“In the Beginning” Part One–Normal World

 

Anyone in publishing will tell you that one of the most important parts of your novel is the beginning. As an editor I hear, “Oh, but wait until you get to the good part on page 50. This is all the lead up.” Um, no. Doesn’t work that way. You might have a humdinger on page 50, but you are competing against authors who hook readers in the first 1-10 pages.

Many agents freely confess that they can tell by page five if they will even bother reading the entire sample submitted. I know. Nothing has changed. I spoke at the DFW Writers Workshop Conference this past weekend and sat through the Agent Q & A. Agents have a lot on their plate, so they are looking for a reason to put a story down. Why?

Because agents are out to get you. They are really psychic vampires who feast on the crushed dreams of writers. Muah ha ha ha! Kidding!

To be blunt, agents love great writing. They also want to be good at what they do and make at least a living doing it (like the rest of us :D). How do they do this? By helping writers sell a lot of books. They understand that a novel’s beginning is the “hook” that will make or break a novel when it comes to readers. Agents want writers to succeed, and they know that excellent beginnings are vital to selling many, many books.

I actually believe that, as e-readers become more popular that beginnings will become more important than ever. I know that I frequently download free samples. I figure if a writer can interest me (sell me) in 3 pages, then I will read 5. If she can hook me in 5 I will read the free 30 pages. If I make it through 30, then this writer deserves my money and my time. But, remember, she had to make it past 3. Good writers do their homework and know what goes into a great beginning. I recommend studying great beginnings so you know what they look like.

So what makes a great beginning? Glad you asked. There are a lot of components that can go into a great beginning, but I am only going to discuss one of those components today—normal world. I believe if you can understand why normal world is important, the functions it serves, then you will be less eager to cut it out completely.

Normal world is vital. It is easy to feel the pressure to be interesting and begin our books with a car chase or a shoot-out.

**Hey, there isn’t a mistake I haven’t made as a writer or seen as an editor. Lighten up. It’s okay to goof up and live to laugh about it. The important thing is to learn and do better.

We as writers are so eager to be interesting in the first three lines, that we can easily forget an essential component to fiction…the normal world. Not wanting to bore readers, we toss them in a tank of sharks and grin—That’ll hook ‘em for sure.

The problem with that thinking? When we thrust a reader right into the heart of the action immediately, they haven’t been given a chance to care about or connect with any of our characters. Thus, what can easily happen is that we end up creating melodrama instead of drama. That is a bad situation, not conflict. What is the difference? Read last Monday’s post .

My favorite example of a story that desperately needed normal world is the movie The Crazies. The inhabitants of a small Iowa town are plagued by insanity then death after a mysterious toxin contaminates their water supply (via IMDb). This plot idea had the potential to be an excellent movie (I know it was a remake, but haven’t seen the earlier version). I feel this movie would have made it to a whole other cinematic level had the director made one vital change. I wish he would have kept us in normal world longer. Why?

We didn’t get a chance to meet and connect with any of the people who lost their minds and essentially became zombies that the protagonist had to put down like rabid dogs. The director had a great opportunity to create some real drama…but he missed it. He got too focused on zombies and forgot that the true drama came from the main character being forced to kill people he’d known and cared about his entire life…but we the audience didn’t really care. Oh, granted, we cared on a superficial level, but we hadn’t spent any real time with these characters, so when they died it didn’t make us emotional.

The director didn’t have to take long in normal world, either. Star Wars proves that. Who didn’t cry when Skywalker’s family was found dead? But we saw a scene with the aunt and uncle alive and well and they were nice people who we kind of liked…and it moved us to see them butchered. So keeping these movies in mind….

1. Normal world lays the foundation for genuine drama.

Les Edgerton, in his book Hooked explores this problem in detail if you would like to read more, but to keep it short and sweet I’m going to explain it this way. Most of us have driven down a highway at around rush hour, so picture this scenario. We notice emergency lights ahead.  The oncoming traffic lane is shut down and looks like a debris field. Two mangled cars lay in ruins, and there are still figures draped with blue blankets surrounded by somber EMTs. Do you feel badly? Unless you’re a sociopath, of course you do.

Now…

You look into that same oncoming lane, and one of the cars you recognize. It belongs to the nice family you chatted with in line at Wal Mart when you had to wait 40 minutes in the customer service line. You even helped the dad load groceries and put away their cart so the mom could buckle in their babies. You had to stop for gas, but 30 minutes ago that family was alive and well and now the coroner’s van is showing on the scene.

Before you cared…now you are connected.

That is how good characterization makes the difference. If we open our story with this gut-wrenching scene in a hospital where someone is dying, we are taking a risk. Readers will certainly care on a human level, but not on the visceral level that makes them have to close the book and get tissue.

