Write Your Novel In A Year - Week 48: 5 Elements You Need In Chapter One To Hook Your Reader

Welcome to week 48 of Anthony's series that aims to help you write a novel in a year. Read last week's post here

Goal setting
  1. Focus on polishing your first chapter.
Breaking it down

Your first chapter is the window to a showroom, beckoning us with a display of shiny new cars that promise adventure, an exquisite new dress in a shop window that hints at romance, or a candy display at a market promising the best sugar high ever.

How do you make sure you entice the reader in? How do you make that first critical chapter a moment of seduction, one the reader will never forget? In short, how do you get them hooked?

①  The first line is your last chance to grab the reader.
‘My father took one hundred and thirty-two minutes to die.’ This is the first line of Melina Marchetta’s Young Adult novel On the Jellicoe Road.  It would be hard not to read on from that first line, wouldn’t it?

I’ll make a confession. For the last few nights, I’ve stared at my opening line. I’ve rewritten it, deleted it, scratched out a previously discarded version – I’m still not happy with it.  I’m obsessed with it – you could say I want too much from it.  I want it to be perfect.  Maybe that’s not a bad thing.

There’s an exception for every rule, I know, and I think we should be aware of that. The first line should be simple – no more than 10 or 12 words. But they can be complex too, if that’s the style of your novel. It can be surprising, tense, absurd – but it should grip the reader.

The first line can be a sledgehammer breaking its way into an action-packed narrative. It can be a soft feather to tickle and entice the reader into a romance. However, you can try too hard sometimes. If you force something dramatic and the result will come across as contrived. 

In essence, I think it’s about giving the reader a way into your story – it’s about picking up a thread, opening a door for a glimpse inside and engaging the senses.
②  The world on the first page.
When we’re writing our opening scene or chapter, we’re building a bridge between the world outside of the covers of the book and the fictional wonderland within. It’s like a child’s pop-up books – but you have to build that cardboard castle with words.  You have to engage the reader’s senses, colour their imagination.

I find it’s always best to start orientating the reader sooner rather than later – in other words, point them towards north. For me, that’s about giving a sense of setting — a fantasy kingdom or downtown Miami, it doesn’t matter, let us know the frame. 

That takes care of the pictures in their mind. Next comes the style. This is where a lack of confidence as a writer will trip you up. The voice of your story must come through — from the tone to the theme, this must be the most consistent element throughout your entire novel, so it’s important to get it pitch perfect. Whether you’re using a first person narrator or a third-person viewpoint, we must trust the voice of the story.

An unforgettable character or characters.
In Kiran Desai’s Man Book Prize-winning novel, The Inheritance of Loss, we open on a cold mist-shrouded scene in the Himalayan mountains — and a house occupied by three characters: a girl waiting for her tutor, an old man waiting for his tea, and a cook waiting for a letter from his son in America.

Even though the story unfolds at a slow pace, we’re introduced to the characters that hold the story together – we identify with them, they start to come alive in our imagination. That’s all the reader wants from the opening pages.
 ④ A challenging or thought-provoking question.
One thing we tend to forget about readers is that they love to believe they’re one step ahead of the story. Paradoxically, they love to be proved wrong – they’re waiting for the trapdoor. Waiting for you, as the author, to surprise them.

What’s going to happen in this story? What is this character all about? How would I react in that situation? These are all questions that play at the corners of our minds when we’re reading. The mistake we as writers make is that we try to answer all those questions in the first chapter. Don’t.

If your reader is a fish, you should be drawing them in with a beautiful lure, not blowing them out the water with dynamite.  On the other side, you don’t want to give them just one sad worm at the end of your hook. Balance is critical. It has to be just enough.
A last page that promises more.
The last page of your chapter is not the most important page in your book – it’s not where you make the sale. It’s cocktail hour, an hors d’oeuvre, rather than the raucous party that’s waiting deeper in the book.

For this reason, and it’s a personal reason, I don’t like emphatic endings to chapter one. I prefer a little mystery, something elliptical … something that will lead me seamlessly into the next chapter. Of course, you can end chapter one with a bang but just remember you only have another five bullets left in the chamber. Use them sparingly.
Timelock — 3 to 4 hours

Spend a morning or afternoon refining your first chapter.

5 Quick Hacks
  1. Rewrite your opening line at least 10 times in 10 different ways. Experiment.
  2. Cut the first two paragraphs from your opening chapter – and see if it doesn’t read better.
  3. Describe your character in twenty words or less. Try to distil the essence of him or her into the first two pages.
  4. Lists as many of the senses you use in the first few pages of your novel on a separate piece of paper.  Group them by smell, taste, etc. Have you used enough? Too many?
  5. Cut the last two paragraphs of your chapter – could it be used to open Chapter Two?
Pin it, quote it, believe it:

‘Another word for talent is obsession.’  — Marion Dank Bauer

Look out for next week’s instalment of Write Your Novel In A Year!

 by Anthony Ehlers

If you want to learn how to write a book, join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg. 

If you enjoyed this post, read:
  1. Write Your Novel In A Year: Week 47: 3 Secrets to Successfully Submitting Your Manuscript
  2. Write Your Novel In A Year - Week 46: 3 Lessons On Theme, Character, And Plot
  3. Write Your Novel In A Year - Week 45: How To Find A Top Literary Agent

Writers Write offers the best writing courses in South Africa. Writers Write - Write to communicate.

