Tuesday, September 22, 2020

Act First, Explain Later

Twelve dos and don'ts for a riveting opening to your story

by Jodie Renner, fiction editor & author of writing guides

The opening paragraphs and first page of your novel or short story are absolutely critical. How you craft your opening will make the difference between a potential reader starting your book, then putting it down (or rejecting it online) and seeking another one, or, their interest and curiosity piqued, eagerly turning the page to read on.

Gone are the days when readers of fiction were willing to read pages or even paragraphs of description and lead-up before diving into the actual story. Readers, agents, and publishers today don’t have the time, patience, or desire to wade through pages of warm-up, scene-setting, backstory, or description, so you need to dispense with revving your engine and hook them in right from the first sentence and first paragraph of your story.

As James Scott Bell says so wisely in his writing guide, Revision and Self-Editing, about the opening paragraphs, 

“Give us a character in motion. Something happening to a person from line one. Make that a disturbing thing, or have it presage something disturbing.”

Here are twelve dos and don’ts for making the first page of your novel zing and entice readers to turn to the second page. Note that these are recommendations to hook readers in, not hard-and-fast rules. 

1. DON’T begin with a long description of the setting or with detailed background information on your characters. 

 - DO begin with meaningful, interesting dialogue and interaction, with some tension, then add in any necessary backstory information or description in small doses, on a need-to-know basis as you progress through the story.

2. DON’T start with a character other than your protagonist.    

 - DO introduce your novel's main character right in the first paragraph.

3. DON’T start with a description of past events.
 - DO jump right in with what the lead character is involved in right now, with some tension, an aspiration/goal, or some conflict.

4. DON’T start in a viewpoint other than the main character’s

 - DO start telling the story from your protagonist’s point of view. It’s best to stay in the viewpoint of the hero/heroine for the whole first chapter, preferably the first few chapters to establish them as the lead character. And don’t change the point of view within a scene.

5. DON’T present your protagonist in a static, neutral (boring) situation.
 - DO develop your main character quickly by putting her in a bit of hot water and showing how she reacts to the situation, so readers can empathize and “bond” with her, and start caring enough about her to keep reading.  Google "inciting incident."

6. DON’T start with your character all alone, reflecting on his life. 

 - DO have more than one character (two is best) interacting, with action and dialogue. That’s much more compelling than reading the thoughts or musings of one person.

7. DON’T start with your protagonist planning a trip, or travelling somewhere; in other words, as a lead-up to an important scene. 

 - DO start in media res – jump right into the middle of the action. Present her in a meaningful scene.

8. DON’T introduce a lot of characters in the first few pages.
 - DO limit the number of characters you introduce in the first few pages to three or less. 

9. DON’T spend too long leading up to the main conflict or problem the protagonist faces.
 - DO introduce the main dilemma (or at least some significant tension) within the first chapters. 

10. DON’T leave the reader wondering what the characters look like

 - DO provide a brief description of each character as they’re introduced, so the readers can form a picture of him or her in their minds. But don't get carried away with too many details, and be sure to make it from the POV character's viewpoint and impressions, not a neutral description by the author/narrator.

11. DON’T have the main character looking in the mirror as a device for describing him/her. This has been overdone. 

 - DO work in the description in a more natural way, by relating it to his or her actions or interactions with others.

12. DON’T wait too long to introduce the hero in a romance or romantic suspense.
 - DO introduce the love interest by the end of chapter one, to spark reader interest.

Remember, you can always start your story wherever you want in the draft stage, if it’ll make you feel better. Then in the editing stage, you can go back and cut out or condense the first several paragraphs or pages or even most of the first chapter, so that, in your final draft, your actual story starts after all that lead-up (some of which may appear later, in snippets here and there).

In conclusion, here’s some great advice for writing compelling fiction, coined by author Dan Brown: Act first, explain later.

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: FIRE UP YOUR FICTION,  CAPTIVATE YOUR READERS, and WRITING A KILLER THRILLER, as well as two clickable time-saving e-resources, QUICK CLICKS: Spelling List and QUICK CLICKS: Word Usage. She has also organized two anthologies for charity: VOICES FROM THE VALLEYS – Stories and Poems about Life in BC’s Interior, and CHILDHOOD REGAINED – Stories of Hope for Asian Child Workers. You can find Jodie on her Amazon Author Page, at www.JodieRenner.com, and on Facebook. 