Whether in books or on film, this is why normal world is critical. It gives the observer a chance to see the world as it would have remained had the inciting incident never happened. Would Luke Skywalker have been nearly as interesting if his aunt and uncle hadn’t been killed? And since we as the viewing audience were afforded a glimpse of Skywalker’s loved ones at the beginning of the movie, it had more impact on us when they were brutally murdered. It also helped rally us to Skywalker’s side as he set off on his journey.

2. Normal world gives the audience a baseline for character.  

By understanding how our hero is at the beginning, we also get a picture of what must be developed by the climax so our hero can be victorious. In the beginning of Romancing the Stone Joan Wilder is a single older woman who lives alone with her cat and writes about love and adventure because she has neither…and she is too afraid to pursue them.

Because we see normal world, we then recognize the inciting incident when we see it—the phone call from sister who has been kidnapped. Additionally, because we have witnessed this fraidy-cat writer, we observers are now seated in real conflict as we wonder—How on earth is she going to pull this off? We have seen this woman who is afraid of everything and wonder HOW she will develop the courage she will need to triumph. We are…hooked.

Joan’s life from the moment she receives the call from her sister will no longer be the same. A series of events have been set in motion and conflicts must be resolved to restore the natural order of things. But, since we are storytellers, we know that we must leave the world better than when we found it. Joan, at the end of her quest, must have love and courage to live the life of adventure she only could dream about in the beginning, which leads to my next point…

Normal world gives us an opportunity to see the character’s starting point on his or her arc. Joan at the beginning was afraid of her own shadow. Joan at the end has been tested and tried by bad guys, jungles, snakes, and alligators, and has come out victorious. She as a person had to change in order to triumph. Your protagonist, if pitted against the antagonist in the opening scene (for one reason or another) should FAIL. Why? Because then victory at the end is far sweeter.

3. Normal world also allows the reader to see what is at stake.

In The Fellowship of the Ring the story begins with the Hobbits. The wizard Gandalf the Grey is riding into town for a visit with fireworks in tow. There is a reason for these initial scenes of carefree laughter on a beautiful summer day. We as the audience get to see what is to be lost should our heroes fail.

In the beginning we witness a lush green world that is lovely and innocent…but in danger. We are told in the prologue that the Ring of Power was not destroyed. Thus the Ring represents an invisible, but ever-present threat. But, because we witnessed this world in an almost perfected state, it is more psychologically disturbing to us as the darkness grows. As the tale unfolds and Sauron grows stronger, we see progressively that the days literally grow darker and darker, the shadows deepen, and no one smiles or laughs any more.

At the end of the trilogy, in Return of the King we get to the ending scenes and see that the world of innocence and joy have been saved, but we see it has come at a price. The little Hobbits who were so naïve and bedazzled by the dreams of adventure are now war veterans, home from a journey that no one in the Shire will ever fully comprehend.

We see them sitting quiet at the table. We hear the unspoken words between them because we witnessed the darkness they faced and defeated. We, the audience comprehend the price they paid so the world could remain innocent. Yet, we know it was all worth it in that, unlike the beginning, the Ring will never threaten this world again. The world is restored…only better.

Points to remember:

1. Normal world lays the foundation for genuine drama—we have to get to know the characters in order to care and be vested in them.

2. Normal world gives us a character baseline—we need an initial glimpse to see how our hero is not in a position to succeed in the beginning. This creates genuine conflict in that we want to read the story to figure out how that protagonist could ever take down the antagonist. For a deeper understanding of HOW to do this, I recommend Bob Mayer’s on-line character workshop that starts this week, so sign up now for $20.

3. Normal world lets us see what is at stake—We need to see what could be lost. We also need to see what the hero may be clinging to that is keeping him from answering the call to adventure. The inciting incident must pry away something meaningful (Joan Wilder and security) or offer blessed escape (Harry Potter—escape from abuse).

What are some of the great beginnings either in film or in books? How did they hook you and why? Can you think of reasons a film or book didn’t grab your attention? What beginnings would you recommend we study and why?

I love hearing from you. And to prove it, I am going to sweeten last month’s deal and draw every week from the list of names. What do you win? My critique of the first five pages of your novel. At the end of the month, I will draw for the winner of the big prize. A critique of your first 15 pages. That give FIVE of you guys an opportunity to see if your work will hook an agent.

Names? What? Kristen, what are you talking about? Here is how you can win for those who don’t know. 

Everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention WANA in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly. February’s winner will be announced on this Friday’s blog.

Happy writing!

Until next time…

In the meantime, if you don’t already own a copy, my best-selling book We Are Not Alone–The Writers Guide to Social Media is recommended by literary agents and endorsed by NY Times best-selling authors. My method is free, fast, simple and leaves time to write more books.

Also, I highly recommend the Write It Forward Workshops. My workshop about building brand starts this week Sign up….like, NOW. Build your brand the right way. Also, as I mentioned earlier, NY Times Best-Selling Author Bob Mayer is teaching on character, too. Great stuff for the month of March. For $20 a workshop, you can change your destiny….all from the comfort of home.

