Tips on Creating That First Line

by Susan May Warren, @SusanMayWarren

How you hook your reader on the first page?

I love this quote by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, who won the 1992 Nobel Prize for Literature for 100 years of Solitude.

“One of the most difficult things is the first paragraph…in the first paragraph, you solve most of the problems with your book. The theme is defined, the style, the tone. At least in my case, the paragraph is a kind of sample of what the rest of the book is going to be.”

By the way, that book sold over 10 million copies.

The hook paragraph, your first paragraph just might be the most important paragraph you write in your entire story. Yesterday, I talked about four ways to begin your story. Today, I’m going to share with you my technique on how I figure out the first sentence.

I use an acronym, SHARP which stands for:

  • Stakes
  • Hero/Heroine identification
  • Anchoring
  • on the Run
  • Problem (Story Question)

Before I write anything, I start with understanding the big picture of my story and my scene.

Step One: Figure out what is at Stake.

Stakes are what is going to drive your reader through the story, whether they are personal or public, and hinting at them in the beginning will give your reader “something to fight for.”

Public Stakes: Public stakes have much to do with public values, what matters to people. Ask yourself…what matters to me? If it matters to you, then it matters to others. What’s the worst thing you could think of happening to you? Then others fear that also. And that’s where you find your public stakes.

Personal Stakes:  Personal stakes can be found in the root of our values. The things that drive us, or the things we long for. How do you find those personal values of your character?

ASK:

  • What matters most to him in life?
  • What would he avoid at all costs, and why?
  • What defining incident in his past has molded him to the person he is today?
  • What are his goals, and why?
  • Find two different values, and then ask yourself: in what situation will these values be pitted against each other? These are the personal stakes.

Finally, ask yourself: What could go wrong in this scene? This is the answer of what is at stake.

Step Two: Create Hero/Heroine Identification, or Sympathy for the character from the reader.

You’re trying to create a connection with the reader by helping them identify with the character. How do you find that sympathetic element? Ask yourself: What do I have in common with my character? What need, or dream, or situation, or fear, or past experience do we share? And what about that can I extrapolate that fits into my story?

Step Three is called Anchoring, or using the 5 W’s to create a sense of place.

By the end of the first paragraph, and for sure the first scene, you should have anchored your character into the scene by using the five W’s. Who, What, Where, When and Why? The 5 w’s can evoke emotions, and give us a feeling of happiness, or tension, even doom in the scene. Ask: What is the one emotion you’d like to establish in this first sentence, paragraph, scene? Using the five 5’s, what words can you find for each W that conveys this sense of emotion? You’ll use these in the crafting of your first paragraph.

Step Four: Start your scene on the Run.

Dwight Swain says, in Techniques of the Selling Writer, “a good story being in the middle, retrieves the past and continues to the end.” Your first sentence hook should be something that begins in the middle of the action. It is a blip in time in the middle of that incident that zeros in on the character and gives us a glimpse at his life and why this situation is important.

Step Five: Set up the Problem or Story Question.

The story question is the one thematic question that drives the book. This question permeates all the decisions of the hero and/or heroine throughout the story, and needs to be hinted at in the sentence, in the first paragraph, and in the first scene. How do you find a theme? Ask: What is the lesson my character will walk away with? The question that accompanies that answer is the theme.

Take these five elements, and sift them together, looking at each one. Can you highlight one of  these elements to serve as the first line?  Of, could one of the four openings from yesterday’s blog offer the biggest curiosity? Try this – if you are writing in Deep POV, ask: what is my character thinking right now? Could this thought serve as the first line?

Happy writing!

Susie May


A Matter of Trust (Montana Rescue Book #3)

Champion backcountry snowboarder Gage Watson has left the limelight behind after the death of one of his fans. After being sued for negligence and stripped of his sponsorships, he’s remade his life as a ski patrol in Montana’s rugged mountains, as well as serving on the PEAK Rescue team. But he can’t seem to find his footing–or forget the woman he loved, who betrayed him.Senator and former attorney Ella Blair spends much of her time in the limelight as the second-youngest senator in the country. But she has a secret–one that cost Gage his career. More than anything, she wants to atone for her betrayal of him in the courtroom and find a way to help him put his career back on track.

When Ella’s brother goes missing on one of Glacier National Park’s most dangerous peaks, Gage and his team are called in for the rescue. But Gage isn’t so sure he wants to help the woman who destroyed his life. More, when she insists on joining the search, he’ll have to keep her safe while finding her reckless brother, a recipe for disaster when a snowstorm hits the mountain.