Monday, September 21, 2020

Adding Tension, Suspense, & Intrigue to Any Story


Concrete Tips for Adding Tension, Suspense, & Intrigue to Any Story

by Jodie Renner, fiction editor & author of writing guides

Are you in the process of writing a novel? Maybe a thriller or other popular fiction that you hope will grab readers and really sell? Besides a great character and a fascinating plot, you’ll also need some tried-and-true fiction-writing techniques to take your story up a level or three.

To keep readers engaged and eagerly turning the pages, all genres of fiction, not just thrillers, need tension and intrigue – and a certain amount of suspense. And of course, you’ll need to ratchet up the tension, intrigue, and suspense a lot more if you’re writing a fast-paced, nail-biting, page-turner.

Here are some techniques for engaging your readers and keeping them riveted: 

~ First, create a protagonist that readers will care about, and give him some worries and secrets. Make your hero or heroine intriguing and complex, clever and resourceful. But not perfect – make them vulnerable too, with an Achilles heel and some inner conflict, regrets, and secrets. In most cases, you want your protagonist to be likeable too, or at least have some endearing traits to make readers worry about her and root for her. If readers can’t identify with or bond with your character, it’s pretty hard to make them care what happens to her. Essential Characteristics of a Thriller Hero

~ Get up close and personal. Use deep point of view (first-person or close third person) to get us into the head and body of your main character right from the opening paragraph. Show his thoughts, fears, hopes, frustrations, worries, and physical and sensory reactions in every scene. Engage Your Readers with Deep Point of View.

~ Show your hero or heroine in action in the first paragraphs. Rather than opening with description, background info, or your character alone musing, it’s best to jumpstart your story with your lead interacting with someone else who matters to them, preferably with a bit of discord and tension. And show his/her inner thoughts and emotional reactions, maybe some frustration or anxiety. 

~ Give your character a problem to solve right from the get-go. It can be minor, but creating an early conflict that throws your lead off-balance makes your readers worry about him. A worried reader is an engaged reader.

~ Withhold information. Don’t tell your readers too much too soon. This is so important and a common weakness for new fiction writers. Hold off on critical information. Hint at a traumatic or life-changing event early on, then reveal fragments of info about it little by little, through dialogue, thoughts, and brief flashbacks, to tantalize readers and keep them wondering and worrying.

For the rest of this blog post, with many more tips, go to:


Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: FIRE UP YOUR FICTION,  CAPTIVATE YOUR READERS, and WRITING A KILLER THRILLER, as well as two clickable time-saving e-resources, QUICK CLICKS: Spelling List and QUICK CLICKS: Word Usage. She has also organized two anthologies for charity: VOICES FROM THE VALLEYS – Stories and Poems about Life in BC’s Interior, and CHILDHOOD REGAINED – Stories of Hope for Asian Child Workers. You can find Jodie on her Amazon Author Page, at www.JodieRenner.com, and on Facebook. 

Saturday, September 19, 2020

Don't Stop the Story to Introduce Each Character!

by Jodie Renner, editor & author

Want to write popular fiction that captivates your readers and sells well, with great reviews? It's all about fiction-writing techniques that will enthrall the reader, rather than turning them off.

Entice your readers, don’t bore them.

Imagine you’ve just met someone for the first time, and after saying hello, they corral you and go into a long monologue about their childhood, upbringing, education, careers, relationships, plans, etc. You keep nodding as you glance around furtively, trying to figure out how to extricate yourself from this self-centered boor. You don’t even know this person, so why would you care about all these details at this point?

Or have you ever had a friend go into great long detail about someone you don’t know, an acquaintance they recently ran into? Unless it’s a really fascinating story with a point, I zone out. Who cares? Give me a good reason to care, and feed me any relevant details in interesting tidbits, please!

