Where to Start?

By Carol Potenza

As authors, so much of the craft advice we receive begins at the beginning, and by that, I mean Chapter One. We have a lot do to ‘hook’ reader so they will turn the page and keep on turning. Many of us blunder into a mistake immediately: We don’t start our books in the right place.

But what does that mean—the right place? How do we know where that is? A recent article by Barbara Wallace on the RWA website gave a great summary and excellent examples of starting your book in the right place. I’m all about lists, so I’m going to present hers directly.

“…a good opening scene will:

  • establish the ordinary world;
  • establish the story’s tone;
  • introduce us to the main character, their personality, and their big problem;
  • open with strong story action;
  • hint at the story’s theme; and
  • open with a strong story action that encourages readers to continue.”

Our next meeting is LERA Idol where the opening scenes of our submitted manuscripts are read out loud and judged on criteria similar to the ones in this list. Not all may apply because we keep the submission to about 750 words.

Let’s start with the first bullet point: Establish the ordinary setting.

A woman is walking her dog in the ______.

Where? Her environment will help to establish the tone, bullet point two. If she’s walking her dog in a park on a sunny spring day with the scent of apple blossoms in the air and meets a man who’s fallen in the pond, that will set a very different tone than if she’s walking her search-and-rescue dog through a freezing nighttime forest looking for a lost child, which gives the reader ‘ticking clock’—if the child is not found in the next two hours, she will die of exposure.

Let’s blend the two.

A woman is walking her dog through a forest on a spring day and finds a young child.

How the woman interacts with her dog, the child, and the situation introduces us to our protagonist, her personality, and obviously, a very big problem (bullet point three). The story has now opened with a strong story action (bullet point four). Who does the child belong to, and why was she left in the forest?

Let’s take this a little further and add a theme: dealing with loss.

The child the woman finds looks just like her two-year-old daughter who was kidnapped ten years earlier.

An old wound is reopened with minimum backstory. Will she call the police? Will she keep the child in an attempt to heal her wound? What if she finds the mother dead by a gunshot wound behind the next tree and dog begins to growl at something in the bushes?

Let’s add one more twist:

The child has a note pinned to her clothes that apologizes to the woman by name for the earlier kidnapping. (Now I want to know what’s gonna happen.)

This should cover the sixth bullet point: a strong story action that encourages the reader to continue. The directions the story could go in are almost limitless. (Read The Ransom of Red Chief by O. Henry. It’s a nice ‘bad seed’ short story and the direction I’d choose.)

As an exercise, do this with your LERA Idol submission. Even if some of the points above occur after the first 750 words, they should occur very early in your story. Ask yourself: Am I missing something? Could it be added earlier in the scene as part of your hook?

See you April 13th for LERA Idol!

*RWA Resources: Articles*

After you log into the RWA.org website, click on the ‘RESOURCES’ pulldown menu (third from the left). ‘ARTICLES’ is the first offering. The articles posted are varied and plentiful. A search line allows you to choose a topic and see what advice other authors have for you.

Carol Potenza has been a member of LERA for four years and drives from Las Cruces every month to attend LERA meetings in Albuquerque. She is the Tony Hillerman Prize winning author of Hearts of the Missing.

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