But old sparks relight as they search for the missing snowboarder–and suddenly, they are faced with emotions neither can deny. But when Ella’s secret is revealed, can they learn to trust each other–even when disaster happens again?

Susan May Warren is owner of Novel Rocket and the founder of Novel.Academy. A Christy and RITA award-winning author of over fifty novels with Tyndale, Barbour, Steeple Hill, Summerside Press and Revell publishers, she’s an eight-timeChristy award finalist, a three-time RITA Finalist, and a multi-winner of the Inspirational Readers Choice award and the ACFW Carol. A popular writing teacher at conferences around the nation, she’s also the author of the popular writing method, The Story Equation. A full listing of her titles, reviews and awards can be found at: www.susanmaywarren.com. Contact her at: susan@mybooktherapy.com.

Genre Makes You A Better Writer

by Susan May Warren, @SusanMayWarren

I’ve written more than 50 books.  Many of them have been on the best-seller list.  A number have won awards.  And at least half are….romance.

When I get to that last sentence, whatever literary cred I’ve earned with the first three statements seems to vanish.  “You write Romance?” someone will ask, (as if they haven’t heard me) and sometimes add an accompanying look of…disdain?  Disappointment? As if writing romance is somehow less highbrow than general fiction.  I hate the assumption that general fiction is better written. Hogwash.

Words are words, and the truth is, writing fabulous genre fiction is harder than general fiction. You have to stand out in a category with your words while delivering a plot that follows the genre constructs.  General fiction can be wonderful…or it can be a “the emperor has no clothes” moment – everything thinking the same thing, but afraid to say it.

Here are some truths:
~ Genre fiction gives a writer framework that allows them to hone their wordsmithing.  Because genre fiction comes with expectations about plot, the author must adhere to them – and then work diligently on emotional layering and wordsmithing to stand out.

~ Genre fiction gives an agent or editor a niche in which to sell the novel.  It helps them find the right market or line, connects them to the right editors.

~ Genre fiction makes it easier for an author to find a following. If they can construct a story within the structure of genre, but with a winning, distinct voice, fans of the genre will champion them and their following will build….even over to other genres.  Look at JD Robb, aka Nora Roberts.

Here’s how to make Genre fiction work for you.

1. Find a genre and stay in it long enough to master it.  Work on one element of storycrafting or wordsmithing at a time.  I would use each book as an opportunity to hone dialogue, or storyworld, or emotional layering, or the romantic elements…whatever.  Eventually I felt confident in every area, and my books got better with each story.

2. Study the best-sellers in the genre and ask: what do they right?  Keep a highlighter with you and mark up your stories with passages or techniques that stand out.  How can you apply the principles you’ve learned from these best-sellers into your stories?

3. Look at the plot constructs and ask: what works, what doesn’t?  If you are going to have a rogue agent that kidnaps his former handler in a romantic suspense, how does the author make that agent likeable?  Or is he?  Find the nuances that make a story powerful.  Look at the rhythm of when these constructs occur.  How do they add to the character’s emotional journey and make the story more satisfying?

4. Ask: How can you make your voice stand out?  What unique element do you bring to the genre?  I wrote six novels for Steeple Hill/Love Inspired…all of them with an international theme.  But I lived overseas and could easily write stories set in an international – especially Russian (where I lived) setting.  This became part of my voice.

5. Focus on character.  Because you are writing inside genre, you’re plot will be a “repeat” to some extent.  (let’s be honest  – there are only 7 major plots in the world anyway!).  So, it has to be your characters who make your stories powerful.  Dive deep and create characters who live and breathe.  (we have a few techniques here at MBT.)

Quick Skills Exercise:   Read a genre novel (in your genre!) this week. Write down the genre constructs in the novel, and when they occur. How does the author make their voice or character stand out?  Are there any techniques you can apply to your own writing?

Genre is an author’s friend.  Make it work for you as you build your career and you’ll become a better writer.

Susie May


A Matter of Trust (Montana Rescue Book #3)

Champion backcountry snowboarder Gage Watson has left the limelight behind after the death of one of his fans. After being sued for negligence and stripped of his sponsorships, he’s remade his life as a ski patrol in Montana’s rugged mountains, as well as serving on the PEAK Rescue team. But he can’t seem to find his footing–or forget the woman he loved, who betrayed him.Senator and former attorney Ella Blair spends much of her time in the limelight as the second-youngest senator in the country. But she has a secret–one that cost Gage his career. More than anything, she wants to atone for her betrayal of him in the courtroom and find a way to help him put his career back on track.

