Happy Monday. Hope all the moms out there had a good Mother’s Day. My daughter gave me a great present from Things Remembered. A tree with many branches, each dangling a small oval photo frame. She filled both sides of the frames with pictures of our family, with an engraved piece at the top for Mother’s Day 2006. A perfect gift for the day.
Sometime this week I'll run the interview with Chris Well--whenever he's done answering all the intriguing questions that you asked him--and a few more. In the meantime we'll begin our discussion on how to quickly invoke empathy for your protagonist or a supporting character—without dumping in a bunch of backstory. (Our discussion on backstory is a good foundation for this topic. Check the topic archives at right for a re-read.)
In talking about this subject, we’re not dismissing the importance of the inciting incident (first major conflict that kicks off the story). In fact the inciting incident has much to do with invoking empathy for a protagonist. But that in itself isn’t enough. You can thrust a protagonist in the middle of facing death, but if the reader doesn’t connect with that character, the reader won't care.
Now, writers and readers know that character empathy doesn’t happen all at once. It should grow with each chapter. That’s human nature—we connect with people as we get to know them better and appreciate how they handle struggles in life. But readers need enough connection with the character in that first chapter of his/her appearance so they’ll want to read on.
As far as beginning the novel in general, I think the surest formula (regardless of genre) goes something like this:
1. Grabber first sentence
2. Provocative first paragraph. This can range all the way from high action to quiet narrative, but it should (A) impart pieces of compelling knowledge while (B) giving rise to multiple intriguing questions.
3. First pages of continued high interest in present story (not jumping to a backstory scene), leading to
4. Inciting incident at end of chapter, with final
By the way, don’t be worried by the use of that word “formula.” It hardly means “formulaic” writing, as there are infinite ways to follow the above steps. Second, these 5 pointers aren’t etched in stone. There are exceptions to everything, and the more we learn our craft, the more we’re able to turn the normal on its head. But ya gotta know the normal real well first. For example, the gotcha first sentence and paragraph and pages might be in a prologue, with the inciting incident and hook coming in chapter one. In that case, we may not even meet the protagonist in the first few pages. Which is fine and dandy when it’s done well. (It can easily be done not so well.) At any rate, when we do meet this charming creature--what's to make us like him or her?
Tomorrow we’ll look at a few of these techniques.
Read Part 2-5
Read Part 6-11