Tag Archive: writing novels
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It’s week two of the Blogging from A to Z Challenge, and time for our next installment of Masterplots Theater.
Episodes thus far include:
– A is for Adventure
– B is for Buddy Love
If you like focusing on a strong central character, creating clear-cut moral conflicts and enjoy getting down and dirty with fight scenes, this could be your plot. The Chosen One might be the most popular masterplot we will cover all month. It’s widely used in Sic-Fi and Fantasy, but shows up in every genre. It’s adaptability means it works for any age range reader. That flexibility also means there are a lot of Chosen One stories already out there. You will need to work extra hard to make yours stand out.
Chosen One Plot Notes:
The Chosen One character is always the hero of the tale, however a story can have more than one chosen character.
The Chosen One has little to no say in their destiny. They are appointed the task by external forces. This might happen at birth with a divine sign, such as the alignment of stars that announces the arrival of The Chosen One. Or this character might start out exceptionally ordinary, until the day their special fate is revealed. This often happens in conjunction with a coming-of-age birthday.
There can be a magical item that defines the hero, something powerful and significant that only responds to the touch of the true Chosen One.
This main character can be any age or gender, and is often named or called The Chosen One by the other characters. There is also a tendency for authors to title these books The Chosen One. According to my last Amazon search there were some 84,000 books with “Chosen One” in the title.
This character can be physically striking, with a high level of sexual attraction. Love triangles abound in this masterplot. But the Chosen One often has no clue how attractive or gifted they are. Insecurity is sometimes the only character flaw in this hero.
Typically, it’s not fun to be The Chosen One. They need to make sacrifices and their character arc is critical. This masterplot packs in the internal conflict as the Chosen One learns how to put their own needs aside for the greater good.
The midpoint of this plot almost always contains a major moment. It’s either a “turn back” moment when the hero wants to give up and pass the job to another. Or the “give in” moment, when the hero decides to stop avoiding danger and fight.
The Chosen One story always has high stakes, with black and white, good vs evil morality. The Chosen One and they alone must save the world from a powerful dark force. If they fail, so shall humanity.
Often the external conflict carries the action in this masterplot. And there can be a lot of action. With high stakes comes epic battles.
Example to Study:
There are so many examples for this plot, but I’ve selected The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, by C. S. Lewis.
MAGICAL ITEM: The wardrobe in this story is the portal to Narnia, yet it has failed to open for decades. It takes the touch of The Chosen Ones to activate the magic. Of the four children, it is Lucy who opens the doorway. It is also Lucy that first champions the cause of saving Narnia.
COMING FORETOLD: Mr. Beaver has the task of telling the children about their destiny. He recited the old rhyme and does his best to convince them of their mission. This is when we find out all four children are The Chosen Ones. They all must complete the mission to save Narnia. However, Beaver meets with little success; The Chosen Ones haven’t reached the “give in” moment.
HIGH STAKES: Jadis, White Witch of Narnia, has held the land in perpetual winter for centuries. Under her rule, fear of being turned to stone keeps everyone but the darkest and most vile creatures enslaved. The coming of The Chosen Ones triggers the arrival of Aslan, High King of Narnia. These two events create the turning point in the story’s stakes. The mood shifts as everyone starts to anticipate the epic battle of good vs. evil.
GIVE IN MOMENT: Before the battle can start, Peter tells Susan to take the others and go home! While Susan is ready to retreat, Edmund and Lucy are not. This is the moment each of them stops avoiding and accepts they must work together and embrace being The Chosen Ones to fight.
BONUS: This story gets points for having four Chosen Ones. Each of these characters brings a different layer to the story. Also because the children start out ordinary, every reader can cast themselves into the shoes of one of these characters.
There are so many examples of this plot in books and movies, I would need thousands of words to cover just the high points. ENDER’S GAME, THE DARK IS RISING, DUNE! Instead of creating a huge list I’ll leave this link to the TV Tropes entry and you can explore books and movies with The Chosen One masterplot on your own. And do come back tomorrow for another installment of Masterplots Theater, D is for Dystopia.
Please share your thoughts on Chosen One stories in the comments below.
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If you were with us last week for Heather’s post on productivity, you know we announced our Blogging from A to Z Challenge theme, Masterplots Theater.
Heather and I didn’t coin the term masterplot and I’m not sure who did. However, the idea comes from a familiar writing concept, namely that all stories have been told before. We can boil down every plot into some basic core elements. Once we find that core, it’s often contained under a simple heading: romance, quest or revenge to name a few. Our posts all next month will showcase 26 masterplots. We’ll have examples of books and films that use them. Plus each post will include common tropes and story elements you’re likely to find in each of the masterplots.
Story uniqueness is what every author hopes to achieve and hearing that there are no new stories causes some writers to get upset. Hopefully, everyone realizes each book is special. A writer adds their experiences, writing voice and personal spin to every word. Plus genre and target age range will affect the treatment of any masterplot. The way a story is written for ten-year-olds about getting revenge, finding love, or heading out on a quest is different from the same masterplot written for adults. Also two masterplots can be woven together to create more complexity and add layers to the story. However, for better or worse, all stories start with some core masterplot element.
It’s how writers makes small changes and critical choices that turns a masterplot into something memorable.
A few nights ago, I watched Conan the Barbarian (it was my husband’s idea), and the movie is a textbook example of a revenge masterplot.
The basic points of this masterplot are:
- The protagonist experiences a wrong (or a perceived wrong) at the hands of the antagonist. Conan is a boy when his village is pillaged and burned by an evil warlord.
- The protagonist can’t find justice by traditional means, which triggers a need for revenge (often referred to as justice) against the antagonist. In Conan’s case, there is no power higher than his antagonist.
- The problem the protagonist suffered is personal. The death of a loved one is common. That’s the case with Conan: both his parents are killed in the village raid.
- The protagonist and the reader should feel the protagonist has the moral high ground. This creates and justifies the protagonist’s actions. Conan’s bad guys are really bad!
- The end of the revenge masterplot often includes a feel good moment, justice is served, and the bad guy goes down. Conan kills the warlord.
What if the film inspired me to write a revenge story for Camp NaNoWriMo? It didn’t, but it’s fun to pretend. Now that I know the basic elements of a revenge masterplot, I can start to mix them up for my story.
I forgo the typical linear story structure, used in Conan and most revenge plots, and I tell the story in reverse. I start almost at the big showdown and flashback to how the protagonist and antagonist got to this critical point.
Instead of the protagonist’s parents, my antagonist kills off the protagonist’s only child.
Since first person POV is common in revenge plots, I can put my project in third person.
Conan is a typical revenge hero: big, strong, capable and assertive. I can use one that’s frail and pulling the strings of revenge from the safety of his comfy home.
At the end of the big showdown, I could add a plot twist. When the antagonist steps from the shadows my protagonist learns his adversary is also his college roommate! The event that sparked this feud happened decades before the story opened.
Lastly, I can omit a major item from the revenge masterplot. Faced with the realization that he started the chain of events that eventually let to the death of his child, the protagonist lets the antagonist kill him. The protagonist’s revenge is never realized. The antagonist who plotted the protagonist’s downfall wins the day. Sometimes deviating from the masterplot is a great idea and it helps the story stand out, but it’s also tricky. The readers of my revenge story might be angered that I dumped the traditional feel-good ending.
By adding and subtracting elements and/or by weaving in a B plot, the story gets a fresh spin. The plot’s core is still revenge, but making changes helps mask that fact from the causal reader.
It’s up for debate on how many masterplots there are. Heather and I actually found the task of narrowing the list down to 26 topics rather difficult. Some of our favorite materplots fell on the same letters, and that forced us to make some hard choices. The revenge masterplot mentioned above is one we ultimately cut. Hopefully, you will join us all month as we blog our way through some masterplots.