In my editing of novels, I’ll often see a new character come on scene, then the author feels they need to stop the action to introduce that person to the readers. So they write paragraphs or even pages of background on the character, in one long expository lump. New writers often don’t realize they’ve just brought the story to a skidding halt to explain things the readers don’t necessarily need to know, certainly not to that detail, at that point. And it’s telling, not showing, which doesn’t engage readers. In fact, they’ll probably skim through it, and maybe even find something else to do instead.   

Don’t start with your character alone, musing or reminiscing.

Another related technique I find less than compelling is starting with the character on the way to something eventful, and as they’re traveling, they’re recollecting past or recent events in lengthy detail. It’s much more engaging to start with the protagonist interacting with others, with some tension and attitude involved. Then work in any necessary backstory info bit by bit as the story progresses, through dialogue, brief recollections or references, hints and innuendo, or short flashbacks in real time. And through reactions and observations by other characters.

Rein in Those Backstory Dumps!

Contrary to what a lot of aspiring authors seem to think, readers really don’t need a lot of detailed info right away on characters, even your protagonist. Instead, it’s best to introduce the character little by little, in a natural, organic way, as you would meet new people in real life. You might form an immediate physical impression, especially if you find them attractive or repugnant. You notice whether they’re tall or short, well-groomed or scruffy, timid or overbearing, friendly or cold, intelligent or dull, charismatic or shy.

If you’re interested in them, if you find them intriguing, you pay attention to them, ask them questions, and maybe ask others about them. You gather info on them gradually, forming and revising impressions as you go along, with lots of unanswered questions. Maybe you hear gossip and wonder how much of it is actually true. Through conversation and observation, you formulate impressions of them based on what they (or others) say, as well as their attitude, personality, gestures, expressions, body language, tone of voice, and actions.

Involve and engage the readers.

It’s also important to remember that readers like to be involved as active participants, not as passive receptors of dumps of information. Finding out about someone bit by bit, trying to figure out who they are and what makes them tick, what secrets they’re hiding, is a stimulating, fun challenge and adds to the intrigue.

Unlike nonfiction, where readers read for information, in fiction, readers want to be immersed in your story world, almost as if they’re a character there themselves. So be sure to entice readers to get actively engaged in trying to figure out the characters, their motivations and relationships, and whether they’re to be trusted or not.

Let the readers get to know your characters gradually, just like they would in real-life.

For ideas on how to approach introducing your characters to the reader in your fiction, think about a gathering where you’re just observing for a while, trying to get your bearings, maybe waiting for some friends to arrive. You look around at who’s there, listening in to snippets of conversation. A few people interest you, so you move closer to them, trying not to be obvious. You might pick up on glances, smiles, frowns, rolling of eyes, and other facial expressions. You read their body language and that of others interacting with them.

Perhaps you decide to strike up a conversation with one or two who look interesting. You find out about their personality and attitudes through their words, tone of voice, inflection, facial expressions, body language, and the topics they jump on and others they avoid. Then, if they interest you, you might start asking them or others about their job or personal situation and get filled in on a few details – colored of course by the attitudes and biases of the speaker. Maybe you hear a bit of gossip here and there.

That’s the best way to introduce your characters in your fiction, too. Not as the author intruding to present us with a pile of character history (backstory) in a lump, but as the characters interacting with each other, with questions and answers, allusions to past issues and secrets. Even having your character thinking about what they’ve been through isn’t that compelling, so keep it to small chunks at a time, and be sure to have some emotions involved with the reminiscing – regret, worry, guilt, etc.

So rather than stopping to give us the low-down on each character as he comes on the scene, just start with him interacting, and let tidbits of info about him come out little by little, like in real life. Let the readers be active participants, drawing their own conclusions, based on how the characters are acting and interacting.   

Reveal juicy details, little by little, to tantalize readers.

And don’t forget, the most interesting characters have secrets, and readers love juicy gossip and intrigue! Just drop little hints here and there – don’t spill too much at any one time. Give us an intriguing character in action, then reveal him little by little, layer by layer, just like in real life!

Readers and authors, do you have any observations or advice to offer on dealing with character backstory in fiction?

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller, as well as two clickable time-saving e-resources, Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. She has also organized two anthologies for charity, incl. Childhood Regained – Stories of Hope for Asian Child Workers. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, at her Amazon Author Page, and on Facebook and Twitter.