Write Your Novel In A Year - Week 40: 3 Rules You Can Break To Start Your Story

Welcome to week 40 of Anthony's series that aims to help you write a novel in a year. Read last week's post here

Goal setting
  1. Spend an hour or so reworking the opening scene of your novel.
Breaking it down

As we wrap up work on our first drafts, it might be a good idea to look at some of the writing ‘rules’ we’re told not to violate in the opening pages of our novels – whether it’s a plot device, style, or characterisation. When do we follow the rules? When do we ignore them?

1.  Never start your novel with a prologue
Somewhere in the past ‘prologue’ became a dirty word although no one really knows why. Maybe, like any device, it was simply overused. We’re told never to use prologues if we can help it. On a recent trip to my favourite book store, I browsed through the titles on the shelf.

I can’t tell you how many started with a prologue – from bestsellers to more literary works. Maybe not all of them were explicitly marked as a ‘prologue’, but they were definitely ‘teasers’ or ‘hooks’ to rouse the curiosity of readers.

If the opening chapters of your novel are a bit slow, perhaps a prologue would work for you – almost like some bloodied chum in the water to pull the reader in. For my novel, I have a prologue – a taste of the climax or flash-forward. Whether it will survive the final draft, I don’t know.  Perhaps I need to look at making the beginning of the first chapter stronger.

I think a simple litmus test is: Does it actually help the story? Or is it window-dressing? If you feel your story can’t live without a prologue, there’s no reason why you can’t you use it to its full, if blatant, effect.
2.  Never start your novel with a description of the weather
I think this one started with the infamous line, ‘It was a dark and stormy night.’  We’re cautioned not to start with lengthy setting description, but to rather have the character or characters doing something.  However, if done right, where’s the harm in it?

I think readers like a certain amount of familiarity when they pick up a book for the first time. They don’t want something that’s going to intimidate them from the opening line. So It was raining in Paris may not be the worst place to start your book.

Just as long as you bring in some action soon after your well-crafted description of the weather.  So It was raining in Paris and the sniper on the roof of the Hotel Bertillon trained his rifle on the presidential limo below is probably a bit better.

In my prologue, I commit this ‘sin’ – the opening scene starts with a cold winter rain storm. But I think if the weather is extreme enough and suits the tone and mood of the story, this is another rule you can break. However, perhaps I’m pushing my luck here with two strikes against my opening. It may be time to re-think those first few pages.

3.  Never start your novel with your main character alone in bed
Back at that same book shop, some of the titles I picked up started with a character alone in bed or waking up. Not that many, I’ll admit, but even in the mega-successful The Hunger Games, Katniss wakes up alone on the day of the reaping.

However, I’ll concede that it's probably a lazy way to start a book – having your character in a state of inertia. It’s probably because we want to start the story on the day everything changes. But maybe skip ahead – your character is brushing his teeth, jumping in a cab, rushing to the office.

Of course you don’t have to have your character alone in bed.  You could open with a sex scene. Many would say this is another ‘cheap trick’ but if it works for your story, it can be an intriguing start. Pacific Heights by Paul Harper does this well and sets the tone for a great psycho thriller.
Timelock — 1 to 2 hours

Spend one or two hours reworking your opening pages, chapter or – wait for it – prologue.

5 Quick Hacks
  1. Rewrite the opening scene of famous novel just for fun and to get over your nerves. Try Rebecca, Lolita, Anna Karenina, or Moby Dick.
  2. Try to remove as many of the adverbs and adjectives as you can from the opening scene.
  3. Make sure the first time you introduce your character, he or she is as compelling as possible.
  4. Try to orientate the reader as quickly as possible. Who is the character you want them to focus on? Where is the story taking place?
  5. Build in some intrigue to the opening pages – don’t over explain or overplay your hand. You want the reader to be anticipating ‘what happens next?’
Pin it, quote it, believe it:

‘Beware of advice – even this!’ — Carl Sandburg

Look out for next week’s instalment of Write Your Novel In A Year!

 by Anthony Ehlers

If you want to learn how to write a book, join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg. 

If you enjoyed this post, read:
  1. Write Your Novel In A Year - Week 39: 3 Big Questions That Demand An Honest Answer
  2. Write Your Novel In A Year - Week 38: 3 Criteria For A Perfect Scene
  3. Write Your Novel In A Year - Week 37: Rules Of The Game

Writers Write offers the best writing courses in South Africa. Writers Write - Write to communicate.

Write Your Novel In A Year - Week 33: Beginnings, Backstory, And Other Bugbears

Welcome to week 33 of Anthony's series that aims to help you write a novel in a year. Read last week's post here

Goal setting
  1. Continue writing the chapters or scenes of your novel
Breaking it down

The true start and the false start
Where does your story start? What does page one look like?

As I come to the end of my draft stage and feel ready to attack my messy and chaotic manuscript, I’m looking for a way to rework my opening scene – that scene that must pull the reader in and get them hooked on the story.

