Beginning Strong Part 1 – James Scott Bell

Continuing my in-depth review of  Write Great Fiction – Plot and Structure by James Scott Bell..

Many writers are aware of the importance of getting the reader hooked from the first page, even the first line. Yet, Bell still points out some basic points that (I at least) had overlooked.

If we stick to the three act structure, it’s obvious that we begin in Act 1. Here, we’re expecting our work to do the following;

  • Hook the reader
  • Establish a bond between reader and character
  • Present the story world
  • Establish the tone of the novel
  • Give the reader reason to want to turn the page
  • Introduce the opposition

In this post, I’ll cover the first three points above as Bell takes us through and gives us information and advice as to better approach our goals.

Hook the Reader

This is the very first thing your book should do. Without this, everyone will put your book down. One thing that Bell reminds us about here is that our first reader is never a person in a bookshop looking for something to read on a lazy afternoon, it’s almost always an agent or an editor – and they’re much tougher to please than your average reader.

So, how can we convince someone to choose our work over someone else’s?

Opening Lines – here Bell suggests introducing your character early on, even in the first sentence. We should also make something happen, if not happen right away, give the impression that something is about to happen (Bell calls this ‘motion’). Finally, we should steer away from long sections of description that hold up the reader and overloads them with information.

Action – In Medias Res (in the middle of things) is a phrase that most writers should be aware of. It is a statement that suggests inviting the reader to a point where something has already happened. This can be a powerful tool to drop the reader directly into the thick of things without feeling the need to have to explain too much right away.

Dialogue – this is a great tool for immediate action. Dialogue, if done correctly, is able to include elements of characterisation, description, and conflict all in just a few lines. If we can add some raw emotion into it as well, then all the better.

Prologue – these have stood the test of time and, although not as popular as they once were, they are still used by all sorts of writers. Irrespective of their use, Bell states that the most effective prologues do one simple task – entice the reader to move to chapter one! In its own way, Bell suggests that all the rules about beginning strong actually apply to the prologue itself. However, he states that the prologue doesn’t have to introduce the main character, but should link to the overall plot in some way. Bell suggests three primary ways to use prologues;

  • Action Prologue – start off with a big scene which sets the tone and lead to chapter one beginning the main plot (we see this a lot in Hollywood action movies).
  • Framing a story – here, Bell discusses how we can use the view of a character to look back and tell the story leading up to the initial prologue. We should use this kind of prologue to establish feeling and tone around the main plot and show us how the events then have affected the main character now.
  • The Teaser – this is where you can present a scene at the start that is actually going to happen later in the book. This is the middle ground between action and framing. Here you can entice the reader by showing what is going to happen, but you can then affect the outcome by continuing your story past that point.

Establishing a bond with the reader via the lead character

Creating a character is only the first step in establishing this bond. Next, you should understand how you can make the reader bond with the character emotionally. Bell suggests we can do this through four dynamics; Identification, Sympathy, Likeability and Inner Conflict.

Identification – in a simple term, this is ensuring that the lead is like us. It’s giving the readers the ability to liken themselves to the hero in the story. It allows the readers to put themselves in the same situations and conversely, it allows the reader to pop from the pages as a real human being. Bells then goes on to suggest a few things we could do to make our leads easier to identify with, such as giving them flaws and making them vulnerable.

Sympathy – unlike identification (which is empathy), sympathy relates to a reader’s raw emotional attachment to our lead. Here, readers understand our leads through emotion even if they can’t particularly identify with the lead and Bell suggests four simple ways to establish this;

  • Jeopardy – put your lead in a position of imminent trouble. If done right, this can establish sympathy right away
  • Hardship – have some misfortune affect the lead in a way that isn’t complained about but is still inferred.
  • Underdog – who doesn’t love an underdog story? Put your lead against long odds, give the reader something to root for and they’ll keep turning the pages.
  • Vulnerability – allow the readers to worry about your lead. Instil a feeling of vulnerability by suggesting that something big could happen to your lead at any time.

Likeability – if your readers are going to be spending a lot of time with your lead, then there needs to be some reason to like them. Bell suggests helping people, being witty, supportive and engaging as all good attributes to have for likeability. It is possible to write about an unlikeable lead (Bell gives Michael Corleone from the Godfather as an example) but you must compensate in other areas or you risk losing the reader.

Present the Story World

This isn’t just about the setting that your novel is in, but it’s more about is life like for your lead in the world;

  • What is their job?
  • Do they have a routine?
  • Who are their friends?
  • Who are their family?

It is common practice to have your lead actually practising their main job, such as a policeman investigating a murder, or a surgeon performing an operation. We don’t have to use raw exposition here, but it does help to show observations and attitudes of the lead through the narrator so that the life that your lead has in the world is slowly built up.

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One comment on “Beginning Strong Part 1 – James Scott Bell

  1. […] In this post, I’ll cover the final three points above as Bell takes us through and gives us information and advice as to better approach our goals (the first post is here). […]

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