Archive for the 'Introductions' Category

Mar 08 2011

This opening was really solid

Published by under Introductions

I provide advice about how to write novels, comic books and graphic novels. Most of my content applies to fiction-writing in general, but I also provide articles specifically about superhero stories.

From The Amulet of Samarkand:


“The temperature of the room dropped fast. Ice formed on the curtains and crusted thickly around the lights in the ceiling. The glowing filaments in each bulb shrank and dimmed, while the candles that sprang from every available surface like a colony of toadstools had their wicks snuffed out. The darkened room filled with a yellow, choking cloud of brimstone, in which indistinct black shadows writhed and roiled. From far away came the sound of many voices screaming. Pressure was suddenly applied to the door that led to the landing. It bulged inward, the timbers groaning. Footsteps from invisible feet came pattering across the floorboards and invisible mouths whispered wicked things from behind the bed and under the desk…


Hey, it was his first time. I wanted to scare him.”


A few observations:

  • The book has two rotating points-of-view, the ancient djinn here and an eleven year old magician.  It was refreshing and brave to start with the character that wasn’t the audience stand-in.
  • I like that the author implies (rather than exposits) what’s going on here.  He never explicitly says that this is a magic ritual, but it’s pretty obvious even before you get to the invisible mouths whispering nefarious things.
  • The atmospherics and sensory details did a really good job foreshadowing the plot and setting the mood.  The description of the magic is a lot more sinister and evocative than, say, the Harry Potter series.  (Quickly distinguish your story from competing works, particularly if your main character is a tween British magician).

9 responses so far

Jan 26 2011

How to Write a Great First Line for Your Book

Published by under Introductions

When you’re writing the first line of your story, try to accomplish at least one of the following:

1. Show us something interesting about a major character (ideally the lead protagonist).  

  • If you were going to give a gold medal to the least delightful person on Earth, you would have to give that medal to a person named Carmelita Spats, and if you didn’t give it to her, Carmelita Spats was the sort of person who would snatch it from your hands anyway. (Austere Academy).
  • There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it. (Voyage of the Dawn Treader).
  • I am a sick man… I am a spiteful man. (Notes from the Underground).
  • Samuel Spade’s jaw was long and bony, his chin a jutting ‘v’ under the more flexible ‘v’ of his mouth. (Maltese Falcon).


2. Set something unusual and interesting in motion. YES: A drug-fueled trip across the desert or an execution by firing squad. NO: Waking up and doing a mundane morning routine.

  • They’re out there. Black boys in white suits up before me to commit sex acts in the hall and get it mopped up before I can catch them. (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest).
  • The telephone was ringing wildly, but without result, since there was nobody in the room but the corpse. (War in Heaven).
  • We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert when the drugs began to take hold. (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas).
  • It was cold at 6:40 in the morning in Paris and seemed even colder when the man was executed by firing squad. (Day of the Jackal).


3. Establish the setting with a striking detail, ideally one that sets the mood.

  • Behavioral Science, the FBI section that deals with serial murder, is on the bottom floor of the Academy building at Quantico, half-buried in the earth. (Silence of the Lambs).
  • It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn’t know what I was doing in New York. (The Bell Jar).
  • The sky above the port was the color of television, tuned to a dead channel. (Neuromancer).
  • You are not the kind of guy who would be at a place like this at this time of the morning. (Bright Lights, Big City).
  • It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. (1984).


4. Introduce an unusual relationship for the main character (with other characters, himself, his surroundings, and/or the readers).

  • All this happened, more or less. (Slaughterhouse-five).
  • Mama died today. Or yesterday maybe, I don’t know. (The Stranger).
  • The human race, to which so many of my readers belong, has been playing at children’s games from the beginning, and will probably do it till the end, which is a nuisance for the few people who grow up. (The Napoleon of Notting Hill).
  • I am seated in an office, surrounded by heads and bodies. (Infinite Jest).


5. Introduce problems and/or conflicts.

  • A screaming comes across the sky. (Gravity’s Rainbow).
  • Of Herbert West, who was my friend in college and in after life, I can speak only with extreme terror. (Herbert West, Reanimator).
  • Justice? – You get justice in the next world, in this world you have the law. (A Frolic of His Own).
  • The terror, which would not end for another twenty-eight years–if it ever did end–began, so far as I can tell, with a boat made from a sheet of newspaper floating down a gutter swollen with rain.  (IT).


6. Subvert expectations and/or set up eye-catching contrasts, like exploding grandmothers.

  • High, high above the North Pole, on the first day of 1969, two professors of English Literature approached each other at a combined velocity of 1200 miles per hour. (Changing Places).
  • It was the day my grandmother exploded. (Crow Road).
  • Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy lies a small unregarded yellow sun. (Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy).
  • One summer afternoon Mrs. Oedipa Maas came home from a Tupperware party whose hostess had put perhaps too much kirsch in the fondue to find that she, Oedipa, had been named executor, or she supposed executrix, of the estate of one Pierce Inverarity, a California real estate mogul who had once lost two million dollars in his spare time but still had assets numerous and tangled enough to make the job of sorting it all out more than honorary. (The Crying of Lot 49).


