The reason we use the first 500 words for RPT is that they are the most important in the whole book. They carry a ponderous load. In those few words, we must set the tone, introduce a protagonist to whom readers can relate and give at least a hint of his/her coming conflict.
That’s why starting the story in the right place is so important. My volunteer, Chuck Robertson, is struggling with that issue and would like your help. Please leave a comment, suggestion or encouragement for Chuck. Thanks! And if YOU’d like a turn in the Red Pencil Thursday hotseat, please click on the image for details about how to submit your material.
The sky was now completely dark. I could probably put off sleep for a few more hours if I tried hard enough. After that, I supposed I’d just have to take my chances.
Mia: Since we really want to grab our reader from the get-go, starting with a character who’s fighting sleep probably isn’t going to do it. In the beginning we want a peek at our protagonist’s Ordinary World before the Inciting Incident propels us into the special world of the story. There was a time when readers would accept a leisurely start. That time is past. Now, if you can give us a surprising reason (or even a hint of one) for why our hero doesn’t want to go to bed that would make a difference. “Take my chances” is a start, but I need more.
Chuck: I was intending the ‘take my chances’ line to be a hook. I agree, if that were the hook line I should have front-loaded it.
I plodded into the living room and sat in front of the television. Dad reclined on the couch, reading his newspaper even though the TV was on. It didn’t matter the volume had been muted. That hot news reporter was on the screen. I enjoyed watching that blonde hair fly around every time she tilted her head.
Mia: Guy POV. Gotta love it. They are so easily distracted by shiny things like blonde hair. Are we going to see her later in the story? I hope so since you gave her some time in these all important first 500 words.
Chuck: She is a character in the story. She occurs again in this scene at around word 700. Since I can only present 500 words, her second appearance was cut off.
He peeked over the top of the paper. “You look beat. Is something wrong?”
I forced myself to smile. “Everything’s fine.” It wasn’t exactly true but I didn’t feel like having another argument tonight.
“How’s the new job going?” Dad fixed his eyes on me, as if he were staring straight through my body.
Mia: This dialogue is very realistic, but that’s sort of a problem. People may actually talk like that, but readers don’t want to read like that. In fiction, dialogue has to propel the story. This dialogue is marching in place. Can you think of something one of them might say to each other that would be surprising?
A brick dropped into my stomach. There was no way I could lie to him when he looked at me like that. Besides, the truth would come out eventually. I had no choice but to be honest, no matter how pissed off it made him. I swallowed. “About that, Dad. I was kind of fired.”
Mia: Love “A brick dropped into my stomach”. It’s visceral and very male POV descriptive. However, you weaken its impact with the next three sentences. How about this:
A brick dropped into my stomach. I swallowed. “About that, Dad. I was kind of fired.”
I’m a big proponent of “less is more.”
Chuck: Agreed. If I use this para again, the other two sentences will be cut.
He dropped the paper into his lap. “Fired? How do you get fired from a fast food job?”
Mia: What would you think about making this your opening sentence?
“Fired? How do you get fired from a fast food job?”
It’s surprising. It raises questions. I know your protagonist is in trouble from the get-go.
Chuck: I have a list of possible openings and am trying them one at a time. One version starts with ‘Dad was going to kill me when he found out what I did at work today.’ That’s a variation of this idea. I may try that one next.
My chest tightened. I braced myself for a tongue lashing at the very least. “I fell asleep at the fryer.”
Mia: I worked in a fast food place when I was in college. (Graduated with no school debt, thank you! It can be done and on minimum wage, too.) There was no place to sit down . Anywhere. If I was able to take a break, I had to go out into the customer area to find a place to get off my feet. How can your hero fall asleep standing up at the fryer? Is he narcoleptic?
Chuck: The point is, his dreams are so severe he is unable to get enough sleep. If I stay with this, I’ll have to make it clearer sooner.
Dad took in a deep breath, then forced it out. “Good Lord, Mark, what am I going to do about you if you can’t even hold a simple summer job without screwing up?”
I knew exactly what he was going to say next. He had given that speech so many times that I had it memorized.
“Listen, Mark. It may just be a fast food job to you, but it’s also a matter of character. Life’s tough. You need to be just as tough if you’re going to make it in the World. There isn’t any such thing as easy money.”
Mia: World doesn’t need to be capitalized. Actually, I wouldn’t mind if you left off the Dad’s speech with some … and took us deeper into Mark’s POV with what he thinks about it since he has the spiel memorized. Especially if you can give us a quirky, unique insight from him that lets us know more of who Mark is.
Chuck: That is a good idea. Will do.
I cleared my throat. “It’s not my fault. These dreams keep waking me in the middle of the night. I can’t get any sleep.”
Mia: We want to like our hero. Is there a way to make him sound less whiny?
