Beginning Strong Part 2 – 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 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).

Establish the tone of the novel

This is us, as writers, setting the tone for the entire novel early on in the first few pages. By doing this, we’re not only making a promise to the reader as to what our novel is going to be like, but it ensures that the reader will understand what to expect.

One of the most important aspects of tone is that of consistency. As stated previously, setting the tone is providing the reader with the understanding of what the rest of the story will be about. Readers like consistency and being too inconsistent risks you losing the reader. Bell quotes Jack M. Bickham here with some examples of how you can still stall your reader if you’re not careful;

  • Excessive description – Bell already covered this and uses the quote to simply strengthen his own statement.
  • Backward looks – interestingly, this seems to jar against the advice from Bell about using the ‘framing the story’ element for prologues. However, I personally think this is more around the constant use of looking back.
  • No threat – Bickham suggests that “good fiction must start with – and deal with – someone’s response to threat”. Without a threat there is no conflict.

Compel the Reader to move onto the middle

As with the Three Act Structure, your beginning has to ensure that the reader wants to continue onward to the middle (and end) of your book. If you’ve done things right, you should have given them (1) a compelling Lead with (2) whom they bond with and (3) whose world has been disturbed. This should provide enough for your readers to want to step through that first doorway of no return into Act 2.

There is little else in terms of advice from Bell here which comes across as a bit of a cop-out when it has been promoted to a point of interest within the chapter of Beginning Strong. However, I think the fact that Bell has already talked quite a bit earlier in the book about this and the fact that the next chapter is about the middle stages of a novel, he’s simply reserving his advice for later.

Introducing the Opposition

As with the section on moving the reader to the middle of the novel, Bell doesn’t really add anything more to this section other than giving out somewhat obvious advice.

Bell suggests that our readers must know who, or what, the opposition is by the time that our Lead makes the transition from the start to the middle. He even goes on to suggest that the opposition doesn’t necessarily have to be fully established at this point, just that it exists.
There are no examples given here, but I would suggest he’s talking about things like;

  • A serial killer in a crime murder novel – we don’t need to know who he is, or what he looks like for us to know he’s our Lead’s opposition
  • A meteor about to crash into the Earth – again, if our Lead is an astronaut or a pilot of a space-ship trying to protect Earth, then we can understand how the meteor is the opposition without having to fully explain what it is, where it came from etc.
  • A love story where the Lead is vying for affection and yet there is another who has similar feelings for the same girl.

As writers, it is also important that we ensure the opposition is a capable foil for our Lead. In that respect, we must ensure that the opposition is as strong, or preferably, stronger than our Lead. Also, we shouldn’t neglect the fact that our opposition should also be given similar attributes to our Lead, such as sympathy and justifications for his actions. We need to ensure that we don’t fully develop a Lead only to pit him against a cardboard cut-out of an opposition.

Most Borrowed

Whilst trawling through a magazine, I stumbled upon a set of statistics about the British Library that I thought quite fascinating – I know, statistics and libraries, how can it get any better?

How did the author discover these wonderful facts? Well, they were on the Public Lending Right website.

In an effort not to plagiarise the snippet that I read, I’m going to select some of the other statistics available and just allow readers to go visit the website and snoop around for themselves.

What do these statistics tell us? Well, in 2011/2012 we loved reading James Patterson whilst cooking a 30-minute meal alongside studying for the DSA Theory Test. We had a rampant stamp collection, relished in our pride for Britain (and Downtown Abbey) whilst dreaming of visiting Italy where we could grow our own veg and potentially end up with a bad back. We would then turn to the secret of the mind, body and spirit for a way to set everything right again.

