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.

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.

Your Writer’s Notebook – James Scott Bell

I think it’s fair to say that most writers keep a notebook for when the creative juices start to flow and we’re (usually) well away from the keyboard.  For some of us, it’s a real notebook and, for some of us, it’s a mixture of paper scraps, post-it notes etc. Regardless of the form in which our notes take, we could probably all do with keeping them in some sense of order.

In Write Great Fiction – Plot & Structure by James Scott Bell, there is a small section toward the end on the writer’s notebook. It has some suggestions about how we writers should structure our notebooks to get the best out of them.

Bell suggests using a notebook often as it allows you to ‘write when you’re not writing’.  Furthermore, he suggests splitting the notebook into five major sections;

1. Plot Ideas.  Unsurprisingly, Bell chooses to use this section to keep notes about plot. He suggests utilising free-form notes, ideas and scribbles to ensure that we can capture the information when it appears.  Things like ideas for plots, plot developments, and major scenes can be kept here.

2. Characters. Here we can keep straw-men pictures of our current, and future, characters.  Bell suggests that we store certain information, such as a character’s drive, what they want from the story, and what they care about the most.  This can be quite essential information when you’re struggling to decide how your character should react to at important points in your novel. It can also provide a great go-to point when you’re looking to introduce someone new either in the same novel, or a different one.

Bells also compiles listings of names in this section utilising newspaper articles to generate ‘real sounding’ names. He follows a simple process of splitting the forenames and surnames and keeping them in separate columns so new names can be generated simply by choosing a name from each column.

3. Research. This is quite a broad section and is related to anything that you feel is necessary to investigate as part of your novel writing.  Although Bell suggests that internet and e-mail can be used to generate a lot of research information quickly, he also suggests that much of this is transferred / filed in your notebook to enable the notebook to become a one-stop-shop of your novel whenever you’re away from the desk.  Imagine how frustrating it would be to have an idea and realise you didn’t have the technical information you needed on-hand to take it foward.

Another good aspect of keeping research material in your notebook is that it often inspires new plot ideas which, if all kept in the same notebook, means it’s easier to keep everything in a single place.

4. Plot summary. This is different to notes on plot (section 1) as this section relates to what has actually been written so far.  Here, Bell suggests that you keep a record of what work has been compelted (at a chapter level) and summarise it into a few lines.  The benefit of this is that is can help you see where you are in your story, and what you think you may be heading toward.

If this is kept upto-date, then you should have a full summary outline completed just as you complete your first draft.  This can then be used as a guide when beginning that necessary second draft.

5. Questions. It is expected that you should always be asking questions of your story.  These questions can be about almost anything, including plot, character, or research.  If these are kept in a section of your notebook (and especially if they are answered), they can provide a much richer perspective through which to view your story.

As mentioned above, if much of this information can be kept in a single notebook, then your whole toolkit that you need to work on your book anywhere, anytime, can be within arm’s reach.

A thought about description

I’ve been listening to a number of podcasts recently and a couple of them seem to be running with the same topic; description.

We all know that, to some degree, description can be the bane of our novels. Whilst we want to tell the reader everything about our world and the characters that inhabit it, we often overstep the mark to our detriment.

Although the podcasts do a much better job of providing examples ranging from characters who are never described through to almost chapter length descriptions, a couple of points seemed to resonate within me.

Firstly, one exercise that suggested taking a book to a busy place and spending two or three seconds watching an individual. After the time was up, you should write down one or two key characteristics of that individual and then use that concise text when you next feel the need to describe a character in your next story. Moreover, the exercise suggested watching them a number of times and, once you’ve built up a clearer picture of that individual, layer that description of that character throughout your story rather than dumping it in one particular page. The thought process being that the reader should begin to notice more things about your character the more time they spend with them.

Secondly, we should allow our readers to form their own perspective of our characters. Too often the view of the character is so detailed and heavy that the reader will feel restricted within their imagination; give the reader too much description and their mind’s eye has little to do. The last thing we want as writers is to give our readers so little to think about that their mind starts to wander about TV, PC, eating or anything else that isn’t reading our books.

