It’s no secret that the start of the story is one of the hardest to master. The opening scene is your best chance to catch your reader and to hook them into reading your story the rest of the way through. As the author, you already have a love and admiration for your characters. Your reader however, does not, and you may only have a few paragraphs to capture their attention long enough to get them to care.
The key part is to figure out where your story really starts.
Stories are all driven by conflict. Frequently your conflict will force the character to make a change into a new normal. Although it might be tempting to start with a look at what their ‘old’ normal looks like, keep in mind that this is oftentimes largely unnecessary. You can usually rely on your audience to fill in some of the details—we all wake up in the morning and generally have a morning routine that involves getting dressed, eating breakfast and preparing for the day ahead.
Instead of starting with the old normal, ask yourself what moment is when the conflict first touches your character? At what point in their otherwise ordinary day does the conflict become personal?
Most people have goals. Characters should be no different. By looking at the point where their personal goals are threatened by the story’s conflict, you get closest to the start of the story. Not only do you give your character a reason to react to the conflict, you’re also giving your readers something to care about: The character’s goal is jeopardized. How will they still achieve their goals despite this threat?
It’s not uncommon to find stories that have started too far back. We’ve all heard the advice against starting with the character waking up and looking in the mirror and so on and so forth. There is a reason for this: It happens a lot. Often enough that it’s practically a trope. Although it’s more common in YA, there’s examples of it across all genres. Your story’s start should be strong enough to skip a boring introduction to your characters. Make us care first.
As an exercise: Take a look at your current manuscript and its opening scene. Typically you only have between 5-20 pages to catch a reader’s attention, so look at the first 10 pages (roughly the first 2000 words). Read these and ask yourself where in those first ten pages the main conflict becomes personal? Where is your character threatened? If it’s not within the first 10 pages, remove them from your manuscript (I recommend putting those extra pages into another document or folder, in case you find a use for them later). Then look at the next 10 pages. Keep doing this until you find the point where the conflict affects your character.
When it comes to musicals, most people tend to either love them or hate them. Regardless of your thoughts on musicals, you’ve probably heard at least one or two songs from them that get stuck in your head. (I’ll note here that I’ve been bopping along to Rewrite the Stars from The Greatest Showman for a couple of days now.)
The entire point of a musical is to intertwine both storytelling and songwriting. While it might seem like the two are worlds apart, the fact is that they share a lot in common. Songs often tell a story.
As an exercise: Create a playlist of songs for your story. Focus specifically on the songs that match your plot points. Whether it’s a cheating spouse, a determined young leader or even learning a new skill to defeat the antagonist, there are thousands of songs out there. Find ones that match your plot points and character arcs. Once you’ve gotten your playlist made, look at what kind of songs you chose. How does that help you identify your tone for each relevant scene? Are these songs reflective of what you want the scene to be?
I’d love to know what sort of songs you chose. Let me know in the comments below!
Editing is probably one of the hardest parts of the entire writing process. Once you’re through the effort of writing a rough draft, you then have to pick it apart to find the parts that aren’t working and to make them better. It might be hard to do that, especially when you’re still in the honeymoon phase of just having finished a rough draft. To celebrate the end of NaNoWriMo, I’m including some of the worksheets I use when starting my editing process. Hopefully one of these gives you a good place to start and helps you through the next step of the journey!
Keep in mind that writing—including editing—is a hugely personal and diverse process for each writer. What works for your favorite author may not work for you. Conversely, stories can also throw Try lots of different things.
Worldbuilding Questions Packet. I’ll often use this as way to help flesh out and kickstart any necessary worldbuilding when my setting feels flat. You don’t necessarily need to answer every question, but having a general idea can help find places where I need to spend a little more time developing the setting, or can highlight interesting conflicts I haven’t explored yet.
The Main Plot. Based off the classic pyramid plot structure, this gives a good overview of the main plot points and tensions in the draft. It can be a good starting point before getting into a more detailed outline, especially when I have a story that needs heavy restructuring in the plot.
Conflict and Event. Similar to the above, Conflict and Event can be used to see how the main and subplot(s) are playing off each other. I have it set up for three conflicts (a main and two subplots) but you can ignore the third if you only need two.
Character Motivations. I’m firmly in the camp of ‘characters make the story’. Character actions and reactions create a plot, and the reason behind their actions and reactions all comes down to motivation. This helps get beyond long-term and short-term goals and into their core values.
Where will you start your editing?
Psst! Patrons also get an additional three worksheets, one for character arcs, one for subplots and one for more worldbuilding. Check out my Patreon to find these!
It happens to the best writers. Even in the middle of a draft that’s going well and with a well-detailed outline, sometimes we get stuck on a scene. It might be that we’ve opened a huge plot hole we don’t know how to close. Or, we’ve written our characters into an impossible situation and were hoping to have a clever answer to get them out of it again that just isn’t coming.
Hopefully some of these will help. Instead of trying to push through and write your way out, take a couple of minutes and answer these questions about your current sticky scene. When you’ve answered them all, come back and see which answers spark more ideas and use those ideas to continue the current scene.
Remember! There are no limits to the answers here, even if they seem ridiculous or don’t fit your current genre conventions. You can edit or come up with a reasonable explanation for it later. Right now is just for unsticking your scene.
- What would happen if you killed your current PoV character?
- What clichés fit your protagonist and how can you change them?
- How would your supporting characters react to their biggest fears appearing in the current scene?
- Which supporting character has a reason to defect to the other side?
- Which family member’s death would affect your protagonist the most?
- Which character has most recently told a lie and what was it?
- What stereotypes fit your antagonist and how can you change them?
- What would happen if your protagonist’s mother came in on the current scene?
- What would happen if your antagonist’s mother came into the current scene?
- How would your antagonist react to your protagonist revealing their darkest secret?
- What would change about the current scene if you set it in a busy mall? An abandoned house? A thick forest? An open plain?
- What would make your Love Interest fall for the antagonist?
- How would your current scene to change if you switched the protagonist with a supporting character?
- What’s one threat that would make the antagonist and the protagonist work together?
- What one thing would make the antagonist give up?
If none of these work, consider skipping ahead to the next scene. You might find hints and clues about how your stuck scene resolved as you develop the next.
Like real people, characters should have flaws. After all, Nobody is perfect and your characters need to be Somebody. Hence, they need to have flaws and negative traits to help balance out their strengths. Having a negative trait in their character also helps provide conflict and gives you as the writer a place to build their arc.
Take a look at your character’s negative flaws and ask questions. Are they quick-tempered? Stingy? Vain? Perhaps they have low self-esteem or they care too much about what others think. Once you know where their shortcomings are, ask yourself how it impacts their ability to resolve the main conflict. Does an inability to listen to others cause a miscommunication? Does their timidity cause them to keep quiet when they have a perfect solution?
Their flaws should impact them in some way. Use those negative traits as an obstacle to getting what they want. This forces your character into needing to make a change and gives them a motivation for their character arc.
As the arc progresses, ramp up the problems caused by that negative trait. As the results become worse and worse, your character is forced to try a new tactic to get what they want. This reinforces the idea that their negative trait needs to change.
Not every character arc will end with a complete turn around. Change is hard to do, especially when it’s something like a bad habit or a negative trait. Rather than forcing your character through a full reimagining by the end of the story, let that negative trait remain—but tone it back. Show they can still be just as stubborn, stingy or selfish as they were, but that their instances of doing so are lessened by the impact of their past actions.