Posts Tagged ‘how to write a book’

My course, “Creative Writing: The Art of Story” will be offered again at St. Lawrence College on Tuesday evenings starting September 24.

I have spent several years coaching emerging writers and answering questions regarding story structure and other aspects of (mostly) novel writing, both in person and through my other website, How to Write a Book Now, and I can promise a very unique experience – one that will change the way you look at stories forever.

For registration, visit St Lawrence College’s part time studies page.


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On my other website, How to Write a Book Now, I sometimes field questions from writers on the subject of novel writing and story structure. In particular, I try to make Dramatica Story Theory more accessible to beginners.

One of the most common questions people ask is how to write a good opening chapter. In particular, they want to know where the story should start. And one of the most unfortunate myths they seem to have picked up is the idea that the first chapter of a novel should present an average, normal day for the main character.

I believe this idea originates in the work of Joseph Campbell, who argued that the monomyth (supposedly the archetype of all great stories) begins by showing the hero in his ordinary life, just prior to his receiving “the call” or invitation to begin his journey. The word “journey” here refers not necessarily to a physical journey, but to the quest or pursuit of the Story Goal, the objective on which the entire plot hangs.

The problem with this idea is that, for most people, an ordinary day is just that… ordinary. It’s a day when nothing special happens. That’s a problem for a writer who wants the first chapter of his novel to hook a reader’s interest.

In fact, most agents and editors demand that a novel grab the reader’s attention on the very first page. So an ordinary day just won’t do. Something extraordinary must happen at the start of a novel in order to entice a reader to continue reading – let alone an agent who habitually rejects thousands of manuscripts a year.

One way writers can solve this dilemma is to postpone any depiction of the main character’s everyday life and delve straight into the quest. You can start the story with the inciting incident of the main plot – the big threat or goal.

Of course, the problem with plunging straight into the main plot is that the reader does not get properly introduced to the main character. Yet you want the reader to develop empathy with the main character early on. So writers will sometimes use Chapter Two to backtrack and introduce the main character in his normal environment. You see this technique in films as well. The first scene often shows the start of the main plot. The villain commits some terrible crime or hatches a scheme. Then the story cuts to the main character in his ordinary life, totally unaware of the threat, until a messenger arrives who delivers the call.

An example of this would be the first Star Wars film (Episode IV, A New Hope). The film opens with the attack on Princess Leia’s ship and shows her successfully stopping the Empire from recovering the Death Star plans. Later, we are introduced to the main character, Luke Skywalker, and his frustrated effort to get his uncle’s permission to leave the farm.

However, it is important to note that in Star Wars, the viewer’s introduction to Luke does not occur on an ordinary day. Viewers would be completely bored if George Lucas had made them watch an ordinary day in Luke’s life – a day of farmwork that led to nothing more than another day of farmwork. Instead, we see Luke on a very special day which brings his frustrations to a head and changes his life forever.

Take note: if you ever find yourself writing about an “ordinary” day in the main character’s life, you’re probably wasting time and paper that could be spent on something more interesting. You want to focus on important events, because they make the reader keep reading to see what happens next. By an event, we mean a change, after which things are never the same. A real event sends the characters in a new direction. It is the opposite of ordinary.

So far, I’ve mentioned two possible events you could present in your first chapter – either an event involving the main character or the inciting event of the main plot. But if this sounds a bit formulaic, the theory of Dramatica, developed by Melanie Anne Phillips and Chris Huntley, offers writers some other options.

Dramatica proposes that a complete story will have four key throughlines. The Overall throughline (what most people consider the main plot) concerns the pursuit of the Story Goal. It’s the plot that affects or involves the majority of characters.

Second in importance is the Main Character’s arc. This throughline concerns the main character’s inner conflict. The main character begins the story with a habitual way of dealing with problems. In the course of the story, he faces a dilemma about whether or not he needs to change his approach in order to achieve the Story Goal. (Luke Skywalker’s problem is that he has no self-confidence, hence he can’t stand up to his uncle.)

