Dear Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy

I’ve been writing love letters to books that shaped me, as a person and as a writer, and for this month, it’s Karen Foxlee’s Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy. I so enjoyed this book, a dreamy and beautiful retelling of the Snow Queen. What I want to talk about today, though, is how it influenced my writing.

I write contemporary fantasies, and love to come up with sumptuous settings and vast and daring adventures. When writing my first book, though, I kept getting feedback that readers weren’t connecting with the main character. I tried all the tricks for character development. I wrote questionnaires and character sketches galore. I composed backstory that would never see the light of day, and even drew pictures. Nothing.

When I met Ophelia, it finally clicked. The story is just the kind I like, with a heartbreak at its center, and an epic battle to save a beloved driving it on. But this character was so likeable. I devoured it for the story, but I studied it for the technique. How did she do that?

A few things, I decided. Done so quickly that they could easily be missed, but crucial in establishing character immediately. Consider the title of chapter one: “In Which Ophelia Jane Worthington-Whittard discovers a boy in a locked room and is consequently asked to save the world.” That is followed swiftly by the first line: “Ophelia did not consider herself brave.” Right away we know both that Ophelia is going to have to do something very important, and that she is not going to be thrilled about it. That makes me curious, and it makes her seem self-effacing. I like that.

Ophelia’s reluctant bravery is a characteristic carried throughout the story. Every time that marvelous boy locked in the room asks Ophelia to do something, she says no. Then, grudgingly, she does it anyway, because she can’t just leave him locked in that room. She takes on incredibly scary tasks, but hems and haws and complains the whole time, which certainly seems relatable to me. I wouldn’t want to go walking through rooms of ghosts, either.

Foxlee also gives Ophelia a few idiosyncrasies that help us to see her more clearly, and that show us Ophelia’s fear without her having to remind us. Ophelia makes lists to distract herself. She tugs on her braid when she’s worried, and when she gets really scared, she has to take a puff of her inhaler. Isn’t that perfect?

I began to think anew about other characters I love. In Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, we see the Dursleys’ horrid treatment of Harry, and then one of the first things Harry does is free an unhappy snake from its cage. He is an underdog, and he wants to save other underdogs. In The Golden Compass, we see Lyra hide and eavesdrop, but ultimately come clean and risk punishment to protect her uncle. She is sneaky and has a strong sense of self-preservation, but also a redeeming moral code.

It isn’t merely about fleshing out character, I realized. Lists of their favorite ice cream flavors and the like weren’t helping, because they didn’t reveal what the reader needed to understand about the character for this story. Ophelia’s inhaler sure did, though. I now believe that the key to a good characterization is to understand the character’s defining quality that drives the story, then give a clear early example of it and a few tics or traits that show it throughout. For that understanding, I will always be grateful to Ophelia and the Marvelous Boy.

Favorite quote:

Ophelia had never been prophesied before. It made her feel annoyed.

Kate Hillyer writes stories about brave girls who fight for what they love. She blogs here and at From the Mixed-Up Files of Middle Grade Authors. She currently serves as a Cybils judge for Poetry and Novels in Verse. You can find her on Twitter and at www.katehillyer.com. 

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Award Winning KidLit: First Lines Quiz

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In a previous Killer KidLit First Lines post (click here to read), I revealed my obsession with revising first lines. I’m almost equally obsessed with writing a banned book (I’m a rogue at heart), or winning the Newbery. Either way, I’m happy.

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The idea for this quiz came to me after the January American Library Association award announcements. I wondered, “Can you identify books that are so special that they win the Caldecott, Newbery, or Printz award based on the greatness of their opening lines?”

 

FullSizeRenderSo here you have it, folks. A quiz to answer that question. I mixed in a few lines from great kid’s books that didn’t win the Caldecott, Newbery, or Printz awards, but that are equally awesome to me. Take the quiz to see if you can figure out which of the first lines are from award winning children’s books.

 

If you do well on the quiz, CONGRATS! You’re a Kid Lit Trivia Genius.

If not, don’t fret. There are plenty of fantastic books that haven’t won awards. And there are many books that have won awards with just so-so opening lines. In fact, reviewing the opening lines for this quiz led me to believe that my obsession with creating a killer opening line might not be as important as I once thought.

