Recently I came across Pixar’s rule #19, quoted in James Scott Bell’s book, “How to Write Short Stories (and use them to further your writing career)”. It’s an excellent book, and one of a few of his I’ve got in my Kindle collection. But this rule reminded me of the whole list, full of good advice for storytellers whether their format is film or novel (from flash fiction to tome). Most writing advice boils down to things like focus, self-discipline, detail work, and honing one’s craft to the best it can be – and that is an on-going process, a habit, an addiction. It needs to be a passion. Honing our craft means covering all the bases – grammar, syntax, plot, character, vocabulary, pacing, theme-building, and so, so, much more! If you’ve got a weakness in your writing skills, the good news is that you can always improve it! Make it a strength! So be inspired, and keep writing!
A powerful opener…
Anyone who writes novels worth reading can tell you that, as with any relationship, the first impression you make is the most important. You know that you need to get your character from A to Z through the story, but how you introduce A is more important than B through Z – in other words, if you lose your reader’s interest from the get-go, they might not stick around long enough to find out where you want to lead them. Here are 7 steps to remember that will lead you to that great first impression:
- Dive in! Hit the ground running! Begin your story in the middle of an action scene, or in the middle of a conversation. Let your reader feel like they’re eavesdropping on a decisive moment in your character’s life. Make them wonder, make them ask questions they want answers to! Who’s speaking? What’s the context? Why is there X problem / challenge / discussion?
- Make your character human: Give them sympathetic traits, a relatable nature, and attitudes that readers can identify with. Do this through dialogue and actions, or by internalization (getting inside the character’s head, an “inner dialogue”). It will help you to prepare your main characters by writing out a biography for them. Give them memorable names (not complicated ones, or names that are difficult to work out how to pronounce). The main character must be somewhat larger than life (more interesting than the average person in some way); do this through giving them idiosyncrasies, habits, a quirky sense of humour, etc.
- Romance: If your character is real, there will be romance – some kind of heart-to-heart relationship that touches that key human emotion. I’m not talking about slutty romance novels; I’m talking about real human connection and rich emotional landscapes, whether it’s a small-town story, a science fiction planet, or a war zone.
- Supporting character: This might be a sidekick, a friend, partner, companion, or even an object or pet. It is someone or something for the main character to share their experiences with. The supporting character should contrast your main character – perhaps someone who asks the reader’s questions, or wants explanation of terms or concepts the reader might not be familiar with, without becoming “teach-y”. They might be the voice of reason to an impulsive main character, or the voice of adventure to a staid hero/heroine.
- Antagonist: This opponent is an obstruction to the main character’s goals. They create problems, sometimes danger. They may be human, or non-human (e.g. man vs. nature), or may be an internal struggle of the main character (haunted by their past, or an addiction, a weakness such as impatience, etc.).
- Emotion: Build an emotional landscape (this links closely with # 3). Show the main character as life-like, and develop relationships, or show struggles the character has with particular issues that give them depth and breadth.
- Style: Bring it all together in a style unique to your character’s voice and biography. Show their feelings, conflicts, adding complications and subplots to take it deeper. In your first chapter the goal of your character should come out – what their desires are, their determination, problems to solve, etc. – without making the arrival at that goal all too obvious!