Knowing and incorporating back story into your novel

This post is the sixteenth in a series about writing a novel. You can check out the list of past topics at the end of this post.

Before you began writing, I suggested you develop your characters. This not only saves you in rewriting but the characters will be more realistic and their behavior consistent if you know them well. One of the ways to do this is to develop your characters’ back story. The back story is your character’s history – the event and circumstances that made them into the person they are today.

Reasons you should know your character’s backstory

  • You will know which major events in their past may affect their motivation during the main story arc
  • You are able to inject subtle clues about your character’s past into your narrative which can create mystery and interest for your reader
  • Your character’s past may be a major driving force of the main plot
  • By understanding your character’s history, you may discover the perfect opening scene for your story

Now you don’t have to know all this for every character. But you should know it for your main characters. Everything in their past as well as their innate personality traits will dictate their action, which in turn drives the plot of your story.

Creating character back story can be a time-consuming task. But doing so will build strong, solid characters that come to life for your readers.

Now you may be wondering why I am discussing building their back story when this is something that should have been done before you began writing. I am bringing this up now because as you write your story, you may want to incorporate some of this back story into your novel.

But how do you do this? And does your reader really need to know this?

The basic rule of thumb is to tell the reader only what he or she needs to know to understand what is happening in the story at that moment.

Basically, you want to add the back story in little bits – a couple of sentences here and there. You don’t want large blocks of text. This stops the momentum of the story. Writing about back story stagnates your story. It is telling the reader information rather than showing them. It doesn’t engage any of the reader’s senses. They are no longer actively participating in the story. They are busy reading background that might or might not be relevant to the action that is about to start.

I read on another website a good way to think about this. Consider adding back story in terms of taking bites. You can’t eat a whole cake in one bite. However, you can eat it by taking lots of little bites. Trying to eat a cake in one bite could cause you to choke. It is the same with back story; include it in small bits so the reader doesn’t choke.

Because back story slows down the reader, one place you want to make sure you DO NOT include a lot of back story is in the beginning of your story. You only have a few pages to hook the reader so use those pages to give them action. Yes, your character might be motivated by their past, but the opening pages isn’t the place to go into depth about that past.

Back story is important in character development but just because you spent the time developing that information doesn’t mean you need to incorporate all of it into your story. Remember that the best fiction is all about action. Your job is to portray the action and let the reader draw his or her own conclusion. And it is easier to do this with well-developed characters whose actions are consistent with the back stories.

Previous topics

#1 – Deciding to write a novel – Writing Myths

#2 – Three areas to develop before starting to write a novel

#3 – Finding a Story Idea and How to Know if it “good enough”

#4 – Developing Characters for your Novel

#5 – Major characters? Minor Characters? Where does everyone fit in?

#6 – Developing the Setting for your Novel

#7 – The importance of developing conflict in your novel plot

#8 – To Outline or not to outline 

#9 – The importance of a story arc

#10 – The importance of tension and pace

#11 – Prologue and opening scenes

#12 – Beginning and ending scenes in a novel

#13 – The importance of dialogue…and a few tips on how to write it

#14 – Using Internal Dialogue in your novel

#15 – More dialogue tips and help with dialogue tags

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More dialogue tips and help with dialogue tags

This post is the fifteenth in a series about writing a novel. You can check out the list of past topics at the end of this post.

Today is the third installment on the topic of dialogue in your novel. The first week, I wrote about the importance of dialogue and gave some tips on writing dialogue. Last week, I talked about the special type of dialogue that goes on in your character’s head – internal dialogue.

Today, I wanted to give you some examples of dialogue and talk a little bit more about dialogue tags (the he said/she said that allows the reader to know who is speaking).

Dialogue with a Purpose

Dialogue can be great at bringing the reader into the story and sharing information about a character. We can learn a lot about a character in how they speak and what they say. It can help set the mood for the story. But most of all you need to make sure that the dialogue advances the story.

You do not want to fill your pages with meaningless drivel. Such as two characters greeting each other.

“Hi, Bob. How are you doing?”

“OK. I guess.”

“Nice weather, huh?”

