Archive for writing


Sympathy for the Villain

As I mentioned a few days ago, I’ve been writing bits of the story I’m working on from the perspective of other characters in the story. I’ve gone back to just before the story opens and written up to certain turning points, and I must say, it’s been really eye-opening as I figure out what each character thinks about the other characters.

The character who has surprised me the most is one of the villains. I’m not a villain-centered writer and have very little patience for the “poor, sad villain who had a sad life” narrative. Lots of people have sad lives, and it doesn’t excuse being a villain. But I seem to be edging toward a little more sympathy toward this villain now that I’ve been inside his head. It helps that he’s a secondary villain and is actually one of those shadowy characters who teeters on that line between good and bad. The bad stuff isn’t his plan, and he’s mostly a pawn in all of it. His problem is that he doesn’t resist when he realizes how bad what he’s caught up in is, and he makes the wrong choices at pivotal times, up to a point when I think I’m going to let him make the right choice (we’ll see when I get there). I found in writing from his perspective that I had changed my view about how much he knew, and that changes a lot (including a key conversation the viewpoint character partially overhears).

Now that I feel a bit sorry for this guy, it may change the way I write him, but then I don’t want readers to like him too much. I’ve seen how readers in general can glom onto the poor, sad villain. I want readers to prefer another character. But that means I need to make the other character more interesting. Strangely, although he’s a major character, he’s still a bit of an enigma to me, so I need to do more work on him. I like him, but I don’t think the reasons I like him are making it onto the page.

So, I have more work to do!


Looking from the Other Side

Writing from the other character’s perspective has been really eye-opening. I mostly write from first-person perspective because I enjoy the deep dive into the character’s head and the way that allows me to play with narrative voice. I find it quicker to write that way, as well, most of the time. It’s like writing a diary entry.

But there are times when it comes with challenges. You can only write what the viewpoint character knows. If something happens and the viewpoint character isn’t there, she can’t know about it. She has to learn about it some other way — someone tells her, she sees security video footage, she reads about it. You also don’t get into other characters’ heads, and that’s where you can end up with plot problems, if you let the other characters do things you need them to do rather than what they actually would do in that situation.

In the book I’m working on, the viewpoint character isn’t in the know for much of anything. In one respect, that’s good because it means that all the discovery happens on the page. There’s no info-dumping of information she already knows because she doesn’t know anything and has to get information and figure things out. But it makes things a bit challenging because I have to figure out what everyone else around her knows, what their agendas are, and what they might say or do.

In a lot of scenes, the narrator is driving the action because she’s investigating, but there are scenes in which she thinks she’s driving things because she’s investigating and asking the questions, after having tracked down that person, but the other person is actually driving the action because they know what’s going on and have an agenda, so they have reasons for what they do and don’t tell the narrator. That’s where I’m having to go back and write the scene from the other person’s perspective, to see what they’d say, what they’d tell and what they’d withhold, and why. After I write it that way, I can go back and put it in the perspective of the narrator. The dialogue I can just copy and paste, but I have to take the thoughts and figure out how that would affect that character’s nonverbals — body language, expressions, tone of voice — and how much the narrator would notice of those nonverbals.

In the scene I was working on, looking at what the other character knows and what this person wants totally changed the scene. And now I’m at a point where I need to figure out what’s up with some of the other characters.


Behind the Scenes

My Monday enthusiasm didn’t last very long. I think part of my issue this week is that I’m at a point in the book I’m rewriting in which things are diverging significantly from my original story, and I’m struggling to get a sense of how it should go now. I’ve made a few false starts, realized that was heading the wrong way, scrapped it, and went back to square one.

One of the things I’m wrestling with is finding the balance between proactive, informed characters and characters who are so effective that they shortchange the story. You don’t have a story without a struggle. If your detective is so brilliant that he can take one look at a crime scene and solve the case, there isn’t much of a mystery. On the other hand, if the villain is so good that he can be five steps ahead of the hero and the hero doesn’t stand a chance, you don’t have much of a story. If characters have key bits of information, there needs to be a reason why they haven’t acted on it yet, but if they act on it too soon, it changes the story.

