It’s Day 2 of NaNoWriMo! How is it going? Your brain hasn’t shut down yet, right?
I liken NaNoWriMo to running the 400 in track. The first 100 meters you take off, you’re cruising and getting out in front of the page.
You then have to round the first curve and you settle into your rhythm. Sure, a few people might pass you, but you’re at a pace you love.
Then, you approach to the second curve. You know you need to kick it up because you have to sprint that last 100 meters, but your muscles are starting to ache, and the tension of keeping up your pace is burning through you. You could shut down, but the fact you’ve come this far keeps you going. You muscle through the curve, and gear up for those 100 meters.
Finally, here comes the ending sprint. Only it doesn’t feel like a sprint—you feel like you’re barely moving through sludge. You are willing your body (and brain) to keep fighting all the way to the end, eyes on the prize.
And you cross the finish line.
You did it! And it wasn’t easy, but you pushed through. The key was—setting your eyes ahead, on the finish line before you even started. And, of course, having a few tricks along the way to keep the story moving.
This month, I’m going to run the race with you and give you those tricks you need to keep going.
Leg 1: The first 100 meters! (Aka: Act 1!)
When you’re just starting off, that first Act is a lot of fun. You’re establishing your characters, building their home worlds, causing their Inciting Incident and starting on the journey.
Along with the fun, however, you have to start your story in the right place, with the right balance of character information and action. (notice I did not say backstory!) So, how do you find that right balance?
I have 5 essential questions that I use to help build my beginning chapters:
First thing I do is start with the END. in mind – the things our reader MUST know by the end of the first chapter, things I want to communicate through the action and dialogue: Competence, Lie, Fear, Focus/Want, Ignition/Inciting Incident. I like to start with the deeper issues, and then build forward, sort of like a house – the bones first, then the pretty stuff.
I made it into a nice little acronym for you, because that helps me remember everything as I write, and because that’s how my brain works. J.
Think of your first scene like a CLIFF . . . and you are about to send your character off it. You want us to see him before he goes flying into the story.
- 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. J
- Fear: We want to know what your character fears – maybe he sees something, eh 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 you and 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? Inciting Incident!
- Fear: What fear hangs over the book and how can you (the author) hint at it in this first chapter?
- Focus/Want: How can you (the author) express your characters focus in this chapter? Show who they are and what they want?
It’s key to go through these questions step by step, so you understand your character and what you need to accomplish in this chapter.
Now that I have all the elements I want to end up with, I’m going to go back to the beginning and start forming my HOOK, those things that actually help me build the first line. I call them SHARP.
- Stakes – What is at risk? What happens if they don’t meet their goal? If you’re writing a suspense, How can you weave in the danger of the suspense, or hint at the stakes of the story. Think: What can/will go wrong in this story and what will happen if they don’t save the day? You don’t want to give us a chunk of narrative, but rather layer in the hint of the threat so the reader knows there is something at stake.
- Hero/Heroine ID – Emotion/Mood – What is your character feeling right now, and how are you embedding it onto the page? And how will we show that in a compelling way in the first scene? What situation, as the story begins, is most compelling, most sympathetic? You are trying to get your reader to relate to your hero/heroine, and putting them in a situation that readers can relate to emotionally is paramount.
- Anchoring – Storyworld, including the 5 W’s – Who, What, Where, When, and Why. What storyworld location can you use to create a sense of danger/suspense?
- RUN – remember to start your story On the Run – meaning, the story already in action, as if you’ve simply thrown back the curtain to see the story in progress.
- Problem/Storyquestion – what is the inner question that will drive your reader/character through the story? AND, How can you end the scene with something worse, even the inciting incident that will propel your story quickly into the Noble Quest?
Now, pull out your first scene draft. What elements from this first scene reveal your character’s identity? Add that to the recipe.
As a review, here are the Big 10 Elements you want to have in your first chapter:
- Have you created sympathy for your character so we love them?
- Have you shown us your character’s home life, so we know where their journey begins?
- Have you shown us your character’s competence, and their identity?
- Have you given us a glimpse of your characters greatest dream?
- Have you given us a hint of your character’s greatest fear?
- Have you given us a hint at your character’s lie?
- Have you delivered the story question that will drive us through the book?
- Do you have crisp, interesting dialogue?
- Have you honed your hook to include the Storyworld, including the Who, What, Why, When and Where’s of the story? Have you used the five senses?
- Finally, have you ended the scene with a disaster, or something that makes the reader want to turn the page?
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, then build the SHARP elements and you’ll have a powerful first chapter.
Next week we’ll talk about rounding that first curve and getting into a rhythm—Keeping your Story Flowing with Scenes Rhythm!
Have a great writing week and Go! Write something Brilliant!