In addition, the Impact Character throughline concerns the character who will pressure the main character to change by presenting an example of a different approach to dealing with problems. (In Star Wars, this role is played by Obi wan Kenobi, who teaches Luke how to have confidence.)

Finally, the Subjective or Relationship Throughline concerns the progress of the relationship between the main and impact characters.

Each of the four throughlines has its own beginning, complications, climax, and resolution – four major turning points. That makes 16 turning points or “signposts” for a complete story.

How you weave the four throughlines together is entirely up to you. If you’re looking for an important event for your first chapter, you can choose the first signpost from any of the throughlines:

1. Overall Throughline, Signpost #1. This is the inciting incident of the main plot. As I mentioned above, this is a frequent choice in action stories.

2. Impact Character Throughline, Signpost #1: This will be the first time that the main character sees or becomes aware of the impact character. It is an event where the Impact character tackles a problem or handles a situation in a way that is totally unlike how the main character would have handled it. It is the act that starts the main character on the road to questioning his approach. In romance stories, this is often the first encounter between the main character and the man she is destined to fall in love with. For instance, think of the moment in Casablanca when Ilsa walks into Rick’s bar, or Bridge to Teribithia when Leslie walks into Jesse’s classroom for the first time.

3. Relationship Throughline, Signpost #1: This will be an event that illustrates the relationship between the main and impact characters at the start of the story. It is a relationship that will be tested and change as the story progresses. It could be the moment when they first become friends, or enemies, or when one becomes the mentor to the other, etc. In Star Wars, this is the sequence in which Obi wan Kenobi offers to teach Luke the ways of the Force and Luke (after his aunt and uncle are killed) accepts.

4. Main Character Throughline, Signpost #1: This is where you introduce the main character and his inner conflict. It will be an event in which the main character tackles a problem using his typical approach. The outcome of this event could be success or failure, but the aim is to show the reader who this person is by showing them in action. In Star Wars, this would be the scene in which Luke accepts Uncle Owen’s decision that he must stay on the farm for another year.

Any one of these signposts can be the basis of a great first chapter. The secret is to make sure that the event, the change, that occurs is a significant event to the characters involved.

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For any writers who may be reading this, the website Book Marketing Buzz offers information and comments by writers on the subject of book marketing. Today, I am making a contribution to the site. Below is an excerpt. I realize I sound as if I disapprove of writers who blog (and yes, I get the irony). But I’m not actually against blogging or blogs about writing. I just acknowledge that it’s harder now to make your writing blog different from everyone else’s, yet you must if you want to stand out.

“What’s your opinion on blogging? Do you see that it is helping sell your book or is it not making much difference in terms of sales?

“I have a few concerns about blogging. Every writer these days is told to blog, which means they have to be constantly writing blog content, which is time they take away from writing their next book. And if they have a family and a day job, they don’t have a lot of time to start with. On top of that, fiction writers’ primary expertise is writing fiction, so that’s what they blog about. The result is thousands of blogs on fiction writing – which makes it hard to stand out.

“Now, I have a website rather than a blog on writing. It’s How to Write a Book Now. I try to present tips and advice on it which you don’t see everywhere else. I’m a big fan of dramatica story theory, which is a powerful tool which few people understand. So I try to present it in a simple, easy-to-use format so beginning writers can get a leg up. The site now gets a good amount of traffic. In fact, my article, “Create a Plot Outline in 8 Easy Steps” has been the number one search result for “plot outline” on google for a year or so.

“I also have a blog which I started for this book. You can find it at https://glencstrathy.wordpress.com/. But I confess I don’t post as often as I should, nor have I done everything I should to make it an effective marketing tool. (See, I’m much better at promoting things other than myself.)”

To read the read of this interview, or to find out more about effective book marketing practices, check out…

Book Marketing Buzz

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