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  1. #1 by Callene Rapp on February 28, 2011 - 1:03 pm

    Another awesome post. I just signed up for both the Brand and Character workshops. The character one should come in really handy right now, LOL! And maybe I might actually be able to figure out how Twitter works…I still picture myself being the guy in the commercial embarrassing his kids by tweeting that he’s “sitting on the patio”!

    Thanks again!

    Callene

  2. #2 by kat yeh on February 28, 2011 - 1:34 pm

    Thanks for this piece. This is actually something that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. It’s so easy to get caught up in trying to Hook a reader that we forget the best hooks have a line attached to them. Something to hold on to. Also, great contest! Thanks!

  3. #3 by Albert Berg on February 28, 2011 - 1:39 pm

    I am so confused. I recently had the first 500 words of one of my stories reviewed by someone who I thought knew what they were talking about, and they told me that I needed to cut out some of the setting stuff and jump into the conflict. It sounded like good advice at the time, but now what you’re saying makes sense too.
    I don’t want to ramble on and bore people in my opening, but I understand what you’re saying about making people care before you throw them into the conflict. The problem is, I don’t know how to do both.
    HALP! My brain is melting!

    • #4 by Author Kristen Lamb on February 28, 2011 - 2:21 pm

      It IS hard. If everyone could do this then everyone would be award-winning/best-selling authors. You partially answered your own question. Setting is not a hook. We care about characters, not places. Characters must come first. In “Winter’s Bone” by Daniel Woodrell, we are introduced to protagonist Ree Dolly in the first line:

      “Ree Dolly stood at the break of day on her cold front steps and smelled coming flurries and saw meat.”

      In one sentence, I want to know more. Why is she up at the break of day? People usually only get up that early for two reasons…hard work or a crisis.

      Ree smells coming flurries. There is a storm coming. She sees meat. I don’t walk out on my front porch and see anything other than a garden that needs to be cleaned out. Where is Ree that she sees meat, and why is it relevant enough to mention? Is she starving? She has a home (she has a porch) but she doesn’t have food?

      A page in we get the line, “She stood tall in combat boots, scarce at the waist but plenty through the arms and shoulders, a body meant for loping after needs.” She is thin in the waist. She is going hungry. But she has muscular arms and shoulders, which means she does heavy work. She stands tall. She is steadfast. She wears combat boots. The choice of footwear and the words “a body meant for loping after needs” hints at the problem that we know will be coming soon just from a handful of sentences. We don’t yet know the nature of the problem, but we feel it like Ree feels the coming snow.

      A page later Jessup Dolly (father) is mentioned. “He had not sent foot by nor money, but promised he’d be back soon as he could with a paper sack of cash and a trunkload of delights.” In ONE sentence we know her father 1) doesn’t take care of his family 2) has likely abandoned them 3) we get a feeling his is a shady man who isn’t coming back. Either he took off for good or he is dead. Either way, we are smart enough to know this is a real problem for Ree.

      Oh, but wait. The next page, we realize Ree has at least one small brother. He pokes his head out wondering if the neighbors (distant relatives) will let them have some of the deer meat (the same meat Ree has been staring at). This confirms our suspicions that Ree is facing starvation, and she isn’t alone. We see stakes. We also see family that is 50 yards away but not helping family facing starvation. Why?

      The next page, we meet Ree’s other little brother and we’re also introduced to Ree’s mother. Mom has lost her mind. The stakes escalate. Now Ree, two boys and a mentally deficient woman face starvation. We know it has something to do with Dad being gone. But starvation and suffering is normal for Ree. Through the book we see this isn’t the first time this has happened. Even though we haven’t yet gotten to the official “inciting incident” we see a hint of the problem (something with dad) and the stakes (a family will starve). Also because the elements are mentioned (snow) we worry if they will be thrown out in the snow.

      In the next few pages, we see Ree splitting wood for the stove while listening to her tapes of beach noises. That one action tells us she longs to escape, but she is trapped. She is too loyal to abandon the family like her father. We root for her. We are bracing for a problem we feel coming…and it does in the first ten pages.

      Ree sees headlights and hopes it is her father. It isn’t. It is the inciting incident in the form of the local sheriff. Sheriff has bad news. Dad has not shown up to court. He put up the house and all the surrounding land for his bond. Dad has a week to show or Ree, her mom and two little brothers will be homeless. The sheriff’s attitude toward Ree also shows the reader that her father not only has had run-ins with the law, but also that Ree can expect no help from law enforcement when it comes to saving their house.

      We also find out that if she is seen talking too long to a cop, it could mean her life (even HIGHER stakes–food, shelter, life). So we get a sense that there is a bigger criminal element at work, and Ree is in danger no matter what she does or who she talks to. Ree can’t rely on family, nor can she rely on the authorities to help. She must brave this alone. But, we knew she would because, “she stood tall in combat boots.”