The big change I’ve made is that one of the characters knows a lot and has been trying to make things happen. In an earlier draft, she knew some things, but she didn’t know things needed to happen until other people showed up, but that made not only her but also everyone else too passive. But if she’s been trying to make things happen, there needs to be a reason why she can’t just resolve it all when she comes on the scene. I’ve had to figure out what she knows, why she doesn’t know the things she doesn’t know, and why she hasn’t done more already. That means I’ve had to figure out her entire backstory and what she’s been doing before she meets the POV character. I think by the time this book is done, I’ll have written about three times as much material as I need, between rewrites and the behind-the-scenes and backstory stuff I’ve written out. But if I don’t write it out, the scene just fizzles.

In fact, I just realized that’s what I need to do for the scene I’ve been struggling with. I need to write out what’s been going on with one of the characters, leading up to the scene and even write a draft of the scene from her perspective. That will help me know what she should be saying. It’s impossible (or, at least, difficult) to write that kind of scene knowing only what the POV character knows.

So, maybe I’ll get more written today, before I have to go deal with the choir kids.


New Ideas

So, it seems people do read my blog. Thanks to those of you who spoke up. I find that writing a post is a good warm-up exercise for the day that gets me in a mindset to write, and if there are people who find it interesting, that’s a bonus.

I’ve been in idea development mode the past week or so. I got invited to submit some possible ideas for a different kind of opportunity that I don’t want to talk about until it’s more concrete. I had a couple of things in the “projects in need of a good home” file that either needed a synopsis written and some fleshing out or a few pages written, but neither of them were in the subgenres I’m known for. I wanted to have at least one more thing to submit, and I thought it should probably be something contemporary, but I haven’t been coming up with contemporary ideas in a long time. Then a week or so ago, I found myself thinking of an incident that once happened to me, and for the first time, I realized that it could have been something that happened in a story if it had happened in a different time and place, and then I realized that it could still happen in that time and place and be the start of a story. From there it started snowballing.

A lot of it was stuff I suddenly just knew about the story — why the character was in that situation, where she was going, where she’d been. Who the other person was. What was going on. Other stuff had to be developed or teased out of the idea. I found a reference book and started flipping through it, and that gave me a good idea for a major thing that was happening. Yesterday, I started digging into details, and I was able to write most of a synopsis. As is the norm for me, it gets hazier the farther I get into it. I know extensive details about the backstory and opening scenes that get the story started, and it gets less detailed the deeper into the story I get. There may be more detail for one or two big scenes in the middle. As we get to the climax of the story, the synopsis is essentially “and then stuff happens.” I don’t think I need much more than that at this point, though if they like this idea, I’ll then probably have to develop it in more depth before it gets signed off on formally.

But this is a lot for me to be able to do in a little more than a week. Usually, my best ideas have a long gestation period, during which I do research, think about them, try not to think about them and only deal with them when they pop up. When I get Shiny New Idea Syndrome, it’s usually when I’m in the middle of something else. I’ve learned that the Shiny New Idea will fizzle if I just drop everything to work on it because it’s not ready. The best thing to do is to just write down everything I know about it, which usually tells me that there’s not enough to make a book yet. Then I can set it aside and let it develop more.

In this case, though, I needed a new idea, and I needed one like that. Instead of realizing that I don’t have enough for a book, I’ve found that the idea is growing and developing. I’m not sure I could sit down and make this a novel right now. It would take more thought and planning. But I’m at about the stage I’d usually be after a few months of thinking and a month or so of development work. I think that’s a good sign for this idea. If it isn’t picked for this particular thing, it’s still worth developing to see where I could go with it, though it would have to get in line behind all the other things I’m working on.