I’ll admit I’ve had a few false starts. Like starting too far back from the inciting incident – taking too long to set up the world of the story. And, of course, starting too close to the moment of change – and not giving the reader enough context about what’s going on.

In a novel I’m reading, the first scene takes place as a journalist interviews a man condemned to die in the electric chair. This was a powerful scene to kick off a story – it certainly had me gripped. It made me realise that those big moments – life, death, birth – are always good places to start.

I’ve decided to start my story as close to the point of attack as possible. I’ve created a teaser that gives the reader a glimpse of what will happen just before the major climax at the end of the story.

The good news is that I’m starting in the thick of it, in the heart of the drama – in media res, as they call it. It’s an action scene and it fairly races with action and adrenalin.

The bad news is that it defies all the rules of writing. It’s a prologue – and prologues should always be avoided. It starts off with the weather – during a storm. It starts off with a character alone – another ‘no no.’

However, it seems to be working. It seems like a natural hook for the story. The violent weather, I feel, is almost like another character – an element that is commenting or hinting at the violence that is about to unfold. And the character, while he is alone, is driven by a strong goal – he is on a mission for revenge.

Sometimes you have to throw the rule book out the window and listen to your story, don’t you think?

Building your backstory
As I work on the earlier scenes in my book, I realise I haven’t addressed a lot of the backstory.

For example, when I look at when Jenna and Matt – my two lovers – met, I know that it happened four or five years ago.  

When I look at Jenna’s age, I realise that she was pretty young when she met Matt – which is either a good or a bad thing.

But the big black hole was, of course, how they met. How did they become lovers? How did the relationship evolve? And why did it hit a stalemate or stasis as the story opens?

As I wrote some backstory scenes and notes – none of which I liked, by the way – I realised two things. One – you have to know your characters’ histories down to how much money they have in their bank accounts and their favourite colour. Two – you as the writer have to know these things but the reader doesn’t have to know it.

Well, at least, not all of it. If it’s important to the story in the present, yes, you may need to introduce it through the narrative or as an isolated flashback scene – but if not, I don’t see a reason for it to be in the final manuscript.

Stories live in the ‘now’ – readers want the immediacy, the tension, the flow as if it’s unfolding in real-time. They don’t want to be hauled back into the past.
Oh those devouring fears
This last week has been challenging – both in my writing and my personal life. The one that causes me the most distress is, of course, my writing. I mean I can always pay my taxes some other time. But the fear that my talent has dried up and disappeared – that’s something that will cause you to curl up in a sorry heap.

On Saturday, I sat down to write a scene and it just didn’t come. I soldiered on and what I produced was a dry, clumsy piece of writing – more like a DIY manual than a chapter in what’s meant to be an exciting thriller.

In archaic English, a bugbear was an imaginary being invoked to frighten children, typically a sort of hobgoblin supposed to devour them. Seeing as though writers are basically children with laptops, I felt this bugbear descend on me Saturday night.

On Sunday, I cleaned bathrooms, washed dogs, and tried not to think about that awful scene. In the late afternoon, I cautiously approached it again.  I took a deep breath and attacked it and it came out a lot better. Sigh of relief! I was safe for another day.
Timelock — 2.5 to 5 hours

Spend a half hour or hour a day writing your scenes or chapter.

5 Quick Hacks
  1. Imagine your novel as a movie. What would be the scene or scenes that play over the opening credits? This could be a good place to start your novel too.
  2. Write out or roughly plan three or four possible openings – just experiment. Show these to a trusted friend or your writing group and see what feedback you get.
  3. Keep separate folders or notebooks for backstory – and consult it when you write your scenes. If there’s any opportunity to drop a piece in – then do it. You can always edit it out later.
  4. ‘When in doubt, leave it out.’ This is as good advice as any when it comes to backstory.
  5. Distract yourself when your writing isn’t going well. Clean out drawers, read, visit a friend – don’t drive yourself mad.
Pin it, quote it, believe it:

‘Backstory is like creating a “connect-the-dots” picture – you just need the dots. The reader will draw the lines.’ — Jamie Ford

Look out for next week’s instalment of Write Your Novel In A Year!

 by Anthony Ehlers

If you want to learn how to write a book, join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg. 

If you enjoyed this post, read:


      Writers Write offers the best writing courses in South Africa. Writers Write - Write to communicate.

      The 7 Critical Elements Of A Great Book

      I used to do manuscript appraisals when I taught creative writing full time. I would never have been able to do it without teaching, though, because teaching taught me how to become a critical reader. I learnt to observe, to critique, and to improve my own writing. 

      Appraising a writer’s unpublished manuscript can be difficult, but it became easier when I broke it down into what readers and publishers look for when they read. The key to making it easier was thinking about the market. What works? What sells and what doesn’t? Why doesn’t it sell? 