This exchange could easily be deleted from the scene and replaced with Sally greeted Bob. Now if you want this scene to share something about the characters, you would need to make some changes.

“Hi, Bobby. How are you doing?”

Bob continued to stare at his shoes. When he spoke it was more to them than her. “Ok. I guess.”

“Nice weather, huh?”

All she got in response was a nod. Sally shot a glance at the doctor. She didn’t know what to do. All she knew is she wanted her brother back and the boy who stood before her wasn’t him.

In this case, the dialogue is being used to show the strained relationship between Bob and Sally, which is better than just telling the reader. (Sally worried about her strained relationship with Bob. He rarely said more than a word or two to her when they saw each other.) Actually both ways (a summary or a short dialogue) would work in the story depending on how you want to portray it.

Natural Dialogue

Though people talk with a lot of fillers (ums and pauses), most often you will want your dialogue to be crisp and filled with tension. You want to compress your dialogue, cutting fluffy words or whole lines from the exchange.

Here is an example from another website.

Original:

“Mary, are you angry with me?” John asked.

“You’re damn straight I’m mad at you,” Mary said.

“But why? You’ve got absolutely no reason to be!”

“Oh but I do, I do. And you can see it in my face, can’t you?”

Alternative:

“You angry with me?” John asked.

“Damn straight,” Mary said.

“You got no reason to be!”

Mary felt her hands curling into fists.

As you can see the second rendition is much tighter and increases the conflict. So go through your dialogue and compress it as much as you can. Take out the adverbs. Use sentence fragments. Cut words out ruthlessly. The dialogue will improve as will your story.

Dialogue Tags

For readers to know who is speaking, you need dialogue tags such as he said and she replied. And while they are necessary, you don’t need them every time someone speaks.

I am sure we all have encountered books full of too many or too few dialogue tags. Even from professionally published authors I sometimes have had to stop and count lines backwards to figure out who is saying what.

Dialogue tags should be like punctuation marks – they should be invisible, guiding the reader, but not getting in the way of the story.

Here are four tips to help you use dialogue tags like a pro.

1.)  While your high school English teacher may have encouraged you to stray from the boring “said” or “asked,” there is nothing wrong with sticking with these words. But many new authors don’t want to stick with “said” and “asked.” They search out posts like this one that show you 100 different ways to say “said.” And while there is nothing wrong with interjecting a few of these into your text, you should do so sparingly. The concern with these more frivolous choices is that the words draw the reader’s attention away from the dialogue.

Bad Example: “You can’t go out into the dark,” Mary cried.

“What now?” Edward groaned.

“No, no, no,” she muttered. “Too dangerous.”

“What is your problem?” Edward wondered.

Here is a writer trying to use too many fancy tags. It should be rewritten to something more like this.

“You can’t go out into the dark,” Mary said, blocking the door.

Edward groaned. “What?”

“No, no, no.” Mary shook her head with each word. “Too dangerous.”

“What is your problem, Mary?”

The second scenario allows you to focus more on the dialogue.

Now there may be times when your dialogue may not communicate the tone or emotion clearly. And there is nothing wrong with using a descriptive tag such as whispered, shrieked, muttered, grunted or boasted to help your reader understand the scene.

Example: “Leave me alone,” he muttered.

But don’t worry about using other words than “said” or “asked.” If you only use them when necessary, and the dialogue is interesting, no one will even notice them. And that is what you want.

2.)  The placement of dialogue tags and how often you use them are important – even more so if you have a lot of characters in a scene. Well-positioned tags insure your scene make sense and eliminate any reader confusion. If a reader has to backtrack a few paragraphs or pages to get the conversation straight, a writer risks the book being abandoned.

Example:  “You always do this to me, Mary,” Edward said. “You get all worked up, forbid me to do something and it turns out to be nothing.”

Bob held up his hand. “Stop it right there, Ed. You don’t need to pick on poor Mary.”

“Thanks, Bob,” Mary said flashing him a smile. “I knew I could count on you.”

“Anything for you.”

