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.

A One Page Novel

“Ash dodged the puddles as he ran.  He’d done it many times before, but never when his life depended on it.”

Thats the opening couple of sentences for my first novel, A Treasure Found.  I’ve read a few things about opening lines and, although it’s getting there, I’m sure this will be edited many times before I’m happy with it.

The reason?  Well some editors, agents, and publishers will tell you that they can learn all they can from you, and your novel, in the first chapter, first page, even opening line.  With pressure like that, who can risk not spending the effort to get it right?

We’ve all read the tips about how opening lines should hook the reader, draw them in, and want the reader to keep reading. They are all valid points. But if we as writers go through all that effort and fine-tuning for such a dramatic introduction to our works, shouldn’t we expect the likes of editors and publishers to follow their own advice, and read more of our book?

I watched an episode of The Graham Norton show a couple of nights ago and he was interviewing a certain Harvey Weinstein.  I admit to being quite ignorant about the film world, but Harvey seems to be a key-player in this arena so I think people tend to listen when he speaks.

One of the points he made was very interesting and it struck a chord with me and writing.  He said this (not his exact words);

When Matt Damon and Ben Affleck were passing around the script for Good Will Hunting, everyone knew it would be a success – to the point that film companies were falling over themselves to get signatures for the script and rights to the movie.  We (Harvey) were very interested and we’d managed to score a meeting with the guys after receiving their script. 

Everything was going well, until I brought up a certain point, I said to them “Looks guys, this script is very good, it needs some work but we can deal with that.  The biggest issue I see is that around page 60, there’s a scene where the two doctors perform oral sex on one another.  It seemed to be completely out of context for them, there seemed to be no lead-up to it and I can’t really imagine how that would happen.”

At this point, one of the guys turned to me and said “Harvey, we’ve had a few movie companies look at our script, and had a few offers, yet none of them mentioned that to us.  In fact, we put that in on purpose to see how many companies had actually read the script before they gave us an offer…”

Apparently, Harvey got the deal and Good Will Hunting went on to become a very successful movie.

I think I was just so shocked to think about how much effort people will put into their writing and yet we have huge movie companies willing to offer over large sums of money for something that they haven’t yet read properly.

Still, if anything, it gives me an excuse for if an editor ever says to me, “We liked the book but we’re not sure the ending fits in with the rest of the story.”


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!).

Do you know which vitamins your characters are taking?

Not sure how I feel about this one.  Having done a dissertation for a Masters degree I can understand the detail that some of the research goes to. But the research done at Imperial College, London seems to have taken things to a whole new level.

Their research suggests that villains in literature (specifically Tolkien in this example) are often averse to sunlight which gives them a vitamin D deficiency and, in turn, suggests that they should be weaker in battle.

Personally, I’ve never gone to that level when laying out character sketches and now it’s got me worrying whether other people do.  For all the greatness that I see in the works of Tolkien, Sanderson, Jordan etc. I just can’t see them consciously working at this level;

  • Magic foods? yes.
  • Healing herbs? yes.
  • The hero having to rest because he didn’t drink his orange juice at breakfast? Im not so sure.

What is worrying me even more is that my latest novel, A Treasure Found, has the antagonist actually coming from a desert tribe; if he isn’t getting enough sunshine, then pity everyone else.

There is some good news of course. The researchers have stated that they would need to look further afield to see just how relevant their results are.  In that aspect, I could help them somewhat;  I’ve looked into this a bit and it seems that although the main source of Vitamin D is sunlight, in terms of dietary resources, mushrooms seem to be quite common and we all know what mushrooms do?  That’s right, they grow in the dark!

So, I suggest that, in future novels, if you have any dark overlords who spend time in the depths of the earth, put them on a substantial diet of mushrooms and that could lead to some interesting end-scene battles between the heroes and the bad guys.