      Normal world gives us a peek in to Ree’s life. We love her because she loves her family. She works hard and sets aside her own happiness. This is normal for her. Dad isn’t around and she fills his role as protector. Will she rise to action to defend her family against losing everything? Ree must find her father before they lose the house and land. Their life was already brutish, but it is about to get a hell of a lot worse.

      The author accomplishes ALL of this in TEN pages. “Winter’s Bone” is a great book to study for a masterful beginning. Woodrell connects us to Ree in 5 sentences. He uses setting to enhance character, not merely give a weather report and set a stage.

      I highly recommend you guys take Bob’s on-line classes. This stuff IS hard, but great teachers like Bob go out of their way to offer ways to learn. Did this example help?

      • #5 by dtrasler on February 28, 2011 - 5:43 pm

        This comment is a masterclass in it’s own right. Thanks, Kristen!

  4. #6 by Julia Broadbooks on February 28, 2011 - 2:00 pm

    I have always loved that opening scene in Romancing the Stone. I just feel for Joan who has such an amazing imagination and such a small and limiting real life. I’d never really thought of it that way before, but seeing that little bit of her life at the beginning, really does make her adventures and eventual triumph all the more exciting.

  5. #7 by Jean on February 28, 2011 - 2:21 pm

    Love your hobbit analogy. So very true. 🙂 It’s like starting an epic fantasy with the main character standing in the middle of a battlefield, bodies all around him. (Or her if you prefer.) We don’t know this character or why the battle happened so, like you said, there’s no connection.

    Thing is, I don’t know how many times I’ve been told to “drop ’em in the middle of the action” or “hook the reader with the first sentence.” *Sigh*

    • #8 by Author Kristen Lamb on February 28, 2011 - 2:30 pm

      Read my comment to Albert. I give an example.

    • #9 by virginiaripple on March 2, 2011 - 10:15 pm

      My favorite is “throw ’em outta the plane, then tell ’em how they got there.” Funny how none of my fav books do that.

  6. #10 by Charles Warren on February 28, 2011 - 2:31 pm

    Great post. Thanks. I agree, the hook has to be caring about the protagonist. Also, if we begin with a really high action scene then whatever comes next is a disappointment. The action should escalate, not diminish.

  7. #11 by Lisa Ullrich on February 28, 2011 - 2:39 pm

    I have to admit…I don’t recall the beginning of Romancing the Stone. I was probably 10 years old and might have to watch it again! LOL

    I’ve been reading “Writing Fiction for Dummies” by Paul Economy and he emphasizes the need to create an emotional response with your reader. I think this falls in line with exactly what you’re saying in this post. And, it’s true. Isn’t that why soap operas (daytime and nighttime) are so popular? We feel connected to the characters, almost like we are friends.

    I read more non-fiction than fiction. Non-fiction seems to be easier to catch the readers attention because it is already something of interest.

    From the fiction books I’ve read, “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” did not hook me until Ch. 2. I almost didn’t continue reading after Ch. 1. There was way too much information thrown at me all at once that I couldn’t even keep track of it and felt overwhelmingly lost. Eat Pray Love didn’t hook me at all. It did sorta create an emotional response and I felt for the character, but it was a hard read with the Italian language thrown in throughout the book. I don’t speak Italian and I found it to be distracting.

    • #12 by Marilag Lubag on March 1, 2011 - 6:07 am

      The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo didn’t hook me until around the ending when they’re having all these problems.

  8. #13 by Tamara LeBlanc on February 28, 2011 - 3:03 pm

    Excellent!
    I got a lot out of this post Kristen. The example of the family at Wal-Mart was inspired. Mentioning Joan Wilder and The Hobbits hit the message home! Hooking a reader is incredibly important, and your reply to a commentor above, the one where you mentioned Ree and her struggel, really showed me what you’re talking about.
    I know that to craft a compelling opening, I must make the reader care for my character right off the bat. Showing them in their ordinary world is a good way to do that, but as your commentor mentioned, there are varying schools of thought in regard to this. I attend RWA conferences every year. I sit in on editor /agent pannels, attend the classes. And every so often I’m taught conflicting ideas. It’s a little maddening. “Dump your hero/heroine into action,” “NO, give us a glimpse of their normal existence first. Grrrr.
    What helps though, is that I know ed/ag are human. They each see things differently. Hell, J.K. Rowling was rejected many times before someone saw something in her writing. And I assume that anyone who writes knows about Steven Kings rejection riddled climb to fame.
    I guess what I’m getting at is that not everyone is going to love what we write. In fact, some might even toss our manuscript over their shoulder after reading the first page, but if we do our best, take into consideration ALL that we’ve learned and use that knowledge wisely, talent, and some luck might earn us a contract. And, I do think that there is some luck involved here. If we happen to send a manuscript to an ed/agent who is not only looking for that kind of story, but is also drawn in by our character’s and loves our voice, then BooYaa, they will take a chance on it. A lot of factors are involved. So i try not to beat myself up when I get a rejection. Sure it hurts, but after eating an entire container of Double Stuff Oreos, and guzzling some red wine, I realize that my work is subjective. Some will like it, some won’t. But reading and utilizing blog posts such as this might tip the scales toward the latter:)
    Another great post!
    I’m signed up for Bob Mayer’s class on character and I can’t wait for it to start. Thanks for the link.
    Have a fabulous day!
    Tamara

