Pub Rants

A Very Nice Literary Agent Indulges in Polite Rants About Queries, Writers, and the Publishing Industry

Category: queries

What Is a High Concept, and Do You Need One? by Danielle Burby

Agents and editors are always saying they want a high-concept story, but what does that mean? And if you don’t have one, can you still land an agent and sell your book?

The definition of high concept is difficult to pin down because it involves a certain level of the X-factor—that specialness that defies definition. In other words, conversations about high concept often end with I can’t tell you exactly what it is, but I know it when I see it. So instead of searching for a definition of high concept, let’s look at some of its features:

High concept is built on a unique idea/hook that makes the agent sit up and say, “Whoa! I’ve never read any stories like that before!” or “A story like that has never occurred to me!”

High concept is easy to explain/pitch in one or two sentences. What makes a high concept so appealing is that it immediately gives the listener a very clear idea of what to expect from the story. Some examples:

  • Teen girl at a secret spy school meets a normal boy and hides her identity while falling in love. (Ally Carter’s I’d Tell You I Love You But Then I’d Have to Kill You, the first book in the Gallagher Girls series)
  • Woman witnesses something shocking from the window of her train and may be the only person who can tell the police the truth. (Paula Hawkins’ The Girl on the Train)
  • After a spin-class head injury, Alice forgets the last ten years of her life, including the births of her children and divorce from the love of her life. (Liane Moriarty’s What Alice Forgot)
  • A female med student auctions off her virginity online. (Brenna Aubrey’s At Any Price)

High concept is appealing to a wide audience. This is a big reason agents and editors want high-concept projects. They are easier to sell! The commercial value of the story is immediately apparent in that brief, one- or two-sentence description, which makes it easy for agents to pitch to editors, for editors to pitch to the sales team, for the sales team to pitch to booksellers, and for booksellers to pitch to readers. High-concept stories are easy to market. Essentially, a high-concept book sells itself.

High concept involves high stakes. Not every story is high concept, and that’s okay. But if the feedback you consistently get on your work is that it is “quiet” or that the agent just didn’t fall in love, it’s possible that a high concept is the thing you need to pull ahead of the pack.

High concept values action and plot over introspection and backstory. Think movie adaptation here. What are your novel’s “movie trailer moments”—periods of high conflict or tension? If you can’t identify a handful of them right off the bat, and if your novel is more about your characters’ inner lives (thoughts, emotions), then you’re probably not writing a high-concept story. And that’s OK, but now you know the difference!

Here’s one (but not the only) recipe to help you play with generating a high-concept premise: “It’s [trope or familiar story or storyline]…but [with a twist].” A favorite example is “It’s a Western…but set in space” (Firefly). Or “It’s Emma…but set in an over-the-top 1990s high school” (Clueless).

Once you have your high concept, the story is what you make of it! If you are an author who wants to write big, commercial, action-packed plots, you can do that with a high concept. If you’re an author who would prefer to write deeper stories that tackle issues, you can do that, too. The high concept is about getting people through the door. Your unique, individual, execution is what will make readers continue to turn the page


Fantasy Openings To Avoid or To Very Carefully Consider

By Kristin Nelson & Angie Hodapp

We had such a blast chatting about the 9 story openings to avoid, we didn’t want the fun to end. So here’s a bonus installment for all you fantasy writers out there!

Your fantasy opening pages might be in trouble if…

#1) Your novel opens with an easily recognizable fantasy genre trope.

Ages ago, Writers Digest asked dozens of agents what story openings they saw too often. Agent Kristin cited the fantasy trope of gathering herbs in the forest. Turns out that’s still a pretty popular opening—and therein lies the potential problem. Why? Because opening with an established trope might make your story feel too familiar or not original enough, and you definitely want an agent read beyond chapter one.

Every genre has its established, easily recognizable tropes, and, technically, there’s nothing wrong with choosing one for your fantasy story’s opening. (In fact, we’re sure readers can cite plenty of examples of established authors who have done it, and done it well.) We’re not arguing that trope-openings (tropenings?) should never be done. We just want to make you aware of a few so that you can very carefully consider whether an easily recognizable opening is the best or most effective opening for your story.