Edward rolled his eyes. “If you two are done…”

3.)  You don’t have to always use said or any other dialogue tag to indicate who is speaking. You can use action to indicate this as well as to provide information essential to understanding the character and/or some element of the scene. In the above example, Bob holding up his hand and Edward rolling his eyes are examples of this way to identify the speaker without a dialogue tag.

Or you can have the characters use each other’s names as they speak – but again, this is done sparingly.

Bad Example: “What are you doing, Bob?” Mary asked.

“I am helping you out, Mary.”

“You know she doesn’t need your help, Bob,” Edward said.

So in the above example, characters are calling each other by name but a little too often. In real life people use other people’s names sparingly (typically at the beginning or end of a conversation) and so should your characters. Here is the above example revised.

Mary glared at Bob. “What are you doing?”

“I am helping you out, Mary.”

Edward stepped in front of Mary, shielding her. “She doesn’t need your help, Bob.”

4.)  Use adverbs (such as loudly, softly and angrily) with your dialogue tags sparingly – as in almost never. Nothing points out a novice quicker than a writer who uses adverbs to tell your reader how someone spoke or even worse uses an adverb with one of the fancy alternatives to said.

Examples: she said excitedly

He exclaimed loudly (redundant)

Using an adverb is telling your reader how the dialogue was spoken instead of showing them.

Example: “I never want to see you again,” she said angrily.

But instead of telling us she is angry, show us.

“I never want to see you again,” she said, storming out the door and slamming it behind her.

Of course, as with any “rule” there are exceptions. Sometimes adding an adverb can be a quick way to indicate a mannerism or emotion (she said quickly; he said coldly) without writing longer, descriptive sentences. But keep this to a minimum.

To summarize….

  • Unless you have a good reason, stick to the standard “he said, she said.”
  • Other simple verbs – she asked, she whispered, – are fine.
  • Fancy verbs – he bellowed, she interjected – should be avoided.
  • Use only as many dialogue tags as needed for clarity. If two people are speaking, one every three or four lines is about right. You will need more dialogue tags if you have more characters speaking in the same scene.
  • You can also use character action or calling a character by name to indicate who is speaking.
  • Never use adverbs (or at least very rarely). Instead of telling, show the reader the action.

Even though “said” is the preferred verb, if you use it every time, your dialogue will become tedious. So aim for variety. With some practice, you will learn when a dialogue tag sounds correct and appropriate. In fact, if you don’t even think about or notice the dialogue tag…you got it right!

Writing dialogue well is hard even for seasoned authors. Hopefully, these three posts help you master this difficult, but important, task and allow you to write well-written, realistic dialogue in your novel.

Previous topics

#1 – Deciding to write a novel – Writing Myths

#2 – Three areas to develop before starting to write a novel

#3 – Finding a Story Idea and How to Know if it “good enough”

#4 – Developing Characters for your Novel

#5 – Major characters? Minor Characters? Where does everyone fit in?

#6 – Developing the Setting for your Novel

#7 – The importance of developing conflict in your novel plot

#8 – To Outline or not to outline 

#9 – The importance of a story arc

#10 – The importance of tension and pace

#11 – Prologue and opening scenes

#12 – Beginning and ending scenes in a novel

#13 – The importance of dialogue…and a few tips on how to write it

#14 – Using Internal Dialogue in your novel

Using Internal Dialogue in your novel

This post is the fourteenth in a series about writing a novel. You can check out the list of past topics at the end of this post.

Last week, I wrote about the importance of dialogue and gave a few tips on writing dialogue. Today, I want to talk about a special type of dialogue – internal dialogue. This is what your character is thinking. It is not the same thing as narration, which is when the person telling the story (the narrator) talks directly to the reader.

Now there are a few rules about using internal dialogue.

  • Only use internal dialogue for the point-of-view (POV) character. If you show the thoughts of non-POV characters, it is called head-hopping, and it is a big no-no in writing (though I do see many romance authors committing this writing sin.)
  • Only share thoughts that advance the story. We don’t need to hear every thought in your character’s head. We just need to hear the important ones that are relevant to the plot.

Including internal dialogue is a good way to replicate real life. In our own lives, we are always thinking to ourselves – noticing things, trying to solve problems, giving ourselves pep talks or berating ourselves.