What are some of the best opening lines you’ve encountered?

232 responses so far

Aug 13 2010

Blood-Red Pencil’s Tips on How to Write a Strong Opening: Act First, Explain Later

This advice about how to write a strong introduction strikes me as mostly effective.

1.  Don’t begin with a long description of the setting or background information.  Do begin with dialogue and action. Agreed.  However, explain enough so that we know what’s going on.  I put down a book on page 2 yesterday because it spent all that time beautifully describing the weather and a man jumping out of a helicopter without explaining anything about why the guy came out of the helicopter.  At first, it wasn’t even clear whether the person fell out accidentally or jumped.

2.  Don’t start with a character other than your protagonist. You may wish to consider starting with the antagonist, but generally I agree with this.  If your side-characters are the most effective hook to your story, you’re writing the wrong story!

3.  Don’t start with a description of past events.  DO jump right in with what the main character is involved in right now, and introduce some tension or conflict as soon as possible. In some cases, the inciting event of the book may have happened before the book starts.  I don’t think that’s necessarily a problem.  For example, a novel might start with a superhero or homicide detective investigating a crime that has already happened.  As long as you keep the focus on what is happening now (the investigation, for example), covering an event that already happened shouldn’t bog down your plot.  

4.  Don’t start in a viewpoint other than the main character’s. Agreed!  I’d reject pretty much anything that starts with a side-character that shows up once and then disappears.  (Switching between main characters is okay, but a one-and-done narrator is NOT.  Don’t waste our time on a character that isn’t central to the plot).

Continue Reading »

12 responses so far

Apr 25 2010

How to Introduce an Interesting Character

1. Please establish the voice and personality early. One possibility is having the character and/or narrator make an unusual observation about something important to the story or giving some unusual personality trait about the character. For example, “It was a pleasure to burn” (Fahrenheit 451) or “You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, but that ain’t no matter” (Huckleberry Finn).

2. Another option is having the character start with an action that is typical to him, but NOT typical to most other protagonists. This is why opening a book with the character waking up is usually ineffective. It rarely launches into the unique/interesting aspects of the character and the story quickly enough. You didn’t write a story about this character to show him waking up, so just skip to the part that we WILL care about.

Continue Reading »

8 responses so far

Jul 10 2009

The Five Page Challenge!

You don’t have hundreds of pages to persuade an agent or a publisher that your work is worth publishing.  More like five.  Since agents and publisher’s assistants and editors receive hundreds of proposals every week, time is not on your side.  Your story has to be interesting immediately.  If it feels like the story’s going nowhere, the reader will toss your manuscript and move on to the next.

To help you write sharper and more compelling openings, I’m starting a writing contest that will end on July 31.  Both novelists and comic book writers can participate as many times as they’d like.  If you’re interested, please post the following below…

Continue Reading »

58 responses so far

Dec 29 2008

Writing Tip: Start Your Story As Everything Goes Wrong

Generally, a book has only 5-20 pages (depending on audience age and genre) to establish three critical elements.

  1. The status quo of the main character.  What is this character like before everything goes wrong?  In the Lord of the Rings, for example, Frodo celebrates Bilbo’s birthday before being called upon to save the world.  In Superhero Nation, Gary is a workaholic accountant.
  2. The inciting event.  What throws the character off his status quo?  Usually, this is the point at which everything starts to go wrong.  For example, in Superhero Nation, Gary narrowly survives a car-bombing very early on.  This forces several changes on him:  first, he is transferred away from his job for his safety.  So he’s completely out of his social comfort zone.  Second, assassins are now trying to kill him.
  3. A goal for the main character.  This is usually a response to the inciting event.  This can be as simple as “I want everything to return to normal.”   Gary wants to rebuild his life by getting a job somewhere and he wants to survive the assassins.  This brings him to the superpowered Office of Special Investigations.  Wacky hijinks ensue!  (Buy the book when it finally gets published, heh heh).

A lot of manuscripts get bogged down in details that are typically too far removed from these three goals.

  1. Prologues.  They usually lack immediacy and, far too often, they just skip the main character entirely.  Ick.  The main character is almost always the best available way to hook readers into your story.
  2. Backstory.  Typically, it doesn’t really matter what your character was doing 5 or 10 years ago.  Readers want to know what’s happening now.  If you are literally unable to start the story without explaining what happened 5 or 10 years ago, you may wish to reevaluate the starting point for your story.  Ahem.  “If your backstory is more interesting than your current era, you’re writing the wrong story.”  If you have to introduce backstory, try to keep it to a bare minimum. Tell us only what we need to understand what is going on now.
  3. Side-characters.  If the side-characters are the best hook to your story, there’s probably something wrong with the main character and/or the plot.  For example, if a fantasy novel wants to show us the parents of the hero right before he is born, that will trap us in backstory.  Furthermore, will readers care about the hero’s parents?  Probably not.  If they were the most interesting characters in this book, they would be the leads.  Harry Potter #1 was very well-written, but it made a questionable choice to start the book when Harry was an infant.  It was a very slow beginning.
  4. Elaborate settings.  Typically, the main character is a better hook into the story than the world is.  A strong character can be relatable and likable, mostly unlike a strong world.  Try to limit the setting at the very beginning to just what we need to understand the main character and the plot.

