When you feel isolated and lonely, consider that God may be trying to teach you that we can trust He will never truly leave us alone.
“Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid or terrified because of them, for the Lord your God goes with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you.” (Deuteronomy 31:6)
When you feel heartbroken, consider that God may be trying to teach you what it means to fully rely on His strength and perfect will.
“But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.’ Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.” (2 Corinthians 12:9)
When you feel like your future is going nowhere, consider that God may be growing you for the next season of your life in which you would never experience without the growth process first.
“Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” (John 15:2)
When you feel hopeless, consider that God may be trying to show you He gives us eternal hope, which outweighs the temporary hope this world offers us.
“These things I have spoken to you, that in Me you may have peace. In the world you will have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33)
The point is, God can teach us in every situation of our lives… we need only to be open to learning what that is.
The Dos and Don’ts of Beginning a Novel: An Illustrated Guide
I’ve had a lot of asks lately for how to begin a book (or how not to), so here’s a post on my general rules of thumb for story openers and first chapters!
Please note, these are incredibly broad generalizations; if you think an opener is right for you, and your beta readers like it, there’s a good chance it’s A-OK. When it comes to writing, one size does not fit all. (Also note that this is for serious writers who are interested in improving their craft and/or professional publication, so kindly refrain from the obligatory handful of comments saying “umm, screw this, write however you want!!”)
So without further ado, let’s jump into it!
1. Open with a dream.
“Just when Mary Sue was sure she’d disappear down the gullet of the monstrous, winged pig, she woke up bathed in sweat in her own bedroom.”
What? So that entire winged pig confrontation took place in a dream and amounts to nothing? I feel so cheated!
Okay, not too many people open their novels with monstrous swine, but you get the idea: false openings of any kind tend to make the reader feel as though you’ve wasted their time, and don’t usually jump into more meaty action of the story quickly enough. It makes your opening feel lethargic and can leave your audience yawning.
2. Open with a character waking up.
This feels familiar to most of us, but unless your character is waking up to a zombie attack or an alien invasion, it’s generally a pretty easy recipe to get your story to drag.
No one picks a book to hear how your character brushes their teeth in the morning or what they’d like to have for dinner. As a general rule of thumb, we read to explore things we wouldn’t otherwise get to experience. And cussing out the alarm clock is not one of them.
Granted, there are exceptions if your writing is exceptionally engaging, but in most cases it just sets a slow pace that will bore you and your reader to death and probably cause you to lose interest in your book within the first ten pages.
3. Bombard with exposition.
Literary characters aren’t DeviantArt OCs. And the best way to convey a character is not, in my experience, to devote the first ten pages to describing their physical appearance, personality, and backstory. Develop your characters, and make sure their fully fleshed out – my tips on how to do so here – but you don’t need to dump all that on the reader before they have any reason to care about them. Let the reader get to know the character gradually, learn about them, and fall in love with them as they would a person: a little bit at a time.
This is iffy when world building is involved, but even then it works best when the delivery feels organic and in tune with the book’s overall tone. Think the opening of the Hobbit or Good Omens.
4. Take yourself too seriously.
Your opener (and your novel in general) doesn’t need to be intellectually pretentious, nor is intellectual pretense the hallmark of good literature. Good literature is, generally speaking, engaging, well-written, and enjoyable. That’s it.
So don’t concern yourself with creating a poetic masterpiece of an opening line/first chapter. Just make one that’s – you guessed it – engaging, well-written, and enjoyable.
5. Be unintentionally hilarious.
Utilizing humor in your opening line is awesome, but check yourself to make sure your readers aren’t laughing for all the wrong reasons (this is another reason why betas are important.)
These examples of the worst opening lines in published literature will show you what I mean – and possibly serve as a pleasant confidence booster as well:
“As the dark and mysterious stranger approached, Angela bit her lip anxiously, hoping with every nerve, cell, and fiber of her being that this would be the one man who would understand – who would take her away from all this – and who would not just squeeze her boob and make a loud honking noise, as all the others had.”
– Ali Kawashima
“She sipped her latte gracefully, unaware of the milk foam droplets building on her mustache, which was not the peachy-fine baby fuzz that Nordic girls might have, but a really dense, dark, hirsute lip-lining row of fur common to southern Mediterranean ladies nearing menopause, and winked at the obviously charmed Spaniard at the next table.”
– Jeanne Villa
“As I gardened, gazing towards the autumnal sky, I longed to run my finger through the trail of mucus left by a single speckled slug – innocuously thrusting past my rhododendrons – and in feeling that warm slime, be swept back to planet Alderon, back into the tentacles of the alien who loved me.”