      My appraisals were based on the seven basic elements of good novel writing, which are:

      1. Plot 
      1. Does the novel have a plot? Without a plot it is difficult to keep a reader interested. A plot involves a protagonist with a worthy story goal. 
      2. Is this goal strong enough to sustain an 80 000-word long novel? We prefer to read about characters who have something to fight for and something to lose if they don’t. [Read The Story Goal - The Key To Creating A Solid Plot Structure]
      3. Is the plot introduced early enough? The story goal is usually set by an inciting moment that turns the protagonist's life upside down in a negative way.
      4. Is there too much backstory? Readers are not interested in the detailed biography of your character. For the most part, they do not enjoy prologues.
      5. Is there opposition for the protagonist? Conflict is created when an antagonist is introduced to stop the protagonist from achieving the goal. [Read 7 Essential Things To Remember About Very Important Characters]
      6. Does the plot make sense? If it does not, we tend to include things which seem to have no reason for being in the story. A good idea can turn into a maze of irritation if the author does not know where the story is headed.
      7. Has the author used the setting to advance the plot? Descriptions should not be static or incidental. [Read 5 Ways To Use Setting To Advance A Plot]
      2. Characters 
      1. Do I care about what happens to the protagonist and the antagonist? If a reader fails to make me care for one of these characters, I will not carry on reading the book. Why should I? C.S Lewis said that we read to know we are not alone. If I feel no connection with a character, I am alone, lost, adrift in the story. I do not have to sympathise with a character, but I need to care. [Read Make Me Care - 9 Ways To Ensure An Unforgettable Read]
      2. Are the main characters believable? If the characters seem contrived or forced, we stop reading. I think a good way of looking at it is to ask: If I met these characters on the street (even if the story is set in a different universe) would they seem real?
      3. Are their motivations believable? Give readers good reasons to buy into their story goals. For example, most of us would not ruin our lives to wreak revenge without a great reason.
      4. Is the author masquerading as the protagonist? Many first time writers want to write their own stories, but don’t want to write a memoir. They try to turn their experience into a novel. This becomes problematic because they are too close to the story and they cannot see the character objectively.
      5. Does the name suit the character? Sometimes you read a book and you feel as if the author has not thought this through. The name may be out of date or too strange for the world the character inhabits. Here are 10 Things To Consider When Naming Characters
      6. Does their body language, clothing, hairstyle suit them? Sometimes it's a good thing to suggest that a writer completes a character questionnaire so that the characters seem authentic. How a character moves, how he or she reacts with non-verbal responses show that the writer has treated the character like a real person. This cheat sheet for writing body language will help you. 
      7. Do their emotions fit? A character may be happy, sad, or infuriated. A good writer knows how to show these emotions in the things the characters say and do. This needs to be filtered into the story in a believable way. [Read 37 Ways To Write About Anger]
      8. Do the characters fit into their surroundings? Alternatively, do they fail to fit in because of who they are? [Read Wherever I Lay My Hat - How Setting Affects Your Characters]
      9. Has the author used contrived ways to describe the characters? It is off-putting if a writer describes the character in detail. For example, ‘She had blue eyes, brown hair, stained teeth, and she weighed 60 kilos.’ A good writer will let this filter through and leave some of it to the reader’s imagination. 
      3. Viewpoint
      1. Has the writer chosen a viewpoint that suits the story? Most stories are written in third person past tense. For example, ‘He cradled the baby as Freda screamed.’  Most genre novels are written in this viewpoint. Memoirs are often written in first person present tense to make the writing feel authentic and immediate. For example, 'I cradle the baby as Freda screams.' [Read 10 Ways To Tell A Story - All About Viewpoint]
      2. Has the author chosen the correct character to tell the story? This happens mostly when we choose to tell the story through the eyes of the protagonist’s friend. This often makes the story sound forced because the friend cannot know what the character is truly feeling or thinking. It distances the most important character from the reader and there is more telling than showing as a result.
      3. Has the author stayed in the viewpoint character’s head? Many beginner writers head-hop between the different characters in a scene, and confuse readers. As a rule, you should only use one viewpoint per scene. [Read 6 Simple Ways To Handle Viewpoint Changes]
      4. Has the character revealed something he or she could not have known? There has to be consistency and a sense of continuity in storytelling.
      5. If the author chooses a first person narrator, is the character strong enough to bear the weight of a 360-page book? This might seem like common sense, but it’s a tough ask for one character who has to be interesting enough not to bore a reader. The character could be compromised, which is fine if you are considering using an unreliable narrator
      6. Has the author chosen an omniscient narrator? This is so old-fashioned that it takes a truly exceptional writer to make this work. Modern readers prefer to be closer to the characters they are following in stories. 
      4. Dialogue 
      1. Is there enough dialogue in the book? I believe the book should have at least 50% of its pages filled with characters communicating. Being stuck in a character’s thought processes is agonising for long periods of time. Many beginner writers make this mistake, thinking that we will be intrigued. But it actually turns out to be the author who is stuck, trying to work through the fact that he or she does not really have a plot.
      2. Is the dialogue appropriate for the characters? Are you giving the characters the correct vocabulary and tone? Do their words suit them? [Read 10 Dialogue Errors To Avoid At All Costs]
      3. Do the characters sound too similar? This is a common problem for beginners. They use sentence structures and lengths that are the same for each character. Real people have distinct voices when they speak.
      4. Does the dialogue serve a purpose? Writers who include unnecessary conversations also have problems with plotting. All the dialogue in a book should move the plot forward, introduce conflict, or show us something about a character. [Read 10 Ways to Introduce Conflict in Dialogue]
      5. Have they included body language with dialogue? Real people do things while they’re talking. Here are some examples: 60 Things For Your Characters To Do When They Talk Or Think
      6. Are the dialogue tags good? ‘Said’ is the best tag you can use. The way characters say things and the words they choose should tell the reader how they say it. I am annoyed when characters hiss, spit, cajole, ejaculate and sputter. 
      5. Pacing 
      1. Does the pace suit the story?  Books are made up of scenes and sequels. Scenes are faster than sequels and there are more of them. They are also longer. A good writer knows how to mix these up and how to get a rhythm that works for a story.
      2. Does the pace suit the genre? Thrillers will have more scenes. Literary novels are more leisurely and they will have more sequels.
      3. Is it too fast or too slow, and if it is, can it be fixed? Read The 4 Most Important Things To Remember About Pacing for excellent tips on how to improve problems with pacing. 
      6. Style 
      1. Does the writer have a distinctive, engaging style? You can tell if a writer has this even if the grammar and spelling isn’t perfect. [Read 7 Choices That Affect A Writer's Style]
      2. Can the writer write? Sometimes there are real problems with sentence structure, punctuation, and a poor grasp of storytelling techniques.
      3. Is there too much passive voice in the story? This leads to telling instead of showing and drags a story down with it.
      4. Is the tone appropriate for the story? A sombre tone is inappropriate for a light-hearted romance and a flippant tone is unusual in literary fiction.
      5. Are the readability statistics acceptable for a novel? I work on the assumption that a good book will have an 80% readability value. Novelists need to learn how to write difficult things in the simplest way. [For more, read Why You Should Care About Readability Statistics]
      6. Does the writer have an engaging voice? The best way to find your voice and nurture your style is to write. If you are struggling, read this post for help: How do you find your writing voice? 
      7. Beginnings, Middles, Endings 
      1. Does the story start at the beginning? A beginning is a delicate thing. There should be enough action combined with a touch of description, a hint of backstory, and dialogue – if necessary. Is the hook good enough to make the reader turn the page?
      2. Is there a great inciting moment? I want to be invested in the story from the moment I pick up the book. There should be something to make me care. [Read The Importance of Inciting Moments]
      3. Am I entertained through a muddle in the middle? Is there enough suspense, tension, and conflict to keep the story going? Good writers make the middle work by setting a deadline for a character. They force the character to change, throw in secrets, surprises and even add a dangerous twist. [Read A Tense Situation - Five Tips To Help You Write A Gripping Read]
      4. Does the ending satisfy me? A great ending always completes your story arc, shows a change in your main character, and leaves the reader wanting more. [For more help, read: The Sense Of An Ending - How To End Your Book]
      5. Does it fulfil the book’s promise? Avoid surprise endings and contrived twists. Rather go back and fix the parts of the book that should have been set up properly to support the ending you want. [Read How To Write A Beginning And An Ending That Readers Will Never Forget]
      In the end... 