And speaking of work, back to finishing that synopsis and then trying to write a few pages to get a sense of the voice. It’s a short work day because children’s choir starts again tonight. I can only imagine how hyper they’ll be after the winter break. Today’s supposed to be reasonably warm, so maybe they’ll have had recess at school. I just hope no one shows up with the flu. It’s really running rampant around here right now.



We had our cold weather early in the week, so while the northeast is getting slammed, we’re warming back to our winter normal, which means an hour or so around freezing at night and in the 50s in the afternoon. That’s more my speed. It’s cold enough to bundle up under blankets, but not so cold that I have to worry about pipes freezing or stressing my heater.

It’s also good writing weather, though it does get tempting to drift off when I’m sitting on my bed, bundled up under blankets.

I’m in the process of revising a book. This is an entirely new thing that I’m writing with the hope of landing a new publisher. It’s a fun idea that I haven’t quite executed to a degree of quality that lives up to the premise, and since I want to use it to not only snag a new publisher, but to make the publisher excited, and maybe have multiple publishers competing to get it so that they’re forced to be excited about it, it’s worth putting in the extra effort to make it just right.

The other day, I figured out what to do about one of the problems with this story, but that blew up a big chunk of the book. I spent yesterday trying to figure out how to fix that, thought I’d figured it out, then when I went to write that part, it turns out it didn’t work. I think I was trying to hew too closely to what I’d already written rather than being willing to rewrite instead of just revising. This morning, I think I figured out a fix for that. This feels like such slow going, taking a couple of days to write a single scene.

One thing slowing me down is that I’m also working on some other things. I’ve been asked to submit some ideas for a possible project, and so I’m developing ideas right now. Some of them are older ideas I’m dredging up and updating or repurposing, and one is brand-new and being developed. When I have these out of the way, I can devote more concentration to that one book.

Working on more than one thing at a time is a new process for me. I tend to be all-or-nothing, but I also find that I fizzle out after a certain amount of work on any one thing in a day. Working on multiple things means I can switch over to something else when I fizzle out on something. Theoretically, that should mean I end up getting more done. We shall see.



I’m done with a lot of travel and can get back to writing posts — but then I just looked at the calendar and saw how quickly the holidays are approaching, so I think this may be the last “official” writing post this year. I’ll take a bit of a hiatus and come back in January with a lot of new ideas (I hope!). But I do hope to be better about blogging about other things. I’m just trying to avoid having scheduled obligations.

So, to conclude the series on parts of the story, let’s talk about endings. I’ve heard it said that the beginning is what sells this book and the ending is what sells the next book. The ending has to take care of a lot of things. That’s where the climax of the story goes — the peak action, where all seems lost until the hero prevails (or fails entirely). It’s also the culmination of the hero’s character arc, when he has to make some kind of change in order to prevail or perhaps because he prevailed. It’s when the loose ends are tied up, relationships secured (or ended), and we see just enough of the new normal in the aftermath to know how things are going to look for the hero going forward. If there’s a sequel, the seeds for the sequel may be planted to tease readers into coming back for more.

At the end of the middle, our characters have recovered from whatever their big midpoint ordeal/midterm exam was. Now they need to gear up to deal with things once and for all. They may have to return to the point of their failure to try again, they may have to race against the villains to get somewhere first in order to take care of business, or they may have to go where they will confront the villains. However it goes, it needs to be (at least figuratively) do or die. If this attempt fails, all is lost. There may not be another chance. This is also a moment of truth for our hero, who’s been resisting the kind of internal change she/he needs to make. If she doesn’t make this change, she probably won’t be able to succeed, but making that change is scary and leaves her feeling vulnerable. There may also be a moral choice — do things the right way and there’s a chance you won’t win, do things the wrong way and you might win, but there will be a huge personal cost. Making the right choice is a leap of faith. This is when the hero will be tested again on whatever he might have failed in the middle of the book — if he failed because he was too impulsive before, now he has to be able to wait for the right moment. If he failed before because he wanted to go it alone, now he has to trust in his team. It works best if whatever the hero needs to learn is closely tied to what he has to do to win.