Happy reading and writing! And GOOD LUCK!

CLICK HERE to PLAY OUR

Award Winning KidLit First Lines Quiz

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profileMMICHELLE LEONARD is a math and science nerd, a chocolate biscotti baker, and a SCBWI member who writes middle-grade fiction and non-fiction. Connect with her on Twitter !

 

 

 

The 8 on Eight Contest Window is Open!

eight on eight 2Fellow writers! The 8 on Eight contest window is OPEN!

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Q: I must have missed the announcement. What is 8 on Eight? 

A monthly contest that provides one lucky kidlit writer with feedback on their opening eight lines! As part of our ongoing mission to support writers, we’ll give a PB, MG, or YA writer feedback on their work from at least 8 of The Winged Pen’s contributors.

Q: Sounds exciting! How do I enter?

To enter, simply comment at the bottom of this post! At 8pm (EST) on the first day of August, one winner will be randomly drawn from the Triwizard Cup. The winner will be notified and given 24 hours to submit his or her opening eight lines. On the eighth of the month, the winner’s eight lines, along with the title and genre of the work, will be posted to our blog with feedback from at least 8 of our members. Still have questions? See our 8 on Eight page for additional details.

Remember, the contest window is only open until 8pm EST on August 1st, so don’t wait––enter now!

Best of luck! (And please help spread the word!)

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8 on Eight Contest Feedback!

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Thank you to all the brave souls who entered this month’s 8 on Eight contest! Opening your work up to feedback takes courage, and we appreciate your enthusiasm. If your name wasn’t drawn from the Triwizard cup this time around, keep an eye out for our next contest window (on May 1st). Below, we’ve posted the first 8 lines from this month’s winner, along with feedback from at least eight of our members. We also encourage our readers to share their (constructive) suggestions and thoughts in the comments section below.

 

MY MOMS ARE GETTING MARRIED

(PB, Fiction)

“Mom and I have important news to share with you,” says Mama, holding Mom’s hand.

“We’re getting married!” Mom says. “At our wedding, we will stand in front of our friends and family and promise to love each other for the rest of our lives,” she explains.

“Really?” I shout, jumping up and down.

“Really!” Mama says. Mom and Mama dance with me and we’re all happy.

Soon after, my moms try on dresses at a big store in the city. I see many different dresses. Short and long, sparkly and plain, white, pink, purple and blue. I ooh and ahh at each one. Mama picks a lavender dress which swishes and swirls as she moves.

Feedback from The Winged Pen:

Jessica V.: Your writing is clean and polished, and the imagery in the last line is lovely; I can totally imagine Mama swishing around the room in her lavender dress! In terms of the overall concept, I worry that the title, combined with the first line, is going to strike agents and editors as too didactic (it’s also hard to start with dialogue). Perhaps look for an opening that captivates us with the wonder and excitement of a wedding and let the fact that it’s her mamas getting married unfold more organically?

Katharine: I’m thrilled to see a picture book with two moms! We definitely need more of those, and I can’t think of one with the moms getting married, so it seems like a good concept. I am not sure this one is starting in the right place, though. The beginning feels a little tell-y instead of hooking me. Like Jessica, I love the image of the dresses, and it might be nice to start there. I also would love to see more of the main character’s thoughts and feelings. Is he or she excited? Worried? Confused? I think any of those emotions would be normal and worthwhile to explore in the book. Best of luck with this!

Michelle: Congrats on coming up with such an important and unique concept! I’m also wondering if you started in the right place. Maybe you could find a way to hook us without starting with dialogue. I love this part: Short and long, sparkly and plain, white, pink, purple and blue. I ooh and ahh at each one. Mama picks a lavender dress which swishes and swirls as she moves. It draws me in to the story. If you started with dress shopping, we would quickly figure out the two moms were getting married instead of telling us straight out. Or you could start out in the store with the child imagining what each mom will look like when she steps out of the dressing room and save the reveal that the two moms are getting married for later. Using a few clever metaphors would be a great way to show us what the child is feeling. Check out this post on writing openings. There are a lot of great links at the end for methods for hooking readers. Good luck!