      If these are covered, and if they work, I find that a book delivers. The author naturally shows me the story instead of telling me what I should think or feel. I also find that a theme is revealed naturally with great plotting and good characterisation.

      If you want to critique a book, you can ask these questions and make notes. At the end you will have a better idea of why you did or did not enjoy it.

      Happy reading and writing!

      If you want to learn how to write a book, join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg.

       by Amanda Patterson. Follow her on  Facebook,  Tumblr,  Pinterest,  Google+,  LinkedIn,  and on Twitter:  @amandaonwriting

      © Amanda Patterson

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      Why Is This Day Different? Knowing When To Start Your Story

      If you’re not sure where to start your story, ask yourself: “Why is this day different for my main character?”  This is a tip I picked up from a writing mentor a few years ago and it does help you identify the best jumping off point for your story and one that will get you to the inciting moment.

      It can be a small thing…

      In Willy Russell’s classic Shirley Valentine, Shirley’s neighbour asks her to look after her bloodhound while she’s on holiday. Shirley decides to feed the dog her husband’s steak because she doesn’t want a bloodhound eating muesli. That night her husband reacts violently to not having his usual steak and this incident makes Shirley decide to go a Greek holiday and escape her life of suburban loneliness, and reclaim her own identity away from her husband and children. See how that simple act of feeding the dog becomes a catalyst for radical change?

      … or a big thing!

      In Dean Koontz’s thrilling pursuit novel, The Good Guy, Tim Carrier is enjoying his usual solitary beer at his favourite bar when he decides to talk to the stranger on the stool next to him. He soon realises that he’s been mistaken for a hired hit man and that a woman’s life is in danger — and he’s forced to elude the real hit man, find her, and protect her.  As you can see, this night at the bar is very different for Tim. It’s the night he receives his call to adventure.

      Strengths and weaknesses

      The events of the day must show your character’s strengths and weaknesses, even a bit of their moral value systems. 
      • In Shirley Valentine, we get the idea that she’s a people pleaser — looking after the dog, making her husband’s supper faithfully — but we also sense she’s got a tiny bit of her rebellious teenage years in her when she gives the dog the steak and stands up to her husband.
      • In The Good Guy , we get the sense that Tim is a loner, a man of routine and doesn’t want to get involved in anyone else’s life. We also see that he’s a man of principle and won’t let an innocent woman come to harm. He can make a decision on the spot with a clear head and doesn’t show fear. 
      Pull the rug from under them …

      Showing your character on a typical day that goes wrong gives us a clue as to who they are and what may come next. Because in the next few pages whatever sense of normality they have is about to torn apart.