– Mary E. Patrick
“Before they met, his heart was a frozen block of ice, scarred by the skate blades of broken relationships, then she came along and like a beautiful Zamboni flooded his heart with warmth, scraped away the ugly slushy bits, and dumped them in the empty parking lot of his soul.”
– Howie McClennon
If these can get published, so can you.
1. You know that one really interesting scene you’re itching to write? Start with that.
Momentum is an important thing in storytelling. If you set a fast, infectious beat, you and your reader will be itching to dance along with it.
Similarly, slow, drowsy openers tend to lead to slow, drowsy stories that will put you both to sleep.
I see a lot of posts joking about “that awkward moment when you sit down to write but don’t know how to get to that one scene you actually wanted to write about.” Write that scene! If it’s at all possible, start off with it. If not, there are still ways you can build your story around the scenes you actually want to write.
Keep in mind: if you’re bored, your reader will almost certainly be bored as well. So write what you want to write. Write what makes you excited. Don’t hold off until later, when it “really gets good.” Odds are, the reader will not wait around that long, and you’re way more likely to become disillusioned with your story and quit. If a scene is dragging, cut it out. Burn bridges, find a way around. Live, dammit.
2. Engage the reader.
There are several ways to go about this. You can use wit and levity, you can present a question, and you can immerse the reader into the world you’ve created. Just remember to do so with subtlety, and don’t try too hard; believe me, it shows.
Here are some of my personal favorite examples of engaging opening lines:
“In the beginning, the universe was created. This has made a lot of people very angry and been widely regarded as a bad move."
– Douglas Adams, the Restaurant at the End of the Universe.
"It was the day my grandmother exploded.”
– Iain Banks, Crow Road.
“A white Pomeranian named Fluffy flew out of the a fifth-floor window in Panna, which was a grand-new building with the painter’s scaffolding still around it. Fluffy screamed.”
– Vikram Chandra, Sacred Games.
See what I’m saying? They pull you in and do not let go.
3. Introduce us to a main character (but do it right.)
“Shadow had done three years in prison. He was big enough and looked don’t-fuck-with-me enough that his biggest problem was killing time. So he kept himself in shape, and taught himself coin tricks, and thought a lot about how much he loved his wife.”
– Neil Gaiman, American Gods.
This is one of my favorite literary openings of all time, because right off the bat we know almost everything we need to know about Shadow’s character (i.e. that he’s rugged, pragmatic, and loving.)
Also note that it doesn’t tell us everything about Shadow: it presents questions that make us want to read more. How did Shadow get into prison? When will he get out? Will he reunite with his wife? There’s also more details about Shadow slowly sprinkled in throughout the book, about his past, personality, and physical appearance. This makes him feel more real and rounded as a character, and doesn’t pull the reader out of the story.
Obviously, I’m not saying you should rip off American Gods. You don’t even need to include a hooker eating a guy with her cooch if you don’t want to.
But this, and other successful openers, will give you just enough information about the main character to get the story started; rarely any good comes from infodumping, and allowing your reader to get to know your character gradually will make them feel more real.
The toughest part of being a writer is that it’s a rare and glorious occasion when you’re actually satisfied with something you write. And to add another layer of complication, what you like best probably won’t be what your readers will like best.
If you refuse to keep moving until you have the perfect first chapter, you will never write anything beyond your first chapter.
Set a plan, and stick to it: having a daily/weekly word or page goal can be extremely helpful, especially when you’re starting out. Plotting is a lifesaver (some of my favorite posts on how to do so here, here, and here.)
Keep writing, keep moving, and rewrite later. If you stay in one place for too long, you’ll never keep going.
I don’t get it.. everyone’s running around and burning through people in an attempt to find the, ‘right one.’ Why don’t people take the time to BE the, 'right one?’ The kind you yourself could fall in love with?
Tooru had been wandering aimlessly in the castle gardens for nearly an hour by the time his hanger-on finally caught up. In the two moon’s turns he had spent so far in Corvana, Tooru had only been able to shake off his guard a handful of times. He almost wanted to ask what had taken the knight so long to catch up to him today.It was twilight, the closest Corvana ever got to a real nightfall, and the reddish-gold light draping the cloistered gardens in warmth and shadow seemed to soften everything around him: the brilliantly colored flowers, the crisp cut lines of the stone walls, the sound of the approaching knight’s boots, crunching on the gravelled path.
