Sunday, 21 May 2017

Resist the Urge to Explain


What does that mean, exactly? Well, it describes what it says – writers should resist the urge to explain things. This may seem contradictory, since the writer has to explain things to the reader so that they understand the story, but in this instance, we’re talking about the urge to explain everything. There’s a fundamental difference between the two.
New writers, in particular, have an in-built habit of over-explaining things, simply because they don’t really know any different, and they assume that’s what the reader needs and wants. But that’s not the case. In this instance, less is always more.
From the first chapter, writers feel they have to explain everything, on the assumption the reader simply won’t get what’s going on. But readers are smart. They pick up on things very easily, so the need to explain is mitigated by the fact that they don’t need to be force-fed every morsel of information in order to ‘get it’.
That’s one of the main reasons why too much explanation – or exposition – leads to telling rather than showing. And while there isn’t anything wrong with telling – in all the right places – there is everything wrong with it in all the wrong places.
The reader doesn’t need to know everything about the story, the character and his or her background in the first chapter. It doesn’t have to happen in the second chapter or third. It can happen when the writer feels it necessary to impart such information.
The first chapter serves as the lure. It doesn’t need to contain everything. Instead, the proceeding chapters feed juicy snippets of information as the story unfolds.
The urge to explain things comes in many guises. Info dumping is another one of them. It’s expositional overload - a Nightmare on Explanation Street. Readers hate info dumps, as do editors and agents. They don’t want important information dumped over two or three pages in one huge, boring chunk. That’s a sure fire way of killing the story. The reader won’t bother to read anything else you’ve written, because they already know almost everything.
In order to keep the reader interested, and hooked, clever writers hold back information rather than explaining everything. This is a very deliberate ploy, and with good reason. That’s because we can introduce information bit by bit, when it suits the story and the plot, and of course, a character’s situation. That way, we retain some mystery, some drama, some tension and atmosphere and that most fundamental element – conflict.
The beauty of writing is that some things are worth holding back – the important snippet of information, that incident from the past, the significant revelation, that confrontation with the antagonist...it could be anything. But that ‘anything’ can be worth something later in the story. That’s because the reader doesn’t need to know everything there is to know about your main character or his/her situation in one go. The less they know, the better (and stronger) your story will be.
On the flip side, there is also a trend with writers to go for brevity in the mythological belief that the average reader has the attention span of a gnat. Some might have brief attention spans, but most don’t. Brevity is fine in very small doses, but the thing about brevity is that it has no substance, and if there is little substance, then there is little reason to read your book.
The need to explain things is rather like the Goldilocks effect. Not too much that it spoils the narrative, not too little that there is no substance and reader has nothing to read, but just the right amount, in the right places, at the points in the story that really matter, that makes the story so enjoyable.
Resist the temptation to write four pages of backstory in the first chapter. Resist the urge to explain the main character’s background. Resist the urge to explain why your main character is embarking on his or her journey. Resist the urge to explain why the villain is so villainous. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that the reader just won’t understand the story unless you explain it all to them.
Explanation has its place, but only when it’s the right moment. How else can you retain a sense of mystery or intrigue? How else will you keep your reader in suspense? How else will you tease and lure them?
If you want them to keep turning the page, never give too much away.

Next week: How to use similes and metaphors.

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Making First Chapters Successful – Part 3


