Every story has a beginning, middle and end, right? Riiiiiight. But that’s not enough. Sorry to burst your bubble like that. Everyone, I’m sure, has read a story where things just kinda die for a little while. It’s boring and a struggle to get through and the whole thing just seems so pointless. I’m going to reference one of my favorite books here and just keep in mind that despite this, I still love it for the good parts, so don’t yell at me. In Gregory Maguire’s Wicked, there are a lot of parts where Elphie just isn’t doing anything of consequence to her story and it just seems so freakin’ pointless. I skip over those parts when I reread the book now. Once was enough and they aren’t crucial to the plot at all.
My job is to teach you how to write a book that readers will either a) not quit reading because they’re bored or b) skip over certain parts during rereads, so let’s get cracking. THIS IS GOING TO BE A THREE PART POST, SO STAY TUNED FOR MORE.
The beginning seems like the hardest place. You’ve got a blank page with a huge, ornate header and some doodles, or you’ve got that infernal blinking “I” thing on a blank word document mocking you. It’s a problem we’ve all experienced—especially me, so here are some tips to get started and to make it interesting…
1. OUTLINE. I can feel the eyerolls already. Stop that! I hate outlines. I really do. As a creative brained person, they drive me up a wall, but I’ve learned that without an outline, I ramble and do stupid things BECAUSE I’m creative brained. So just make an outline, please. It won’t hurt too bad. You don’t have to outline all the way to the end, but you need to figure out where your story is going and how you’re going to get there.
2. KEEP IT SIMPLE. In the beginning of any story there’s a lot of exposition while you’re introducing your character and setting up the story. You don’t need to do all of this in the first chapter, as it’s overwhelming and obnoxious. Don’t just write two or three paragraphs describing the situation. You want to distribute details lightly, like a wee fairy flying through a meadow and sprinkling fairy dust on flowers to make them grow. That’s a crap metaphor, but it’s four-thirty in the morning while I’m writing this, so give me a break. You want to think of yourself as a delicate fairy, sprinkling details throughout your story. Fairies don’t just dump a whole pound of fairy dust on someone or something. It’s not practical or efficient and neither is three+ paragraph exposition.You need to save some for later. Sorry, I don’t make the rules.
So here are some things you want to flesh out in your first chapter.
1. Narrator/Main character’s name.
2. A tiny bit about their physical appearance. Be careful with mirrors. It’s overdone and lazy.
i.e. "I looked in the mirror, wide blue eyes staring back at me, my freckled face haloed by frizzy copper colored hair."
Been there, done that, seen it a thousand times. Yawn. Try describing your characters relatives and mentioning similarity, or having another person make a comment about their frizzy red hair etc. Seriously, the mirror thing….pet peeve. I will put a book down if it starts with a character staring into a mirror. No joke. Try something like this instead.
"Honey, can’t you do something with your hair?" my mother asked me, as i tried to slip out the door. I sighed, debating just walking out and saving both of us the fight. I would never be able to get my mother’s sleek copper coif to work for me, a fact that aggravated her daily. I picked at the peeling red skin on my arm, waiting for her inevitable next comment.
"And what have I told you about sunblock!" she shouted, coming over to me now, snatching my hand away from my arm to stop me from peeling it myself. "Do you want more freckles?”
Obviously, I kinda crapped this out in a few seconds, but what did we learn here? We learned that she has red, messy hair she’s obviously pale or doesn’t tane easily as she has a sunburn and she has freckles. We learned the same thing, more or less from the mirror scene, but there was an added dynamic: Her mother. Having another person there, interacting with our character gives them more dynamic. We learn that she has a strained relationship with her mother because she’s not living up to her mother’s expectations about her physical appearance. Cool, huh!?
3. Introduce your character’s relationships and through that, your character’s personality will shine through.
As I mentioned before, you don’t have to throw every detail you have about the character or the plot out in the first chapter. Tease your audience, sure, but avoid direct exposition.
Thanks. Part Two will be up soonish.