Even though in genre fiction we’re pretty sure the hero is going to win, you have to trick the reader into wondering if maybe this time is going to be the exception and the hero will lose. The odds have to look bad, and there needs to be a good chance for failure. Victory should come at some cost. Secondary characters who are important to the hero may die. How far you go with this depends on the tone of the book you’re writing.

And then, victory! It’s best to end the book as soon as possible after that climax so there’s not a huge letdown, but you do need some winding down because readers want to savor that victory and see how it affects the characters. There may be celebration or mourning. We need to see at least a glimpse of what our hero is going to be like now that she’s been transformed. How will that affect her relationships with other characters? What do other characters think of her now? How have these actions and events changed the world of the story? You probably don’t want more than a chapter or so of aftermath, but you need enough to reassure readers that everything’s okay and all is right with the world (at least, until the sequel, and then you need to leave just a little bit that’s not entirely right). How you wrap things up depends on the effect you want to have — do you want to leave readers sobbing or sighing?

One common way of showing how things have changed is to reflect the beginning. In a quest, the character may have returned home, and we see the contrast between the hero and his surroundings. How is he different from the person who left? How has his view of his home changed? Will he be happy there? Or you can reflect an incident from the beginning and show the changes. In my Enchanted, Inc., the book opens with the heroine seeing strange things on the subway that no one else seems to notice, and it bothers her. At the end, she’s on the subway seeing strange things again, but now she understands them and is part of their world. You could do something similar with an encounter between two characters that goes differently or by showing the character facing a similar challenge in a different way. Or the character may have embarked on an entirely new life, so we need a glimpse of how she fits into that new life and new world and how it’s different from her old life.

Some genres have specific expectations of what happens in the end. A mystery requires the hero to find and unmask the killer, who’s brought to justice, and there often isn’t much aftermath wrap-up, unless there are relationship subplots to be addressed. A romance requires some kind of emotional commitment between the characters, so that you know they’ll be in a relationship going forward.

One of the best ways to learn to write a good ending is to look at the books whose endings have stuck with you and see if you can analyze why you like those endings. How many pages are left after the climax and main plot resolution? What events happen? What emotional tone is struck? That will help you figure out what you need to do.

In general, it’s a good idea to leave readers wanting a little more — give enough to be satisfying, but not enough to start to get boring. It’s better for readers to wish for just one more page than to have them flipping ahead.

And with that ending, I’ll close out the writing posts for the year.


Middles, Part 3

I’ve been talking about the various parts of a story, and now we’re getting close to the end. I’m not even sure I’d call the next part of the story part of the end. Maybe part three of the middle?

After we’ve had the big semi-climactic moment in the middle of the story, the audience and the characters need a chance to recover and catch their breath so they’ll be ready for the end. There’s usually some kind of quieter interlude after that big middle part. On a chart, this would be falling action. You need some less intense times so that the intense times will be a contrast, but that doesn’t mean this part of the story is allowed to be boring.

This may be an emotionally intense part of the story, even if there’s not a lot of action. You see a lot of love scenes in this part of a story. Think about The Terminator — after Sarah and Kyle escape from the police station and have a big car chase, they make it to safety in a remote motel. There, they talk and get to know each other a little better. He tells her about the future he came from and her role in it as the mother of the leader who’s helping humans fight back against the machines, and he tells her that he came through time because he’s always loved her — at least, the idea of her. They make love. This scene may seem slow in comparison to the rest of the movie with all the car chases and gun battles but, in a sense, it’s the most critical scene in the story, since it’s when that future leader is conceived.

Another example would be the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark in which they’ve made it safely to the ship with the ark after that big chase and fight scene, and Marian tends to Indy’s wounds, trying to find a place where it’s safe to kiss him without hurting him.

If someone — usually the mentor figure — got killed during the midpoint semi-climax/ordeal sequence, this is when the surviving characters mourn that person. If they weren’t very successful in what they tried to do in the midpoint, they may regroup here. There may be planning sessions or an analysis of where they went wrong.