So here’s a handy list of Fantasy Opening Tropes To Carefully Consider:

  • Gathering herbs
  • Walking into an inn or tavern, noting all the patrons, ordering a tankard of ale
  • Leaving an inn or tavern, immediately saddling or mounting a horse
  • Escaping/sneaking through a castle
  • Tracking/hunting, or otherwise carefully aiming a crossbow at something/someone
  • Training for combat, often with swords
  • Being summoned to appear before the council or the queen/king
  • Confiding in a servant, your one and only friend
  • Defying your parent, who just so happens to be the queen/king
  • Fighting in a massive battle scene, about which the reader knows nothing
  • Tending a sick sibling or parent
  • Tending an injured stranger, who even in their fevered, half-conscious state, is undeniably alluring
  • For other tropes, don’t miss Mallory Ortberg’s “How To Tell If You Are in a High Fantasy Novel.”

When can you use a trope? When you are going to put a very cool, original spin on it that will really make it stand out. For example, Patrick Rothfuss opens his bestselling debut, The Name of the Wind, in an inn. But it is not a typical fantasy inn, full of road-weary soldiers or scheming elves or drunk dwarfs or buxom serving wenches. It is an empty inn, and Rothfuss masterfully imbues his opening scene with tons of atmospheric detail that sets the tone for his whole novel:

It was night again. The Waystone Inn lay in silence, and it was a silence of three parts. The most obvious part was a hollow, echoing quiet, made by things that were lacking. If there had been a wind it would have sighed through the trees, set the inn’s sign creaking on its hooks, and brushed the silence down the road like trailing autumn leaves. If there had been a crowd, even a handful of men inside the inn, they would have filled the silence with conversation and laughter, the clatter and clamor one expects from a drinking house during the dark hours of night. If there had been music…but no, of course there was no music. In fact there were none of these things, and so the silence remained.

Note that Rothfuss even nods to the typical inn/tavern fantasy trope, calling out the “conversation and laughter,” the “clatter and clamor.” But by contrasting that familiar “tropey” inn with his own silent inn, he’s basically telling the reader This will not be the typical fantasy you’ve seen a thousand times before. This story is something new and different. And you know what? The rest of the novel delivers on that promise, which makes this a fantasy opening very masterfully crafted.

Gentle reminder about sharing this article series: You are welcome to share this article series as long as (1) it is not-for-profit, (2) you attribute to Kristin Nelson and Angie Hodapp of Nelson Literary Agency, and (3) you link back to our original articles on the Pubrants blog. If you would like to physically reprint any of the articles in a newsletter, magazine, or book, please email query@nelsonagency.com for permission.

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Elliott Brown


All 9 Story Openings to Avoid In One Handy Post

All 9 Story Openings To Avoid in one handy post for easy linking. Happy Reading!
 
(Hint: if you are an NLA newsletter subscriber, you didn’t have to wait weeks for the final article. Just sayin.’ Head to the NLA home page and click on the “newsletter” button at the bottom of the page: http://nelsonagency.com )
 
Your opening pages might be in trouble if… Your novel opens with main character alone & thinking. Here’s why
 
Your opening pages might be in trouble if…#2) Your novel opens with White Room Syndrome (WRS). Here’s why.  
 
Your opening pages might be in trouble if…#3) Your novel opens with the “mindless task” or “everyday normal.” Here’s why.
 
Your opening pages might be in trouble if…#4) Your novel opens with lengthy passage of “talking heads” dialogue. Here’s why.
 
Your opening pages might be in trouble if…#5) Your novel opens with running or pulse-pounding action. Here’s why.
 
Your opening pages might be in trouble if…#6) Your novel opens with prose problems i.e. flowery or overly descriptive verbiage. Here’s why.
 
Your opening pages might be in trouble if…#7) Your novel opens w/pages of backstory/exposition instead of scene Here’s why.
 
Your opening pages might be in trouble if…#8) Your novel opens with bodily functions or the weather. Here’s why
 
Your opening pages might be in trouble if…#9) Your novel opens with pithy wit or wisdom. Here’s why.
 