There are two ways you can include internal dialogue – indirectly or directly.

Indirect Internal Dialogue gives the reader an idea of the character’s thoughts without the exact words they are thinking. You do not need to include the tags “wondered” or “thought.”

Here is an example taken from Internal Dialogue by Marcy Kennedy:

The suffocating stench of lilies clung to his clothes. She slowly pulled away from his hug. Shivers traced over her arms. She knew that smell. Not perfume. It was too natural for that, but it also wasn’t an everyday odor. She wouldn’t expect to run into it at the grocery store. Or the bank, either. It was rare. Heavy, warm, and sad.

Her breath tripped in her throat, and she stepped back. He smelled like death, like a corpse smothered in flower arrangements at a funeral parlor. The last time she’d smelled it was standing next to her mother’s coffin, saying good-bye.

Direct Internal Dialogue gives the reader the exact words the character is thinking. It is written in first person and present tense, regardless of the person and tense of the rest of the story.

Here is above example written as direct internal dialogue (also from Marcy Kennedy’s book):

The suffocating stench of lilies clung to his clothes and hair. She slowly pulled away from his hug. Shivers traced over her arms. I know that smell. I should know that smell.

Not perfume. It was too natural for that, but it also wasn’t an everyday odor. She wouldn’t expect to run into it at the grocery store. Or the bank, either. It was rare. Heavy, warm, and sad.

Her breath tripped in her throat, and she stepped back. He smells like death, like a corpse smothered in flowers at a funeral parlor. The last time she’d smelled that scent was standing next to her mother’s coffin, saying good-bye.

Formatting your internal dialogue

There are many ways to include internal dialogue in your novel. There are two rules you need to follow.

1.) Never use quotation marks for internal dialogue.

2.) Be consistent with whatever format you choose.

For indirect internal dialogue, you are not using speech tags (he thought) or setting off the words in italics since you are not giving the exact words.

For direct internal dialogue, you can use both a speech tag or put the information in italics. (Liar, she thought.) Or you could just decide to use italics. (Where’s the money you owe me?)

Once you have mastered using internal dialogue, you can use it to help your readers connect with your characters. It will help the characters feel more real and most importantly the internal dialogue can advance your story.

Previous topics

#1 – Deciding to write a novel – Writing Myths

#2 – Three areas to develop before starting to write a novel

#3 – Finding a Story Idea and How to Know if it “good enough”

#4 – Developing Characters for your Novel

#5 – Major characters? Minor Characters? Where does everyone fit in?

#6 – Developing the Setting for your Novel

#7 – The importance of developing conflict in your novel plot

#8 – To Outline or not to outline 

#9 – The importance of a story arc

#10 – The importance of tension and pace

#11 – Prologue and opening scenes

#12 – Beginning and ending scenes in a novel

#13 – The importance of dialogue…and a few tips on how to write it

The importance of dialogue…and a few tips on how to write it

This post is the thirteenth in a series about writing a novel. You can check out the list of past topics at the end of this post.

Most likely at some point in your novel, your characters are going to speak to each other. This is called dialogue and it can be one of the trickiest things to write well.

Dialogue can provide several benefits to your storytelling. It can provide:

1.) Immediacy – Dialogue allows the reader to be involved in a scene. They experience what happened rather than have the author or a character tell them about it later. Wouldn’t you rather witness an argument between two people than hear about it later?

2.) Characterization – Dialogue is an excellent method of revealing character. When you hear a person speak, you get an understanding of what kind of person he or she is. It can reveal if they are educated, funny, happy, bored and so much more with not only what they say but how they say it.

3.) Information – Dialogue is a way to deliver information to the reader. It can reveal people’s passions, motivations and more. This can be a way to get back story or other important information into the story without dumping a lot of information in a long story-stopping description.

Writing realistic dialogue can be challenging, and how much dialogue you include in your novel can depend on your own preferences, circumstances in the novel or even the type of genre. But don’t avoid dialogue because you feel challenged by writing it. As with all aspects of novel writing, it takes practice to write dialogue well.