Kristi: I’m going to have to agree with Michelle and Katharine, I think you can start this at a more exciting place or in a more interesting way. I want to see and experience this with the child. I want to play along and not feel dragged along– that sounds too harsh. I think what would help is talking about rings and dresses and not saying right out: We’re getting married. That said, I can really picture the illustrations in my head, so capitalize on that.

Gabrielle: Great concept, and I do love the detail of your last line, but we need to feel what’s at stake for your MC, even in a PB. I think you could begin with her already knowing her moms are getting married, and letting us know her thoughts and feelings about it. Incorporate small details, and multiple senses, starting with the first line. Paint the scene. Show us how she feels through her actions and what she says, or is afraid to say.

Gita: I love the concept of a PB that features two women getting married! You can make this even more compelling if you grab the reader right away—by revealing more about character and plot.

Character: I don’t yet get a sense of who the main character is. Though the story is “about” two women getting married, you’ve chosen to tell it through the viewpoint of their daughter—a great choice. It’s therefore primarily the little girl’s story. But what is her story? What are her thoughts about what’s happening? Can you infuse her dialogue/thoughts with her personality so the reader can get to know her better? I see that a little bit with the thrill of the pretty dresses but I’d love even more.

Plot: From reading the first eight lines, I’m not sure where the story is going; with a PB, I should already have an inkling. You might think about what is generating tension in the story and make sure you set that up right away. Even in a PB story, a protagonist must face some kind of obstacle, which (we hope!) she eventually overcomes. Reading the opening, I don’t see the tension yet. But the focus on the dresses made me imagine: her mothers get new dresses, but in the flurry of planning, her own dress gets forgotten? Or the only dress that fits her isn’t one she likes? Whatever the girl’s story, you want to get at that tension right in the first eight lines—which I think is what my fellow writers are saying about starting closer to the action or in a different place. It might be useful to go back to a few of your favorite PBs and see how the author uses tension to make the reader turn the first page. Good luck and happy writing!

Rebecca: Congrats on your courage in putting your words out here for feedback and for tackling a tough issue for a young audience! As everyone has said, your description of the dresses in the shop is wonderful and I think the story can could really take off from there, but I wasn’t pulled in as much as I’d like to have been before the big news. There have been a couple suggestions about starting in a different place. I really like the idea of starting with the big news but I’d love more context/setting to be able to really “be there” with our young MC. What if she was at a fancy cupcake shop in the city just around the corner from the dress shop? What if she thought this was a fun outing for cupcakes but is suddenly terrified at the thought of standing up in front of everyone at the wedding? Or is she excited to get to buy a princess dress for the occasion? (Not trying to put words in your mouth…just brainstorming ideas that would have visual and emotional impact!) The MC’s reaction is key because the more we can see of the MC’s frame of mind, the more we will want to go on this journey with her. Good luck!

Halli: Thank you very much for entering the contest and sharing your work. It is a big step. As everyone said, I am happy to see your subject choice and also feel it is long overdue. We have all assumed that the main character is a girl, possibly because of the way she oohs and ahhs over dresses her moms are trying on, and I know pictures will clarify that. I am also in agreement that starting with the dialogue doesn’t feel right. For me it may because it is not the main character speaking at first. A suggestion would be to have the mc drive the dialogue such as asking: “what does getting married mean” or possibly something to bring up how big a deal it is in the world today, and in the world of a PB reader, that two women are getting married. In the eight lines, I’m not sure where your story is going or if you are going to address the challenges same-sex couples face so I don’t want to assume anything. But on that note, I think what I would like to see a little more of in the beginning is the main character driving the story with action (such as the dress shop) and/or dialogue, as well as a clue to what the conflict in the plot will be. Overall, wonderful job!

Karin: I love the subject of your PB! You’ve chosen to write in first person, which is fine but know that most PBs are written in third person as it’s easier for young children to understand all the characters’ perspectives in this POV.  Regardless of which POV, we need more conflict. I am sure it comes later but it’s a good idea to set it up earlier to hook the reader. The daughter needs to have a problem and that’s usually created by her not getting something that she wants. Also, it might be stronger if you show us instead of tell us that her moms are getting married. For example, as I don’t know the rest of your story:

Emma stared at the two wedding dresses. One was long and frilly and the other was silky with puffy sleeves.

