Opening. A writer needs to grab a reader’s interest from the opening sentence and hang on tight. If left to my personal preference, I’d like to open with an atmospheric description, be just a little obscure, develop a bit of mystery . . . Well, too bad - forgetaboutit! It’s not quite as bad as “Wham, bang, thank-you, ma’am,” but readers expect to be “hooked” into the story from the first sentence and held captive right through those very first pages, preferably with a real zinger of a hook at the end of Chapter One. Although a bit wordy by 21st century standards, the most frequently quoted “grabber” is from Charles Dickens’s The Tale of Two Cities:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…”
So take your time with that first paragraph. Or if you’re eager to plunge ahead, go back and edit it later. Polish it ‘til it shines. Do the same for the paragraphs that follow. Those first few pages are “make or break.”
Example of a classic “setting the scene” opening, superbly done, but no longer the recommended method for starting any but traditional Regency romance:
“The schoolroom in the Parsonage at Heythram was not a large apartment, but on a bleak January day, in a household where the consumption of coals was a consideration, this was not felt by its occupants to be a disadvantage. Quite a modest fire in the high, barred grate made it unnecessary for all but one of the four young ladies present to huddle shawls round their shoulders. . . .”
[Opening lines from Arabella by Georgette Heyer]
Examples of modern-day opening “hook”:
“It wasn’t every day a guy saw a headless beaver marching down the side of a road, not even in Dean Robillard’s larger-than-life world.”
[Opening line of Natural Born Charmer by Susan Elizabeth Phillips]
“The heavily shadowed gallery of the museum was filled with many strange and disturbing artifacts. None of the antiquities, however, was as shocking as the woman lying in a dark pool of blood on the cold marble floor.”
[Opening lines from The Third Circle by Amanda Quick]
“Miss Alexia Tarabotti was not enjoying her evening. Private balls were never more than middling amusements for spinsters, and Miss Tarabotti was not the kind of spinster who could garner even that much pleasure from the event. To put the pudding in the puff: she had retreated to the library, her favorite sanctuary in any house, only to happen upon an unexpected vampire.”
[Opening lines from Soulless, the successful Book One of the highly popular "Parasol Protectorate" series, by Gail Carriger]
Setting. The fashion of describing the setting before beginning the actual story may have gone out of fashion, but it is still vital to give readers as many clues as possible about the setting of your book, not only in the opening scene but in the changing scenes that follow. If you are writing an Historical, it’s easy enough to insert a Location & Date line—London 1889, for example. But even with that done, you have to give your readers some details of the setting: a nobleman’s house, gaming house, Hyde Park, brothel, tavern, theater, one of London’s many upscale men’s clubs, etc. . . .
In the course of editing and contest judging, I have seen entries where I couldn’t even tell what country we were in or whether the characters were in a city, suburb, small town, or on a ranch. Castle, house, condo, bar, sporting event . . .? Yes, you need to jump right into your story, but never forget your readers know only what you tell them. Don’t make your characters talking heads against a blank canvas—stick figures mouthing words, leaving readers with nothing concrete beyond the dialogue. They cannot visualize a scene unless you paint the details for them.
Possible Setting Details: Location & era - indicate by some means, close to the beginning, whether you book is contemporary, Victorian, Steampunk, Regency, Viking, Roman, Futuristic, Fantasy, etc. Landscape details - weather, endless vistas, sea, mountains, crowded slum, train, subway, street scenes, ranch, farm, space launch, etc. Household decorations - furniture, paintings, wallpaper, fireplaces, kitchen smells, colorful cars, animals, etc. You've built your own world, you say? Then make it clear - throw in a clue right up front that your work is Fantasy, Steampunk, Futuristic, or other venue created by your imagination. Don't credit your readers with the ability to read your mind. Tell them what they need to know.
Think of the famous paintings you have seen - then picture them set against a stark white background. Or the last professional play you saw - would it have been as good with no scenery, no backdrop to the drama being performed? Think of George Clooney or the giant Avatar mouthing words against a blue screen . . . weird, right? (Well, I would probably take Clooney any way I could get him, but . . .)
No matter how clever the dialogue, how fast the action, your characters should not be performing against a blank canvas. They are not “in the cloud.” They are “real” and can only be enhanced by delineating the world in which they live.
Characterization. As I have said in previous blogs, to me Characterization is the most important aspect of writing fiction. [Please see my 3-part series, “How to Develop Your Characters,” October & November 2012.]