Now, dialogue needs to serve a specific purpose in the story. Rarely are you going to add dialogue to just pass the time. It needs to be used to advance the plot, reveal something about a character, establish the mood of a scene – or perhaps all three. When editing your novel, always consider if the dialogue advances the story.

Here are a few tips to help you with dialogue.

1.) Remember that people don’t speak in proper English. They use slang and contractions. They speak in fragments. They also rarely call each other by name. Spend some time listening to people speaking – at the mall, at restaurants, or even in your own home. This will help you develop natural sounding dialogue.

2.) One of the best ways to ensure your dialogue sounds natural and realistic is to read it aloud.

3.) Keep your dialogue tags (said, asked) simple. The more complex the tag line, the more it detracts from the actual dialogue. (More on this in two weeks.)

4.) Avoid using adverbs with the dialogue tags. (Example – he said angrily) Often the adverb is repetitious; the dialogue should tell us he is angry. There is no need to repeat it.

5.) Consider whether you even need a tagline. If two people are conversing you don’t need a lot of “he said, she said” to have people follow the flow of the conversation. Avoid using “said” too often. However, be wary of using words like “shouted,” “muttered” or “whispered. While they are perfectly fine, they should be used sparingly. It is better to have the dialogue convey that it was intended to be shouted or whispered.

Since dialogue can be important to your story, I have broken this topic into three parts. Next week, I will talk about internal dialogue and the following week I will go more in-depth about the use of dialogue tags.

Previous topics

#1 – Deciding to write a novel – Writing Myths

#2 – Three areas to develop before starting to write a novel

#3 – Finding a Story Idea and How to Know if it “good enough”

#4 – Developing Characters for your Novel

#5 – Major characters? Minor Characters? Where does everyone fit in?

#6 – Developing the Setting for your Novel

#7 – The importance of developing conflict in your novel plot

#8 – To Outline or not to outline 

#9 – The importance of a story arc

#10 – The importance of tension and pace

#11 – Prologue and opening scenes

#12 – Beginning and ending scenes in a novel

Beginning and ending scenes in a novel

This post is the twelfth in a series about writing a novel. You can check out the list of past topics at the end of this post.

Last week I wrote about one of the most crucial scenes in your novel – the very first scene. But there are still many more scenes to write. And each scene of course has a beginning, middle and end. Here are some tips and ideas on how to begin and end a scene in your novel.

Beginning a Scene

So how do you begin a scene? Well, begin is kind of a misleading term as some scenes pick up in the middle of the action or continue where another scene left off. Often a new scene starts at the beginning of a chapter or is separate by a break of four lines or maybe a series of *** to let the reader know a new scene is to begin.

How you handle each scene probably won’t be the same way each time, but here are some ideas on how to start a scene.

Begin in the Middle

Instead of building up to the action, sometimes it is best to begin in the middle of the scene with the action in full swing.

The horse’s hooves thundered across the ground. Tosh dug his claws into the saddle as his back legs threatened to slip off. A firm hand pressed against his side, pulling him closer toward the young man behind him. Feeling safer, Tosh leaned out to see the terrain up ahead. He blinked his eyes in disbelief at what he saw. – the opening scene of The Search.

Here the action is already taking place. The reader must continue reading to find out what danger lies ahead and why Tosh is riding on the horse in such a hurry. This type of beginning to a scene is more dynamic than one describing the scenery. It can hook the reader quickly.

Beginning with Dialogue

This really is a variation of the above scenario but instead of being in the middle of the action, you begin in the middle of a conversation. The conversation can be the momentum that sweeps the reader along. There is an element of suspense as the reader tries to figure out the context of the conversation.

Starting at the actual beginning
Sometimes the best place to begin is at the beginning. For many people that might be the beginning of the day. It is a natural place to start but this has been done so many times that beginnings, such as “I woke up to the screaming alarm clock” have become cliché.

Start with Setting

Of course, some authors begin their scenes with a description of the setting. But when you do this, you are announcing to the reader that the setting is important and will have an active influence on the characters and action in the scene. If your character is on a deserted island, the lay of the land may be helpful in letting the reader know what is available.