“So what do you think?” asked Mama.

‘We didn’t want them to be the same,” added Mom.

[This way you’re showing us through action that Emma has two mothers and we are hinting at a wedding. Now,  you can insert the conflict through Emma’s reaction to her mothers and the dresses (a metaphor for their wedding) through dialogue or action.]

Good luck! I hope to read the full picture book one day!

The 8 on Eight Submission Window is Open!

eight on eight 2Fellow writers! The 8 on Eight contest window is OPEN!

(Yes, we opened early–because we’re as excited as you are about our FIRST CONTEST!)

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Q: I must have missed the announcement. What is 8 on Eight?

A monthly contest that provides one lucky kidlit writer with feedback on their opening eight lines! As part of our ongoing mission to support writers, we’ll give a PB, MG, or YA writer feedback on their work from at least 8 of The Winged Pen’s contributors.

Q: Sounds exciting! How do I enter?

To enter, simply comment at the bottom of this post! At 8pm (EST) on the first day of April, one winner will be randomly drawn from the Triwizard Cup. The winner will be notified and given 24 hours to submit his or her opening eight lines. On the eighth of the month, the winner’s eight lines, along with the title and genre of the work, will be posted to our blog with feedback from at least 8 of our members. Still have questions? See our 8 on Eight page for additional details.

Remember, the contest window is only open until 8pm on April 1st, so don’t wait––enter now!

Best of luck! (And please help spread the word!)

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img_5993-e1262576912668A jack of all trades, JESSICA VITALIS worked for a private investigator, owned a modeling and talent agency, dabbled in television production and obtained her MBA at Columbia Business School before embracing her passion for middle grade literature. She now lives in Atlanta, Georgia, where she divides her time between chasing children and wrangling words. She also volunteers as a Pitch Wars mentor, with the We Need Diverse Books campaign, and eats copious amounts of chocolate. Her debut novel, NOTHING LIKE LENNON, is currently out on submission. She’s represented by Saba Sulaiman at Talcott Notch and would love to connect on Twitter or at www.jessicavitalis.com.

Welcome to 8 on Eight!

Fellow writers! Worried your opening lines are going to make your reader feel like this?

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Or worse yet, like this?

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When it comes to hooking an agent or editor, the stakes are even higher. At a recent SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) conference Stacey Barney (Senior Editor at Penguin/Putnam) said she knows on the first page if she’s going to sign a writer. The very first page!

With all this pressure to craft the perfect opening, how do you know if you’ve hit the mark?

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We’re here to help.

eight on eight 2As part of our ongoing mission to support writers, we’re thrilled to announce 8 on Eight––a monthly contest that provides one lucky kidlit writer with feedback from at least 8 of The Winged Pen’s contributors on the writer’s opening eight lines! Read on to learn more about how the whole thing is going to work, and be sure to subscribe to our blog to make sure you don’t miss an entry deadline (our first contest will be held April 1st).

Q: How do I enter?

A: We’ll post a contest announcement on our blog on the last day of every month. To enter the contest, all you need to do is comment on the post. At 8pm (EST) on the first day of each month, one winner will be randomly drawn from the Triwizard Cup. The winner will be notified and given 24 hours to submit his or her opening eight lines (PB, MG, or YA). On the eighth of the month, the winner’s eight lines, along with the title and genre of the work, will be posted to our blog with feedback from at least 8 of our members.

Q: Should my comment include my first eight lines?

A: No. But do include your Twitter handle (if you have one) and be sure to provide us with your current email address.

Q: How will I know if I’m a winner?

A: We’ll email you with instructions on how to submit your material. And if you include a Twitter handle, we’ll announce there, too.

Q: I’m a winner! But I have several works in progress. Which one do I send?

A: That’s up to you––we’re happy to see PB, MG, or YA material.

Q: Do I have to submit my opening eight lines, or can I submit any eight lines?

A: You must submit your opening eight lines (yes, even if it’s a prologue).

