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By Roger Paulding

Start with action. Start with your main character. Your main character is on the verge of change, a momentous change in his life. Do not let setting and backstory overpower the beginning of the story. Do not give a weather report. Do not start with a travelogue. Do not describe a city. Do not start with your character waking up a vampire, or waking up for any reason, or dreaming.

Start with a sentence which indicates something life-changing is about to occur. A sentence like one of these:

  • It was a cigarette burn. (Jane Harley Kozak)
  • It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. (Charles Dickens)
  • There was death at its beginning as there would be death again at its end. (Nicholas Evans)
    [Would have been even better if the writers had ditched the word it.]

If a reader picks up your book in the bookstore, the first paragraph must hook him or her. You must follow through with a very good scene that goes on for at least four pages and ends with a hook that will make the reader eager to get into the second chapter. You cannot do this with a paragraph or two about someone, followed with a paragraph or two about someone else, ad nauseam. Tom Clancy does it, but he owns the market on that and you should not attempt it until you have written about five hundred thousand words. You may think you are doing it like Clancy, but you are not.

If you are already a name brand writer, you can ignore all the rules. In the meantime, if you do not follow this code, the agent or editor will not read past your first page.

Do not interrupt action with backstory (not ever, but certainly not in the first pages of your story). Keep with the progression of the story. Keep the timeline straight. Once you bring in the character’s history, you are only going to confuse the reader. A confused reader quickly moves to another book, probably one of the name brand writers he can count on.

Do not explain too much. If you pose a problem and solve it in the next paragraph, you bore the reader. What you want to do is raise many questions in the readers mind. These questions cannot be the result of confusion. They must be because the reader is eager to learn more about your character, what is happening to him or her, why the character behaves as she does. The reader must want to continue to find out. It is okay if these questions are not answered until the end of the story, yes, the end of the story. Not the end of the chapter.

Some, but not too much introspection on part of characters is advisable. Do not switch back and forth with points of view until you are an accomplished writer. Action will dominate the opening. Dialogue is appropriate but do not bring too many people on stage. Three or four names is the most the reader can handle in the beginning. If you introduce 12 people in the beginning, you are asking the reader to remember too much.

The main character is motivated toward a goal (reader must understand what that goal is), but obstacles arise which the character must overcome. Negative energy is important. Your villain does not have to appear now, but there should be a hint of his/her existence. Your characters must be in contrast to each other. They cannot all be the same kind of person with different names. Contrast is what creates conflict. Conflict is your friend. The main character is heroic, strength is his main trait. He may be wounded any number of ways, even to the point of being psychotic, but he must be intriguing. He does not cry before page 200 and it must really be something worth crying over. We do not want to read about wimps. We do not buy sorrowful books, so if you have four or five deaths in the first pages, your MS will go back into the return pile. Murder is conflict. Death is not.

Story requires good focus, reader senses where it is going. It has the feel of the genre. Genre is important. It tells the bookstore on which shelf to put your book. Customers seek out genre. Literary is a genre, but no one walks in the bookstore and says, “I want to buy a literary book.” Literary does not equate with escape.

Dialog should sound natural, not too wordy, characters do not make speeches at each other. Dialog is not used to dump information. Whatever the person says, it is for the other person on the page. It is not for the writer to dump information. Do not indulge in café chatter. It may be true to life, but it is boring.

The writers voice is consistent and enthralls the reader. Active voice and active verbs are used. The reader is in the moment There is not an over use of pluperfect tense (double hads, had done, had thought).

Reader identifies with or is fascinated by the primary character. (Think Scarlett O’Hara, not a loveable person, but so driven, we want her to succeed.)

Characterization is strong. Feelings, actions, reactions are believable. Convincing motives are presented for the character’s action. Characters leap off the page and into the reader’s memory. By the end of the first chapter, the character is in deep trouble.

Adequate dramatization, good conflict. Telling where necessary, is deftly handled. Story is told in scenes. The person who drives the scene is the one with the most to lose.

Your book should have a premise. It should prove your premise. When the readers finished the last page, he must say, yes, the author has that right: true love always wins out, or true love is for suckers, marry for money if you want to be happy, or…

Getting everything you want will bring you nothing but trouble, or getting everything you want brings true happiness. The premise does not have to be true, but you have to be true to your premise. Your story must prove your premise.

You should be able to tell your story in two sentences:

(1) A tornado sends Dorothy into the magical world of Oz. Will she ever find her way back home?
(2) Unable to marry the man she truly loves, Scarlett is forced into the arms of the rogue Rhett Butler. Can she make it back to Tara, settle down with Rhett and find happiness?
(3) Slated for hanging the following morning, Richard Makepeace overpowers a priest and walks out of jail wearing his clerical robes. In his search for a life in the sunshine, will he be able to fool the public without tripping up himself? (Yes, that is my book, The Pickled Dog Caper.)