UK Library Chart Toppers 2011/12

Most Borrowed Author: James Patterson
Most Borrowed Children’s Author: Daisy Meadows
Most Borrowed Titles:

1. 10th Anniversary (James Patterson and Maxine Paetro)
2. Worth Dying For (Lee Child)
3. Miracle Cure (Harlen Coben)
4. Private London (James Patterson)
5. The Help (Kathryn Stockett)

Most Borrowed Non-Fiction Titles (Adult):

1. At Home: An Informal History of Private Life (Bill Bryson)
2. Madeleine (Kate McCann)
3. Jamie’s 30-Minute Meals (Jamie Oliver)
4. The Official DSA Theory Test for Car Drivers (Driving Standards Agency)
5. Stanley Gibbons Stamps of the World 2011 (Simplified Catalogue)

Most Borrowed Children’s Titles:

1. The Gruffalo (Julia Donaldson)
2. Aliens Love Underpants (Claire Freedman / Ben Cort)
3. Diary of a Wimpy Kid: The Last Straw (Jeff Kinney)
4. Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Rodrick Rules (Jeff Kinney)
5. The Snail and the Whale (Julia Donaldson)

Most Borrowed Classic Authors:

1. Roald Dahl
2. Enid Blyton
3. Agatha Christie
4. Georgette Heyer
5. Charles Dickens
6. PG Wodehouse
7. Beatrix Potter

Most Borrowed History Book: At Home: An Informal History of Private Life (Bill Bryson)
Most Borrowed Biography: Madeleine (Kate McCann)
Most Borrowed Travel & Holiday Book: The Days That Made Britain (Stuart Maconie)
Most Borrowed Cookery Book: Jamie’s 30-Minute Meals (Jamie Oliver)
Most Borrowed Television Book: The World of Downtown Abbey (Jessica Fellowes)
Most Borrowed Holiday Guide: Italy (Damien Simonis)
Most Borrowed Gardening Book: Grow Your Own Veg (Carol Klein)
Most Borrowed Complementary Medicine Book: Beat Back Pain Alexander Technique (Richard Craze)
Most Borrowed Mind, Body & Spirit Book: The Secret (Rhonda Byrne)

As per a request on the PLR website, I hereby acknowledge PLR’s role in compiling these statistics and wish they had a much larger back-catalogue. (I would love to see what these stats were for the year I was born, and also which book cost the most money in fines – surely that’s the accolade to aim for, a book that no-one wants to take back!).

Book #4 – Starship Troopers

“Workers are easy to capture. But a Bug worker is hardly more than animate machinery.  Warriors can be captured by burning off enough limbs to make them helpless – but they are almost as stupid without a director as workers.  From such prisoners our own professor types had learned important matters – the development of that oily gas that killed them but not us came from analysing the biochemistries of workers and warriors, and we had had other new weapons from such research even in the short time I had been a cap trooper.  But to discover why Bugs fight we needed to study members of their brain caste.  Also, we hoped to exchange prisoners…”

(Trooper Johnnie Rico giving the reader a quick knowledge breakdown of Bugs.)

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First lines…

I’m researching beginnings of a story in some detail for my website, but it got me thinking about first lines and what they are, how they are used and if they actually work.

It’s common knowledge for many authors that the first, few lines in a story carry a bit of extra weight above all others (it could be argued that the closing lines do as well, but if the reader doesn’t turn to page 2.. )

The reason for this is that they have an additional role to perform other than starting the story and this role can be defined in a number of ways;

  •  a promise to the reader,
  •  a simple sales pitch,
  •  a hook (probably most common) 

There is a short BBC interview here with Richard Ford where he discusses a few of these as the interviewer feels his opening lines may give too much away.

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Week #1 Muse Update

There are a number of reasons as to why this blog exists.  Firstly, there is the need in me to write a story; not just one, I have many in various stages of development (and a few that have been completed but are currently unsuccessfully published).

Secondly, I’m a firm believer that there are situations that affect us in ways that can hinder the things we do. Some of those factors I believe are within my control; am I hungry? am I tired? Others, I feel, are not.

Some authors can sit down and write for hours with the words coming as quick as they can type them. For me, I need a muse to write. If it’s not there, neither are the words.

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