no clear line between religion and fly fishing.”

–Norman Maclean, “A River Runs Through It”

“In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits.”

–John Updike, “A & P”

“We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold.”

–Hunter Thompson, “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”

“There are cavemen in the hedges again.”

–Stacey Richter, “The Cavemen in the Hedges”

The trick with first sentences is to start with the stakes high and then keep moving up. Grab readers from the get go and then don’t let them go!

What are some great first sentences you know of?

(Photo courtesy of Keith Williams.)

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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.

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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.)