I originally wrote this article for novelists, but it’s largely true for comic-book writers as well.  The main difference is that a comic-book writer has even fewer pages to establish the status quo.  What is your Peter Parker like before he becomes Spiderman?  If your character has a particularly interesting origin story, I’d recommend giving the status quo no more than half an issue (12 or 16 pages, probably).  But readers tend to appreciate introductions that are much shorter. A good establishing shot is typically sufficient and lets you get to the interesting stuff faster. (I love alternate identities as much as anyone, but usually the superhero identity is more gripping.  Would you want to read a comic called The Amazing Peter Parker or Clark Kent/Bruce Wayne?)

In a comic that probably ranges from 24-32 pages, you really need to get to the inciting event (probably the radioactive spider-bite or however else your hero got his powers) as soon as possible.  In a superhero story, I’d recommend giving the hero his powers early enough in the first issue that you can introduce his goal.  Ideally you can conclude the first issue with a fight or some other climactic event that gives you some room to offer some resolution (which satisfies readers) while setting up a greater conflict that will leave the readers wanting more.

120 responses so far

Dec 10 2008

Surviving to Page 2

Many manuscripts get nixed on the first page.  Here are a few things that publishers want to see early on.


1.  Is it easy to read through? If your first page introduces many characters, fictional words, place names and the like, the story is probably a slog.  If your first page is hard to understand, your manuscript is dead on arrival.


2.  “Do I care about this story?” The easiest way to make a reader care is to give urgent, pressing goals to a likable protagonist.  If nothing’s at stake, readers will probably find the story boring.  If the reader doesn’t care on page one, your submission is in grave danger.


3.  Does the author have a professional grasp of English? If the author has multiple typos on page one, they’re just going to assume the author is an amateur and move on to the next manuscript.  Making a good first impression is important. Rule of thumb: If the first page has 3+ typos, the manuscript will not survive to page 2.


4.   Does it look like the plot is going somewhere? If the first page gets bogged down in a geography lesson, or a winding prologue, or a lengthy exposition, the answer is probably no.  Pacing the first page well is extremely important.

76 responses so far

Oct 15 2008

Six Openings That Usually Fail

Please don’t open your novel with any of these.


1. The main character introduces himself to the reader (“Hi, my name is ____, but you can call me ____.”) Isn’t there anything more interesting you can tell us about the character than his name?  If not, you should probably get back to the drawing board.  This type of opening is also annoying because it’s usually the only part of the book that’s addressed to the reader.


2. The main character wakes up and does his morning routine. Instead of showing your character waking up, getting dressed and then having breakfast, why not skip to the interesting part?  Furthermore, virtually everyone eats breakfast and gets dressed.  Please show us something distinct about the character.


3. The main character is immediately plunged into danger. OK, so the hero is getting shot at.  Why should we care?  If you go down this route, make sure we’re emotionally invested in the character.  Introduce the character a bit before throwing him to the sharks.


4. Something unusual and cryptic happens in the first half-page. For example, a mysterious woman hands the hero a baby and then walks away.  Typically, this type of opening could be improved by spending more time describing what the hero’s life is like before the strangeness starts.  I’d recommend that novelists spend at least half a chapter describing the hero in his element.  Then, when you shake up the status quo, we will have a better feel for the character moving forward.  For example, CS Lewis described his characters for several chapters before bringing them to Narnia.


5. The narrator delivers a geography lesson. I recommend showing us your characters before the world, particularly if your world is similar to Middle-Earth.


6. The opening sentence uses pronouns for “suspense.” “Until it happened, I had no idea how badly they had screwed me.”  This narrator is obviously hiding what “it” and “they” are.  That’s not suspenseful, just annoying.  Make sure you give us enough to understand what’s going on.  For example, we could rewrite that sentence as “until the dragon’s face exploded into a gooey mess, I had no idea how badly Adventurers, Inc. had screwed me.”   Please remember to let readers know everything that the point of view character knows.

123 responses so far

Oct 05 2008

Writing Tip of the Day: Avoid This Opening Line. It Sucks.

“Hello, my name is _____.”  An even worse version is “Hello, my name is ______, but you can call me ______.”  If the most interesting thing about your main character is his name, you should probably get back to the drawing board.  Leading with another detail– any other detail– is likelier to interest readers.

2 responses so far