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Setting the Stage

Jennifer here:

Where to begin?
The beginning of your novel could take you longer to write than the whole rest of your book. That’s because there is a lot that needs to happen in the beginning of your book to hook your readers and keep them turning those pages.

The biggest problem I see with stories is that they don’t start in the right place. A great question to ask yourself is: What is the day everything changed for my hero? In a romance it’s often the day the hero and heroine meet. In a suspense it can be when the hero walks into the wrong place at the wrong time. It has to be a big enough change that the path the hero was on has taken a turn. Life as she knows it will no longer be the same.

Too many times we have way too much backstory. We do need to see the hero in her ordinary world so we can see how the change rocks her world. But don’t spend too much time there. Get us into the action right away.

First Lines
Once you know where to start the story, you have to start the story. First lines set the tone and create an expectation for your reader as to what’s going to come next. These can take longer to craft than many of your chapters. There’s more art than science to it.

Look at some of your favorite books and just read the first line. There is something unusual, ominous, funny, or any other adjective that makes you want to keep reading. As writers, our tendency is to set the stage for what’s going on. That’s not as interesting. Be interesting first, then back into setting the stage as you need to.

Meet our hero
So we know where the story needs to start. We have a fabulous set of first lines to draw our reader in. Now we need to introduce our hero to our reader. We don’t have very many words to get our reader emotionally involved in the life of our hero.

We’ve already mentioned seeing her briefly in her everyday world. But don’t waste this opportunity to show us what her deep longing is. This is ultimately what readers are going to be hoping she gets at the end of the story, and the ups and downs of the story will be measured by how close or far she is to getting the longing of her heart.

We also need to actually like her. We need something that makes her sympathetic or heroic. If readers don’t like your hero, they won’t care what happens to her. Does she read to her blind grandmother? Does she rescue puppies? Does she risk something (reputation, possessions, self) for someone else? Use these things in her ordinary world so that we like her, we’re rooting for her, and we’re as shocked as she is when her world changes.

Get your novel off to the right start and the rest will flow much more easily.

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