It’s posting time for the @fantasyhaikyuuexchange!! Here are my gift(s) for @cas-allmyfavoritethings, who requested: magic, prince Oikawa/knight Iwa, medieval garb and a Oikawa+Suga friendship quest. My assigned fantasy creature was vampires, so obviously I went with the super creative and original idea of vampire prince Oikawa… on a diplomatic mission… for love(?) lol
I signed up for art but ended up writing a short fic to go with it. Cas, I hope you like it!
Internal Conflict: Five Conflicting Traits of a Likable Hero.
1. Flaws and Virtues
I’m sure you’ve heard this before, but characters without flaws are boring. This does not, as many unfortunate souls take it to mean, imply that good, kind, or benevolent characters are boring: it just means that without any weaknesses for you to poke at, they tend to be bland-faced wish fulfillment on the part of the author, with a tendency to just sit there without contributing much to the plot.
For any character to be successful, they need to have a proportionate amount of flaws and virtues.
Let’s take a look at Stranger Things, for example, which is practically a smorgasbord of flawed, lovable sweethearts.
We have Joyce Byers, who is strung out and unstable, yet tirelessly works to save her son, even when all conventional logic says he’s dead; We have Officer Hopper, who is drunken and occasionally callous, yet ultimately is responsible for saving the boy’s life; We have Jonathan, who is introspective and loving, but occasionally a bit of a creeper, and Nancy, who is outwardly shallow but proves herself to be a strong and determined character. Even Steve, who would conventionally be the popular jerk who gets his comeuppance, isn’t beyond redemption.
And of course, we have my beloved Eleven, who’s possibly the closest thing Stranger Things has to a “quintessential” heroine. She’s the show’s most powerful character, as well as one of the most courageous. However, she is also the show’s largest source of conflict, as it was her powers that released the Demogorgon to begin with.
Would Eleven be a better character if this had never happened? Would Stranger Things be a better show? No, because if this had never happened, Stranger Things wouldn’t even be a show. Or if it was, it would just be about a bunch of cute kids sitting around and playing Dungeons and Dragons in a relatively peaceful town.
A character’s flaws and mistakes are intended to drive the plotline, and if they didn’t have them, there probably wouldn’t even be a plot.
So don’t be a mouth-breather: give your good, kind characters some difficult qualities, and give your villains a few sympathetic ones. Your work will thank you for it.
2. Charisma and Vulnerability
Supernatural has its flaws, but likable leads are not one of them. Fans will go to the grave defending their favorite character, consuming and producing more character-driven, fan-created content than most other TV shows’ followings put together.
So how do we inspire this kind of devotion with our own characters? Well, for starters, let’s take a look at one of Supernatural’s most quintessentially well-liked characters: Dean Winchester.
From the get-go, we see that Dean has charisma: he’s confident, cocky, attractive, and skilled at what he does. But these qualities could just as easily make him annoying and obnoxious if they weren’t counterbalanced with an equal dose of emotional vulnerability.
As the show progresses, we see that Dean cares deeply about the people around him, particularly his younger brother, to the point of sacrificing himself so that he can live. He goes through long periods of physical and psychological anguish for his benefit (though by all means, don’t feel obligated to send your main character to Hell for forty years), and the aftermath is depicted in painful detail.
Moreover, in spite of his outward bravado, we learn he doesn’t particularly like himself, doesn’t consider himself worthy of happiness or a fulfilling life, and of course, we have the Single Man Tear™.
So yeah, make your characters beautiful, cocky, sex gods. Give them swagger. Just, y’know. Hurt them in equal measure. Torture them. Give them insecurities. Make them cry.
Just whatever you do, let them be openly bisexual. Subtext is so last season.
3. Goals For the Future and Regrets From the Past
Let’s take a look at Shadow Moon from American Gods. (For now, I’ll have to be relegate myself to examples from the book, because I haven’t had the chance to watch the amazing looking TV show.)
Right off the bat, we learn that Shadow has done three years in prison for a crime he may or may not have actually committed. (We learn later that he actually did commit the crime, but that it was only in response to being wronged by the true perpetrators.)
He’s still suffering the consequences of his actions when we meet him, and arguably, for the most of the book: because he’s in prison, his wife has an affair (I still maintain that Laura could have resisted the temptation to be adulterous if she felt like it, but that’s not the issue here) and is killed while mid-coital with his best friend.
Shadow is haunted by this for the rest of the book, to the point at which it bothers him more than the supernatural happenings surrounding him.
Even before that, the more we learn about Shadow’s past, the more we learn about the challenges he faced: he was bullied as a child, considered to be “just a big, dumb guy” as an adult, and is still wrongfully pursued for crimes he was only circumstantially involved in.
