The first chapter…

Vicky Burkholder offers great advice on how to add characters’ backstories into the first pages without losing steam of the action…

Vicky Burkholder

In reading over several manuscripts, I ask myself, how does this writer introduce information about the characters? How much belongs in the first chapter?

Handling background information is one of the trickiest parts of writing. The general rule is to include only what’s needed up front, then gradually provide additional details. The problem is, how do you know what’s needed?

You want to involve the reader immediately with the story and characters. Anything that slows down that process, unless the information is essential to the scene, should be pared. However, the reader needs to feel grounded. Where are we, in what time period, and roughly how old are the characters (just a hint — don’t have to be specific)? Gender’s important, too, especially if you’re writing in the first person.

Don’t drop information in an awkward lump. It can be subtle. We know it’s present day if a character uses…

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When Headhopping Goes Wrong

Some writers want to express every single detail of what their characters are thinking and feeling. They want it revealed all at once in every single scene. It’s called headhopping when this writing style is implemented.

They hope that the readers will care for their characters this way, but sometimes the readers actually get lost and unmotivated to continue reading. Instead of the story being engaging, it just becomes confusing.

Self-Editing for Fiction Writers said it best, “Readers need some time to settle into a given emotional state, so when you move quickly from one passion-charged head to another, you’re likely to leave your readers behind. They’ll know what your various characters are feeling, but they won’t have time to feel like any of the characters. And that kind of emotional connection is exactly what you’re after.”

I teach a 10-week creative writing course, and during point-of-view week, my student Lyle said it best when he explained that headhopping was like when a person walks into a room and all of a sudden, several people start talking at once. It’s hard for that person to concentrate on what they’re saying–it’s hard to pick out the important parts–because he’s bombarded and confused. Once he yells, “One at a time”, he clearly understands what everyone says. They each calmly speak, and he gets all the different perspectives in a clear way. If people are patient and wait their turn, then it’s all good.

Now, the stories I read back in the day had headhopping (and I don’t mean self-published books; I mean books on shelves at the library or bookstore), so I assumed it was the right way to write for third person point-of-view. I’m used to writing in first person point-of-view.

I didn’t learn that I was wrong until I lurked on Absolute Write and read the discussion about this issue. Some authors were saying it was flat out wrong while some were arguing that its an acceptable way if done right, giving examples of Nicholas Sparks and Nora Roberts.

  • I’ll stick with using no headhopping ever again because I find that a scene can be more engaging if it just focuses on one character. Tension can be built especially if the character perceives something inaccurately. The readers will get to see that in a later scene or chapter while the character remains clueless.

For all the readers out there, do you mind reading scenes with headhopping all over the place? Writers can debate this topic all day long, but ultimately it’s up to the readers because they’re the consumers and more willing to buy your book. They call the shots hee hee.

Keep smiling,

Yawatta Hosby

Book or Series? Novel or Short Story?

Depending on how much you invest in your characters, you could write one book or a series of books about them.  Back in the day, I brought every Babysitter’s Club book; each one brought me closer to the girls.  Don’t even get me started on  how excited I was when a movie came out.

There’s been a trend where authors write series based on the same characters.  For example, the Jack Reacher set, the Vampire Diaries set, the Pretty Little Liars set, the Harry Dresden set, so on and so on.

This is something you should think about.  With your story idea and group of characters–do you want one story or do you think you could write more than one?

It doesn’t have to be answered right away, but it’s something to consider as you write.  It’ll help you decide if the ending to your story will give closure to the reader or end in a cliffhanger.  Naturally, it’ll end with closure if you only have one book to tell.  It’d end in a cliffhanger if you want to write a series of books; you’d want to motivate your readers to buy the next novel or short story.

Another thing you should ask yourself is if you want your piece of fiction to be written as a novel or short story.  The decision can come to you when you begin writing the pages.

I’ll give you a tip on how I approach this question:

  • I’m a huge couch potato, so I always think in terms of would my characters fit in a movie or a TV show.  If the plot fits in a movie, I’ll write a short story; everything can be told quickly and straight to the point.
  • If the plot could fit in a TV show, then I write a novel.  There’s a backstory that needs explained, there’s events in the present, but I have to reveal the future or explain the past.  If divided in Parts (like Part One, Part Two, etc.), each part ends in a cliffhanger and has a different story to tell.  Each part is considered how a season would air on a TV show.
  • If this approach interests you, then use it.  If not, you’ll figure out the best way for you to handle it.

Keep smiling,

Yawatta Hosby

Character Sketch VS. Character Profile

CHARACTER SKETCH

A character sketch is used to describe your character’s appearance and personality traits.  It’s the first step to know your characters in your own words.

If you like to draw, then you can sketch your characters.  You wouldn’t have to describe their appearance in words because there would be a visual instead.  Or, you can cut out pictures of a celebrity, who your character looks like.

I list their name, height, age, ethnicity, occupation, and personality traits.  I don’t write in complete sentences or get specific with details.  I give the main points; that is it.  Being brief and straight to the point works for me, but it doesn’t mean your character sketches have to be that way.  Maybe you want to make it fancy by using complete sentences, or putting everything in paragraph form instead of simply listing.

There is nothing wrong with any approach as long as you feel confident that you understand your characters enough.

CHARACTER PROFILE

A character profile is a more advanced way to sketch out your characters.  It should be the last thing you do before starting a rough draft.  It brings your characters to life.  Your characters get to describe themselves.  The questions on my profile start out as “Are you…?” “Do you…?”

When I fill out a character profile, I have fun with it.  I pretend like my main characters are being interviewed for a reality TV show.  This involves  getting inside my character’s head, so it’s a role playing exercise.

These are the questions on my character profile:

Name:

Gender:

Age:

Ethnicity:

Homestate:

Live currently:

Top 3 personality traits:

Occupation:

Birthday:

Favorite colors:

Favorite foods:

Favorite music:

Favorite TV shows:

Favorite magazines:

What do you do when you get upset?

What do you do when you get sad?

What do you do when you get happy?

What do you do when you get stressed?

Describe your childhood.

Describe your family and friends.

How would some of your family members/friends describe you?

Ever been arrested or convicted of a crime?

How do you drive?  Ever get road rage?

Do you curse?  If not, are you uncomfortable around it?

Would you ever throw anyone under the bus or use them as a scapegoat?

Thrive off drama or would you rather live in peace?

What’s your conflict/arguing style?

Do you view things in black/white terms or are you able to see the gray side of things?

Charming?

A lot of friends or loner?

Boring or interesting?

Glass half full or half empty?

Whether have beauty or brains?

Sensitive or thick skin?

Are you a private person?

Are you independent?

Do you think you’re a good or bad person?

Arrogant or lacking confidence?

Couch potato or exercise?

What’s your type on a romantic level?

Do you get jealous or envious?

Do you like sex?

Do you feel sexy or cute?

Do you want children?

Do you want to get married?

Do you have a significant other?  If so, describe your relationship.

Would you ever cheat on a significant other?

What’s your hobbies?

Do you like to party?

What’s your dream job and how successful would you like to be at it?

Rebel or someone who follows rules?

Leader or follower?

Messy or neat?

Are you competitive?

Do you take directions/orders well?

Are you a team player or do you like to work by yourself?

Love or hate to travel?

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