Monday Advice from Agents and Editors: Start with Character


susan_hawkIn a recent post for Adventures in YA Publishing, Susan Hawk of The Bent Agency answered the burning question, “What would make you stop reading when reviewing sample pages?”

Her answer wasn’t specifically directed to YA manuscripts. But it was surprising—at first glance. She’d prefer that writers NOT jump straight into action.

What?!?!?

No Action?

Actually, Hawk agrees with every writing coach in the world that you shouldn’t put a lot of exposition and description in your opening pages. That means no beautiful prose about sunsets or any scene-setting that goes on for more than a couple of paragraphs. No backstory info-dumps. No looking in a mirror and thinking about your character’s appearance. But we all know that.

What Hawk says she prefers, right away, is Character.

“What a character wants tells me something about them and gives me [a] connection. Often, I see opening pages that jump into action, before establishing character. Without that, it’s hard to be very invested in action and pages can feel like a bunch of stage directions.”

It’s hard to argue with that. Watching a woman make eye contact with a gorgeous man isn’t as interesting as watching your best friend—who just got fired and lost her apartment—avoid trading looks with the hunky guy who’s staring at her. Even watching a perfect stranger run screaming down the street isn’t the same thing as watching your next-door neighbor—who’s often shown you the marks of abuse from her lover—run from her house, terrified and bleeding.

Telling us what your character wants out of life, and why, might help—but that would be… Telling. So how do you give your reader a connection to your character without a lot of exposition and description?

Umm, with action? But… but… she said…

The Right Kind of Action

Relax. What Hawk doesn’t like is jumping into story-based action. That’s the kind where your main character is plunged on page one into The Plot. Right away, a shot rings out or a car crashes or the doctor says, “Make the most of the time you have left.”

Blake Snyder (Save the Cat!), Christopher Vogler (The Writers Journey), and James Scott Bell (Write Your Novel from the Middle) all agree with Hawk.

Vogler says to begin in the character’s “ordinary world.” Snyder wants an opening that reveals the character before any change takes place. Bell advises hints about the character’s pre-story psychology. They all want the focus to start with Character instead of what happens to the character.

As Hawk explains further, “Give the reader enough background to care [what happens].”

Examples of character-based action:

  • