Interview with Susan Smith, author of Living with the Lions and Invisible Elephants What process…
Guest post by award-winning author, Wendy Scott
In today’s world of shrinking attention spans, it’s important to capture your reader’s attention from the beginning. Have you ever flicked through the opening pages of a book and then cast it aside? I know I have! A reader’s time is a precious commodity, if they’re not engaged they will move onto someone else’s book and leave yours to crumble in the forgotten slush pile of seldom-read books.
Here’s my advice on how to polish your story beginnings so you hook your readers.
1. Start at an action point in the story and weave in what’s needed as the story progresses.
The beginning is your only opportunity to grab a reader’s attention and pull them into your story. Many readers abandon a story after scanning the first few paragraphs because they’re bored by too much exposition or backstory.
I strongly suggest you introduce your main character within the opening and define where this story is taking place.
Is it obvious to your readers that this story is a fantasy, a murder mystery, a romance, or whatever cross-genre you write in?
2. Make your main characters real to the readers so they care what happens to them.
Go beyond physical descriptions and delve into your main characters’ psyche.
What are their motivations? Thoughts? Feelings? Conflicts?
Deliver characters that readers can emotionally invest in.
Remember no one is perfect so include flaws that enhance their credibility.
Cardboard, cut-out, two-dimensional characters with stereotypical tendencies bore readers. Make your characters unique.
Avoid introducing too many characters in the opening sequence as this can confuse readers.
Ensure character names are distinctive from each other and pronounceable. Fantasy authors are notorious for creating difficult names that make the reader stumble and fall out of the story.
3. Show the story, don’t tell it.
Don’t tell the reader it’s windy, show them the oak tree branches flailing and showering them in a confetti of leaves. Create unique mind pictures that thrust your reader into your created world.
The concept is often attributed to Russian playwright Anton Chekhov, reputed to have said: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.”
‘Showing’ immerses the reader into the story so their reading experience unites them on an emotional level with the characters and the action. Showing expresses the story through sensory perception (taste, touch, smell, hear, sight, and instinct).
‘Showing’ brings the reader closer to the story, while ‘telling’ creates distance.
4. Avoid jumbled points of view (POV).
This is where the story hops between different characters’ thoughts within the same paragraph or scene. The choice of POV shapes the story so consider this aspect with care when crafting your stories.
Make conscious choices for POV and avoid mindless head-hopping which can be considered as ‘lazy writing’ and amateurish. I’ve only come across a few skilled authors who have successfully circumnavigated mixing up the POVs.
If your readers become confused by which character’s head they are in – they may abandon the story.
5. Use relevant dialogue (readers relate to clever dialogue).
Dialogue is a direct connection between your characters and the reader. Your characters’ expression, tone, and words can create an emotional bond your readers can relate to. So your dialogue must be believable. But there’s a trick to written dialogue, it isn’t exactly as you hear people speak. Real conversations stop and start, there’s heaps of ums, repetition, unnecessary back and forth, and doesn’t always make sense. If you wrote dialogue like a real conversation – you are going to bore your readers senseless.
A wonderful writer’s tool is listening to how people speak and picking out the best bits. The key is to write a more concise version. Dialogue must serve the purpose of moving the story forward – it should never be mindless chatter.
Tip: Beware using dialogue as an information dump. I strongly advise against any conversation that includes, “As you know blah blah blah …”
6. Show a variety of senses beyond sight. How does it sound, smell, taste, or feel?
Many new writers often only focus on sight. Use all the senses to show drama and emotion. Apply subtly – don’t lay on the senses so thick it overshadows the story. Choose which senses enhance each scene within your story.
It would overwhelm the reader (and it’s unnecessary) to describe everything within a scene. Focus on a few specific and relevant details in the setting. Let the reader’s imagination fill in the rest. Readers are easily bored by trivia or pages of description that doesn’t move the story along.
In real life, it’s rare to find silence. What sounds match your setting and characters?
Have you ever experienced a particular scent triggering a memory? Relate aromas to your scene and intensify the mood and setting. Be careful not to overdo aromas with characters that are continually sniffing!
Flavour your prose with taste.
Filtering settings and scenes through touch can connect with readers on a deeply personal level. Hot, cold, smooth, rough, prickly, furry … allow readers to feel the sensation alongside your characters.
What about instinct? Does your character experience gut reactions or intuition?
7. Beware overused clichés – create your own unique style that’s relevant to your story.
Polished writing is fresh and should showcase your unique writing style – so don’t use tired and overused clichés as a writing crutch. Create your own vibrant mind pictures that emphasize your genre and story world.
8. Beware overusing exclamation marks.
This is jarring to the readers! Really!! Instead, use your words to show the emphasis. Aim for no more than three within a novel.
9. End your 1st chapter with a hook.
Avoid author intrusion as this comes across as amateurish. Stay within your designated POV. End on a point of mystery or conflict where the reader is salivating to read on. Don’t finish a chapter where the reader is content to put it aside. There should be unanswered questions.
10. Edit. Edit. Edit.
Proofread – independent eyes will pick up errors the author misses. We are often too close to our work to pick up any errors. Putting work aside for a while before reviewing can increase our chance of picking up typos. Reading out loud is a useful way to find missing, extra, or wrong words.
Final thoughts on openings
Please note, these are only guidelines and unofficial writing rules are broken often. My overall advice is to be mindful of the points mentioned above before making your writing style choices.
Best wishes with your writing journey,
Wendy Scott ☺
Wendy Scott is a multi-award-winning author. She has a New Zealand Certificate in Science (Chemistry), which allows her to dabble with fuming potions and strange substances, satisfying her inner witch. Wendy writes fantasy and children’s novels, and short stories.
Please visit http://www.authorchildrens.com/ to learn more, read Wendy’s blog, sign up for her newsletter, or to leave her a message. She loves hearing from readers.