This really hit home with me when I thought back to my first memories of the Lord of the Rings books. Back in 1978 when I was a young lad, I’d spend hours in my bedroom under the glow of a bedside lamp treading the land of Middle-Earth. I’d be the tenth member of the Fellowship experiencing the adrenalin of every sword swing and cowering whenever the Nazgul were close.

I can’t remember whether Tolkien gave me chapter-and-verse description of the characters, or of Middle-Earth, but I do know that my mind was filled with my own visions of what the hobbits, elves and orcs looked like. I knew what Mordor looked like and I knew that I wanted to live in the Shire. To me, Tolkien did a wonderful job and it’s one of the reasons that I now have a collection of over 500 different Tolkien books. Whenever I think back to that dark bedroom and my teenage self reading into the early hours of the morning, it makes me smile.

However, when the movies came out in 2000, the visual imagery was so strong that it quickly overwrote whatever images my teenage mind had dreamt up. It saddens me a great deal that whenever I think of Frodo, I get an image of Elijah Wood. Think of Gandalf and I picture Sir Ian McKellan, and who else can mistaken Gollum for anyone else other than Andy Serkis. Although the movies have provided me with some wonderful memories, I can no longer remember how I used to view the land of Middle-Earth, and its characters, as a young boy.

What I’m trying to convey is that if you over-describe your characters, if you restrict the boundaries for where your readers imagination can roam and try to stamp your own mark on everything, then only one of two things can happen.

  • Your readers will never feel that the characters were written for them, to be enjoyed by them. Instead they’ll feel like they’re watching your characters from afar, devoid of any sense of attachment.
  • If your descriptions are anything less than perfect, you’ll be short-changing your readers and they deserve better than that (whether they realise it or not).

Conversely, if you relinquish something of your characters to your readers, if you share your characters with them, they’ll build up such a multitude of descriptions for your characters that you could never match in words. Each time someone reads your book, your characters will be born anew with fresh faces injecting new life with each turn of the page.

It’s one of those rare moments in life when you can accomplish more by doing less.

Be true to your characters?

Recently, whilst I was surfing the net, I came upon a post that talked about common themes in novels, not just Fantasy / Sci-fi.  The community was having quite a good poke at some of the themes and, for some of them, I could see why.

Horror Stories we’ve seen too often

The Top 100 things I’d do if I ever became an Evil Overlord

However, my grinning stopped when I spotted one that I had ‘used’ in my own writing; that of the main protagonist starting life as a farm boy. 

man-159771_640This has now got me wondering if I should re-write my main character’s backstory? Much of the rewrite wouldn’t make it into the novel, but there are some areas in the novel that would have to be changed (the reason for him leaving the farm in the first place, for example).

I think the bit that would affect me the most is how I would have to ‘think’ about my protagonist more, it would feel as if he is no longer the same character and, for that, I would think I’ve been dishonest to him. Furthermore, there are subtle elements in the novel that came naturally to me when writing this character and a re-write would make them seem out of place.  Whilst I imagine more will appear as I continue to write the new character, I doubt they will flow as easily as they used to.

This has angered me somewhat as I feel that external forces are attempting to affect my choices in writing before it even begins to take shape.  I’ve always followed the mantras of ‘write what you like to read’ and ‘write for yourself’ and this idea seems to be the complete opposite of that. I think it was Stephen King that said you should write your first draft with the door closed but there are so many things waiting to break it down….

Let’s look at a few examples in this particular area;

* Luke Skywalker was a farm boy and his adventures didn’t do too badly for George Lucas

* Eragon, from the book of the same name also began life on a farm and look how successful Christopher Paolini’s books have become. 

* Stretching the trope a bit further, a certain boy who lived in a cupboard under the stairs and was destined to be a great wizard didn’t harm J K Rowling’s fortunes too much either.

None of these stories hid the fact that their protagonists came from a farm, or in the instance of Harry Potter, from a cupboard. Yet, it seems common practice to look down upon certain circumstances in stories simply because they’ve been done before.

Part of me likes to think that no-one suggested to Lucas that he re-write Luke Skywalker to be someone different, or that Poalini was told to have Eragon grow up the son of an accountant.  But, if that did occur, then the bigger part of me is glad that those writers had the confidence, and the belief in their characters, to say no.