5 Essentials of a First Chapter

by Susan May Warren, @SusanMayWarren

There are a lot of checklists for building a first chapter, and sometimes they can get overwhelming. Over at My Book Therapy we have an advanced checklist we use to help people build their first scene (it’s the same checklist I use when building my first chapters!). However, I admit, it can get overwhelming.

So, let’s start with just 5 things. (I made a nifty acronym to help you remember, just because that’s how my brain works. You don’t have to use it.)

You’re starting your story at the edge of a C.L.I.F.F.:

Competence: Show that your character is good at something and can eventually win the day with these skills.

Lie: Where will your character start their inner journey (at MBT, we call it the lie they believe…which sets them up later for the “truth that sets them free.”_

Ignition: Set up the Inciting Incident. Perhaps it’s just the hint of the II. Maybe it is the actual II. But hint that that something could be happening…even if you are setting up a perfect world situation, we will then suspect your character is about to fall, hard.

Fear: We want to know what your character fears – maybe he sees something, or he says something, it’s usually very subtle, but something that we can look at later and say, yes, we saw what he didn’t want to have happen!

Focus: We want to see what your character wants, what his goals are. What is he about?

Because you know your character, you should be able to craft this scene. If not, start with a character interview.

Questions to ask your character to help build the first chapter

Competence: What are you good at? What are your super power skills that we can highlight now to show how you’ll save the day at the end?

Lie: What Lie do you believe and how do you show this in your everyday life?

Ignition: What will happen in this chapter, big or small, that will change the life of your character and ignite him on his journey?

Fear: What fear hangs over the book and how can you hint at it in this first chapter?

Focus/Want: How can you express your characters focus in this chapter? Show who they are and what they want?

Now, pull out your first scene draft. What elements from this first scene reveal your character’s identity? Add that to the recipe.

The final step is to wrap all of this up in Home World: inserting the 5 W’s – Who, What, Where, When, and Why. All these should give you the framework of your first chapter.

Here’s a hint. Don’t write, just talk through the scene with a friend or craft partner. See if you have captured all the elements. If it doesn’t work, try a different scene. Now that you know what you’re looking for, you can build the scene verbally before you get it on the page (but remember to take notes of your conversation!)

Remember, you don’t have to get the scene right on the first pass…you’re still in rough draft mode. Just shoot for these 5 basic elements. You will go back later and add in the advanced list to bring your scene to publication level.

Start the first scene with your character on the edge of the CLIFF…ready to take off into the story. Build in the 5 elements: Competence, Lie, Ignition, Fear, Focus into your Home World and you’ll have a powerful foundation to your story.

Have a great writing week!

Susie May

TWEETABLES


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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.

How to Write a Suspense

by Susan May Warren, @SusanMayWarren

Summer is in full swing. Which means one thing: We’re one season closer to football. We love football, and the wait is killing us. But one of the things I love about football is that it’s a great metaphor for nearly everything.

Like writing a suspense novel. A football game has all the elements of a great suspense novel: the players we love, an objective, a playbook on how to win the day, villains, truth tellers (called coaches) on the sidelines and deadline for “game over.”

I could blogged all year about suspense, but I can’t cover all that territory today, so we’re going to touch on the one big element every suspense should have: The Big Event.
Every suspense must have a Big Event that looms in front of the character. It’s an Event they must either stop or achieve in order to save the day. The story may begin with a sample Big Event and lead up to another one. Or, it might have the Big Event in the middle, with the aftermath climax at the end. But the reader must believe that something terrible will happen if the hero/heroine don’t save the day, otherwise, there is nothing “suspenseful” to worry about. The key is that the story is building up to that event, yet the closer we get to the big event, the more obstacles are thrown before the hero/heroine.

Think of it like a football game. If the team doesn’t have the ability to lose, (or win), then we won’t believe they can lose, or win the day. We also need to care about the team, so they have to be heroes under all that gear. The game only last for four short quarters, so there is an immediacy to the threat (and a deadline) and finally, there must be a villainous team opposing them that makes us believe that all could be lost.

Let’s take a closer look at the Big Event. Whether the event that is/will happen is caused by the elements or a villain, it needs to have four components:

The Event must be Believable. You can accomplish this by showing a similar or like event happening in the beginning of the book, or a small glimpse of what COULD happen if things go awry. If I were writing a football book, I’d have them lose a previous game…Or perhaps have the undefeated team lose, to show that our team could go down, hard.

The Big Event also needs to be Compelling. See, if it doesn’t affect the life of a character (that we love), then we won’t really care. Or, if it doesn’t affect them in a way that matters to us, we also don’t care. It has to be personal. This is why High School football is way more exciting than professional football. It’s MY boys out there on the field, fighting for our small town.