This may be a time when the hero has some doubts. If he failed in the midpoint, he might fear that he’s not up to the task. He might question the goal. Sometimes he might even try to sneak away, feeling everyone else is better off without him.

Or, if everything went right, they may think they’ve won. They may have obtained the quest object and are celebrating. Because they don’t know they’re characters in a story, they don’t know that the story isn’t over yet. They may think everything’s okay or that the rest of it will be easy. Surely the most difficult part of the quest was getting the charmed amulet out of the evil wizard’s secret base. Now all they have to do is get home and use it to save their land.

But, of course, the story isn’t over yet. That knowledge allows the writer to maintain some tension even in this quieter part of the story. Readers can see that there are still a lot of pages left, so it’s not over. There won’t be a hundred pages of celebrating. The villain is still out there and not ready to give up. That cyborg will track them down and continue trying to carry out its mission. The Nazis aren’t going to give up on the ark, and they have a lot of resources. The evil wizard is going to try to get his amulet back. The hero can’t just give up and walk away. We know this, and that makes any celebrating, bonding, or rejoicing bittersweet. We enjoy seeing the characters get to be happy for a little while, but there’s a sense of dread about what they’ll face next.


Middles, Part 2

I skipped a week on writing posts because I was sick last week, and I’m not sure that anything I wrote would have made much sense. But now I’m back in action and ready to tackle the topic of part two of story middles. As I mentioned in the previous post, the first part of the middle is about the hero getting to know the “new” world of the story. It’s Dorothy arriving in Oz and setting out on the Yellow Brick Road, where she encounters the Wicked Witch and gathers her traveling companions on her way to the Emerald City.

And then part two of the middle happens, and things start to get serious. This is when the hero has to go from learning about things to really doing things. You might say that the hero is entering the special world within the story’s special world. The hero’s journey calls this “the approach to the inmost cave,” and there is often some kind of cave-like imagery. There’s a sense of the world closing in. The hero’s options are becoming more limited. If you look at it like a decision tree, at the beginning of the story the hero has virtually unlimited options, but by making one choice, all the other potential options are cut off, and he’s down to only those that stem from that choice. The next choice narrows things still further. Now he may only have a few possible options as he moves forward.

The hero may get a new assignment — like the Wizard telling Dorothy she needs to get the Wicked Witch’s broom — or there may be a briefing scene in a cop or action movie. The hero might get the specific weapons needed for this task. Sometimes you find a bonding scene at this time, something bringing the team closer together. If there’s a romantic element, this may be when the couple expresses emotions or has a love scene. That’s a nifty emotional trick for raising the stakes. It gives the hero something to fight for, and it makes us care about those other characters as we go into some danger. This is when Dorothy and her friends head toward the witch’s castle through the scary forest, or when the Millennium Falcon gets pulled into the Death Star. The characters are in a new, unfamiliar place, and they’ll have to accomplish a goal in order to survive and escape.

This is all building up to what you can think of as the secondary climax of the story. The real climax happens later, but this one is almost as intense and may even take up more time in the story. It’s a bigger set piece. You can think of it as the midterm exam of the story. It tests the heroes on what they’ve already learned, but it’s not the final exam. The heroes can’t have ultimate victory here, or the story would be over. At best, it’s a partial victory. They may get what they need, but they still haven’t accomplished their story goal. In a classic quest story, the hero may obtain the quest object, but he still has to get it back home to use it to heal his land, and the bad guys are going to do everything they can to stop him. Dorothy obtains the witch’s broom, but she still needs to get the Wizard to send her home. Luke and the others rescue the princess and escape from the Death Star, but the Death star is tracking them and will soon be in position to destroy their secret base.

