Monday, June 29, 2015

How strong is your story's opening? Turbocharge it with this 5-point checklist


Did you ever watch a space shuttle launch? 

It was an awesome thing: the thundering noise, the heat, the deep bass rumble.  Why do they have to put so much energy into launching ships into space?  They have to start out with a ton of power so the ship has enough velocity to make it all the way into space.

And that's what your story has to do, too.

Adding rocket fuel to your book

Pour a ton of thrust into the story's opening to carry readers all the way through to the end.  Here's a quick 5-point checklist to make sure your opening covers all the bases.

If you're writing a chapter book, you should include all these elements in the first chapter, preferably in the first half of the first chapter.   In a picture book, you'll want all of this on the first one or two pages.  That seems tight, but remember that your illustrations are going to be doing at least half the work.

Ready?  Get out your red pencil... here's the checklist:

Does your story's opening...

image1) …Introduce the main character?

We should get a clear idea of who this character is and what they're going to want in the story.  Show, don't tell. Let the illustrations do part of the work here, and whatever you do, don't start with the character's name and age.

image2) …Introduce the world of the main character?

Give us a sense of the "ordinary world" - before things go awry.  Don't make things too calm, however.  If you find yourself having to do a lot of explaining or offer a lot of backstory, you should probably fast-forward to a more exciting part of the story and fill in the rest later.

image3) …Show us what the main character wants?

imageYour protagonist must WANT something.  Preferably, want it very much.  And there's something big at stake if he or she loses.  This doesn't have to be huge or scary (in Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are, it's Max's supper - which represents his mother's love), but it should be something he or she values.

image4) …Set the mood and tone of the book?

Will you be using humour, or is this a serious story?  The illustrations and the text combined can be funny or silly or light or sombre.  The mood you choose for the opening should carry on throughout the book.

image5) …Launch your reader on the journey?

You don't have to explain everything in the first two pages.  But we should have a good sense after your story's opening of how things are going to go from here on out.  That usually involves introducing one or more of the forces that will oppose your main character along the way.

If you've done your job right, I'll WANT to set off on the journey.  I'll be eager to find out what happens next.

Blasting off

Once the story's started, I know who the main character is (and perhaps whether or not we like him), and what the point of the book is.  I don't know how it will end, or even how things will go in the middle of the book, and that's okay. 

That's called suspense.

The opening of your story is where you cram in all the rocket fuel you can, blasting me into space If you've created a powerful opening using this checklist, you're ready for the rest of your writing adventure.

Don't worry if you haven't hit all five of these points on your first draft.  Keep writing anyway.  You may not know exactly where the story's going until it's written. 

Once you reach the end, just come back to the beginning and make sure that these five elements are packed in like rocket fuel, strapped in place to launch your readers on their exciting journey through your book.

Ready?  Set?  Blast off!


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