Please share you favorite revenge novel or film. What about this story made it standout from all the other revenge plots you’ve seen or read?
Permanent link to this article: http://writeonsisters.com/writing-craft/plotting-revenge-using-a-masterplot/
Happy Archive Revive Day! It’s always helpful to refresh what we know about writing by digging up past posts and updating the information a bit, so here we go…
Originally posted on Oct. 7, 2013. Updated Sept. 21, 2015
I learned this method of outlining at Ryerson University. My screenwriting professor called it a Step Outline. He instructed us to write a scene-by-scene outline and ONLY describe actions, i.e. what the characters physically do. No dialogue. No narration. Like turning the sound off a movie. The test: could the audience get the gist of the story just from the characters’ actions?
The class reacted with a mix of confusion and frustration. Students insisted they needed dialogue to explain. The professor insisted they did not. Dialogue enhances a story, but it doesn’t make it. Action begets story. Characters must DO things, not just sit around and talk. He told us if a scene uses only dialogue to move the story forward, we needed to change it and use action as well. A simple example would be a character who wants to tell her roommate she’s mad at him for making their apartment an episode of Hoarders. Instead of using just words, she should throw his collection of deflated party balloons in the trash. That would get the point across nicely.
Not that you won’t use dialogue or narration in your story, but it’s important to realize that these only support the story. A story needs action.
Why is it stronger if the characters DO rather than just SAY? Because, generally, people don’t like to be told what to think. They like to discover, figure stuff out, and come to conclusions themselves. Therefore it’s more intriguing if your characters show their emotions/desires instead of simply telling the reader what they feel/want. At the most basic level, showing is simply more interesting. I mean, would you rather have someone tell you the ocean is beautiful, or take you scuba diving so you can see for yourself?
Still not convinced? I’ll give you 5 Reasons to Write an Active Beats Outline:
To make sure you have an actual story. A story needs more than pages of clever character chatter; it needs characters who take action.
To see if beats are missing. If you write down your active beats and find out the story doesn’t track, you need to add that missing action.
To cut beats which don’t serve the story. Does you character do something that doesn’t move the story forward? Probably. Can it be cut? Most likely. When you distil everything down to actions, it’s easier to spot what can be edited out.
To ensure the protagonist is active not passive. Is all the action done by supporting characters? Is your protagonist merely an observer? If so, maybe you need to reevaluate whose story this is or make your protagonist more active.
To avoid being boring. Because no matter how clever or observant your character, he is boring if he doesn’t do something.
Just like the Basic Story Beats, the Active Beats can be used to outline your story before writing or to story edit after writing. The important thing is to use this tool to make your story as strong as possible!
More posts about Outlining/Story Editing:
Permanent link to this article: http://writeonsisters.com/writing-craft/outlining-method-2-active-beats-aka-show-dont-tell/
Welcome to part two of Releasing Your Inner Poe. If you missed part one you can find it here. With fall rapidly approaching I’m hard at work on a few projects with dark gothic themes, but more on that in a future post. Since I’m struggling with the task of establishing the right balance of elements, the perfect plot, the right characters and some eerie world building, I’m researching, studying and sharing what I’m learning about gothic fiction in these blog posts. You can also find more of my tips on horror fiction plotting here.
Although gothic is a subgenre of horror and the two share many elements, gothic is a poorly understood form. Hopeful these tips will help sort out some of the facts from the misconceptions.
- Gothic often doesn’t follow the standard fiction rules and most lovers of the genre tend to think that’s just fine. Don’t expect a traditional story arc, or even a clearly established hook. The ending might feel unexpected with a resolution that came out of nowhere. These are messy and complicated stories, full of small insignificant clues that the reader was supposed to read over. Good gothic should leave behind some questions, a level of confusion or a feeling that the author tricked the reader. The story should stick in your head and make the reader want to go back and see if they can catch the tricks. That’s part of the genre’s charm.
- There is often a lack of protagonist transformation in gothic. Distressed and bedraggled protagonists sometimes stay distressed and bedraggled right to the bitter end. Or the protagonist might be saved by outside forces or dumb luck, rather than by their own ingenuity.
- The antagonist is often favored over the hero in terms of page count and plot development. Gothic villains are usually the most memorable characters. If you don’t believe me please feel free to name the protagonist in Frankenstein.
See below when you’ve given up.*
- In gothic, the reader should expect unreliable narrators, negative character arcs and/or protagonists that are unlikable, or unrelatable. I’ll be addressing the differences between these types of narrators in my next gothic post.
- Gothic does not require a historical setting. There are many great gothic plots set in a more modern or even futuristic world. Some media examples are the TV show Twin Peaks, or in movies like The Crow and Blade Runner.
- The genre has its own tropes and stereotypes, like the antagonist who develops a sense of self-loathing and/or grows a conscience and regrets their earlier misdeeds. Also the disgruntled servant, the helpless orphan, and the dark brooding love interest are recurring tropes in gothic fiction.
- A love interest is not required. Sure a bit of romance never hurts and lost, damaged, or unrequited love is a favorite theme, but so is injustice or triumphing over inhumanity. Morality, or lack of morality, is often the central emotional theme, but it’s masquerading as a straight forward love plot.
- There are some formulaic aspects in gothic, such as the idea of achieving a balance between good and evil. Gothic likes polarity, but the battle is not necessarily in a physical sense, it can be all internal, or an ideological struggle. It’s a wide open field limited only by a writer’s imagination to restructure and reinterpret the central theme of polarity.
- Spirituality, and supernatural and other worldly elements are not required for great gothic. Science and technology can mimic the same human vs. the other dynamic of a supernatural presence. The classic example is The Matrix, a film positively dripping in gothic flavor.
I read many of the gothic classics as a child and reread them again as an adult. I know for some readers the prose style is difficult to manage, and the early works can be heavy with moral judgement and religious overtones. However, it’s well worth the effort and anyone who wants to craft some gothic fiction should give the classic works a try.
For more posts by Robin click here.
*This really was a trick question, since Frankenstein has no classic protagonist. Did I mention gothic likes to break rules? The story is framed by a narrator and his name is Captain Robert Walton.
Permanent link to this article: http://writeonsisters.com/writing-craft/gothic-writing-tips/
Gothic literature is delicious and deadly and lately I’ve been thinking a lot about it. It’s a literary form most people either love or hate. I fall in the love-it camp and I’m always hunting for great examples. I enjoy the old masters and finding new writers who rework the old tropes in fresh ways. I’m also thrilled when I find gothic examples on the big or small screen.
Gothic literature is a subgenre of horror. It’s categorized by strong setting, heavy use of metaphors, prose leaning toward a literary flavor and a tendency to glamorize dark and foreboding themes of death, madness and evil. It often has a romantic component which favors themes of lost loves, and misguided or perverted attractions.
Gothic is like a fine meal, rich like chocolate and complex like fine wine. It gathers nuance and beauty from the many layers of story detail and not necessarily through plot or character arc. I think it’s one of the hardest forms to write because it’s formulaic and people expect a writer to address the genre tropes. Yet, it’s also subtle and lyrical. If the writer goes too heavy handed the artistry suffers, and if they go too light they don’t invoke any reader response. Poe was a short story master, any writer could learn a lot from reading his work. However, he’s one of many fine gothic writers. For a well constructed list you can check Goodreads, I’ll add a link below. If you want to study gothic you need to understand the key elements.
These four aspects show up in almost every gothic work I can think of. So each one should get your full consideration if you want to craft a great gothic tale.
There must be a foreboding setting:
Many gothic novels take place in a confined area, a small town, a manor house or a graveyard. The world building can be lush and opulent, or war torn and decrepit, whichever suits the story best. However, in both cases the setting needs to make the reader believe that under the surface something is not quite right. Castles dominated the early gothic works, but modern gothic is much more creative with the use of setting. Think dark, foggy, shadowed places, maybe studded with gargoyles.
The protagonist should be in jeopardy:
Gothic favors woman or children in peril. The protagonist is often isolated and cut off from their support system making them insecure and fearful of the unknown. Sometimes the protagonist puts him or herself in jeopardy by acting irresponsibly. In all cases the reader must believe something bad could happen at any moment. The quality of fear and mystery needs to cling to the protagonist till it colors their whole world view.
The story needs a compelling backstory, evil runs deep:
Much of gothic literature plays off superstitions, urban legends, and folk tales. Some authors interweave historical facts into the story to give it a rich almost realistic feeling. There are omens, predictions, or prophecies that feed the current dilemma and the create a feeling of urgency within the protagonist to solve the problem. Especially if they must beat a ticking clock. Giving all the characters tortured pasts, and family histories drenched in foul play will help make for the perfect atmosphere for harboring evil.
The gothic villain is special.
Gothic loves big villains. They can be pure evil, a monster built for killing, or someone fighting his own inner demons. All the trope monsters are welcome in gothic, werewolves, vampires, and more. Or you don’t necessarily need a traditional villain, the story’s fear could be a product of madness, or some other misdirection of the facts. Sometimes the villains are just misunderstood and a few words can prove their innocence. Or the guilty party might be someone unseen until the bitter end. Gothic villains are often tragic, drenched in their own pain, and we can’t help but feel sorry for them and empathize with their plight.
Gothic fiction is a heavy subject, so it’s best done in small batches. Today I just wanted to introduce a few of the basic story elements and give some examples. Follow me over the next few week as I dig into gothic fiction.
Looking for some gothic authors? Here are ten classics tales you can read right now.
Read more posts by Robin here.
Permanent link to this article: http://writeonsisters.com/writing-craft/tips-for-releasing-your-inner-poe/
Tomorrow I have the honor of reviewing a new series I read over the weekend. Six books in one weekend. God Bless Amazon and the Kindle Reader. I’d finish one, et voila! Presto-chango, here’s the next one!
I fell asleep about halfway through the sixth one last night and, because I can’t stand to have something unfinished (where did that come from?) my brain woke me up at two a.m. and I got up to finish it.
At three I finished the laundry I had haphazardly shoved in between books over the weekend, cleaned the kitchen, my desk, straightened pillows, made coffee, kissed my husband good-bye with a traveler’s mug of coffee for him and an elaborate lunch all packed up nice and neat, complete with a little love note (my June Cleaver moment met with complete befuddlement), wrote my review, took a shower, made the bed, fed the dogs, and dragged the trash cans out.
It is now 7:00 a.m. and I’m just gettin’ started.
Maybe I should do this more often. Take an entire weekend, be a couch potato, eat nothing of any nutritional value at all, let my muscles atrophy, ignore emails and phone calls, and just immerse myself in another world for three days.
It certainly worked for me. I have more ideas for one of my books, the humor I absorbed over the weekend gave me a new direction, and the fact that my house is in relatively good shape (with the laundry done? unheard of), I have nothing to interfere with sitting my butt down and writing.
But it got me to thinking. We all need certain things to be right before we can really produce. Most say, “Nonsense, it’s work. You just sit and do it.” I say hogwash.
My brother, when we were little, could not sleep if a door was open; the closet door was the culprit most of the time. He simply could not relax until it was closed. It’s sort of an OCD thing, I guess, but I’m a bit the same way. When the stars are aligned…
Sure, I can write anywhere. Starbucks, on a bus, in a car, on a star, in a bar (Dr. Seuss, anyone?), but I write best when my desk is clear, the bills are paid, and a candle is going. No music, no email pings, no phones ringing…and the cat curled up in her special spot behind me. My own version of the closet door having to be closed in order to sleep.
Now, my husband, on the other hand, has to have music blaring. Not just quiet music that can serve as background noise – oh, no, songs that have lyrics attached to them. Songs that I have to sing along with (with which I have to sing along?). Songs that bring back memories, make me want to dance, cry, or sing. Songs that interfere with the quiet, introspective creative process.
I have no idea what I’ll do when he retires. I may have to rent an office somewhere. Since his office is across the hall from mine, and the dogs are always trailing him, I’m doomed.
But that’s a few years out yet. In the meantime…I read a post that claimed this Wonder Woman, who had just given birth six months ago and home schools two older children just managed to complete her third full-length novel SINCE THE BABY CAME.
While I closed one eye on that one (and I have to admit the post did what it was supposed to do; I looked up WW and her mentor and there were many, many discussions within the writeonsisters community about this feat), I did read her blog further with some hints about producing great quantities of words in a short amount of time. Nothing earth shattering: plan what you’re going to write, then just sit and do it. Figure out what time of day your brain is at its peak and focus your energy on that time of day, etc., etc. etc.
But here’s the thing: We have to do what’s right for us, for our lives, for our process. She obviously had help. Three children at home? Three full-length books?
She must have lined everything just right. That closet door thing.
It got me to thinking: how could I be most effective, get the most bang for my buck (time)? After all, I just spent a three-day weekend completely immobilized. There’s words to be written, folks!
The decks are cleared, the candle’s lit, the cat’s in her spot, paperwork’s done, and I’m way ahead of the game today. I’m fired up. That scene that didn’t work? Gotta go. That plot point I wanted to incorporate? Not needed. That character that was one-dimensional (and I didn’t realize it until I read the books I just reviewed)? I know how I can give her more spunk.
I wonder if I should deliberately get up at two a.m. every day?
But I’m going to ride this high as long as I can. Just make sure that closet door’s closed.
Permanent link to this article: http://writeonsisters.com/writers-life/keeping-your-mojo/
It’s the one lesson I remember from my father, who died when I was young: play your hunches.
Three years ago I went to a writing workshop in San Francisco. I had just been forcibly retired and thought I might look into another profession – one that didn’t involve Boards of Directors, staff, agendas, emails and endless meetings that resulted in nothing but a string of follow-ups and not much productivity.
So I tried watercolor, pottery, sewing, knitting, all sorts of creative endeavors that might make a few bucks to support my Starbucks habit. I even tried teaching a college course on Psychology and one in Sociology.
Loved them all.
But when I went to the writing workshop (a five-day intensive pitch workshop, which I didn’t realize was to pitch a book I hadn’t written yet) something clicked. I settled on a concept and went wild building a pitch, a tag line, a synopsis, and all the goodies necessary to query a book. I didn’t even know what a query was, but I learned fast.
So this man, this pied piper of the group, told me my concept was excellent and helped me craft my pitch. On the last day he had five agents come in and I pitched to them. He told me all five of them wanted to see more. I hadn’t written a line of dialogue yet.
So we worked together, through a strict formulaic program, to get the book “where it needed to be”. The story is that of a fifty-seven-year-old widow rebuilding her life. She is asked to hand-knit a wedding dress for her niece, and an eclectic group forms at her new knitting shop, friendships are born, the dress comes together, has to be ripped out, and rebuilt; a clear allegory to her life. I didn’t like it from the start; it was too cozy, too done, too…chick lit. To me, the story was about growth and challenges by a menopausal woman, not a dress. I expressed my doubts.
In reaction, what I got from him was: “It’s about the dress, the dress, the dress. Somebody in the group has to mess up the dress; that’s where the conflict comes in. It has to be all about the dress.”
I tried. I really did. But who’s going to mess with a wedding dress? I’m not built that way. I’m deeper than that. The conflict, to me, came from my protagonist’s challenges of finding and fitting into a new life, not some stupid dress that in the end won’t matter a great deal. It wasn’t enough of a downfall (the “stake”) for the protagonist if the dress wasn’t completed. Again, I expressed my doubts.
“No, no, no. It has to be all about the dress. The antagonist has to be strong and has to destroy the dress somehow.” I couldn’t make it work. But as a newbie, I followed his direction, beating my head against the wall and even having minor meltdowns trying to be a good girl and follow directions from an expert. All the while I knew what I wanted the book to be, and this wasn’t it. “But all the agents are waiting. This is what we pitched to them. The book is sold. Make it so.”
I finally cut the apron strings and followed my own heart. The day I severed the relationship, which was, I admit, painful, was the day my muse took over. I rewrote the whole thing and doors started to open for me. When I finished, I had very encouraging rejection letters from agents, some with requests for my next book because they liked my writing, but for some reason or another this one wasn’t for them at the time.
I landed with a publisher, and this morning I received an email from my editor revising my original pitch and synopsis, the one I had created with Mr. Wonderful, and they have taken out all references to the dress and the shop because “it’s not about the dress, it’s about Jen’s growth, which is the real story.” I confess I snickered a little.
Almost three years was spent trying to make it work his way. But in the end, the time was not wasted. I revised and revised, added a lot in, took masses out, and refined it to be what I wanted it to be.
It was my first book, and I’m being published by a reputable publisher, not a vanity or self-publisher, but a small press who has an excellent reputation. This is not chick lit, romance, or a cozy. This is a novel in the womens’ fiction genre. It is finished, it is polished, and it is good because I stopped listening to him and started listening to myself.
Trust your intuition, your gut, your own innate knowledge of what is good, of what will work. It won’t let you down. Play your hunches.
Permanent link to this article: http://writeonsisters.com/writers-life/play-your-hunches/
Everyone wants a book that explodes off the page like a supernova. The best compliment any reader can give a book is to say they couldn’t put down. It’s not easy to create a bang, which is why too many books open with a few sad sparks and no fully formed fireworks. There are some tactics that work better than others for crafting a big opening. But are you using any of them? Answer these questions and find out if you’ve written a memorable first chapter or something dull and lifeless.
1. Did you start with action?
Make sure the characters are doing something from page one. This is not the place for passive tense, or an abundance of “to be” verbs. This is why everyone tells new writers to avoid all the cliché openings of alarm clocks, dreams, driving in a car, or answering the phone. All these types of openings lead to your characters doing something dull. Plus, they’re usually alone while they’re doing it. Instead try throwing the characters into the middle of something exciting. If the sun must rise in your opening pages, make sure it lights up an event worth seeing, like a battlefield, a train speeding right for them or some other dynamic event.
2. Is the character on page one a main character?
This might sound like a silly thing to have to mention, but it’s amazing how many books get this wrong. I read one the other day which opened on a relatively unimportant character who died a few pages later. This could work for a murder mystery, but in most cases it’s not helpful to introduce the reader to secondary character on the first page. Getting the reader vested in the protagonist, antagonist or the love interest helps get the story rolling faster.
3. Do you have a unique, thrilling or inviting setting?
Many readers want a book that takes them on an imaginary journey, so having a strong sense of place encourages these readers to keep reading. If the scenery is an ordinary location, find a way to make it the best ordinary setting in the world. Make sure you establish a clear connection between the surroundings and your characters. This task might call for a complementary connection, or a contrasting connection between the two. Wherever you select, surround the reader with sights, sounds and smells of that place.
4. Have you established a goal, stakes or a clear mission?
It’s okay if that first mission changes. In fact it’s better if what your protagonist wants develops in response to the events in the story. But they should want something. There is nothing worse than a story that aimlessly drifts into the first plot point. Make sure your characters have a purpose, even if that purpose is something mundane, they should be heading toward something.
5. Did you set the tone correctly?
A book should open in a way that lets the reader know what to expect from the next 200 plus pages. A thriller should have something dangerous or mysterious happen right away. A romance should give the reader a taste of the emotional stakes to come. The chances are you don’t want to blow up a city block on page one and then deliver 25 chapters of quiet, introspective musings. The opening of a book is a contract between the writer and the reader. The writer is promising the reader a certain type of experience. If you want to make sure the reader enjoys the experience, don’t pull a bait and switch. Make sure the opening matches the same level of action and emotional intensity as the rest of the book.
