Writer-Talk Tuesday: Let’s Talk STORY
Two weeks ago, I posted some of the comments I’ve made as a writing-contest judge in the areas of Characterization, Conflict, and Dialogue. I wasn’t able to get to the area of STORY . . . simply because “story” covers so much ground. So for the next few Writer-Talk Tuesdays, I’ll break that element down into chunks and share some of my favorite comments from past contests. (The headings these are broken into are from the score sheet from the ACFW Genesis contest.)
Does the story hold your interest to the end of the entry?
This is where a lot of judges will knock off points subjectively. Because, let’s face it, this is a very subjective question. This is where both how you start your entry and where you end your entry come into play.
First, obviously, you need a great opening hook. You want to grab the reader (in this case, the contest judge) right off the bat. Since receiving my Kindle a year ago, I’ve read a lot of sample opening chapters—mostly of Christian fiction, but of some general-market fiction as well. If I read all the way through to the end of the sample, it’s one that’s going on my wishlist—or possibly, if I have disposable income and/or it’s got a really low sale price, I’ll go ahead and purchase/download the whole book. That’s how important your opening pages are: will it make the reader (the editor, agent, or customer) pull the trigger and buy your book?
You also want to leave your reader (judge) wanting more when they get to the end of the entry—you want them wishing that they had just one more page, just one more chapter, because they need to know what happens next. Even if there are technical/craft issues with your entry, if you leave the reader wanting more story, they’re going to give you a higher score.
So you need several key things to score well on this:
• Strong opening hook
• Strong, interesting characters
• Interesting setting/scenario
• Unique premise
• End with a hook
Here are some recent comments I’ve made on entries under this question:
Make a Scene: Crafting a Powerful Story One Scene at a Time by Jordan E. Rosenfeld
The Power of Point of View by Alicia Rasley
Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card
Scene and Structure by Jack Bickham
Setting by Jack Bickham
Writing the Breakout Novel by Donald Maass
Stein on Writing by Sol Stein
Writing the Christian Romance by Gail Martin
In this blog post, James Scott Bell wrote the following:
- There were several items that should be avoided at all costs on the first page. Here they are, in no particular order:
In most of the first pages I reviewed there was entirely too much exposition. The author thinks that this is information the reader has to know in order to understand the character and the scene.
In truth, readers need to know very little to get into the story. They will wait a long time for explanations and backstory if the action is gripping, essential, tense or disturbing. My rule, ever since I began writing and teaching, is act first, explain later.
This rule will serve you amazingly well your entire writing career.
The scenes are static—mostly descriptions/summaries of actions, not the actions themselves—and they lack purpose and direction.
Because of the amount of telling of backstory in this section, I had a hard time wanting to keep reading. Any time you have to use transitions such as three months later or they stayed for six days in your first chapter, it’s an indicator you’ve started your story in the wrong place. Plus, long paragraphs of narrative that tell about the passing of time, that tell about what’s going on around the character, or that tell about emotional events that impact the character after the fact (without having shown the active scene in which the events occurred), aren’t going to draw readers in and keep them interested in what’s going on in your story. You have a way with words—I’d love to see that put to much better use in active, showing, impactful scenes instead of scenes full of long paragraphs of telling.
While your prose is well crafted, nothing happens in these fifteen pages to make me, as a reader, interested enough to want to know more about these characters (and even after reading your synopsis, which I waited to do until after reading the fifteen pages, I still wasn’t hooked). In fact, I’m more interested in [a secondary character’s] story than [the heroine’s].
Story begins with character. To draw a reader into your story, you must create compelling characters that draw the reader into the emotional and visceral experience of the world you’re crafting. Characters must have depth of emotion. Not melodrama, but there must be something deeper than just the surface-level presented here. A couple of really good books you should study to help you in this aspect are Getting into Character by Brandilyn Collins and The Plot Thickens by Noah Lukeman—because in addition to compelling characters, a story that’s going to hold a reader’s interest is going to start with compelling plot as well. The most interesting thing that happened in your entry happened on the last two or three pages. An editor isn’t going to give you that long to draw them into the story.
You need to get your characters into the scene as soon as possible. And be sure the reader knows who your characters are. Make it clear whose viewpoint we’re in. Establish a purpose, a goal, or an intention for the character. Jordan Rosenfeld in Make a Scene calls this the scene intention:
- Give [your character] an intention in every scene—a job that he wants to carry out that will give purpose to the scene. The intention doesn’t come from nowhere—it stems directly from the significant situation of your plot and from your protagonist’s personal history. An intention is a character’s plan to take an action, to do something, whereas a motivation is a series of reasons, from your character’s personal history to his mood, that accounts for why he plans to take an action.
Questions to ask yourself for each scene—but especially opening scenes/chapters:
• What are the most immediate desires of your character?
• Will your character meet his intention or meet with opposition?
• Does the scene intention make sense to the overall plot of your story?
• Who will help your characters achieve the intention—or thwart it?
Scene intentions need to involve conflict and they need to tie into the plot or one of the subplots of the story. You need to know your character’s intentions from the beginning of the scene so you know whether they are supposed to reach them or not.
Action doesn’t need setup.
The sooner you start the action in a scene, the more momentum it has to carry the reader forward. If you find yourself explaining an action, they you don’t have action anymore—you have narrative.
You need physical movement and a sense of time passing—and the lack of an explanation as to why something is happening is what keeps a reader reading.
Get straight to the action. If a character is going to jump off a cliff, open with him stepping off the edge, not standing there contemplating it for five paragraphs.
Hook the reader with big or surprising actions. An outburst, a car crash, a heart attack, a public argument, a knock at the door. But this big, surprising action must be relevant to the main plot of the novel. Don’t invent a “bang” just for the sake of opening with a “bang.”
Be sure the action is true to your character. Don’t open a scene with a shy/quiet character going off on someone. That’s something to build up to at the end of a scene much further into the book. Do open with a difficult boss berating that shy/quiet character.
Act first, think later. If the character needs to react to something or have a (brief) moment of introspection, have her do something active first.
Any questions about any of those comments?