“Hurry up and get in the car.” He motioned with his hands so hard, they blurred.
“The TV is starting to drop,” she bent low at the knees and thrust upward trying to shift the hulking screen toward her center of gravity, “can’t you come here and help me?”
Sirens wailed in the distance. The sound echoing off the metal and concrete buildings.
She ground her teeth. “I’m trying and you won’t—”
Tiny pieces of plastic and glass bounced and rolled across the sidewalk.
He cursed. “Now you’ve done it. Get in! Get in!”
She jumped over the incriminating mess, yanked open the car door and dove inside. Before she buckled in, she flew against the back of his seat the moment he stomped on the gas.
I tapped out that little scene to show you how it feels to be a reader who, in spite of the action, is hung up on one question: Who are these people?
Kim, Kayla, and I just returned from a writer’s conference (Becca is currently moving cross-continent as I type), where we saw lots of manuscripts from writers at varying stages of their journey. It’s not uncommon among those writing fiction, to start with an action scene in which dialogue bounces back and forth like a tennis ball in a match watched at high speed. Hook ‘em from the start, right?
Sure, but there are some conventions of structure that must be observed in order for an agent or editor to be hooked.
Some of you are probably wondering what’s wrong with the vignette above.
In one word: context.
Whenever you introduce your protagonist/main character/hero or antagonist/villain/bad guy, you need to introduce them in their respective contexts. And give us first and last names (unless the identification of the antagonist is a surprise).
It’s hard to figure out what’s going on in the scene above without context. I did that on purpose. On the surface it may seem like a heist. But what if I told you they were moving, and the siren was a tornado siren?
Changes everything, eh?
Without context around introduction of a character, the reader is left to try and figure out what’s going on, and will skim for information rather than engage in the story. You don’t want that. Reader skimming is BAD.
To engage your reader, you need to show them the cast of your story in everyday life. Work, school, family etc.
That does NOT mean showing them waking with an alarm, brushing teeth, eating eggs and sausage, then getting dressed.
Show them in a moment of normal, everyday conflict. If your main character is a store owner, show her dealing with a shoplifter, or a mean landlord. Since tension and conflict are essential for a story to be a story, give the reader a baseline on how the characters handle stress in normal life. That way the arc is evident as the plot moves.
Same with an antagonist. What is his or her context that gives motivation for the bad behavior?
In SPIN, Wendy Wetz is my antagonist. She is meaner than a sunburnt snake with rabies. She loves to pick on protagonist, Kisrie Kelley with the dedication of an Olympic athlete. Poor Kisrie’s head has seen the inside of a toilet bowl more often than not.
At first, I thought that was enough. Hate the bad guy, right?
I introduced Wendy and Kisrie together in the opening scene. A high school English class. Both got papers back with less than satisfactory grades. How each girl responded showed their true character. The reader can see who is the protag and who is the antag before a single punch is thrown.
THEN I show the home life of each girl – drop in late to interpersonal conflict and leave early—in order to give context and motivation for behavior. Why do Wendy and Kisrie behave the way they do?
Kisrie comes from an intact home in the Denver suburbs—mother, father, sister who thinks she’s a bush baby. Wendy? Lives in a dive apartment with a single mother who works as a prostitute. She hates her life and doesn’t understand why someone as fat and naïve as Kisrie gets such a great family and…a dad.
Introducing your main characters (hero/villain) helps the reader understand motivations. It also makes them more three-dimensional, believable, and relateable. When achieved, the reader will be willing to stay with your cast of characters for the 60-80K word journey. And you want the reader to stick with your story!
With pen to paper,