1. Create a High Concept Hook
Can you summarise the premise of your story in a short sentence? Does this sentence clearly state what the book is about? If not, you might need to work on either clarifying what the heart and soul of your premise actually is, or reworking your idea to be more ‘high concept’ and unique.
Try to incorporate character, goal, and conflict. Who is your character, what do they want, and what’s going to make it difficult for them to get it?
The main thing to remember is to be specific, not vague, and make it memorable.
For example, here’s the one sentence pitch I used for my novel, Fast Forward:
Aspiring supermodel, Kelli Crawford seems destined to marry her hotshot boyfriend, but on her twenty-fifth birthday she wakes in the future as a fifty-year-old suburban housewife married to the now middle-aged high school nerd.
From this we can tell who the character is (Kelli, a model), what she wants (her boyfriend to propose), and what her conflict is (she wakes up 50 and married to someone else).
A less memorable way of writing this could have been:
A young woman wakes up on her birthday to find that she’s middle-aged and married to someone else.
It still has some merit, but it’s not specific enough. To turn it into the high concept premise mentioned earlier, instead of just saying ‘young woman’ we point out her name, her occupation, and her age. Instead of saying ‘middle-aged’ we say fifty years old, in the future, and a housewife. And instead of saying she ‘married someone else’ we make it known that her husband is the nerd from high school who is now middle-aged. See how being specific makes a huge difference?
>>What can you do to your premise/hook to make it more specific and interesting?
2. Start Your Story at the Inciting Incident
Your story could start in several different ways, so make sure you choose the way that best showcases your story’s premise and kick-starts the plot. By the end of the first chapter your high concept hook/one line pitch should make sense, and the reader should be motivated to read on and see what happens. Don’t start with backstory and then only begin the real story in chapter three, start the story where the story starts.
Have a think about what sets off your story, what is the key action that puts your character into the situation that propels the story forward, and start there. Action and dialogue are key to starting the story with a bang. Avoid excessive narration and description.
For example, in Fast Forward, the story starts with the main character, Kelli, on the eve of her twenty-fifth birthday. We first see her enjoying everything that’s great about her life, and then she gets a rude shock when she wakes up in the future and finds that she’s doubled in age. By the end of chapter one, the story premise has begun and the conflict is unfolding.
>>What is the best, most interesting place to start your story? What action is needed to kick-start the plot?
3. Have a Punchy First Line
Not only do you need to start your story off right, you need to start with a line that shows something about the character, the goal, or the conflict. Or something that immediately sets the tone or voice of the story, catapults the character into the action, or poses a question that the reader will want to have answered.
Using the example of Fast Forward again for the sake of consistency, the first line is:
I can’t help that I’m beautiful. There, I’ve said it.
Immediately we know that Kelli is beautiful and she knows it, and is probably a bit conceited, though she sees it as just being honest. Of course, this type of character may turn some people off (and I was totally prepared for that!), but the idea is that it will be more fun when we see her get her comeuppance in the future when she’s no longer young and beautiful, and we can have a bit of a laugh at her expense. I also wanted it to contrast with the last line in the book (which I won’t reveal but has to do with beauty) to show how far she has grown as a person by the end of the story and what she has learned about what’s really important in life.
>>Write down some possible first lines for your story… how can you first introduce the character, goal, or conflict? Also, try to end the chapter with a punchy line as well so the reader wants to read on to find out what happens next. Take a look at some first lines from your book collection to get some ideas.
4. Minimise Backstory
You might feel that you have to tell the reader a whole heap of stuff about your characters and their past so they can ‘get to know them’, but you don’t. Character is mostly shown through action, behaviour, and dialogue. Backstory can be filtered in here and there in a subtle way that adds to the story rather than dragging it down.
Going overboard with backstory will slow the pace and become boring. The best thing to do is immerse your reader into the action of the story first (and by action I don’t mean shoot-outs and car chases, unless that is the type of story you are writing!). The type of action can vary depending on genre. It can be a heated conversation, a meeting between two people, an unfolding dilemma, or a funny or embarrassing situation the character finds themselves in. Focusing on some sort of action will reduce the need for backstory.
This doesn’t mean you can’t include any backstory in the beginning, just be subtle and don’t lump it in all in one go. Fast Forward begins with an argument between Kelli and her sister on the eve of her birthday. I included a small amount of backstory in the fourth paragraph to add context to their argument, but then the action resumes quickly. If you include backstory, make sure it serves a purpose that enhances the scene, and not just as a way to ‘tell’ the reader something.
>>To reduce backstory in the beginning, have a think about the absolute minimum amount and type of information needed to make the scene work. Anything extra – get rid of it, and filter in gradually as the story progresses.
5. Show Don’t Tell
Showing means using character behaviour, dialogue, and action to tell the story, as opposed to narration and description.
This doesn’t mean there can’t be any ‘telling’ in your story, some is needed here and there to balance things out and get vital information across, but showing should predominate. Showing helps the reader visualise the scene more clearly and have a more immersive experience alongside the character.
You can improve your showing versus telling by thinking visually, and also by searching for unnecessary words in your manuscript including: starting, started to, began, was, were, almost, saw, heard, and felt. These are filter words, they filter your reader’s experience rather than immersing them in it. They can still be used, but sparingly, and only when necessary.
Here is an example of telling:
I stood in front of the mirror and couldn’t believe what I saw. My belly was loose and flabby, and my breasts were droopy.
And here’s how it can be changed to better ‘show’ what’s happening (from a scene in Fast Forward):
I finally stood again at the mirror, my mouth gaping. I lowered my hands to my abdomen, lifting and prodding clumps of loose skin that felt like a bag of jelly.
What in the name of Dior happened to my flat stomach? Not only did I have a freaking jelly belly, my breasts drooped so far south they were practically residents of Antarctica.
Instead of telling the reader that the character ‘couldn’t believe it’, show them, eg: ‘my mouth gaping.’ And instead of telling the reader that her belly was loose and flabby, put some action into it, eg: ‘lifting and prodding loose clumps of skin’.
Keep these filter words handy and catch yourself out when you use them to see if there’s a better way of writing the scene. Until you get used to minimising these words, you can also just leave it until the editing process and then change them, by using the ‘find’ function on your word document.
Keep these 5 tips in mind and you’ll be well on your way to starting your story with a bang! Good luck to those doing NaNoWriMo 🙂
Like this post? Tweet it by copying & pasting any of the following into a tweet:
Writing Tips for #NaNoWriMo from author @Juliet_Madison http://bit.ly/Hd7ASB
Examples in this article taken from the book, FAST FORWARD, available from all online ebook retailers.