When Ella’s brother goes missing on one of Glacier National Park’s most dangerous peaks, Gage and his team are called in for the rescue. But Gage isn’t so sure he wants to help the woman who destroyed his life. More, when she insists on joining the search, he’ll have to keep her safe while finding her reckless brother, a recipe for disaster when a snowstorm hits the mountain.

But old sparks relight as they search for the missing snowboarder–and suddenly, they are faced with emotions neither can deny. But when Ella’s secret is revealed, can they learn to trust each other–even when disaster happens again?

 Susan May Warren is owner of Novel Rocket and the founder of Novel.Academy. A Christy and RITA award-winning author of over fifty novels with Tyndale, Barbour, Steeple Hill, Summerside Press and Revell publishers, she’s an eight-timeChristy award finalist, a three-time RITA Finalist, and a multi-winner of the Inspirational Readers Choice award and the ACFW Carol. A popular writing teacher at conferences around the nation, she’s also the author of the popular writing method, The Story Equation. A full listing of her titles, reviews and awards can be found at: www.susanmaywarren.com. Contact her at: susan@mybooktherapy.com.

Act 2 Plotting in 5 Easy Questions

by Susan May Warren, @SusanMayWarren 


I always get the Chapter Seven Blues. I know it’s inevitable, but I seem to forget that it happens, and often I’ll find myself down in the kitchen, moping (and looking for chocolate) and my husband will say… “You’re at Chapter 7, aren’t you?”
I’ll turn, stare at him, and nod. “How did you know that?”“Because the excitement of the story has gotten you through chapter 3, and Act 1, and the momentum carried you into chapters 4-6, but now the steam has died in the middle of Act 2, and you’re down here hunting for inspiration.” (This is usually accompanied by him taking the bag of chocolate chips out of my hand.)
Continue reading “Act 2 Plotting in 5 Easy Questions”

Using Coloring Emotions to Create Unique Scenes

by Susan May Warren, @SusanMayWarren

An aspiring author once asked me about describing a character’s emotional responses in a scene (show don’t tell!) and still be original every time. So let’s talk about it. What is a good way for describing emotional responses with originality?

I love this question because it’s all about going deeper with your characterization, and really drawing the reader into the story in a way that connects. I believe there are four levels to portraying emotion.

Level 1: Just the facts.

“He was angry.”

Of course, this is boring, and holds the reader the farthest away.

Level 2: Involving the body.

“Anger filled his throat.”

Not bad, because we can understand how that might choke someone, but again, it keeps the reader at arm’s length, unable to relate.

Level 3: The visceral response.

“His throat clogged with emotions that cut off his words.”

Now, we are closer, the emotions remain unnamed, allowing the reader to imagine for himself the array of emotions that might cut off words.

Each level gets further away from telling the reader what to think. But if we really want a reader to engage with a character’s emotions, we need to go to the final level.

Level 4: Put them inside the character’s skin.

How do we do that? 3 STEPS

Step one: Understand the emotions of the scene.

No emotion is pure — every emotion has corresponding “colors.” For example, let’s say the anger above was prompted by someone breaking into your house. That emotion might also contain feelings of helplessness, and revenge. But if the anger is from a spouse cheating, it might also contain the emotions of loss and betrayal. Find out what other emotions are embedded in the main emotion.

Step two: Chose one of the coloring emotions to focus on as you draw out the scene. What metaphor could you use to convey that emotion?

Step three: Create a scene WITHOUT NAMING any of the emotions, or visceral responses.

So how does this work? Before writing a scene, ask yourself what emotions would the character be feeling? Is it love? Could it also be fear of losing that love? And at the same time panic, over losing freedom? Maybe it’s also surprise, that it could happen to them.

Now, what emotion could you pull out of that mix to illuminate the emotion of love? Maybe a woman loves someone who is going to leave for the military, and yet hasn’t admitted it to herself, or him? To illuminate that growing emotion, she could throw out all the newspapers in the house that talk about war. She could refuse to listen to the news.

Finally, what emotion can you then contrast with that first one, to really explore the many sides? Anger, over his patriotism?

Taking a closer look at an emotion and pulling out one of the shades to explore or illuminate makes your character’s emotions not only more real, but sympathetic to the reader as they recognize their own emotions (maybe even for the first time!) in a character’s actions.

Love. Anger. Happiness. These are broad, blanket emotions that can take on many actions and facets. Many “colors.” I want to give you a glimpse of how I did this in my book Taming Rafe.

