Sunday, January 24, 2010

Viral Excerpts Part II - How to make your excerpt sizzle

In my last post, I talked about making the first pages of your manuscript a free gift -- a valuable gift -- to your readers. That's a mindset you can use to improve the quality of your writing. Look at it from a reader's perspective and ask: Is this really valuable to me?

This post, part II, discusses technique. Don't forget, this can apply to:
  • Excerpts on your website
  • Contest entries
  • Submissions to editors and agents

When it comes to submissions, we all know how important your first sentence, first paragraph, first page is. If you haven't grabbed an editor or agent by the first page, that's when she (or he) reaches for the rejection form.

In his fabulous book, "Hooked: write fiction that grabs readers at page one and never lets them go," Les Edgerton contends that most writers don't get read by editors and agents because of bad beginnings. A sobering thought.

So HOW do you make your first words sizzle?

Here are some basic, MUST haves to get you started on creating that perfect opening to your terrific story.

1. Cut the Backstory

I am the self-proclaimed backstory Queen. Info-dump is my middle name. I love backstory. And backstory is important. It gives your characters depth and keeps them from being cardboard cutouts. Backstory, after all, is where your character's Internal Conflict came from, right?

Yes, but it still doesn't belong in the first chapter. At least, not more than just a hint of it.

One of the best articles I've read recently on how to cut backstory from your opening is on Romance University. In that post, Theresa Stevens, Managing Editor at Red Sage recommends using choice, action, and conflict instead of "explaining" (a.k.a info-dumping) to illustrate a backstory problem a character is wrestling with.

She says: "Your job at this point is not to “fill the reader in” on all the details of the landscape. Your job is to lure them in with conflict and dynamic change, and keep them guessing."

2. Cut the Internal Musings

Closely related to backstory is internal monologue. A critique partner I once had used to remind me my characters shouldn't be sitting around and thinking. That's good advice.

Your opening should be a scene. A scene, not a sequence. And any scene, especially the first one in your story, should be action-driven. Internal monologue happens when a character REACTS. A "scene" dominated by that type of reaction should only come after a scene WITH action.

Actions come from decisions a character makes, often under duress. If all this isn't happening RIGHT NOW for the character, then ... maybe you're not starting your story at the right place. Ouch.

3. There is nothing like a GOAL...

...nothing in the world (sung to the tune from South Pacific).

You can hardly overemphasize the importance of goals in fiction. All of your characters should have goals. Your protagonist, your co-protagonist, your antagonist, even your secondary characters should have goals. Lots of them. Story goals, Act goals, scene goals, Internal goals, External goals.

Without a goal your story has no point. It meanders around with less direction than a river (since a river will eventually get to the ocean).

I like to watch nature shows in the evening with my hubby because they're a relaxing escape from the stress of the day. As I observed one recently with hooded gaze, I thought. This would be an example of good entertainment that didn't have goals.


In a nature show, there's always some story about a nest of baby eagles who might not survive, or a wolf who gets separated from the pack and can't find a meal. The common goal? Survival. Nothing more basic than that. If those shows didn't have the narrator filling in the details of the threat to survival (the Conflict), nobody would watch them.

Anytime you have a scene that's falling flat, ask yourself: What is the POV (point-of-view) character's goal in this scene. I'll bet your answer will be something like, "Aaaah, I don't know!" There you go. The character doesn't have a goal.

Of course, there's usually more than one character in a scene, so the other character ALSO has to have a goal. And should they be the SAME goal? Altogether now. NO!!! The other character should have an OPPOSITE goal, to create... you guessed it...CONFLICT.

As you can see, we're getting back to the basics of GMC (Goal, Motivation, and Conflict).

4. You don't have enough CONFLICT.

Yes, I do. No, you don't. But it's right there, see? No. It's just not enough....

Easy, isn't it? Except when you're writing the opening lines of your story. Why is that? That's a question for therapists to answer. Suffice it to say, you MUST have conflict in your opening pages.

That doesn't mean your characters are punching each other in the face (though that would make an attention-getting opening). It does mean that there's disagreement. Resistance. Friction.

Ever notice the word "agony" in "protagonist" and "antagonist"? The job of these characters is to give each other pain, to drive each other crazy! It can range from all-under-the-surface to a full-blown, heated argument (might be better to build up to that, but it depends on the story).

In a romance, the opening pages are often the "meet scene" between heroine and hero (also something that's hard to do). So there has to be some conflict between these two. But at the same time, there also has to be attraction, balanced with the conflict. In other words, your romance shouldn't start like this:

"Hi there," he said. "You're the best looking woman I've ever met."
"I was just thinking the same thing about you. I mean, as a man."
He grinned. "What to go find a closet and get it on?"

Theresa Stevens advises, "Conflict is the engine that drives every page of a well-told tale." This means we need conflict throughout the entire book. You've worked hard on your novel and you may have a lot of wonderful conflict in it. That's great. Just don't forget that if you leave conflict out of your first page, the rest of your book may not get read.

Now it's time to get busy and rework those openings. Before you do, can anyone turn that scene I started around and give it some conflict?


  1. Linsey,
    I got alot out of this post!
    My critique partners have been ireplacible(sp) when it comes to writing the first paragraph, first page, first draft...
    I think I'm getting better at ommiting backstory, internal musing and other no-nos, because of their wisdom, but I still struggle with conflict. Conflict is king! And that my dear, is what romance readers love.
    So it's very improtant to get it in there. And like you said, "Get busy and re-work those opening."
    Have a great evening,

  2. Thanks for the support, Tamara. Your writing is terrific. I know you can write a knock-out opening. Can't wait till you're in print! :)

  3. “Hi there,” he said. “You’re the best looking woman I’ve ever met.”
    “I was just thinking the same thing about you. I mean, as a man.”
    He grinned. “What to go find a closet and get it on?”
    "How about the back pantry just off the kitchen?"
    "Sounds exciting... you go first and I'll be right behind you... we don't want to draw attention. Be ready for me."
    "Good idea!" He gives her a wink and moves off.
    Kira smirked to herself... now to find that group that wanted a tour of the building... she bet that they'd love to start with the kitchen. She'd teach that tomcatting so&so a lesson about cheating on her little sister!

  4. So... what cha think?

    Seriously, great article Linsey! Only thing to add is that another thing to watch out for is the RULES. Remember, they are rules, not edicts. For every case where you simply must start with action, there's another example of a hot story that starts with internal dialog.

  5. Oooh what a cool twist, Pam. I like it. Excellent job. Any other takers out there?

  6. Thanks, Pam. I agree. Rules are one thing, principles are another.

  7. Hey, Linsey. Great post. Lots of good stuff here.

    Hey, I gave you an award on my blog today. Check it out. :)

  8. Thanks so much, Carol. Sorry I'm soooo late in replying. By the way, Carol's blog address is: Everyone go check her out!