    • #14 by Author Kristen Lamb on February 28, 2011 - 3:07 pm

      Thanks for the great comment. Yes, great beginnings are all very different and there is no simple formula. That’s why it is a good idea to read books that hook from the get-go, then pull it apart to understand WHY? What did the author do that gut-hooked you and can you duplicate that effect in YOUR work? Look at the best-seller list and go study every one of them…their FIRST chapters. What did they do?

      Glad you signed up. Bob is a great teacher.

  9. #15 by Patti Mallett on February 28, 2011 - 3:52 pm

    Thanks for the, once again, Super Blog, Kristen!! The “reply” to Albert, concerning Ree, is fabulous! Wow! It’s “two fer” this week. Thanks! You have shed light on the problem each of us face as we hope to grab readers, while at the same time, showing them enough of our character for them to begin to care and want to know more from Page 1. A daunting task, indeed! A Young Adult book that I am having trouble putting down, which did just that, is “The Last Summer of the Death Warriors” by Francisco X. Stork. (Isn’t the X. a great addition to a name?) This is a book I will be studying for it’s Perfection in Balance & Amazing Characterization!

    • #16 by dtrasler on February 28, 2011 - 6:30 pm

      Patti,
      The “X” reminds me of Terry Pratchett’s character Agnes Nitt, who changed her name to “Perdita X Dream, where X stood for someone with a cool and mysterious middle initial”.

      • #17 by Patti Mallett on February 28, 2011 - 11:50 pm

        So, dtrasler, what do you think of Patti X. Mallett? My name is kind of a tongue twister and I’d actually like to write under the name of Mimi Mallette, but it looks like I’d have to change all my Social Media sites. Mimi X. Mallette? I love Perdita X Dream, but I guess that’s been taken. Bummer. (I’m going to check that character and story out. Thanks!)

  10. #18 by Gigi Salem on February 28, 2011 - 4:04 pm

    I just realized something a tad horrifying. I am Joan Wilder. I was sitting here, reading your lovely blog, when the lightning bolt hit me. Realizing that makes me also realize that a lot of your blog posts, while educational for writers, are also very applicable to real REAL world situations as well. You are a very dangerous woman!

  11. #19 by Suzanna on February 28, 2011 - 4:16 pm

    Really great post, as always. I’m Suzanna Linton. I enjoyed this post and I can’t wait to see what other advice you have tucked up your sleeve!

  12. #20 by Margaret McGriff on February 28, 2011 - 4:30 pm

    Awesome post as usual!! I received a critique of WIP from my writing partners where they told me I started off with the inciting event and essential made my main character way too awesome from the top. I didn’t give her the opportunity to grow into the hero that she needed to be. So I took a step back and began to gradually build the normal world and it came out a lot better!

  13. #21 by jesswords10 on February 28, 2011 - 4:44 pm

    Again great timing in your post as I finish editing my first page of my story to see if I can hook the reader. I was battling with exactly this issue, what gives you the relationship and the love between two characters and also tells you that danger is around the corner. Thank you for posting this. It will be rolling along the gears in my head as I edit my work tonight.

    P.S. Romancing the Stone is an amazing film! I gasped in enthusiasm when I clicked on your post and saw Kathleen Turner staring back at me. Yay!

  14. #22 by Bob Mayer on February 28, 2011 - 4:46 pm

    Beginnings are more important than ever, given the look inside the book feature at Amazon. Readers can check out a sample of your book and it’s the opening.

  15. #23 by educlaytion on February 28, 2011 - 5:46 pm

    Okay, you’ve officially just given me a Twilight Zone type moment. While reading the first few paragraphs here I instantly thought of a perfect example of what you were talking about, a movie I just watched Saturday night for the first time. The Crazies!

    I thought I was seeing things when you jumped to that example of all the books and movies in the world. You’re right. It’s frustrating as a movie goer when things are happening to people and you don’t remember who they are. Same thing with novels.

    And yippee for you and the Romancing The Stone pic. “Cartegena…”

  16. #24 by K.B. Owen on February 28, 2011 - 6:56 pm

    Thanks for another cool blog – I love the reference to Romancing the Stone. I still remember how, in the movie, the romance author would shed buckets of tears over the pathos of her own story, while at first we’re thinking it’s a cat allergy or something.🙂

    I feel reassured by what you say about starting with a sense of normalcy – it just felt right to do it that way when I was writing my novel (without knowing why, until now), but I was second-guessing myself. To hear other people talk, it’s supposed to start – BAM! Penelope Pit-stop tied to the railroad tracks with the train 50 yards away (“Hay-elp! Hay-elp!”).

