Kara is an award-winning, bestselling author of more than sixty novels of romance and romantic suspense for Harlequin and Random House.
OMG, excuse the interruption, but I just realized we hadn't posted Kara's BIG news! She is NOT just a 2012 RITA Finalist - she's a DOUBLE RITA Finalist!
So listen up, Peeps, she knows what she's talking about!
You can read Kara’s blogs here at WITS on the first Friday of each month. Don’t miss out, stop by every month and get your plot fix.
By Kara Lennox
Are you ready to fix your plot?
This is the second in a series of blogs based on my “Plot Fixer” workshop. I’m attacking the seventeen most common problems—based on my years of rejections, contest judging, and critiquing. Last month, we discussed Plot Problem #1: Your Premise Isn't Compelling
Plot Problem #2: A cute meet does not a plot make.
It's essential to have a riveting opening scene. Whether it's the scene where your hero and heroine meet, or another scene involving your central character in some kind of trouble, you must present at least one problem.
Conflict on every page--that's the mantra of super-agent and writing guru Donald Maass. However, it's also essential that the first scene suggest what this book is about. That scene has to set the tone and even plant the seeds of future conflict.
A mistake I see often is a hum-dinger of a first scene, complete with conflict, sparkling dialogue and all sorts of problems. But then the story drops off, and the scene seems to have no relation to the rest of the plot. It serves only as a cute way to get the hero and heroine together or otherwise suck the reader into the book.
Example: The hero and heroine are both eager to buy a certain toy for their respective children for Christmas. But the store has only one left, and they both grab it at the same time. Witty banter ensues, but eventually one of them wins.
The hero invites the heroine to dinner. They go to dinner and get to know each other ... she has some kind of legal problem and he is a lawyer and offers to help her out ... and they work ... together ... to ... solve .... ARE YOU ASLEEP? I am.
A cute meet has to go somewhere.
If you're going to have a first scene where the hero and heroine are arguing about a toy, make darn sure the overall story has something to do with children and parenting. Maybe the hero is a single dad under fire from child welfare, and the heroine is the social worker who must investigate him. To make the meeting less coincidental, maybe the child somehow motivated both of them to get the toy. Shoot, I'm just making this up on the fly!
For a romance, it's really best if the hero and heroine are brought together for the first time by something other than a chance meeting. (We'll talk more about coincidence and chance on another day.)
One more example: HELL WEEK by Rosemary Clement-Moore is a YA paranormal about a girl with psychic powers who must fight the evil that has infiltrated a college sorority (also spun into a successful series). The first scene is a rush party. The author focuses on the snobbery, the pretention, the cruelty, and the blinding white teeth--evil, certainly--but also a hint of the other-worldly evil the heroine will eventually uncover.
A little later, the author writes about the heroine's reunion with her love interest, which was also filled with conflict and great dialogue, and romance is an integral part of this book. But because this is a book about sororities, she opened--brilliantly--with the rush scene.
Another technique I’ve seen—and I personally don’t like it at all, though I’ve seen it in published books—is to open your novel with the climax. Then you flash back to reveal the story of how the protagonist got him/herself into such a dire situation. It can work, but I think it’s lazy. If the real opening of your story is so dull that you have to mine some other part of it for an exciting first page, rethink your story!
Look at your first scene.
- Does it grab the reader, thrusting the protagonist into some trouble?
- Is there conflict, either obvious, or implied future conflict? If it meets these criteria, analyze farther.
- How does your first scene relate to the rest of the story?
- Does it set the stage, establish the right tone, or hint at what’s to come?
Plot Problem #3: Starting in the Wrong Place
This problem relates back to my previous blog, which talked about boring beginnings. But it is so common it deserves a number all its own.
This is something new writers often do. They start too early.
They want to lay the groundwork, to offer up some backstory, so they start with the heroine in a car, or in the bathtub, THINKING about what has happened in her life and what is about to happen. No, please no. Start in medias res, in the middle of things.
You want to start at the moment of change. Depending on the story, sometimes it is okay to set the scene. The Hero's Journey (read up on Joseph Campbell if you are unfamiliar with this) requires the hero to be in his normal world at first--think Luke Skywalker on his aunt and uncle's boring farm, longing for excitement. But in a modern novel, this is usually very short or not there at all.
I once attended a Donald Maass intensive weekend workshop, and he got volunteers to read the opening line of their novel. Then he asked the class if they would keep reading. If the majority said yes, the volunteer read the next line. And again, we were asked if we wanted to continue hearing more of the story. For most of the volunteers, this experience was extremely humbling, as interest dropped off quickly.
Donald Maass says no back-story for the first twenty pages. None. The idea is to give your reader some credit. She will either go along with you, figuring the back-story will eventually be explained, or she will feel challenged to try to figure out what is going on. Either way, it's all good. So long as you don't hopelessly confuse the reader, you're okay.
If you are guilty of extensive scene-setting and back-story-dump, very often you can simply lop off the first chapter and start with chapter two. (My second published book, I had to do this. In my first version, the heroine was on a plane headed for the Virgin Islands, ruminating about what had brought her there. In the second version, she was already in the islands, waiting on the dock for her scuba instructor to show up, when a cold, wet hand comes out of the water and grabs her ankle.)
Whatever was in chapter one that you absolutely must include, you can filter in as needed. Learning to feed in needed facts about back-story and setting is an art. Motivate the reader to read on to find out what the terrible dark secret is in the hero's past, or the humiliating incident from the heroine's high school days.
One more time, look at your opening.
- Does it start where conflict begins?
- Does it start with a call to adventure?
- Does it at least start with your protagonist in some kind of trouble?
Now, look at the first sentence of your novel (or come up with one now). If read aloud in a roomful of avid readers, would they want to hear more? Would you want to post it publicly? Post it here, if you want.
Something else you can try: Experiment with starting your book in a different place. Could you move forward or backward in the timeline just a bit, to start at a place of higher conflict?
Next time, we’ll talk about how to advance your plot through your character's goals.