But these difficulties make the reader empathize with Shadow, and care about what happens to him. We root for Shadow as he tags along with the mysterious and alternatively peckish and charismatic Wednesday, and as he continuously pursues a means to permanently bring Laura back to life.
He has past traumas, present challenges, and at least one goal that propels him towards the future. It also helps that he’s three-dimensional, well-written, and as of now, portrayed by an incredibly attractive actor.
Of course (SPOILER ALERT), Shadow never does succeed in fully resurrecting Laura, ultimately allowing her to rest instead, but that doesn’t make the resolution any less satisfying.
Which leads to my next example…
4. Failure and Success
You remember in Zootopia, when Judy Hopps decides she wants to be cop and her family and town immediately and unanimously endorse her efforts? Or hey, do you remember Harry Potter’s idyllic childhood with his kindhearted, adoptive family? Oh! Or in the X-Files, when Agent Mulder presents overwhelming evidence of extraterrestrial life in the first episode and is immediately given a promotion? No?
Yeah, me neither. And there’s a reason for this: ff your hero gets what they want the entire time, it will be a boring, two-dimensional fantasy that no one will want to read.
A good story is not about the character getting what they want. A good story is about the character’s efforts and their journey. The destination they reach could be something far removed from what they originally thought they wanted, and could be no less (if not more so) satisfying because of it.
Let’s look at Toy Story 3, for example: throughout the entire movie, Woody’s goal is to get his friends back to their longtime owner, Andy, so that they can accompany him to college. He fails miserably. None of his friends believe that Andy was trying to put them in the attic, insisting that his intent was to throw them away. He is briefly separated from them as he is usurped by a cute little girl and his friends are left at a tyrannical daycare center, but with time and effort, they’re reunited, Woody is proven right, and things seem to be back on track.
Do his efforts pay off? Yes – just not in the way he expected them to. At the end of the movie, a college-bound Andy gives the toys away to a new owner who will play with them more than he will, and they say goodbye. Is the payoff bittersweet? Undoubtedly. It made me cry like a little bitch in front of my young siblings. But it’s also undoubtedly satisfying.
So let your characters struggle. Let them fail. And let them not always get what they want, so long as they get what they need.
5. Loving and Being Loved by Others
Take a look back at this list, and all the characters on it: a gaggle of small town kids and flawed adults, demon-busting underwear models, an ex-con and his dead wife, and a bunch of sentient toys. What do they have in common? Aside from the fact that they’re all well-loved heroes of their own stories, not much.
But one common element they all share is they all have people they care about, and in turn, have people who care about them.
This allows readers and viewers to empathize with them possibly more than any of the other qualities I’ve listed thus far, as none of it means anything without the simple demonstration of human connection.
Let’s take a look at everyone’s favorite caped crusader, for example: Batman in the cartoons and the comics is an easy to love character, whereas in the most recent movies (excluding the splendid Lego Batman Movie), not so much.
Why is this? In all adaptions, he’s the same mentally unstable, traumatized genius in a bat suit. In all adaptions, he demonstrates all the qualities I listed before this: he has flaws and virtues, charisma and vulnerability, regrets from the past and goals for the future, and usually proportionate amounts of failure and success.
What makes the animated and comic book version so much more attractive than his big screen counterpart is the fact that he does one thing right that all live action adaptions is that he has connections and emotional dependencies on other people.
He’s unabashed in caring for Alfred, Batgirl, and all the Robins, and yes, he extends compassion and sympathy to the villains as well, helping Harley Quinn to ultimately escape a toxic and abusive relationship, consoling Baby Doll, and staying with a child psychic with godlike powers until she died.
Cartoon Batman is not afraid to care about others. He has a support network of people who care about him, and that’s his greatest strength. The DC CU’s ever darker, grittier, and more isolated borderline sociopath is failing because he lacks these things.
And it’s also one of the reasons that the Lego Batman Movie remains so awesome.
God willing, I will be publishing fresh writing tips every week, so be sure to follow my blog and stay tuned for future advice and observations!
imagine steve trying to control richie tozier; as if the stranger kids were a fucking handful, now he has to deal with mike constantly fighting his body double because richie says he’s the handsome one of the two, richie constantly flirting with max, and steve having to hold lucas back from throttling him every 5 minutes, and richie and dustin would basically become bffs and make jokes and hype the other up during battle and steve is just running around trying to control his new, ADHD ridden son that can’t stop FUCKING SWEARING