    What still puzzles me is the “hook” – specifically, how soon it needs to be introduced. How much normalcy takes place before it isn’t normal anymore, and the antagonist/proxy starts messing with things? Should it be in those first 3 pages, or is more time needed to get the reader involved in that peaceful world?

    Thanks, Kristen – can’t wait until Friday’s blog to see the results!

  17. #25 by Alannah Murphy on February 28, 2011 - 7:02 pm

    I love this post, you are so right. You need to care about the characters before something happens to them. Your Luke Skywalker example is spot on, not only do you feel connected, you feel for him, and you care about what happens next, and then, when you find out it’s Darth Vader who is to blame, and the simple “good vs evil” is there but it has plenty of layers, which go deeper and deeper. A good book is like that, it must have layers you can peel and discover more and I’ll even say that a good character must also have plenty of layers so they do not end up one-dimensional.

    By the way, I understand how agents think, I too, read only the first few lines of a book if I am in a bookstore, if those first paragraphs do not grab me in any way, then I do not see the point in reading more.

  18. #26 by Amanda Hoving on February 28, 2011 - 7:10 pm

    So glad to hear that agents aren’t really “psychic vampires who feast on the crushed dreams of writers.” Because, that makes me feel much better.

    Great post — I like to equate the “normalcy” with “familiarity.” There has to be some kind of connection to what is happening in the story, whether it’s fantasy or historical fiction.

  19. #27 by Manon Eileen on February 28, 2011 - 7:34 pm

    Thanks for another great post, Kristen… As always, it’s as useful as can be🙂

  20. #28 by Christine Ashworth on February 28, 2011 - 8:23 pm

    Fabulous post, as always! My issue is just how long I keep my characters in the normal world. When it feels right, I’m told it’s not long enough – when I rewrite, I go the other way and make it too long. Getting the right amount of normal world, for me, is tough!

  21. #29 by Julia Rachel Barrett on February 28, 2011 - 8:33 pm

    New here, so it’s with great trepidation that I post…Hooked me from opening scene until the very last second – Winter’s Bone – what an amazing film. When I saw it, every other great film from 2010 flew out of my head.
    Books – most recently – Replay, by Ken Grimwood. Could not put it down.
    I find I have less patience than I used to. I now sample works on my husband’s Kindle. Why waste my money? If I don’t like the sample, I’m unlikely to enjoy the book. I’m no longer willing to give a book…say even 50 pages to hook me, let alone a few hundred. If a book isn’t available on Kindle, I use the ‘look inside’ function on Amazon.
    When I write, I keep in mind not only the attention span of the reader, but my own sensibility – I must care. I must make the reader care.
    This is why I disliked Inception – am I the only one? I watched for thirty minutes and didn’t give a sh#t about any of the characters. Zero connection. Thus the movie failed me.
    Great post!

  22. #30 by amblerangel on February 28, 2011 - 9:13 pm

    Kristen- I’m a blogger with a goal to tell the “Story” for my kids of our move overseas since I never bothered with baby books. Maybe they won’t notice now. My writing is not necessarily leading to a book, however, I discovered your blog, and read it religiously because I do want to write a good blog. My point is, I’ve learned so much from you, on social media, on writing, on publishing, and I’ve passed your site on to so many others who are looking to write books who dismiss blogging, Twitter and Facebook as teenage forms of communication. I’ve ordered your book and am looking forward to your next one. Proof your formula works!

  23. #31 by Gene Lempp on February 28, 2011 - 9:16 pm

    Great post Kristen. So many seem to be pushing “in media res” openings, yet, as you pointed out, while a small collection of characters are in danger, does a reader or viewer really care whom lives and whom dies at that point. This honestly helps me make some choices with the beginning I have been struggling with. My heart was saying normal flowing to action and now I think I’ll be taking that approach and avoiding the 10 car pileup on the highway. Thanks.

  24. #32 by Ann Best on February 28, 2011 - 9:16 pm

    Posts such as yours are worth the time it takes to read and ponder them. I’m going to backtrack and read earlier ones. As for this one, I’ve “borrowed” one of your subtitles, “Normal world is vital” for the post I just published on my blog. I also quoted a few of your sentences and then used them to reflect on the beginning of my memoir that’s soon to be published. I think I did set up a “normal” world, although when I wrote the first three pages I didn’t know I was doing this. I also posted a link back to this post. I hope at least some of my followers who don’t know you come over!

    • #33 by Author Kristen Lamb on March 1, 2011 - 1:20 pm

      Thanks Ann. I appreciate it. Good luck with your memoir.

  25. #34 by Amber Dover on February 28, 2011 - 9:19 pm

    Hi Kristen, I’ve been reading your posts for awhile and I love them. I am working on my first book and it is also the first book of a series. Everything you’re saying just sounds natural….I mean naturally when we meet a rl person we want to know who they are and what they do. Well, I think book characters are the same…..we get introduced to them and if they are interesting enough we will be their friend and stay with them on their journey. So book connections are very real world too and I think if we wrote more naturally we would not fall in to so many pits🙂 I don’t want the first pages of my book to give readers a heart attack from immediate action-packed craziness and I don’t want their brains to melt because it sounds like a dictionary lol.