      If you want to learn how to write a book, join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg. 

           by Anthony Ehlers

          If you enjoyed this post, read:


          Writers Write offers the best writing courses in South Africa. Writers Write - Write to communicate

          How To Write A Beginning And An Ending That Readers Will Never Forget

          Billy Collins, former Poet Laureate of the United States, says, ‘The first line is the DNA of the poem; the rest of the poem is constructed out of that first line. A lot of it has to do with tone because tone is the key signature for the poem.’

          The same is true for your novel. The first lines are a promise to your reader. They set the tone for your book. Will it be lyrical, crisp, caustic, humorous, or business-like? They also allow readers to create a picture of the coming story in their minds. 

          Your final sentences should resonate with that promise. They should echo the tone and the images from the beginning in some way. They should show change, woven with words, moods and senses that answer the promise.

          The exercise

          When I teach Writers Write, I always use this exercise: I ask students to pick two random characters from my character box, a setting from the setting box, and I give them a first line. I then ask them to write a beginning, using at least two of the five senses. I ask them to ground it with the objects in the setting. I suggest putting the protagonist in the picture. I then ask them to highlight the nouns and senses they have used. Then I ask them to write an ending, using some of these words.

          How does this work? 

          Example 1
          White Oleander  by Janet Fitch (1999) begins with these lines:

          "The Santa Anas blew in hot from the desert, shrivelling the last of the spring grass into whiskers of pale straw. Only the oleanders thrived, their delicate poisonous blooms, their dagger green leaves. We could not sleep in the hot dry night, my mother and I. I woke up at midnight to find her bed empty, I climbed to the roof and easily spotted her blond hair like a white flame in the light of the three-quarter moon."

          Fitch ends the book like this:

          "In the dark palm print, I could see the blurred image, but also my mother’s face shimmering on a rooftop over an unknowable city, talking to the three-quarter moon. I wanted to hear what she was saying, I wanted to smell that burnt midnight again, I wanted to feel that wind. It was a secret wanting, like a song I couldn’t stop humming, or loving someone I could never have. No matter where I went, my compass pointed west. I would always know what time it was in California."

          The lesson?  Can you see how the ‘three-quarter moon’, the ‘rooftop’, ‘midnight’, ‘my mother’ echo the beginning. The tone is sad – wistful and restless in the beginning, wistful and wiser in the end.

          Example 2
          The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (2008) begins like this:

          "When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping."

          Collins ends with:

          "Out of the corner of my eye, I see Peeta extend his hand. I look at him, unsure. ‘One more time? For the audience?’ He says. His voice isn’t angry. It’s hollow, which is worse. Already the boy with the bread is slipping away from me.
          I take his hand, holding on tightly, preparing for the cameras, and dreading the moment when I will finally have to let go."

          The lesson? Can you see the repetition of Katniss reaching out? Her fingers? His hand? The ‘cold’ in the beginning echoes with the ‘hollow’ at the end. The tone is bleak, matter of fact and loaded in the beginning; bleak, less clipped and sad at the end. 

          Why it works

          This is a powerful writing tool. It does not matter if the ending is happy or sad, if there is a resolution or not. The power is in the echo – in the images being reinforced. Even if the readers are unaware of what you have done, they will feel as if the story circle is complete. 

          As Henry Wadsworth Longfellow said, 'Great is the art of beginning, but greater is the art of ending.'

          If you want to learn how to write a book, join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg. 

           by Amanda Patterson. Follow her on  Facebook,  Tumblr,  Pinterest,  Google+,  LinkedIn,  and on Twitter:  @amandaonwriting

          © Amanda Patterson 

          If you enjoyed this post, read:


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          13 Ways To Start A Story

          Make me care! 

          If you want an audience's attention, you have to get them interested. You have to get them to care about what has happened to somebody and wonder what will happen next. If you don't, they will move on. 

          The beginning of your story must be vivid and important enough to create empathy in readers. They want riveting stories (with intriguing characters) that have negative beginnings, complicated (not boring) middles, and generally positive endings.

          Here are 13 ways to start your stories:

          1. A bolt from the blue – An otherworldly, seemingly ‘magical’ event, challenge or revelation makes carrying on with your life as it is seem impossible. Examples: Life after Life by Kate Atkinson, Harry Potter by JK Rowling, The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe by CS Lewis, A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, The Magician by Raymond E. Feist
          2. Be careful what you wish for… You are given the opportunity to do what you’ve always wanted to do. Examples: The Firm by John Grisham, Charlie and The Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl
          3. Everything is not as it seems – A fact about your past or who you really are changes your life. Examples: The Prince of Tides by Pat Conroy, Night Film by Marisha Pessl
          4. Exposed – Your darkest secret or deepest fear has been exposed. Examples: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt, The French Lieutenant’s Woman by John Fowles
          5. Help me! Someone who is worthy of assistance needs your help. Examples: To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, Erin Brokovich, The Fault in our Stars by John Green
          6. How much do you want it? – You have to face a challenge to get what you want. You may have to battle your own demons or win a battle of wits with an opponent. Examples: Candide by Voltaire, The Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris, The Old Man and The Sea by Ernest Hemingway
          7. By invitation only - You try to join an exclusive group, institution, service, club that embodies your dreams and aspirations. What will you have to do? ExamplesThe Devil Wears Prada by Lauren Weisberger, The Circle by Dave Eggers
          8. Opportunity knocks – An opportunity in the middle of a life-changing event offers you a way out. Examples: Time and Time Again by Ben Elton. Hugh, a grieving widower is giving the opportunity to go back in time to change history. The Good Luck of Right Now by Matthew Quick
          9. Rescued – You are saved but what you face afterwards may be as difficult as the situation you found yourself in. Examples: Room by Emma Donoghue, The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
          10. Soul mates - You meet someone who could change your life, but there may be many problems standing in the way, including existing relationships, distance, class barriers. Examples: Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen, Mister God, This Is Anna by Fynn, Fried Green Tomatoes at The Whistle-Stop Café by Fannie Flagg, Brokeback Mountain by Annie Proulx
          11. Standing up for what’s right – Something happens to someone you love, or to you, in your workplace, educational institution, medical institution that makes life unbearable. You have to take action. Examples: Little Lies by Liane Moriarty, Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe, Animal Farm by George Orwell
          12. Under attack – Something or someone threatens you or your loved ones. ExamplesGone Girl by Gillian Flynn, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Cry the Beloved Country by Alan Paton, The Count of Monte Cristo
          13. Stripping your identity – Removing, or threatening to remove, whatever your sense of worth, safety or well-being is based on. This could be a job, a relationship, a friendship, a sporting ability, a musical talent. Examples: White Oleander by Janet Fitch, A Man in Full by Tom Wolfe, Anybody Out There? By Marian Keyes, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

          If you want to learn how to write a book, join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg. Email news@writerswrite.co.za for more information.

             by Amanda Patterson. Follow her on  Pinterest,  Facebook,  Google+,  Tumblr  and Twitter. 

            If you enjoyed this post, read:

            © Amanda Patterson


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            5 Times When We Are Pro The Prologue

            I’ll advise you not to use a prologue 99% of the time. That said, I know there are authors who have used it and used it well, and we are pro the prologue - sometimes.

            When can you use a prologue? 

            At Writers Write we teach that you can use a prologue: 

            1. To bridge a time gap. In The Edge of Reason by Carla Norton, the prologue takes place six years before the story starts. Reeve was abducted when she twelve and held captive for four years. The prologue tells of how she escaped. The inciting moment takes place six years later when her therapist asks her to help a young girl who has had a similar experience.
            2. When it is the ending of your story. This makes the entire novel a flash back. Consider Like Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen. She uses a scene from the end of the book, but she changed a word or two.
            3. When it is written from a different viewpoint that is never used again. Think the opening sequence of Star Wars. It sets the scene. 
            4. When it is a real document. You can use a letter, a will or even a business card. In The Luxe, a historical young adult novel, Anna Godbersen starts her story with an obituary notice. Throughout the novel, she uses invitations, society columns and diary entries to weave her tale.
            5. When it is integral to the whole of the story, but is not immediately obvious. In The Wreckage by Michael Robotham we are introduce to a killer named The Courier and he is instructing someone to execute the person in the next room. No emotion. No setting. No motive. Just dialogue. My first thought was: WTF? My second thought was: I have to know what is going on.  

            A prologue should advance your story. It should take nothing away from your opening scene. There should be no other way to convey the information. Sometimes it is referred to as ‘backstory in disguise’. Make sure you absolutely need your prologue. 

            Happy writing.   

            If you want to learn how to write a book, join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg.

             by Mia Botha

            If you enjoyed this post, you will love Help! I married a writer! - Seven reasons why living with a writer may be challenging.


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              The Two Types Of Inciting Moments

              Every problem has a moment – a beginning point – where everything changes. Your world is off balance. You are acutely aware that something is different. You can feel it, taste it, see it, smell it. You can no longer ignore it, if that was your coping mechanism. In hindsight, it is easy to identify. If you were recounting the story to a friend, this is where you would begin.

              Every problem also has a solution. The solution is usually a process you have to go through to solve the crisis. To solve a problem you need to make a decision about what you are going to do next. You need a goal. Whether or not you reach your goal, or find another solution, is part of the journey.

              The stories we write are no different to the problems we face in real life. Something happens that changes your character’s life. The inciting moment in real life or fiction is about change that leads to conflict, or conflict that leads to change.

              This moment is interesting and important enough to create a response in you or your protagonist. It makes you act. 

              We don’t want you or your protagonist to wallow in victim mode, frozen in your inability to react. We don’t want you to be passive or indifferent. We want to find out how you solved the problem, what you faced, how you felt, and what you learnt about yourself.