Chuck: Sure. I was trying to present the dreams have him very distressed and he feels helpless to cure his situation. I think I overdid it.
“Dreams aren’t real. This is all in your mind.”
That was the problem. I couldn’t get them out of my mind. The one I had last night was still stuck in my head. The image of that man lying in his bed, his lifeless eyes staring straight up and his throat bitten out wouldn’t go away. Who would have thought a bear could do so much damage? A tingle ran down my spine every time I thought of it.
Mia: Granted, this is a wicked dream. But it’s only a dream. I’ve had a few I was grateful to wake from myself. Even a few that left me gasping, but they never made me afraid to go to sleep again. Now, if he recognized the man in his dream that would tingle my “spidey” senses a bit. Or if he dreams something one night and reads all about it in the paper the next day, he’d have my complete attention. But just having nightmares doesn’t engender sympathy. If our hero is afraid, we want him to be afraid for someone else, not himself.
Chuck: Roughly around word 700 of this story, the words BEAR KILLS LOCAL MAN scrolls across the bottom of the TV screen. However, it looks like this first 500 words does not hold the reader’s interest long enough to get there.
Mia: If you make a few cuts, this astonishing news would appear in the first 500 words.
I swallowed. “If you were the one with the dreams, you’d think differently about it.”
“What I do think is I have a seventeen-year-old son who’s afraid of the dark.”
“Not the dark, Dad, the dreams. Last night I had one about a guy getting his throat bitten out by a bear. Try carrying that memory around a whole
Mia: The function of the protagonist in any story is to be the character to which your reader will relate most strongly. He’s someone they want to understand and maybe they’ll want to try on his life for a while. It’s ok for Mark to be fearful at first. We all know what that’s like, but we want him to show a little backbone, to be a higher and better version of us. I’d like him to want to overcome this problem and I’m not seeing any glimmer of that. He’s coming across as the sort of person things happen to rather than being someone who makes things happen. What is his goal in this story? We need at least a hint of it in these first 500.
Trying to find that perfect starting place is one of the things we writers struggle with. I’m sensing this is not the right place. Starting in a dream state is tricky. I did it for Sins of the Highlander and you can check out the excerpt to see how I handled it. But I wonder if you might not consider beginning right at that breathless moment when Mark wakes from a nightmare, clutching a scream in his throat. It would be an opportunity to show us how they affect him rather than simply telling us. If we feel what he feels, we’ll be rooting for him more.
Thanks for letting me take a look at your work, Chuck. Remember these are only my opinions (and probably worth what you paid for them!) but I hope I’ve given you some new directions to consider and some new ways to think about how to tell your story.
Chuck: No problem, Mia. My greatest fear is that this is the first example of my writing a lot of people are going to get and it’s far from the best. While it’s pretty well accepted my novel is well written and the MC is relatable, it does not come across in the first 500 words. If I can’t come up with a good first 500 words, it won’t matter what’s in the next 59,500.
I’ve moved the entry point up and down, but it has not solved the problem yet. I have written another opening in which the MC wakes up around dawn, immediately after having the dream, as per one of your suggestions. My concern is that is echoes the cliché of starting a story with the character waking up in the morning.
I’m not sure what to do next. I’m open to suggestions. Thanks for the opportunity to present my problem to a group.
Mia: Ok, gang. You heard him. How do you think Chuck should begin this story?
Chuck Robertson’s bio: As a teenager, I dreamed of becoming the next Isaac Asimov. My first professional job was teaching science in a local high school but now I work in the technology industry. I have had two short stories published and two more are due to be published this coming fall. It will take a published novel to make me feel I have arrived as a writer, however. I live with Brenda, my wife of nineteen years and two (mostly) well-behaved teenage children. When we go on vacation we never go far. When you live in the Ozarks, you’re already there.
We interrupt this Red Pencil Thursday for a brief semi-commercial message. My 20th book comes out next week. It’s Plaid to the Bone, the prequel to my new Scottish series Spirit of the Highlands. To celebrate, I’m having a 20Day/20Book Blog-a-thon right here. Starting August 27th, there will be daily giveaways of not only my books but also those of my special guests. Some of my writer buddies who’ll be helping me with the party include: Grace Burrowes, Katharine Ashe, Shana Galen, Vanessa Kelly, Erin Kellison, Norah Wilson, Samantha Grace, Ashlyn Chase, Alexandra Hawkins, Theresa Romain, Carolyn Brown, Terry Spear, Katherine Garbera, Susan Castille, CL Wilson and VK Sykes!
In addition to the chance to win daily free reads, the Grand Prize will be a new Kindle! So be sure to save the dates August 27-September 15th and drop by to comment every day. All winners will be announced on September 16th! Good luck!