6. Bonus Point: Do you have a clear and compelling hook, without a data dump?
The back-story often overwhelms the first chapter. Every writer struggles with how much data they can slip in before it becomes too much. Don’t write a history lecture. Provide just enough detail to make the characters likeable, to establish an engaging voice, and to pose some questions for the reader to consider. Don’t get bogged down in the small stuff; there will be time for that later.
A first chapter that hits these six points has a great chance of keeping the reader turning the pages. Of course you many not need all six points to create a winner, but it sure couldn’t hurt.
How does your book stack up?
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We hear it all the time:
There are no new stories!
Nowhere is this sentiment more potentially accurate than with historical fiction. But is it really true? Or is this a case of needing more out-of-the box thinking?
Here are three ways to re-imagine the research. Take one tip or use all three and leave Ho Hum in the dust.
1. If you must travel a well trod road, stay the hell out of the wagon ruts!
Historical novelists tend to cluster around a few key events and time periods. The largest of the popular zones are the cornerstone events of the 18th through 20th centuries. Why you ask? Well first, because there is more data available for world building and character studies. Second, because society started to change and during this time we see the origins of many “modern” social concepts. Third, historical eras grew shorter, were more clearly defined, and were exploding with fascinating developments in art, literature, and the sciences. In short, more writers can identify with these centuries. If possible, writers could explore setting their stories in lesser known time-frames.
However, I understand. You have your heart on one of these popular eras. I sympathize; I too suffer from this common aliment. So expand your research zone to include the transitional or shoulder eras for your target period. Also you could consider dumping the traditional genre for that beloved time zone. Offering up yet another Regency romance in a market flooded with them may never help you melt the slush. But maybe a Regency mystery, or a Regency horror novel might. Being in love with a popular era’s popular genre isn’t the kiss of death, but it does mean you need to work that much harder to offer up something fresh.
2. History is written by the conquerors.
For most of human history this was a pretty accurate statement. Historians practiced what’s called a top down approach to history, looking predominately at the power elite. Fortunately historians have moved beyond this stage, however historical fiction writers … not so much. Sure, throwing in some huge historical figures is fun for the writer. If it’s handled properly it can add complexity to the storyline. However, for every one writer that handles this juggling act well, many more are simply adding in famous figures for their characters to stumble over. And everyone seems to end up using the same historical characters. Too much of any notable person (no matter how important) starts to feel stale when they make a cameo in every other book. If you feel the urge to add famous people to your pages, think carefully and make sure they aid the plot.
Better still, consciously shift the focus of your story to a bottom up model. People love learning something new, so if you really want to catch a reader’s attention find history’s overlooked and forgotten people. Tell events from the perspective of someone ordinary, the people at the lower rungs of the social ladder. Give the narrative to someone totally unexpected, like an outsider, a servant, a child, or even a leper.
3. Pack up the show and take it on tour.
If I still haven’t convinced you to stay out of the historical fiction ruts, then follow those muddy groves to some place new. Stop focusing on the traditional seats of power, and focus your eyes on the horizon. Search for the far-flung outposts, the struggling colonies, or the abandon pockets of humanity. Explore wonderful new climates and harsh forbidding landscapes. Most civilizations were interested in extending their influence. They would trade, use the diplomacy of treaty, and arranged marriage. They would manipulate, spy, cause insurrection, and declare war. Even ancient empires poked their noses and weapons over their neighbor’s back fence. Find these forgotten cities, the lost battles sites, the obsolete trade routes, or the temples to forgotten deities. Give them back their teeming streets, their marketplaces and crime filled allies. Finding a lost treasure of a setting makes every novel better, and if you uncover something truly remarkable, you’ll send everyone racing to Google, seeking some proof you didn’t make it all up.
Remember, dump the expected! Take those sleepy well-known historical facts and re-purpose, refocus and relocate them. Who knows, you just might create the next hot new trend in historical fiction.
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