The Writing Life

…a literary journey

The Vault #2: First Impressions ~ Getting their Attention


So we all know it’s important to start your story with a bang, right? Grab your readers (or prospective agents/publishers) quick…I mean really quick! The first sentence, the first page, the first chapter – writers pour blood, sweat and tears into getting this right. And since I’m still in the early chapters of my novel, the topic is something I’m engrossed with. Luckily this week I hit the jackpot; I found two articles regarding story structure that I feel are worth sharing with you.

For those of you who haven’t read my previous blogs, click here for a synopsis of the my novel, Oldsters.

My first issue had to do with the initial chapter. I worked hard at building a scene that you could really visualize as you read. You are introduced to two of the major characters, one minor character, and get a feel for an interesting situation that’s going on. But I built the chapter by starting somewhat placidly and then at the end, in the last sentence, you’re drawn in by a character’s thought that lets you know how important this situation really is.

After I read Chuck Sambuchino’s article “How to Start Your Novel: What the Movie True Lies Taught Me”, I realized my mistake and how simple the fix was. The last sentence should be the first! How easy, and what an improved result. You have to read this article – and pay close attention to the portion about the ‘Literary Idol’ panel – imagine, reading your first page to a group of agents where they raised their hand to tell you when they would stop reading your story and toss it in the slush pile. Moral to this article? DON’T BURY A GREAT OPENING LINE!

My second issue had to do with story structure and the importance of using the first 50 pages to make sure you’ve given your reader a story that’s got great promise, as well as filled them in on who the players are and what the conflict is. In Oldsters, because my characters are elderly, it’s a given that there will flashbacks so we can see how the lives they’ve led have gotten them to where they are present day. When I started writing, I used a flashback in chapter two. It flowed nice enough from the first chapter, but after I read “Weaving a Seamless Backstory” by Karen Dionne (in my favorite mag, Writer’s Digest – Jan. 2013 Issue), I knew I had made what could be a major flaw.

By using a flashback in chapter two, I took the reader out of the story too soon. This article does a great job of exploring the pitfalls of giving too much backstory too early. What I learned is to start the story where the story starts.

Dionne explains how writers often think we need to stop the story and fill the reader in on what the characters were up to before the story started. When I see this in black and white, it all makes sense. I can still use the flashbacks, but set up the story first – there’s plenty of time to get that history in. Dionne goes on to explain how this ‘interrupts the reader’ – and instead of having them get lost in our story we’re trying to tell, we barge in and say, “Hey, the story won’t make any sense unless you know this first.”

I hope you take a look at these articles – I really appreciate everyone who’s been reading and commenting…Write On!

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