And bonus openings to avoid might be coming soon. You’ve been warned. 
Creative Commons Photo Credit: Ted Eytan 

9 Story Openings to Avoid, Part 9

By Kristin Nelson & Angie Hodapp

For Part 1 and the genesis of this series, click here.
For Part 2, click
here.
For Part 3, click
here.
For Part 4, click
here.
For Part 5, click
here.
For Part 6, click
here.
For Part 7, click here.
For Part 8, click here.

I bet you thought this day would never come. At long last, we are tackling the 9th opening to avoid.

And I have to admit that in the months since we started this article series, we’ve probably come up with another 9 openings that could spell trouble—so alas, perhaps this installment is not the finale. Regardless, thank you so much for reading each article, leaving comments on Pub Rants, and taking this journey with us. We’ve been delighted and humbled by the amount of love this article series has garnered on Twitter, Facebook, et al.

Your opening pages might be in trouble if…

#9) Your novel opens with pithy wit or wisdom that will become the story’s theme. 

As we’ve been saying all along, it’s not that you can never use this type of opening. We’re especially delighted when writers leave examples of successful novels that open with something we’re suggesting that you avoid—of course something must be done before it can be overdone. So our intent has always been to highlight for you what’s become overdone, to point out that we see a ton of openings that rely too heavily on this construct. Any overdone opening can prevent your original work from standing out. When we are looking at thousands of submissions a year, it’s easy for this opening to get dismissed. Simply proceed with caution.

Examples of first lines that employ pithy wit or wisdom that will become the story’s theme:

  • “Two wrongs don’t make a right. That’s what I learned the summer I turned sixteen.”
  • “My grandmother always told me ‘be careful what you wish for.’ Boy, was she right.”
  • “If only I knew then what I know now.”
  • “My father’s favorite saying was ‘the key to failure is trying to please everybody.'”
  • “Life is like playing the violin in public and learning the instrument as one goes on.”

There are a couple cautions with these types of openings. First, look at the first three bullet points above. With these, you risk zapping tension for your reader. How? Well, as James Scott Bell says, readers read to worry. We read because we want to (a) watch your character achieve or fail at a particular goal in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, and (b) find out if your character will learn/grow/change as a result of the struggle. So when you open with your protagonist basically proclaiming, “Hey, here I am on the other side of the struggle, and I’m OK or I wouldn’t be here to tell you the story, and by the way, here’s the lesson I’m going to learn by the end,” then readers already know too much and we have an excuse not to be that super worried about him. Tension zapped.

Second, look at the fourth and fifth bullet points above. These types of “proverby” openings tend to lack context. They’re “narrative camera pulled way far out” openings; you haven’t introduced me to your character yet, and I don’t know what conflict she’s facing, so I feel plopped down in the middle of some stranger’s life philosophy. That means my eyes are going to skim right over this kind of thing to search for where your story actually starts.

In sum, to truly judge how well an author executes a “pithy wit or wisdom” opening (something employed more often in literary works than in genre fiction), we’d have to look at what comes next. We’d have to see how it frames whatever scene or narrative follows. But again, if your goal is to stand out in the slush pile, then avoid opening with writing that a slush reader might consider skim-or-skip material.

And as a fun counterpoint to this series (and because we do have a sense of humor), why not check out Max Winters (Exes) 10 Writing Rules You Can (And Should) Break.

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Brett Jordan


9 Story Openings To Avoid, Part 8

By Kristin Nelson & Angie Hodapp

For Part 1 and the genesis of this series, click here.
For Part 2, click
here.
For Part 3, click
here.
For Part 4, click
here.
For Part 5, click
here.
For Part 6, click
here.
For Part 7, click here.

Your opening pages might be in trouble if…

#8) Your novel opens with bodily functions or the weather. 

On average, we receive about 100 queries a day. I popped into our inbox right before writing this article, and sure enough, out of the last 100 submissions or so, about a dozen sample pages opened with either bodily functions or weather.