Each person must be identified and described as they are introduced, including secondary characters. No, not the tweeny who does no more than scream in Chapter 13, but every character of significance must be recognized with a well-thought-out description. (Obviously longer for main characters than less important secondary characters.) The identifications add clarity; the descriptions add color—three-dimensions, if you will. You are creating the characters who must catch your readers’ interest, the people who will move your book forward. The people readers will love, hate, laugh at, laugh with, cry over, depending on what you tell them. Only you can show your readers what these people are like. Only you can bring them to life. Your characters are your “movers and shakers,” even if one or two are sniveling cowards. They must insinuate their way into readers’ hearts and make them care.
Readers also want to know what the most important characters wear, just as they want to know your characters’ quirks, faults, and idiosyncrasies, as well as their more sterling (or villainous) qualities. Whether your characters do something good or bad, be sure you have set up the possibility for this action; i.e., that it arises out of the character you have already shown your readers and is not something new that suddenly strikes out of the blue. Or, if your character must do something that doesn’t make sense, be sure you give your readers excellent motivation for this deviation from the norm. An author can sell almost anything to his readers if he provides the right motivation for his characters’ actions, but that motivation has to be clearly stated, not left to the reader’s imagination.
And keep in mind that if you are tempted to have either one of your two main characters do something illegal, make sure you have a very good reason for it. Readers want to love the hero and heroine; they don’t want them to have feet of clay. Yes, they can both be stupid, particularly in their relationship with each other, but they’re not supposed to do something that might hurt other people, show greed, prejudice, or other negative traits. And if they do, it has to be clear that they are destined to learn from these mistakes by the end of the book. In romance, readers want characters they can admire and identify with, not characters who are being mean to their spouses, their relatives, their children, etc. Then again, secondary characters can be as venal and downright nasty as you want!
Point of View. Point of View comes in three flavors - first, second, and third. Huh, you say—you never thought of it that way before? Okay, let’s start with First.
First person. Writing in first person means you write solely from one person’s point of view. Your main character writes as “I.” No one else in the book has a point of view. Of course, just to make life difficult, modern usage has amended that. There are now books which allow for two first-person views in the same book. For example, there’s a section with the heroine tells the story, using “I,” followed by a section where the hero offers his point of view, using “I.” Unless these switches are extremely well-dilineated, they can be confusing. (One simple method to keep things straight is similar to a Location & Date line. Simply put the name of the person with the new POV on a separate line before their section.)
There are also books where one character (in romance, usually the heroine) writes as “I” and a second character (usually the hero) is portrayed in third person (“He” or “She”). I can’t exactly recommend it, but since I’ve done it myself in Orange Blossoms & Mayhem, I can’t sneer at it either. Romance readers really do like to see inside the hero’s head, as well as the heroine’s.
In practice, many mysteries are written in first person, while romance readers tend to prefer third person. I personally find it easier to be humorous in first, so I’d like to see romance readers be a bit more tolerant.
Second person. Second person (“You”) usually turns up only in introspection, with one of the characters scolding her/himself with something like, You dumb idiot, you ought to have known better! Both second and first person thoughts, when inserted in a third-person narrative, need to be italicized.
Third person. The most common type of narrative. (“He” “She”) The hero, heroine, villain, and perhaps a few other important secondary characters, all get a point of view. It is, however, absolutely essential that you do not jump from one character’s head to the other, a sin called “head-hopping.” The preferred method is to stick to one character’s point of view throughout an entire scene. If you absolutely must switch within a scene, then try to balance the two points of views. (I violated this "rule" just yesterday, by the way.) Obviously, each author develops his/her own style, but readers truly hate writing that jumps back and forth from one POV to another, sometimes within the space of a paragraph. It’s simply too confusing. Beginners are advised to stick to the POV of the hero, heroine, and possibly a villain, if applicable.
Tense. This is a new one. Books have been written in past tense for as long as there have been books. But times they are a-changing. Some books, particularly those for Young Adults, are now being written in present tense. Reading it is a little disconcerting at first, but I found I adjusted rapidly, and a well-written present-tense flows well. Until the author forgets and throws in a bit of past tense here and there (as I’ve seen in contests I’ve judged). Writing in present tense is definitely an innovation worth consideration.
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Thanks for stopping by.
Coming soon: Dictionary for Writers, Part 4 - Dialogue, Narration, Conflict, Plot, Style, Voice, Presentation. Also - Legoland, Part 2