Dream sequence

If you want to disappoint or perhaps even anger your readers – start with a dream. Your reader is engrossed in the action of the scene and the death-defying situation with no way out. Then the reader turns the page only to discover the character wakes up, and it was all a dream. After that, the character arises from the bed, and the real story begins.

Now this isn’t to say you can’t start a scene with a dream, but you should only do so if the dream is an integral part of the story. I started my first book, Summoned, with a dream sequence, but I made sure the reader knew it was a dream BEFORE I began the dream.

The young woman tossed in her bed, muttering softly. She rolled over, her long honey-colored hair covering her pale face. Her fingers dug into the mattress. She shook her head as she sank deeper into the dream.

The yellow light cut through the dark. Her eyes stayed focused on it as it flickered before her like a hundred candles dancing in a soft summer breeze, growing brighter as she neared. As she walked, her hands reached out, touching the smooth, cold stone wall. That alone should have warned Lina something was not right. Even as her mind called out that this was all wrong, she continued down the hall toward the light and toward whatever was calling her.

There is no right or wrong way to begin a scene. These are only a few suggestions. You may need to try several of them to find what works best for your scene. Just remember that the secret to a good opening – whether it is for your book or merely one of its many scenes – is that it compels the reader to keep reading.

Ending a scene

The ending moments complete the scene and should leave the reader wanting more. It should make them eager to begin the next scene.

It is always best to end a scene as early as possible. You want your last statement to be strong and not full of unnecessary details. Depending on the situation, you can end the scene with a sense of finality or with something that propels the reader forward.

Remember that each scene is part of a larger story. The ending of a scene should make the reader think, “That was good. I want more.” And then plunge ahead into the next scene.

Cliffhanger Ending.

This type of ending is characterized by stopping the scene just as a major action is about to take place or in the middle of the action at a crucial point. The easiest way to think about this is to watch a TV drama. Something important is revealed and then…cut to commercial break. That leaves the viewer hanging around waiting for the show to return rather than channel surfing. You want the same type of reaction from your reader.

Cliffhanger endings typically happen at the end of chapters forcing the reader to start the next chapter to see what happens.

However, some authors do not continue the scene in the next chapter. In order to heighten the reader’s curiosity, they insert a scene or chapter that takes place somewhere else, perhaps with different characters.

Even though the cliffhanger ending is a powerful tool, you can’t use it to end ALL your scenes..

You might also end a scene by revealing insight into one of the characters. This might happen through an internal monologue that the character is having about the events that occurred in the scene, or it could happen through dialogue with another character. Ending in the middle of dialogue can be confusing to the reader, but it also can heighten a passionate or revealing exchange. The exact place the dialogue ends could reveal a lot about the character: their fears, hopes, how they are changing.

Sometimes a scene ends with a note about the setting or the character doing something mundane. But the fact we are focused on it elevates that item to greater importance.

No matter what ending you decide to use, remember to make sure they do their job: hook the reader into wanting to read more.

Previous topics

#1 – Deciding to write a novel – Writing Myths

#2 – Three areas to develop before starting to write a novel

#3 – Finding a Story Idea and How to Know if it “good enough”

#4 – Developing Characters for your Novel

#5 – Major characters? Minor Characters? Where does everyone fit in?

#6 – Developing the Setting for your Novel

#7 – The importance of developing conflict in your novel plot

#8 – To Outline or not to outline 

#9 – The importance of a story arc

#10 – The importance of tension and pace

#11 – Prologue and opening scenes

Novel Writing – Prologue and opening scenes

This post is the eleventh in a series about writing a novel. You can check out the list of past topics at the end of this post.

You have decided to write a novel. You have planned out your plot and built up believable characters. You have your outline or perhaps you are plan to just sit down and write. You are now at that point.

But where do you begin? How do you begin your novel?

The very first words, sentences and paragraphs are some of the most important. This is where you are going to hook your reader into wanting to keep reading.

You may decide to start with an interesting scene that draws in your reader and sets the stage for your story. That all sounds good until you have to write the scene.