Before we take a closer look, here’s a quick reminder: This article series is not intended to be a list of openings to never, ever, ever, ever write. Any type of opening can be well executed. We just want to highlight that there are several types of openings that aspiring writers tend to unknowingly overuse, and because we see these openings over and over again, even the well-written ones feel stale. If you want to stand out and be fresh and unique, then this article series is for you! We want to help you steer clear of stale openings…and bodily functions and observations of the weather both fit that bill.

Bodily functions frequently spotted in openings include:

  • Vomiting – This is the #1 culprit: 17 submissions received in the last 6 days opened with vomit in one form or another.
  • Peeing – Pee scenes often follow a character-waking-up scene. They are often but not always written by men, about male characters, and some go into weirdly literary detail, employing such words as glittering, shiny, golden, arc, stream, etc. (Why? Why???)
  • Bleeding/oozing wounds – This is typically either an attempt to (a) establish immediate physical conflict/peril or (b) hook us with shock value or gore porn. If the latter, then hashtag nope.
  • Spitting – Like vomiting, spitting is a piece of choreography that seems to have become a substitute for emotion. While vomiting is supposed to show-don’t-tell readers that a character is very upset, spitting is supposed to show-don’t-tell readers that a character is experiencing disdain or disgust. I think. (Sometimes it’s OK to tell. We promise.)
  • Crying/nose blowing – Like bleeding, this is typically an attempt to establish immediate conflict/peril, but of the emotional rather than physical kind.
  • Farting – Farts sometimes show up literally, and sometimes as idioms, like Billy was as popular as a fart in church. Note that if you write humorous books for little boys, then farting should definitely be part of your repertoire.
  • Masturbating – Seriously. We just read a masturbation opening this morning, within five minutes of reading submissions.

So what is the issue here? Besides the fact that bodily functions are often TM(G)I—Too Much Gross Information—and, therefore, a reading turn-off, they often signal that the writer is working too hard to be edgy or to convey an immediate conflict, yet the conflict is without context because the story hasn’t been set up yet. On one end of the spectrum is stuff I’d rather not know upon first meeting your character; on the other end of the spectrum, bodily functions without context generally don’t invoke emotion in the reader.

It bears mentioning that genre matters. If you write mysteries or thrillers, then your readers expect a dead body or two—usually killed in new, interesting, sick, twisted ways. So sick and twisted that someone in your book might vomit. Give your readers what they want! But think about whether your detective hero really needs to wake up and release a glittering, golden arc of pee into the toilet, blow his nose, and fart before he gets dressed and heads off to the crime scene.

As for starting with the weather, well, it’s certainly been done by many an esteemed author since the dawn of literature. No argument there. And yet therein lies the reason many aspiring writers continue to churn out weather openings. Certainly you can think of a more dynamic way to start a story! Start in scene, with a character doing something in a tense situation, and then layer in details about rain, sun, or approaching storms. As creative beings and literally the gods/goddesses of your own writing universes, we’re confident there are better openings within you.

Creative Commons Photo Credit: mslavick


Is Your Manuscript Ready? By Danielle Burby

You’ve done your research and know the basics of writing an excellent query letter, but what comes next? What happens when that query letter works and an agent requests your novel? At the end of the day, it all comes down to your manuscript. Are you and your manuscript ready for an agent? How do you know? The short answer: Ask yourself whether you’re treating this like a marathon or a sprint.

Once you’ve typed “The End,” you may be tempted to immediately go out and query every agent you can find, but keep in mind that, while it is a major accomplishment to finish writing a novel, even the most practiced authors need to take time to revise. The first draft is where the ideas form on the page, but it is only in subsequent revisions and rewrites that the actual story begins to emerge. Writing, like any other art, is a craft that takes skill and dedication. Keep in mind that you don’t have a deadline. There is all the time in the world for you to work and rework your novel until you have gotten it into the best shape you possibly can.

As you revise, remember that this is your world and you have full control over it. What a liberating superpower! Nothing in your novel is fixed in stone. This means you can have fun and play with everything from characterization to the rules of the world to the stakes and goals that drive the plot.