Q: Am I assigning you any rights to my work?

A: Your work remains your own. We claim no rights to any portion of the writing, but in entering, you acknowledge our right to post your opening eight lines on our blog.

Q: Will I receive any other feedback?

A: The blog post will include feedback from at least 8 of our members. Readers are encouraged to share their thoughts and suggestions (in a respectful, supportive manner) in the comments section of the blog post.

Q: Does my work have to be posted to the blog if I win?

A: Yes. As writers, we learn as much from studying other writers’ works as we do getting feedback on our own. In exchange for getting feedback from our group, we ask that you share what you learn by allowing other writers to study your entry.

Q: I got mixed feedback on my opening. Some members said they loved it, others thought it needed a lot of work. What do I do?

A: Writing is a subjective business. Our aim isn’t to tell you how to “fix” your writing. Our objective is to provide feedback from a group of dedicated writers, whose opinions on any given piece of writing may or may not agree. It’s up to you to determine what feedback best resonates with your vision for your work.

Q: If I win, does that mean I can’t enter ever again?

A: You may enter as often as you like, but you must submit material from a new WIP each time you win.

Q: I didn’t win.

A: Okay, so this isn’t really a question, but we’ve got an answer anyway. First, we’ll hold this contest every month except January. So you’ve still got plenty of chances! Second, although you might not have won, there’s still a tremendous amount to be learned by studying the winner’s material and learning from the feedback they received.

Best of luck!

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img_5993-e1262576912668A jack of all trades, JESSICA VITALIS worked for a private investigator, owned a modeling and talent agency, dabbled in television production and obtained her MBA at Columbia Business School before embracing her passion for middle grade literature. She now lives in Atlanta, Georgia, where she divides her time between chasing children and wrangling words. She also volunteers as a Pitch Wars mentor, with the We Need Diverse Books campaign, and eats copious amounts of chocolate. Her debut novel, NOTHING LIKE LENNON, is currently out on submission. She’s represented by Saba Sulaiman at Talcott Notch and would love to connect on Twitter or at www.jessicavitalis.com.

Writing Killer Kid Lit First Lines

Screen Shot 2016-03-15 at 11.57.17 PMIf I had a nickel for every time I’ve rewritten the first line in the book I’m currently querying, I could afford to take you out for a fancy dinner and maybe a movie. I’ll admit I’m a bit obsessive in my determination to write the perfect opening. I’ve lost plenty of sleep over it, and unfortunately it’s only the tip of the iceberg in my writer’s mania. My first chapter has been thrown away and written from scratch several dozen painful hair-pulling-out times. Seriously, you should see the floor underneath the chair where I write.

Part of my angst in all this is that I have an engineer’s brain and a writer’s soul. In engineering, the work make be tricky but in the end you normally know if you’re right or wrong. In the writing world, you never know, unless you become a best-selling author. Even then, maybe especially then, you’ll still have a long line of critics discussing the problems with your stories.

In an attempt to reel myself in and let go of my obsessive quest, I thought I’d approach this problem like an engineer and research methodical ways for creating KILLER FIRST LINES. Maybe with a checklist, I can finally give my opening line a stamp of approval and stop the insanity. And get some sleep!

Killer Kid Lit First Lines Checklist

  1. Hook your reader by hinting at trouble and/or raising a question.
  2. Concisely tell us something compelling about the main character, preferably, or at least hint at the unique setting or theme.
  3. Show your writer’s voice.
  4. Support sentence number one with an equally great second line that follows logically and gives the reader more information to pull them in.

I’m going to stop there with my checklist because most of the advice that I found beyond these four items was about techniques for achieving the Best First Line Ever Written. Let’s look at a couple of those now.

fishing-rod-309776_1280Techniques for Hooking a Kid

There are dozens of ways to go about achieving a first line that will pass the checklist. But since I’m writing for kids––the most important audience on the planet––I’ll share the two that I think are most effective for them. For more great suggestions, check out the links at the end. 

  1. Shock or surprise the reader by saying something outlandish.
  2. Be funny.

Kids love to be surprised and laugh. Here’s an example of shock/surprise from a book my high schooler is reading right now.