Or, the hero may even fail at this point. He hasn’t learned his lessons, is still trying to do things his way, disregarding advice, and when he faces the villain, he loses, barely escaping with his life. He’ll have to make some changes before he can face the villain again and win. If you look at the original Star Wars trilogy as one story, that would be Luke facing Vader in The Empire Strikes Back. He loses that battle because he wasn’t properly prepared for it. He rushed into it impulsively without knowing for certain what he was doing, and he failed. There’s often a death of one of the team members during this segment, which shows how serious and dangerous this task is. Quite often, this is when the mentor figure dies, leaving the hero on his own to figure things out for the rest of the story. Or we lose one of the team members the hero just bonded with, which gives him added motivation for the rest of the story. Be careful using that trope, though. You don’t want to use a character’s suffering as nothing more than giving motivation to the hero. It’s particularly cliched for something to happen to the love interest to motivate the hero.

While there are all kinds of hero’s journey mythological reasons for this phase in the story, from a practical standpoint, it mostly serves to keep things exciting between the initiating incident and the resolution. Something needs to happen in the middle of the story. The next time you watch a movie on TV/cable/DVD/streaming, look for the length of the movie, figure out what the middle of the movie would be, and take note of what’s happening at that point in the movie. If it’s an action movie, there’s probably some big action sequence. If it’s not an action movie, there’s probably some big, intense, emotional sequence, like a confrontation between characters, a love scene, or a big dilemma. Open a book to the middle and see what’s going on, and you may find the same thing.

I find that this is the part that tends to be skipped by beginning writers, and it was learning this trick that taught me how to really plot a story. We tend to think in terms of what happens to kick off a story and what happens to resolve a story, and it’s easy to look at the rest as filler. By making sure you’ve got some important event midway through that doesn’t resolve the story but that tests your characters, your story will become a lot more interesting.


Middles: Part One

I just did a whole series of writing posts about beginnings, and now it’s time to move on to middles. While beginnings are important for snagging the interest of editors, agents, and readers, the middle has a lot to do with whether a book sinks or swims. A strong beginning doesn’t help if the middle sags. Many authors find the middle to be the most difficult part of the book to write. It’s tricky keeping the pacing and tension going without resolving everything too soon but also while having very good reasons that things can’t yet be resolved.

You can generally divide the middle — the part that comes after the hero has chosen (or been forced) to take on the story goal and before the build-up to the resolution — into two parts. There’s the getting used to new circumstances, meeting new people, and figuring out the situation part, and then there’s the setup for the climax.

If you’re thinking about it in terms of the Hero’s Journey, the first part would be Tests, Enemies, and Allies. In a way, this is the “ordinary world” of the special world of the story. You probably don’t want to spend a lot of time in the beginning showing the ordinary parts of the ordinary world, but this is where you can play with your worldbuilding, showing how things are different now that the hero has taken up the challenge. The hero really may travel to a different place — going to Oz, Narnia, or some other fantasy world, or possibly just leaving the familiar to go on a journey or quest within his or her own world. Or the hero may stay in the same place but encounter different people and situations. It may be a new job with new co-workers, a new home in a new neighborhood, or a new group of friends or colleagues. The hero has to learn the rules of this new situation, how it all works, and who to trust. The protagonists will learn more about the villain, more about what they have to do to achieve their goal, and may pick up skills and weapons that they’ll need later.

In his book Save the Cat, Blake Snyder calls this part of the story “the promise of the premise.” It’s when the things you expect to happen in this kind of story happen. In a fantasy quest story, it’s when the questing party really comes together, and they may have a few lower-stakes adventures and encounters in which they learn what the dangers of their quest are likely to be. In a space opera, this is life on the spaceship and meeting the crew, maybe having a minor space battle that shows off the skills of the various crew members. In a romantic comedy, it’s the part where the hero and heroine are stuck in a situation together, with witty banter, and we meet their various friends.

Think of some familiar stories: In The Wizard of Oz, it’s when Dorothy has arrived in Oz and been given her quest by Glinda, and she sets off down the Yellow Brick Road, picking up her traveling companions along the way and having a few encounters with the Wicked Witch and flying monkeys. In Star Wars, Luke goes with Obi-Wan to the cantina, where he gets a glimpse of what Obi-Wan is capable of and meets Han and Chewbacca, and then they escape in the Millennium Falcon — a sequence in which we learn the capabilities of Han and the ship — and Luke starts his Jedi training.