Some tips for revising:

  • Print out your draft and make notes in the margins to highlight moments that can be improved.
  • Map out the plot, point by point. Poke as many holes in the logic as possible. Re-map and revise.
  • Read the entire novel from start to finish several times, with a different focus each time—plot, character, language, copy editing.
  • Read out loud and listen to your words. Hearing can illuminate writer tics in need of eliminating or monotonous sentence structure. Revise with that in mind.
  • Share it with trusted readers who will push you even farther. If someone has a crazy suggestion, give it a shot! If it doesn’t work, at least you’ve tried it. Revise again. Repeat.

Whichever revision style you choose (and you can choose more than one!), your goal should be to make your book better, stronger, more powerful.

My biggest piece of advice to new authors is this:

  • Set the bar high and take the time needed to get to a masterful final draft.

Too often we get requests from agent-seeking writers asking for a chance to resubmit a now-revised manuscript. Occasionally we may say yes, but more often we have to say no because of time constraints. You might only have one shot at an agent read. Spend it wisely. Remember that each and every draft will make you better at what you do. Keep creating and writing and challenging yourself. Keep running this marathon.


9 Story Openings to Avoid, Part 7

By Kristin Nelson & Angie Hodapp

For Part 1 and the genesis of this series, click here.
For Part 2, click
here.
For Part 3, click
here.
For Part 4, click
here.
For Part 5, click
here.
For Part 6, click here.

Your opening pages might be in trouble if…

#7) Your novel opens with pages of backstory or exposition instead of a scene created to kick off your novel. 

In the thousands and thousands of opening pages we’ve read over the years, we’ve discovered three problematic openers that fit this bill:

  1. Opening with a sentence or two of a scene, but then shifting into pages of backstory or exposition.
  2. Opening with a sentence or two of exposition or backstory, followed by the start of an actual scene.
  3. Opening with heavy exposition, backstory, or world building that goes on for pages without anchoring the reader to a character situated in the story’s narrative time and place.

This type of opening becomes a problem when authors feel the need to fully explain their world before officially beginning the story—they’re afraid that readers will be lost without all the background information. A good intention, but a master writer knows how to layer in her world building and backstory at the same time she is introducing her characters, setting, and whatever situational conflict will launch the story’s momentum.

When I come across a submission like this, I’ll skip ahead to see where—or if—the story actually begins; however, I’m already on notice. This type of false start makes it that much harder for the writer to win me back. You don’t want an agent looking for a reason to say no.

Angie here! Let’s look at some examples.

  • Opening with a sentence or two of a scene, but then shifting into pages of backstory or exposition.

Marge stood, stretched her aching back, and leaned her shovel against the wall of the pit. The six other archeologists on her team squatted over their assigned areas of the site, still engrossed in their excavations. Marge surveyed their work and gave a satisfied nod. They’d made great progress today.

Marge and her team had flown to Egypt six weeks prior. The university had finally managed to secure the funding for this dig, despite the dean’s oft-repeated assurances that the archeology department would never approve the sum Marge had requested. But over the summer, some anonymous donor had stepped forward and written a big, fat check. Marge couldn’t guess who the donor was, but she was too excited to care. She started calling her team and making travel arrangements…

This type of opening is often crafted by writers who’ve learned that it’s a best practice to start in scene. So they do. But the siren song of expository backstory is still too alluring, and they can’t resist. To see if you’ve fallen prey, check for past-perfect verbs in your opening scene (had managed, had requested, had stepped forward). If you see some, then—RED ALERT!—you’ve probably slipped into backstory.

Let’s look at another example:

  • Opening with a sentence or two of exposition or backstory, followed by the start of an actual scene.

Marge had learned two things during her seventeen years as a university professor. The first was never to take no for an answer, especially when it came from the dean during a conversation about funding. The second was never to question the motives of an anonymous donor who wanted to send you and your whole team to Egypt for three months on an exclusive dig. She was right about the first, but wrong about the second. She was about to find out just how wrong.

Marge stood, stretched her aching back, and leaned her shovel against the wall of the pit. The six other archeologists on her team squatted over their assigned areas of the site, still engrossed in their excavations…you know the rest.