There also needs to be an Immediacy or a Deadline to the Event. An end date. Four quarters, that’s it. The hero/heroine/readers must believe that the threat/Big Event will happen, and soon.

See, we need to believe that this horrible Big Event will be…Horrible, Terrifying, Awful. This is different from believing it can happen. It’s answering the questions — so what? If it happens, how does it affect me? One homecoming, we played a team we hadn’t defeated in six years. They liked to rub in our faces. To make us bleed, hurt and hang our heads. Not that year. We held them to four overtime goal line stands and beat them by a touchdown.

It was the most terrifying three hours of football I’d ever experienced.

Believable, Compelling, Immediate, Terrifying – the four components of the Big Event.

Happy Writing!

Susie, who is now really pining for football!


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.

Getting Your Story Summary onto The Page

by Susan May Warren, @SusanMayWarren

I know that people panic about writing a synopsis. The fact is, there are many different synopsis styles and deliveries. There is no one right way – but there are few principles.

Let’s start with Delivery:

You can write the synopsis a couple different ways.
First, you can tell it is if you are the narrator – telling yourself the story.

e.g. This story is about Maggie, a former Red Cross nurse who lives in World War 2 New York City. More than anything she wants to get over the grief of losing her fiancé during the attack on Pearl Harbor, but her life seemed to stop the day she got the news and she doesn’t know how to start it again. Until, one day, she runs – literally – into a man named Peter. Peter is a sailor who received a medical discharge after nearly losing his leg during the Pearl Harbor attack. He is bitter and angry – but not at his injuries, but at the fact that he let his best mate die. More than anything, he’d like to go back and save his friend. But there is no way to atone for his mistakes. Except, there is. Because Peter’s friend was Maggie’s fiancé, and there might be a miracle at work that night when they meet…..etc.

See, you’re simply telling the story from a bird’s eye view.

The second way to tell the story is to convey it as what I call a “Police Report.”

Think of the POV players as the eye-witnesses to the story, and that you have to file a report as to what happened.

You’ll start with a bio of each of them, and then let them each have their turn telling the story, each interjecting their motivations and decisions for each action as the story progresses… Let’s pick up our story and continue it with this method:

e.g. Peter can’t believe that a beautiful woman has nearly plowed him over on New year’s eve – and he’s even more horrified when she sees his injury. Probably he shouldn’t have been so rude to her – especially when he spies her later, crying. What’s a guy to do? He reintroduces himself and discovers that she’s crying over a lost love. He understands that kind of grief, and in an effort to comfort her, invites her to Times Square to celebrate the New Year. Maggie calls herself a little crazy when she agrees to leave the New Year’s Eve party with a virtual stranger. But somehow Peter doesn’t feel like a stranger. There’s something about him she finds familiar and it’s this feeling that woos her into a cab to Times Square. Maybe it’s a sign that yes, she can start over…

With this method, you are going back and forth in POV, still keeping it third person, but letting each player tell ‘their side of the story’.

Regardless of which method you use, you must always consider this: For every Action, there is a ReAction, which leads to a new Action. We’ll develop this more when we talk about scene construction, but for now, always ask: Is there a good reason (motivation) why my character reacts this way? A good reason (motivation) for his decision as he proceeds to the next action? Whether or not you have solid motivation for your characters actions will become evident as you tell yourself the story.

Now, let’s talk about tone:

You can write it in third person, past tense, third person present tense, or even first person (although this is much more rare, I’ve seen it done successfully). Regardless, the key is to keep it at a Bird’s Eye View – you’re taking a pass over the story, resisting the urge to “land” and explore key moments. Don’t skim over everything and then slow it down and tell us how the hero caresses the heroine’s face before he kisses her and declares his love. Keep the bird flying overhead and say, “Jeremy declares his love.” And keep flying. The synopsis is not a place to showcase your elegant wordsmithing (although yes, you want to make it interesting…).

So, let’s talk about wordsmithing:

After you have the synopsis written, and you’re ready to submit, now it’s time to smooth it out. Go through and add in “color” words – powerful nouns and verbs that add an emotional element to your story. Use active verbs instead of passive. Tighten sentences. Search for overwriting and delete.
Finally, if you need a roadmap, MBT uses what we call the Lindy Hop: The Three Acts simplified. Sometimes it helps to fill out these elements (for every POV character), as a rough draft to putting the synopsis on the page.

Most of all, don’t panic. Get yourself a cup of coffee and settle down to hear a great story…yours.