              There are two types of inciting moments:

              Major – nothing is ever the same again: This inciting moment is external and can be immediately linked to the main plot. For example:

              1. An antagonist kidnaps your protagonist’s child.
              2. A sniper kills an important politician who is being guarded by your protagonist.
              3. A husband walks in on his wife who is having sex with another man.
              4. A man is told that he is terminally ill and has a few weeks to live.
              5. A teenage girl’s parents are killed. The killers tell her that she is really the heir to a fantasy kingdom and they plan to use her as leverage in a war.

              This type of inciting moment involves immediate major conflict, action, change and a reaction from a reasonable protagonist.

              Or we can go back a few scenes and start the stories here:

              Minor – a glimpse into the ordinary world before the change: This inciting moment can begin earlier. It is either internal or external, and shows us more about the characters. In older books and archaic storytelling, more time was given to this setting up of the protagonist’s ‘ordinary world’. If you want to go this route, make sure you keep it short and make sure it is important. For example:

              1. A protagonist almost has a car accident because she is distracted. She ends up being late to pick up her child.
              2. A bodyguard can’t sleep. He is having a crisis. His girlfriend has left him, his father is ill, and he wonders if he is still good enough to do his job.
              3. A man’s business flight is cancelled. Annoyed, the workaholic decides to go home and do some work from home. It’s closer to the airport.
              4. A man is fighting with his wife because her mother is interfering in their marriage. He walks out, late for a doctor’s appointment.
              5. A teenage girl is bullied by other children her age. She has always felt as if she does not belong and wishes that a dragon would spirit her away.

              This type of inciting moment involves a slower beginning with a minor conflict (bearing in mind this is relative to the storyline). This gives you a chance to get to know the characters, but don’t go back further than this. The major inciting moment must occur soon after this.

              Why does it matter?

              1. The inciting moment is vital because it gives your protagonist a story goal. It doesn’t matter which one you choose as long as you get to the point sooner rather than later. If you don’t, you run the risk of losing the reader. 
              2. Once the story has started, and I care about the character, I want to know what happens next. All your backstory can be woven into the rest of your story with dialogue, memories (don’t overdo these) and the occasional flashback (one per novel is plenty).
              3. Remember that the inciting moment is just the beginning. Everything should continue to change. Add conflict, suspense and action. Show how this changes your character until we reach the moment of crisis and ultimately a resolution.
              4. Did you solve your problem? Does he or she achieve his story goal? That is up to you.

              If you want to learn how to write a book, join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg. 

               by Amanda Patterson. Follow her on PinterestFacebook,  Google+,  Tumblr  and Twitter. 

              © Amanda Patterson

              If you enjoyed this post, read 

              1. Five Guaranteed Ways To Bore Your Reader 
              2. The Importance Of Inciting Moments
              3. Basic Plot Structure - The Five Plotting Moments That Matter

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              Start Here: 3 Things You Need To Do At The Beginning Of Your Novel

              Sometimes I wish a giant arrow would appear above my manuscript and pin-point the correct place to start. Alas, that does not happen.

              An inciting moment is the moment of change for your character. It can be positive or negative, but it must be big enough that it forces him, or her, to act and to deal with the situation. This can be as big as a tank driving into the living room or as subtle as a discomforting sentence.

              In your opening scene you should do three things:

              1. Orientate the reader: Get your reader orientated quickly. Tell us where we are and what is going on. You can be ambiguous, but do not confuse us. 
              2. Introduce the characters: Who is there? Introduce your protagonist as soon as possible. I want to know what is happening, but most of all I want to know to whom it is happening. 
              3. Show the relevance: Once I know where I am and what is going on you have to keep me interested. You have to make me ask questions. 

              In the The Language of Flowers, Vanessa Diffenbaugh starts off by setting her protagonist’s bed on fire. What do I learn?

              • Where are we? She is in a group home. 
              • Who is she? She has dreamt of fire for the last eight years. She has been in the foster-care system almost all her life. She is angry and violent. She knows about flowers. 
              • Moment of change: It is her 18th birthday so she must leave the home. 

              In Night Film, by Marisha Pessl, our protagonist is running in Central Park at 2am when he sees a beautiful ghost-like woman in a red coat who seems to be following him. He is deeply unhappy and he blames Cordova. What do I learn?

              • Where are we? In Central Park, New York in the early hours of the morning. 
              • Who is he? He is a journalist whose life has fallen apart because of a film director named Cordova. Immediately I want to know who Cordova is. 
              • Moment of change: He is shocked out of his apathy and inertia by this chilling Cordova-like incident. 

              Five things you should not include at the beginning:

              1. Back story: You have to weave this in as the story progresses. It is very important to know the details, but it is more important to know what to leave out and where to use it. 
              2. Flashbacks: This is basically back story. Save it for later and use it only if it is really important. 
              3. Description: Weather, long descriptive passages. 
              4. Prologues: Most of the time you do not need a prologue. It must not detract from your opening scene in any way. It can be used to bridge a time gap or if it is a document that is related to the story or if you use a viewpoint that isn’t used again. 
              5. Whatever you do don’t start at the beginning. 

              For more examples of inciting moments and information on why you need backstory read my post from last week: The Character Biography

              If you want to learn how to write a book, join our Writers Write course in Johannesburg. 

               by Mia Botha

              If you enjoyed this post, read these:


              Writers Write offers the best writing courses in South Africa. Writers Write - Write to communicate