This type of opening is often crafted by writers who want to provide an immediate insight into character before showing us that character in setting, motion, or conflict. Also note the prophetic “she was about to find out just how wrong.” As far as hooks go, this kind always feels a little too on-the-nose, like the writer is saying, Hey, isn’t that portentous and enticing? Most times, authors need to work a little harder than that to plant the hook that will keep readers genuinely intrigued.

To avoid this type of opening, recognize the difference between scene and exposition/backstory. Practice writing solely in scene. Only then, go back and layer in your exposition/backstory with subtle strokes that are relevant to the current scene.

Kristin here: Of course, like all the examples we’ve given in this article series, any opening can work in the hands of a master writer. My client Sherry Thomas is renowned for her ability to pull this off. Read the opening of her debut novel Private Arrangements to see how she breaks this rule but still manages to get away with it. Her masterful writing sweeps the reader away!

Creative Commons Photo Credit: Angie Harms


Query Tip: Avoid the Checkbox Grocery List In The Pitch

Note from Kristin: Jamie is one of NLA’s first reader on queries. He reads hundreds a week so this was worth sharing.

By Jamie Persichetti

As a gay man, it’s always weird to read in query letter book pitches that a story “features LGBTQ+ characters” or “has diversity” like they are bonus content on the special edition BluRay, specs on a laptop with extra RAM, or items to check off a culturally aware grocery list.

I mean, cool! Keep the queer coming. Books need them. But you sound a bit… odd… if you phrase it like they are features. Just say someone is trans, or that he has a boyfriend. Or (and I know this is a hard one) don’t mention it at all if it’s not actually important to the core of the book.

I get it. Don’t write diverse characters and you’re a bad person. Write diverse characters and you do it wrong. It’s a double standard that is suffocating publishing right now. This is just how I felt in the moment.


9 Story Openings to Avoid, Part 6

By Kristin Nelson & Angie Hodapp

For Part 1 and the genesis of this series, click here.
For Part 2, click here.
For Part 3, click here.
For Part 4, click here.
For Part 5, click here

Your opening pages might be in trouble if…

#6) Your novel opens with prose problems, such as flowery or overly descriptive verbiage.

This morning, while sipping my steaming hot and deliciously aromatic Mountain chai with creamy half and half and gazing out my window at the cerulean sky, I pondered on the inevitable curiosity borne of dissecting why working authors succumb to the passion of crafting overwrought prose.

Did you have trouble reading the above sentence? Did you read it twice to figure out what I was talking about? Did you wonder why I didn’t just say, “This morning, I thought about why writers use overly descriptive language”?

If you answered yes to any of the above, then you know exactly why overwrought prose makes our list of openings to avoid.

So often we come across submissions in which writers are trying to play with language, but they’re often playing with it at the wrong time. If you just need to convey that a character smiled, then “He smiled” is far preferable to “His lips quirked up at the corners, his sudden smile lighting up his face in such a way that I knew he was happy” is overdone. But newer writers, still mastering craft, often make the mistake of using fancy words and “phrasey” sentence structure all throughout their work…and this slows a story down rather than moving it along.

He smiled.

Done.

The point is the smile, not how the character did it.

Expansion and Contraction

One thing to keep in mind as you revise your own writing is the concept of expansion and contraction. Bestselling writers know when to expand their prose and when to contract it. They expand when they want to slow readers down to ensure they take notice of something important to the development of character or plot. They contract when they need to keep things snappy and simple to keep readers interested as the story moves over points of low conflict or tension, or transitions from one turning point to the next.

Newer writers, on the other hand, tend to expand a little too much—a big reason such writers wrestle with high word counts. Learn (a) that contraction is a tool in your toolbox and (b) when you need to use it, and you’ll be well on your way!

So is there a time or a place for more elevated prose? Absolutely. But save it for scenes in which you need a certain type of prose to set a certain type of tone. Save it for a moment of gravity, to let the words shine.