Quick Skills: Sketch out the Three Acts Structure, then tell yourself the story, making sure you have a motivation for every action your character takes (and every lesson they learn). You’ll use your Synopsis to help you write your novel.
Happy Writing!

Susie May

TWEETABLES

Getting Your Story Summary onto the Page by Susan May Warren (Click to Tweet)

For every Action, there is a ReAction, which leads to a new Action.~ Susan May Warren (Click to Tweet)

The key is to keep it at a Bird’s Eye View ~ Susan May Warren (Click to Tweet)

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.

Finding Your Romantic Story Arc

by Susan May Warren, @SusanMayWarren

If you are writing a romance, it can sometimes be difficult to know exactly how to build all the pieces so that you have the right amount of tension in your story. How soon do you make them fall in love? When do you start breaking them up? How do they get back together?

This problem is solved by understanding the two main story arcs of romance: The Why/Why Not, or the Why Not/Why. (These arc models apply to both a straight up romance, or just a romance thread.)
Understanding the kind of story you have helps you understand how to layer in the tension and where to insert the different components of your romance.

Let’s a take a look: The first structure is Why/Why Not:
These are stories that have our characters falling in love in the beginning, with no major obstacles in their way, only to discover obstacles half-way or even later. It’s not about how we as the reader see their journey, but how the characters see it.

Return to Me: The hero and heroine meet and instantly hit it off. They have a similar sense of humor, and they like similar foods and have fun together, even have some romantic sparks. Until she discovers she has her boyfriend’s deceased wife’s heart. Suddenly we’ve arrive at the Why Not part of the story.

You’ve Got Mail : The hero and heroine love each other online, have similar interests, similar love of New York and books and business drive. They are perfect for each other until they find out they are enemies in real life. Enter, the Why Not.

The key to the tension in these this story arcs is that the reader knows why they will break up, even if the character doesn’t. It’s waiting for that breakup that puts us on the edge of the seat/page.

Let’s look at the other structure: the Why Not/Why stories.

In a Why Not/Why story structure, the external and internal obstacles (Why Nots) keep them apart even as the Why pulls them together. Then, when it seems that the Why will win the day, the biggest Why Not rises to break them apart.

Sleepless in Seattle: The hero and heroine have so much Why Not in front of them, it seems they’ll never get to the Why. Again, it’s in the viewpoint of the character, not the reader, because from the beginning we can see that these two belong together. Why Not: She’s engaged to someone else, they live thousands of miles apart, she doesn’t even know him, he thinks she’s loony (or at least among the strange women writing to him). It’s not until the end that they realize they belong together and discover the Why.

While You Were Sleeping: The Why Nots are glaring: He’s her, um, fiancés, brother. And of course, she’s lying, but that only adds to the Why Not, until she’s revealed as a liar. But by then, they’ve seen the Whys and that is what causes the angst.

As you’re beginning to plot your romance—even before you nail down the component elements—think through the structure of your story. Do you have the Why first and then the big Why Not? Or is the Why Not glaring, until finally the Why is too big to ignore?

In the early stages of my plotting, I start with creating the hero and heroine. Then I assemble a few of the key ingredients: why they belong together, why not, what their sparks are, their happily ever after. Nothing is written in stone, however.

Then, to get going, I nail down the story arc: Why/Why Not or Why Not/Why. Knowing what kind of story arc I’ll have helps me to know where to drop in the components. For example, if I’m building a Why/Why Not story, I’ll build the interest, through in some wooing and Why elements, as well as the kiss, and perhaps even a glimpse of the happily ever after at the beginning. (They need to know what they have to live for!) Then, I’ll throw in the Why Not, with lots of sparks and the Black Moment.

If I have a Why Not Structure, then I’ll start with sparks, a touch of interest, perhaps a hint of wooing, all the while keeping the Why Nots paramount, gradually leading up to the kiss, before we get to the big sacrifice and the Why.

Figure out your Romance structure and it will help you build the right kind of tension into your story.

Quick Skills: Is your romance a Why/Why Not, or a Why Not/Why?
Happy Writing!

Susie May

PS – Are you looking for more in-depth training and face-to-face coaching!  Let’s hang out at the upcoming Oregon Christian Writer’s Conference (August 15-18th)!  I’ll be there teaching on how to create a fantastic career as an author, as well as tips and trips on creating back cover blurbs.  And of course just hanging out, helping writers with story problems.  This is an AMAZING conference—one of my favorites.  This year the amazing FRANK PERETTI is our keynote speaker.  Set in beautiful Portland, you’ll be encouraged, educated and empowered to write the story in you.  See you there!


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-time Christy 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.