Perhaps you are thinking your reader might benefit from more information before they are introduced to the world you created. This information might help them understand the importance of what is happening. This is where a prologue comes into play.

Prologues

 A prologue is an opening to a story that establishes the setting and gives background details.

Prologues appear at the beginning of most Star Wars movies.

Various purposes of the prologue

  • Give background information. For example, in a sci-fi book, it may be useful to introduce the alien world in a prologue so that the reader is not confused when they enter a completely foreign world in the first chapter.
  • Grabs the reader’s attention with a scene from the story. I can think of numerous movies that do this. They start with an exciting scene and then pause to go back and fill in everything that led up to that scene.
  • Describe a scene from the past that is important to the story, such as the death of the main character’s mother, which is motivation for the action in the novel.
  • Give information from a different point of view. If the story is written in first person and the prologue in third, the prologue could give information that the main character would have no way of knowing.
  • It expresses a different point in time. The prologue could be the main character when he or she is older and reflecting back on another event, which begins in Chapter 1. (Think of the opening scenes in the movie Titanic.)

So with all these good reasons for writing a prologue, what is the downside? Well, often prologues are boring. If too much history is put into the prologue, it can turn off readers. And many readers say they skip the prologues so if you include an essential part of the story here, your reader may not get it. But the main reason not to include a prologue is that they are often unnecessary. Many of the purposes of the prologue can be accomplished in the actual novel.

So before writing a prologue, ask yourself, will this fit in Chapter 1 or perhaps later in the story? Is this essential to the plot? If the answer is no, skip it.

But if you decide to add a prologue to your novel, here are some things to consider.

  • Keep it short. You don’t want the prologue to drag on for half the book.
  • Keep it interesting. This is the first thing the reader will read so you want to hook them with this passage.
  • Think of the prologue as a separate entity from the novel. Just because the prologue has a hook doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have one in your first chapter.
  • Limit background information. I have read prologues that are dull and boring histories which I ended up skimming. You can weave background information into your novel so don’t dump it all here.

Overall the prologue, when done correctly, can enhance your story and further your plot. But when done incorrectly, it can put your readers off so consider carefully before you include a prologue.

Opening Scene

Now it doesn’t matter if you wrote a prologue or not as the opening scene must still hook the reader. You want them to read the first few paragraphs and want to keep on reading. They should want to know what happens next.

Here are some things that your opening could do…

Introduce your story idea – think of the opening scene of Jaws where the shark attacks a group of teenagers.

Foreshadow your story idea – think of this as the opening to Sleeping Beauty when the fairy curses the baby at her christening.

You may want to start with an action or suspenseful scene. Of course this could backfire as the reader may be confused as to what is happening and which character they are supposed to be rooting for. Well actually there are pros and cons for almost any way that you might want to start a novel.

Long scenery descriptions are typically bad. And most other website will also warn you to not start with a dream sequence unless you first let the reader know that it is a dream. Some authors recommend not introducing too many characters at once in the beginning and others will tell you not to start with the weather.

The key is to not throw too many new things at the reader in the beginning. Don’t worry about backstory, description, character motivation (or internal monologues). Instead look for action that drives your story forward. You only have a few pages to hook the reader (or book editor).

You want to begin with conflict and tension. Something has gone wrong.

Often writers spend too long building up to their story. This means that the first few pages or even the first few chapters could be totally omitted from the novel without any problem. I have seen a few other authors say that it is the first 50 pages or the first three chapter. Know that it does take some practice to figure out where to begin your novel. I re-wrote the beginning of my first novel Summoned a dozen times, starting later and later in the plot until I found the one that worked.

For every “rule” of what not to do, there is an example out there of someone who made it work for them. But the most important thing is to draw the reader into your story. You don’t have pages to convince them this is the book for them. You have just a few pages at most. Make them count.

Previous topics

#1 – Deciding to write a novel – Writing Myths

#2 – Three areas to develop before starting to write a novel

#3 – Finding a Story Idea and How to Know if it “good enough”

#4 – Developing Characters for your Novel

#5 – Major characters? Minor Characters? Where does everyone fit in?