Photo Credit: Thor


9 Story Openings to Avoid: Part 5

By Kristin Nelson & Angie Hodapp

For Part 1, click here.
For Part 2, click here.
For Part 3, click here.
For Part 4, click here.

Your opening pages might be in trouble if…

#5) Your novel opens with running or other pulse-pounding action. 

If you are guilty of this one, don’t beat yourself up. We promise you’re not alone. Writers are told they need to start in medias res (literally “in the middle of things”) if they want to grab the reader from page one. Solid advice, but when it translates to action for action’s sake, therein lies the problem.

Just so we’re clear, we’re not suggesting that you nix every bit of action in your opening scene. The problem arises when an opening provides only action to the exclusion of:

  • All other narrative elements, like character, setting, voice, tone, and context. Without context, readers are left wondering, Why is this action happening? Who’s involved? What outcome should I be rooting for? Remember that confused readers might stick with you for a few pages, but if your opening scene introduces more questions than it answers, readers are likely to abandon your tale.
  • Structural relevance. Does the opening action sequence mirror, foreshadow, or lead logically into something that will happen later in the story—for instance, the inciting incident, midpoint reversal, climax, or resolution? If your opening action scene only exists to create excitement that you hope will hook a reader, then you might be in trouble.

The type of opening scene you write relies heavily on your genre. Action-forward openings tend to be more appropriate in commercial fiction, as opposed to literary fiction (which is more about artful language and thematic explorations of the human condition, so literary openings tend to provide immediate insight into a character or immersion into a setting). Genres like thrillers, military science fiction, and romantic suspense lend themselves to action-forward openings, but readers of cozy mysteries, contemporary romance, women’s fiction, and historical fiction expect to be thoroughly introduced to character, setting, and situational conflict when they encounter your first chapter. So consider genre and reader expectations as well as your novel’s overall structure when crafting your opening.

The final takeaway here is that in medias res is solid advice…if you take it to mean “start in the middle of action,” not “start in the middle of an action scene.” Action means (a) there’s a character on your “page stage,” (b) he or she is doing something other than merely thinking (see part 1 of this article series), and (c) he or she is in some sort of enticing predicament.

  • Maybe it’s a 70-year-old woman on her knees in the garden behind her house. It’s raining, and she’s up to her elbows in mud, desperately trying to bury something. Or dig something up.
  • Maybe it’s a scrawny middle-school-aged kid standing in the middle of the gym. The climbing rope hangs before him. His PE teacher stands to one side, arms crossed across his beefy chest, and his classmates encircle him, some cheering him on, others chanting insults.
  • Maybe it’s a married couple standing at the sink, washing dishes. The wife dries the last dish, while the husband calmly turns off the faucet and announces that he wants a divorce.

All of these story openings begin in medias res because they begin in the middle of a situation laden with dramatic tension. We don’t know the nature of that tension yet, but we will happily keep reading because (and this is the important part) each of these situations comes pre-packaged with an impending sense of What happens next? Yet none of these is an action scene.

In contrast, we see a lot of sample pages in our query inbox that start with a character running. An action scene. Sweat pouring. Lungs burning. Muscles cramping. Feet stumbling over rocks and tree roots. The sound of a pursuer’s footsteps ringing out in the darkness. These writers hope we’ll be just as breathless and scared as their characters are. But this type of opening lacks context (which means readers aren’t yet invested in your character’s plight). It’s an opening that’s tough to make fresh because we see it all the time. Plus, it can only lead to one of two possible outcomes: the character will either slip her pursuer or she’ll get caught. That makes this type of scene skim-or-skip material. Worse, it makes false tension out of all the pages the writer devotes to pouring sweat, burning lungs, cramping muscles, stumbling feet, and darkness. And false tension makes readers feel cheated.

What you’re after is dramatic tension, which you can only evoke to the extent that you can make readers understand why this character and why this situation? I’d much rather find out who that 70-year-old woman is and why she’s digging in her garden in the rain! Wouldn’t you?

Study the difference, and then practice creating story openings that entice rather than merely excite. This skill will take you another step further down your path toward storytelling mastery!

Photo Credit: puamelia


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