    One of the readers asked about hooks. I don’t know if this is a right answer because I’m not a best seller. But what worked for me was using the prologue as a hook. I just made it obvious that the town was in drought and hardship but an awakening was coming (this is a inspirational fantasy). So it’s clear something big is about to happen but the reader isn’t thrown into the action at the beginning. Then I go into the first chapter with the daily life of the main character with bits of info in the conversations showing a bit of the past and hope for a new future. At the end of the chapter he is given his quest. So you can feel that somethings gonna happen from the get go…it lingers in the shadows but it doesn’t step out and say “hey” until people are acquainted with the character. So I believe it is possible to hook people without wopping them upside the head with it lol. This just feels natural to me but I am a new writer……chew up the meat and spit out the bones😉

    • #35 by Author Kristen Lamb on March 1, 2011 - 1:19 pm

      Thanks Amber for the compliment and I am happy you love the blog.

      Prologues are risky and not generally a good idea, mainly because most writers don’t understand how to write them and most readers skip them…because most writers don’t know how to write them. Agents generally hate them. I have a blog that explains why prologues can get us in trouble. I am not saying we cannot use them. I am, however, saying that often it is we need to grow as writers. Many beginnings suck more because writers fail to get a proper plot outline or they are emotionally distancing against failure.

      Poor beginnings also, are often signs of some severe writing weaknesses that we can expect to plague the book. For more, read my earlier blog Novel Diagnostics.

      Hooking doesn’t have to be a whollop upside the head. It can be more subtle. It’s just a wiggle of a worm in the water until the reader bites.

  26. #36 by nrhatch on February 28, 2011 - 10:48 pm

    You had me at: “Because agents are out to get you. They are really psychic vampires who feast on the crushed dreams of writers. Muah ha ha ha! Kidding!” 😉

    Agents are like the rest of us ~ looking for a reason to continue to read. We need to give them a compelling one.

    Thanks for another superb post.

  27. #37 by Marilag Lubag on March 1, 2011 - 6:14 am

    Because the agents are out to get you! lol. Does this have something to do with how we show that our regular characters are just like us? They have families and they know how to love and care for someone? Or an individual who had to make tough choices in order to survive? I like Hunger Games because Suzanne Collins don’t go around in circles.

  28. #38 by Joleene Naylor on March 1, 2011 - 9:25 am

    I can say one thing I hate in a beginning and that is the flash forward to some high action, tense moment, and then we flash back, have the story and catch up to this moment somewhere near the middle. A flash back is one thing, but a flash forward just irks me. It;s as if the author is saying to me “The first half of the book is boring, so i want to give you a sample to show you it will get exciting if you hang in there.” I immediately don’t want to hang in there.

  29. #39 by D J Harrison on March 1, 2011 - 11:01 am

    Nice blog as always, Kristen. I suppose that’s why it’s important to save the first chapter until last!
    I find I need to complete my first draft in its entirety before I write or rework those all-important opening paragraphs.

  30. #40 by Jenyfer Matthews on March 1, 2011 - 2:21 pm

    Another great blog post. I love that the comments on your posts are often as educational as the post itself!

  31. #41 by CTKevinK on March 1, 2011 - 7:10 pm

    Excellent points to this dilemma which I am currently struggling with, among others. You have to be a bit of a magician to have the characters enter into the reader’s subconscious in their “normal” world – or at least a “normal” environment, while at the same time weave into the prose enough tells and hooks to make the reader want to continue past the first page or chapter.

    This blog posting explains very well about this conflict, but I really enjoyed more the responses to questions asked in the comments – which for me clarify it even more.

    Thanks!

  32. #42 by tahliaN on March 2, 2011 - 1:32 am

    Perfect timing. A critique reader of my ms (a publisher writer) suggested that I cut out the character development at the beginning and go straight into the demon attack. I had no intention of doing it for exactly the above reasons, but it’s really nice to have my understanding confirmed. Thanks.

  33. #43 by virginiaripple on March 2, 2011 - 10:02 pm

    Whenever I read your posts on better writing I feel like a freshman about to take my first final exam– panic-stricken thoughts, sweaty palms and all –wondering if my WIP’s got (fill in the blank). And still I wouldn’t miss any of them. If my college classes had taught this stuff maybe I would be feeling closer to the finish line instead of like I’m just starting out. Thnx for getting me up to speed.

  34. #44 by Gloria Oliver on March 4, 2011 - 2:09 am

    There seems to be such a fine line between what’s enough and what’s too much for setting up the normal. My writer’s group clashes a lot on this very point! lol. (Link back will show up on Monday 3/7/11.😛 Cause I am doing Monday’s blog today!)