Part 1 and Part 2 looked at an array of elements to include to make a first chapter successful and stand out to your readers, but since there are so many to consider, we’ll conclude with a few more to ensure that the opening of your book hooks the reader from the very first word and keeps them hooked.
Central Theme
This is something that can be hinted. You don’t have to club the reader over the head in order for them to get the main theme that runs through your book. Themes are the veins that run through every story, and your reader will easily pick up on them. The more they enjoy the story, the more things they will understand.
Often a story has a central main theme – betrayal or revenge, for instance. So by hinting at these themes through subtext, through character emotions and thoughts or carefully placed flashbacks, you can establish the main theme very easily.
Be Visual, not Verbose
The description, or how you apply it, in your first chapter is a benchmark of what the reader can expect throughout the book. That means that if you write the first chapter like an amateur, the rest of the book will look amateurish as well.
But if you take the time to describe visually (show, don’t tell), then the reader will fall for your unique voice and writing style, and so they will know what to expect in the coming chapters.
So don’t tell the reader about the main character standing in the rain waiting for the moment to get the bad guy. Show the reader. Describe. You can tell the reader everything, but unless you allow the reader to visualise the situation through your description, there is no point to the book.
That’s because it’s all in the detail of your description.
What Lies Beneath
What lies beneath the opening chapter?
The whole story, that’s what. The first chapter serves as a synopsis of the entire story – in other words, it will hint at everything the reader wants. It should hint at what the story is about, why it’s taking place, what might happen. It should have motive, emotion, themes, conflict...all the things the reader absolutely wants and expects.
The first chapter is an appetiser. Make sure it leaves the reader wanting more.
Avoid Exposition and Info-Dumps
Many first time authors do this. They begin the first chapter with the entire backstory of the main character, then go on to explain what the story is about and then finish with some huge info dumps. This will kill the story dead.
The reader won’t care one bit for the main character or his/her story because they’ve had to read ten pages of boring rubbish to get to the main point of the story. Any drama that an opening chapter should create will be swallowed up by extraneous drivel.
This is why we tell writers to be lean with exposition and backstory, which can come in the proceeding chapters, bit by bit. So if you want a great first chapter, avoid unnecessary info dumps and huge passages of narrative and instead jump right into the story.
Avoid Prologues
Some will argue that there’s nothing wrong with prologues. And there isn’t anything wrong with them. If you want a prologue, write one.
But if you want to engage your reader, avoid them. Prologues do kill the story. You’re asking the reader to read through some boring stuff that relates to the story somehow, but where nothing actually happens. There is no conflict, no emotion or descriptive essence before the reader finally gets to the first chapter and by then they’re already bored and really couldn’t care less.
The fact is that almost all prologues are not necessary. The writer will say that they can’t find anywhere else in the book to put this information, which somehow relates to the story. No? So they can’t use a flashback? They can’t use memories through a character? (thus strengthening characterisation in the process). They can’t use it in dialogue? They can’t feed it through expositional snippets during more dramatic moments? They can’t write anything?
A prologue doesn’t actually add much to the story. It simply sucks up all the tension and drama and mystery of the opening chapter and may well mean the reader abandons the story. They probably have better things to do than read a prologue about nothing in particular and where nothing actually happens.
The thing with opening chapters is that the reader will often remember them, because it’s their first introduction to the story and the characters, but also of you, the writer. It’s your style and voice. The way you write is just as important as all the elements that go into making a first chapter successful.
Every writer is individual, but it’s how they engage with the reader that makes the reader come back for the second novel, the third and so on. And they will come back, as long as the first chapter hooks them and keeps them reading.
Next week: Resisting the Urge to Explain

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Making First Chapters Successful – Part 2


Part 1 looked at many of the elements required in order to make a first chapter interesting enough for the reader to keep reading, but there are plenty of others at a writer’s disposal. Writers don’t have to use every single one, but they’re important enough for most first chapters if the writer wants to get them right.
Begin the story, Not the Book
Open in media res, the most tense or dramatic moment. Most books start with the beginning of the book, but it’s not the beginning of the story. Writers spend far too long establishing a story at the beginning instead of jumping right into the thick of it from the outset.
The reader will pick up the story as the story unfolds – that’s what storytelling is about.
Setting
Somewhere in the first chapter you should let your reader know when and where your story is taking place. That doesn’t mean you write a three page description of the setting, because that will just kill any impetus of the opening chapter. The first chapter really doesn’t need an overload of unnecessary information.
Instead, hint at the setting, or just write a couple of lines to show where and when. That’s all it needs. The reader will fill it the rest.
A Crucial Opening Line
There is a gamut of advice on having a great first line in order to lure the reader. But this is one bit of advice worth taking, because not only are we writers, but we’re also readers, and when we read the first line of a book, we want to be hooked, we want to read on, we want to be entertained and we want that promise of great things to come.
That’s what a first line should deliver. It’s the bait the dangles before your reader, the finger that begs them to follow.
Study some of the opening lines to books and see what makes them work.
Open With…
Action, dialogue, an interesting line of description…it doesn’t really matter. There is lots of advice telling writers to open with action, but while this is not a bad idea, writers don’t have to open with explosions or a car chase or a shootout with the hero.  There are other ways.
Some books open with amazing dialogue. Some open by teasing with intrigue or mystery with a few lines of visual description which provokes the reader, it demands the reader become involved rather than making them stand on the sidelines to watch it unfold, as action scenes do.
Whether it’s a bit of action, a bit of dialogue or a bit of mystery or intrigue, how you open the story is wholly dependent on how well you write it.
Make the Reader Care
Immediacy and emotion makes the reader care about your characters. Establish an emotional connection from the outset and you will have your reader in the palm of your hand. And the best way to create emotion is to throw your main character into danger, to make things almost impossible for him. Or you take from him something that matters, like his house or his wife or children – these are tangible emotions we can all connect with because we know what the feeling of loss is like, we know what it’s like when everything gets on top of us and there seems no way out.
Readers will respond to what they understand, and they all understand raw emotion.
Cast a Flicker of Light
The idea of any first chapter is to whet the reader’s appetite. So rather than illuminate the entire story in the first eight pages or so, simply cast a flicker of light over things. Writers have a habit of explaining everything in the first chapter, so the rest of the story doesn’t have much substance, subtext, twist or much plot to give.
Hold back. Don’t tell them everything. Tease the reader. Hint. Whet their appetite. Drive them nuts to know more.
Just cast a flicker of light over the things you want them to know. For now.
In Part 3, we’ll conclude with a final list of elements to include in a successful first chapter.

Next week: Making First Chapters Successful – Part 3