#6 – Developing the Setting for your Novel

#7 – The importance of developing conflict in your novel plot

#8 – To Outline or not to outline 

#9 – The importance of a story arc

#10 – The importance of tension and pace

The importance of tension and pace

This post is the tenth in a series about writing a novel. You can check out the list of past topics at the end of this post.

Before we get into writing your novel, I wanted to talk about two important elements – tension and pace. Understanding both of these will help you write better scenes in your story.

Tension

Tension is the element of a novel that evokes worry, anxiety, fear or stress for both the reader and the characters.

One way to think about it is you are raising the stakes for your character, so he or she has to work to get what he or she wants. And this shouldn’t be easy. Basically, you want to keep saying no to your characters so that the conflict appears unsolvable. The more at stake for your character, the more emotions he feels about situations and events.

Tension can take many forms.

  • Anticipation of conflict
  • Unexpected events– sometimes the reader knows what is coming, but the character doesn’t and sometimes both are surprised by what happens.
  • Fear of secrets revealed
  • Impending doom/sense of urgency

It is the author’s job to figure out how to produce these in the story.

Often once one obstacle is conquered, another one crops up. But while good fiction is full of tension and suspense, it needs to vary throughout the story. You need to turn down the intensity for short periods. How much you slow down the tension will depend upon your story needs and the demands of your genre. But just because you slow down doesn’t mean the momentum stops. This may simply be the calm before the storm.

Tips for creating tension:

Short sentences – short, choppy sentences with active verbs signal tension. Think of your sentences matching your protagonist’s racing heart. Avoid long sentences filled with adjectives and adverbs.

Show, don’t tell – rather than “He was nervous.” Write: “His hands trembled.”

Cliffhanger – leave them hanging

The stakes in fiction matter because the stakes create tension. Your protagonist’s happiness and perhaps even his life, depends on the outcome of the story. If the stakes in the story are low, then the tension will be weak.

It is the stakes of the story – the tension – that keeps many readers hooked to your novel.

Pace

Pace is the speed in which events happen in your novel. You need to balance the pace of your writing. If your scenes drag on and on (slow pace) then you lose or bore readers. If it is too fast, you will leave your readers unsettled and it won’t be a comfortable read.

The trick is to get the balance just right. And there is no one out there that can tell you what that balance should be.

A lot of this will depend on your style as a writer. It can also be influenced by your genre and your readers’ preference. A young-adult audience might require a faster pace than adult novels. A short story might quickly jump into the action while an epic tale might be told at leisurely pace, speeding up from time to time during the most intense events.

Ideally, your pace will vary throughout your novel. You will have fast-paced scenes followed by slower ones. This will allow the reader to have a break (and perhaps catch their breath) after your action-packed scenes.

Many new writers make the mistake of believing they need to have a very action filled plot to keep the readers’ attention from beginning to end but this is not the case. It is actually the varying of pace that will keep readers hooked to your story.

So what determines the pace?

Fast pace is all about action. When something is happening, the pace is brisk. Slow pace is more on character reflection of past experiences or wondering about the future. It can be scene descriptions or even the passing of time – sometimes months or even years pass in a single sentence.

To speed up pace:

  • Have lots of action
  • Less description
  • Shorter sentences (and paragraphs)
  • Dialogue is short and to the point
  • Cut adverbs and adjectives to a minimum
  • Use strong, active verbs
  • Omit or limit character thought

To slow down the pace:

  • Longer sentences
  • More description
  • Less action or slow action such walking or making tea
  • Dialogue is more relaxed/conversational

Now your story can be paced very fast all the way through or even have a slow pace through most of the story but often it is best to use a mix of both forms. Using variety enhances your story and can keep the reader engaged.

Previous topics

#1 – Deciding to write a novel – Writing Myths

#2 – Three areas to develop before starting to write a novel

#3 – Finding a Story Idea and How to Know if it “good enough”

#4 – Developing Characters for your Novel

#5 – Major characters? Minor Characters? Where does everyone fit in?

#6 – Developing the Setting for your Novel

#7 – The importance of developing conflict in your novel plot

#8 – To Outline or not to outline 

#9 – The importance of a story arc