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“It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.” ––
1984 by George Orwell

There’s so much genius in those fourteen words. We instantly know that the world in this book is different from ours, and we want to know more about their way of tracking time.

Here’s another example.Screen Shot 2016-03-15 at 11.21.09 PM

“There was a hand in the darkness, and it held a knife.” –-THE GRAVEYARD BOOKby Neil Gaiman

Try to read that sentence without a big frog clogging up your throat. I double-dog dare you.

 

Screen Shot 2016-03-15 at 11.22.19 PMNow let’s look at a few humor examples. Who can resist chuckling at this first line from MATILDA by Roald Dahl?

“It’s a funny thing about mothers and fathers. Even when their own child is the most disgusting little blister you could ever imagine, they still think that he or she is wonderful.”

Screen Shot 2016-03-15 at 11.20.39 PMHere’s another, this time from CHITTY-CHITTY BANG BANG by Ian Fleming.

“Most motorcars are conglomerations (this is a long word for bundles) of steel and wire and rubber and plastic, and electricity and oil and gasoline and water, and the toffee papers you pushed down the crack in the back seat last Sunday.”

Both of those examples should appeal to the naughty kid inside us all!

Okay, writers. With the checklist and techniques in hand, I feel better about giving a thumbs up to my first line now. Check out the links below for more advice on writing opening lines and then go make some writing magic happen!

Do you have a favorite KidLit opening line you’d like to share with us? Leave it in the comments below!

Opening lines advice:

http://writeitsideways.com/6-ways-to-hook-your-readers-from-the-very-first-line/

http://avajae.blogspot.com/2012/01/what-makes-great-first-sentence.html

http://writeworld.org/post/26731524562/in-the-beginning

http://www.helpingwritersbecomeauthors.com/5-elements-of-riveting-first-line/

http://www.writersdigest.com/online-editor/7-ways-to-create-a-killer-opening-line-for-your-novel

 

MICHELLE LEONARD is a math and science nerd and a SCBWI member who writes middle-grade fiction and non-fiction. Connect with her on Twitter !

 

Your First Page Delivers a Promise

The first page of your novel needs to deliver a promise. It must start with an emotion, with a connection with the protagonist, not with the weather, not with a dream, not with a philosophical bit.

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By Gryffindor (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons
You must make your reader care. So your job is to make sure the reader can identify and sympathize with the protagonist.

The first page does not start with a melodramatic action, it starts with a scene.

It does not start with a jump from a cliff, but it starts with the promise of the jump.

It teases you.

Your first page delivers a promise.

It starts not in the heart of the action, not in the heart of a world, but in the heart of your character.

Your first paragraph is a promise of what’s coming, not of what is. It’s a promise that you, as a reader, will be worried for this particular protagonist.

♥♥♥

But how do you do it?

You could start your draft by writing down your goals for the opening: “I promise that this story will… be action-packed, will focus on a group of girls, will deepen its mystery, will be funny, will deliver emotional punches, will stir your insides, will be witty or outrageous, etc.”

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Oskar Herrfurth [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Then deliver your promise. Get into your protagonist’s inner life, inner fears, inner feelings. What gets at him or her? Get to know your protagonist.

The opening will reveal something about the character, an inner truth, something about what’s to come, something the character worries about, and something about the way the character reacts to what worries her the most.

 

And worry is contagious.

If your story is action packed, then maybe your protagonist worries about the bad guys looking for her. If your story is about a group of girls, then maybe her biggest worry is to be rejected by the group.

Whatever you choose to promise, the situation will speak for itself.

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By Philippe Alès (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
EXAMPLE: If your character’s biggest fear is spiders, then his roommate needs to have a tarantula. His roommate needs to be very absent-minded therefore not being able to take care of the poor animal. And the protagonist needs to witness his roommate leave the tarantula’s cage opened.

This situation is simple and reveals so much, there is no need to explain further. This is instant conflict, worry, and emotions.

So go ahead and deliver your promise.

That’s how you hook your reader.

♥♥♥

Sussu

 

If you liked this article, read more articles by Sussu Leclerc at Novel Without Further Ado or follow her on Twitter.