  35. #45 by Olga SE on March 4, 2011 - 12:12 pm

    Agree with you, Kristen. When I was a small girl, I noticed that if a film began with a man shaving in front of a mirror or something of the sort, it was going to be interesting.🙂

  36. #46 by savanvleck on March 8, 2011 - 8:34 pm

    I just found your blog today and am so glad I did. Not that it matters in my writing, but if you had taught the periodic table, I might have gotten it all those years ago. No one ever explained it like you do.

    I am just enjoying catching up a bit on your blog. I am following your tweets and am going to check out the tweets (twitters) you recommend. I get disgusted with twitter and I think it is because I am not following people that I will learn from.

    So, thanks for all the information. I linked to you on my writing blog and would love to be entered for a critique. I have no idea what WANA is. I probably should, but I was up at 3am writing and my mind isn’t functioning real well.

    • #47 by Author Kristen Lamb on March 8, 2011 - 8:57 pm

      WANA is short for “We Are Not Alone.” I am too lazy to type. So if you pimp my book you get another entry in the hat. Happy to make you a peep and glad you like the blog😀.

  37. #48 by Bethany Kaczmarek on March 20, 2011 - 6:41 pm

    Wow. How many times have I rewritten my opening? Too many to count. But you’re the first person to give me the ground I needed to stand on. This advice is sound, encouraging, and validating. Thanks for sharing your thoughts. My work will be better for it.🙂

    PS–I don’t know if it’s too late to get in on the first five critique deal, but I’ll be following your blog regularly now, and I’d love to join the fun. I wrote about this post on my blog and put in a link. More people need to know about you!

    • #49 by Author Kristen Lamb on March 20, 2011 - 7:36 pm

      Thanks, Bethany. And i am running this contest continually so ur name is in the hat😀.

  38. #50 by Robin D. Ader on July 2, 2012 - 2:00 pm

    An open question to Ms. Lamb, for which there may be no answer on this plain of existence:

    Why are there so many commercially and critically successful books that don’t hook the reader in the first 3 or 30 pages? If my father hadn’t told me, “It starts getting interesting after the first 50 pages,” I never would have gotten into “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.”

    You, Ms. Lamb, have cited Crichton’s “The Prey” as a great book. I have the paperback, 500 page version. I quit on page 100. Nothing was happening. Okay, his wife is involved in something at work, his kids are sick, there’s a virus — hackneyed, seen it a thousand times — oh, and she may be having an affair. I didn’t care. I put the book down. Yet, a NYTBS. Why? Just on Chrichton’s name, perhaps? Do those who have had previous success receive license for subsequent bad writing?

    Thank you.

    • #51 by Author Kristen Lamb on July 2, 2012 - 2:55 pm

      I will grant you that Crichton gets leeway. I know that Timeline was mind-numbing boring until about page 150 and then took off like a shot. I think the NYTBSAs get more wiggle room because they have already demonstrated they can entertain us. With new writers, we don’t get that kind of leeway, we have to earn it. And I completely agree about The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I gave it 30 pages and was done.

      I know I read Prey as research for a screenplay I am working on. I needed to understand nanotechnology and I think the fiction was more interesting than a text book. I might have afforded more time to get hooked because I had ulterior motives. And I thought it was interesting simply because we don’t get the perspective of stay-at-home-dads too much, so that hooked me. I empathized with the stay-at-home person who was once successful but who then couldn’t find a job.

      But the short answer is we earn this benefit of the doubt as a privilege.

  39. #52 by billgncs on July 2, 2012 - 9:48 pm

    very useful, I appreciate your clear explanations and examples.

  40. #53 by Frankie on March 28, 2013 - 4:43 am

    These are actually great ideas in concerning blogging.
    You have touched some good factors here. Any way keep up wrinting.

  41. #54 by Chaplain Winston Muldrew on March 28, 2013 - 10:26 am

    Thank you for all the writing tips I have read for they confirm that I will never be able to write a novel. The most that I can do is reply and informative writing. I can only write about characters that have been built not build characters. It so sad because I have written thousands of lines, Maybe short short stories will make a comeback as well as poetry.

    Thank you again,

  1. » Blog Archive » Beginnings
  2. Leaving Normal | Whispers of Dawn
  3. “Fan”tabulous Friday: 3/4/11 « Pining for Poetry & Prose
  4. Manon Eileen » Is it Sunday already?
  5. Mind Sieve 3/7/11 « Gloria Oliver's Blog
  6. Make me care « Louise Curtis
  7. 5 Common Writing Blunders that Can Annoy or Bore Our Readers « Kristen Lamb's Blog
  8. Anatomy of a Best-Selling Novel—Structure Part One « Kristen Lamb's Blog
  9. The Beginning... - Bethany Kaczmarek
  10. 5 Red Flags Your Story Needs Revision | Kristen Lamb's Blog
  11. Five Warning Signs Your Story Needs Revision | Kristen Lamb's Blog

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