The challenge is keeping readers interested after the beginning. There is a natural slowdown after the big bang of the opening, but you can’t let the pace or the energy lag. Things need to happen. There need to be some stakes, even if it’s not entirely do-or-die at this point in the story. This is a good place to set up the things you’ll need for the climax and resolution — the hero learning or gaining things, trying and failing at something he’ll later need to do properly to save the day, encountering the villain and surviving but not winning. The conflict that keeps the story going through this part needs to be real, not contrived. If the story would end if two characters who are capable of having a conversation just had a conversation, you need more going on. If the story would end if the characters just figured out a rather obvious thing, you need very good reasons for them not to know about or notice that very obvious thing.

If you’re struggling with a story that feels like it’s sagging at this point, look at the conflict. Is anything stopping the heroes from achieving their goals? Are there any intermediate goals on the way to achieving the story goal, and what’s getting in the way of those goals? Finding a good reason for the heroes to struggle will usually fix a sagging early middle. You can also have conflicts among the characters, like Han Solo’s disdain for Jedi ways and Luke’s disdain at Han’s greed.

Next time, I’ll look at the second part of the story middle.


What Makes a Good Beginning?

I’ve been talking about writing beginnings in my writing posts. Beginnings really are difficult, but there’s only one absolute rule: your beginning must make people want to read more. If it does that, nothing else really matters.

But how do you do that?

  • You can write a real grabber of an opening line that makes readers want to know more — a killer first line.
  • Show just enough of your story world to keep readers intrigued — enough to give them a sense of place and what’s going on, but don’t answer all the questions up front, and don’t give an infodump near the beginning of the book.
  • Show the protagonist’s potential — whether you’re writing a true hero or an antihero, your main character is probably going to change and grow during the story. The antihero may have a redemption arc. The hero may learn some valuable lessons. Let readers get a sense of what the protagonist’s strengths and weaknesses are, what their goals are, and what they’re going to have to overcome. But, again, don’t tell everything. Questions and curiosity help keep pages turning.
  • Present the story question the plot will hinge upon — will they beat the villain/complete the quest/save the day?
  • Show the stakes if the protagonist fails

The job of the story’s beginning is to:

  • Introduce the main characters — preferably one or two at a time so readers have a chance to get to know each one instead of being hit with all of them at once. When you go to a party, are you more likely to remember names and something about the people you meet when you’re introduced one-on-one or when you’re brought to a group and quickly given all their names?
  • Set the stage — show us just enough of the world to allow us to understand where/when we are and what’s different from our world, but leave us curious about seeing more.
  • Set up and then show the inciting incident that kicks the story into motion.
  • Define the story goal that comes out of the inciting incident and the stakes.

The lovely thing about writing a novel is that you don’t have to get the beginning right from the start. You can always go back and revise it. Don’t get hung up on getting the opening just perfect before you move on. Chances are, as you get deeper into the story, you’ll learn a lot about your characters and world, and that knowledge will help you go back and improve your beginning. Making the beginning perfect before you’ve written the rest of the story may even be a waste of time. The things you figure out along the way may lead to you changing the way you start your story. What you write as an ending may give you better ideas for how to begin. The ending will show you what your characters really needed to learn, which will allow you to hint at that need in the opening. You’ll know from the ending how the world will change, so you’ll have a better sense of what you need to show in the beginning. You may even find that the opening scene as you’ve written it is entirely unnecessary, and the story really begins later. Writing the rest of the book may give you ideas for that brilliant opening line.

So, don’t fret about your beginning until after you’ve written the book — especially for a first novel. More experienced writers may start writing proposals to sell books, so they only write a few chapters, but that usually comes after you’ve written some complete books. For an early novel, just worry about starting in a way that sets the stage and gets your characters going. You can make it better later, and that will be better than if you sweat over it before writing anything else.