Rafe’s a tough guy…a bull-rider. And he’s hurt deeply by the actions of the woman he loves. He’s been through a lot, and he’s broken. At his darkest moment, I didn’t want him to punch things, or go on a drinking binge…I wanted the reader to enter into his despair. As I looked at the emotion of GRIEF, I saw: Regret and Hopelessness. I picked those emotions to work with to illuminate the depth of his grief.

Rafe slammed his way upstairs, banged open his bedroom door. The entire house shook. Crossing the room, he ripped his Bobby Russell and Lane Frost posters off the wall and grabbed the box of videotapes he’d dug out for Kitty. He took his trophies, his ribbons, his two championship buckles, and the scrapbook he’d kept for himself over the years and shoved them into his PBR duffel bag. Then he threw them all over his shoulder and stormed back downstairs.

Piper, Stefanie, and Nick stood in the kitchen, holding a powwow of concern.

He ignored them, marched back out to Piper’s truck, threw the bag in the back, and roared out.

He took the back roads to the burial mound, driving as fast as he could without dropping one of the axles. He stopped at the bottom of the hill, lugged out the bag, and muscled himself up the hill.

He threw sticks and twigs together, and taking a lighter he’d found in Piper’s glove compartment, he knelt and lit a blaze.

The flame crackled as it devoured the sticks, then the kindling, and finally the larger pieces of wood he added for fuel. The flame showed no distinction between the fragile and the hearty, biting into the wood with tongues of orange, red, and yellow.

Rafe opened the duffel. Instead of dumping the entire thing on the flames, he pulled the items out one by one. His posters. They burned in a second, curling into tight balls. The ribbons, which sent out an acrid odor. The scrapbook. The fire started on the edges, burning away the accomplishments, the defeats. Then the tapes. The smell of plastic burning made his eyes water and sent black smoke into the now bruised sky. The trophies would take hours to fully burn, but their plastic mounts deformed and caved in on themselves immediately. Finally, the buckles. He dropped both of them into the flames, feeling his throat thicken.

He closed his eyes, smelling a bull’s hide, dirty and sweaty, feeling the adrenaline spike through his body, the jarring as every muscle, every bone screamed in pain. He felt the rush of relief as he let go and rolled off the back hip of the bull, found his feet, and ran to safety. He heard the crowd roar.

The flames crackled, spitting and popping as they devoured his life. The bull rider. The man Kitty claimed she believed in.

Rafe drew up his good knee, crossed his arms atop it, buried his head in them, and for the first time since his mother died—even during Manuel’s funeral, even in the dark months that followed—Rafe let himself cry.

I don’t name the emotions – regret, hopelessness, grief…but hopefully you can feel them.

Now it is your turn. What is your character emotion and how can you bring that on the page with these steps?

TWEETABLES
__________
A Matter of Trust (Montana Rescue Book #3)

Champion backcountry snowboarder Gage Watson has left the limelight behind after the death of one of his fans. After being sued for negligence and stripped of his sponsorships, he’s remade his life as a ski patrol in Montana’s rugged mountains, as well as serving on the PEAK Rescue team. But he can’t seem to find his footing–or forget the woman he loved, who betrayed him.

Senator and former attorney Ella Blair spends much of her time in the limelight as the second-youngest senator in the country. But she has a secret–one that cost Gage his career. More than anything, she wants to atone for her betrayal of him in the courtroom and find a way to help him put his career back on track.

When Ella’s brother goes missing on one of Glacier National Park’s most dangerous peaks, Gage and his team are called in for the rescue. But Gage isn’t so sure he wants to help the woman who destroyed his life. More, when she insists on joining the search, he’ll have to keep her safe while finding her reckless brother, a recipe for disaster when a snowstorm hits the mountain.

But old sparks relight as they search for the missing snowboarder–and suddenly, they are faced with emotions neither can deny. But when Ella’s secret is revealed, can they learn to trust each other–even when disaster happens again?



Susan May Warren is owner of Novel Rocket and the founder of Novel.Academy. A Christy and RITA award-winning author of over fifty novels with Tyndale, BarbourSteeple HillSummerside Press and Revell publishers, she’s an eight-timeChristy award finalist, a three-time RITA Finalist, and a multi-winner of the Inspirational Readers Choice award and the ACFW Carol. A popular writing teacher at conferences around the nation, she’s also the author of the popular writing method, The Story Equation. A full listing of her titles, reviews and awards can be found at: www.susanmaywarren.com. Contact her at: susan@mybooktherapy.com.