As a pre-published writer, I spend hours reading blogs, online articles, and books about how to write a novel, and I've decided to share some of what I've learned so far. With any evolving craft, like writing, the pursuit of mastering it never really ends, but here are a few things.
1. It all starts with a hook
Your opening sentence sets the tone of your entire novel. Here are some popular opening sentences, all from debut authors, because let’s face it we want to like them:
(D)Twilight: My mother drove me to the airport with the windows rolled down.
(D)Wake: Janie Hannagan’s math book slips from her fingers.
(D)City of Bones: “You’ve got to be kidding me,” the bouncer said, folding his arms across his chest.
(D) Wicked Lovely: “Four-ball, side pocket.” Aislinn pushed the cue forward with a short, quick thrust; the ball dropped into the pocket with a satisfying clank.
(D)Wings: Laurel’s shoe flipped a cheerful rhythm that defied her dark mood.
(D) Fallen: Luce barged into the fluorescent-lit lobby of Sword & Cross School ten minutes later than she should have.
(D) Hush Hush: I walked into biology and my jaw fell open.
(D) Beautiful Creatures: Falling. I was free falling, tumbling through the air.
(D)The Body Finder: The sound of the alarm was an irritating intrusion into the comfortable haze of sleep that wrapped its arms around Violet.
(D) Graceling: In these dungeons the darkness was complete, but Katsa had a map in her mind.
2. Get to the point
Though most online research can be contradicting I’ve found that most agree on this one point YOU HAVE TO HOOK YOUR READERS IN THE FIRST TWO PARAGRAPHS. I know it’s a lot of pressure, but think about it this way: when you’re flipping through the television for something to watch, how long do you actually give a show to spark your interest? Say option one is two people are sitting silent at a dinner table (tension maybe, but is it enough) Option two has a man running from a burning cars, who turns back when he notices there’s a toddler still strapped in the back seat of one of them.
This is where film and television can be the most inspiring. In college it was drilled into my subconscious to start on action. In the script I’ve just finished, page one includes a chase, rape, and murder.
It’s cliché to say start with a bang, but that’s exactly what you have to do to. Of my ten example novels here’s what the first paragraphs included:
9 of 10 Started on action
1 of 10 started after the action had occurred
10 of 10 included the characters name
1 of 10 included a physical description of the character
1 of 10 described the weather
3 of 10 included so sort of back story
9 of 10 Included supportive characters
1 of 10 mentioned the characters age
8 of 10 gave a glimpse to the characters personality
9 of 10 included the location
6 of 10 had prologues or prefaces
For more information on prologues and when to use them check out this helpful article: http://www.learntowritefiction.com/why-you-dont-need-a-prologue/
3. What’s the problem?
According the Les Edgerton, author of Finding Your Voice and my current read Hooked, there should be multiple problems presented to your MC
The inciting incident: The event that kicks your story off.
The Surface Problem: This is the problem presented in chapter one. It’s dramatic enough to pull us in, but will lead to others and possibly be resolved before the novel’s end.
The story worthy problem: This is the big on that takes the whole novel to solve.
For your chapter one your focus is the first surface problem. Which is your characters reaction to the inciting incident? Something’s just happened that has rocked this characters world and now they have to deal with it. Also an interesting point I just read is that neither the reader nor character are aware of the story worthy problem in the first chapter, something to keep in mind.
4. Who’s your story about?
Stupid question right? Nope. When we’re viewing a story through a characters eyes, often times it’s the way we write it. We’ll spend page and pages describing and setting up the characters world and relationships. We’ll know what designer jeans their wearing, what kind of car they’re driving, what they physically look like, but we leave out the filling. Who is this character? We don’t like to judged on superficial things like the color of our hair or the clothes we wear, so don’t subject your character to it. You can do this by panning your vision out a bit.
Ask yourself “What do people see when they look at your character?” If it’s spot on to their personality, that would be a little too neat for drama. Donald Maass, author of The Breakout Novel, says ordinary people are boring. Try building contradictions, both physical and emotional (Warning: Things like sadistic nice guy might not ring true, but a shy loner with a death wish managed to capture all of our hearts)
5. Choose your words wisely
Cliché’s, words ending in LY or ING, adjectives, repeated words too closely together, character names being over used, dialogue descriptions other than says or said, run on sentences, italics, excessive exclamation points, ellipses, semi colons, or dashes, and improper use of comma’s or numbers are all examples of red flags that will send you to the slush pile. (I know what you’re thinking “What’s left?”)
Think of it this way if you can pull off a first chapter that doesn’t set off any alarms, you’ve got talent. This is a skill that I’m still learning, but here’s what I’ve gathered. (And yes I used cliché’s, take that red flaggers. Lol)
Trust your words: Say what you mean and don’t feel the need to repeat or overly describe.
Less is more: If it’s not important to the story, cut it (how fast a character walks or the contents of their purse means nothing unless there’s a bomb in there and their rushing to save a class of kindergartners.) BTW, SO SORRY IF ALL MY EXAMPLES HAVE BOMBS AND KIDS, I’M AN ACTION JUNKY WITH A BIOLOGICAL CLOCK. LOLKeep it moving: Don’t feel the need to describe every action. Let the story and conversations flow. Stopping in the middle of a conversation to tell us the character turns the door knob isn’t important. Also “I was just about to…” or “I began…” or “I was reaching for…” does nothing but bloat your word count. Again think film or television; when characters are walking from one set to the next do you notice the paint on the walls, or how their hair is blowing? What’s important is where they’re going and why, who they’re talking to and their emotional state.
6. End on a cliff
If your chapter one ends with your character smiling (REWRITE!) There are no smiles in fiction. There are no happy endings in chapters, except for maybe the last chapter. This I learned the hardest way, by writing a novel and having and editor tell me to start over. It was hard to take at the time, but probably the best advice anyone ever gave me. Donald Maass says when the character gets what they want the story stops. Why keep reading after that point?
Sure there are little victories along the way. Who can forget when your MC finally gets that first kiss, when the tutoring session results in an A+, or the team wins the finals? But haven’t you noticed that the good times never last in novels when one problem is solved another, often more severe, takes its place. So keep the dramas coming.
Here’s an example:
You roll out of bed and realize the alarm didn’t go off, your husband’s used the last of toothpaste, the coffee machine’s broke, you burn your favorite skirt with the iron, trip over a toy car heading out the front door, get stuck in traffic, miss your exit, get to work late, can’t remember your log on, and you forgot your glasses on the nightstand. (I know WTF!) This is what your character should be saying.
Your readers will be glued to your pages wanting to find out how the rest of this horrible day turns out, because with a start like this there’s bound to be some drama. Maybe you snap at lunch and have a total mental break and wind up taking a sabbatical to get yourself together, maybe you grin and bear it and get road rage on a freeway and cause a five car pileup. Or maybe you grab a few beers and hit the emergency shoot on the plane and go for a slide. Lol (I couldn’t help it.)
All and all the little problems have to keep building and can’t be resolved by the end of the chapter you need something to lead into the next chapter. Cliffhangers are most common.
I hope these tips were worthy of the gigantic post. If there's anything you'd like to add feel free to leave a comment.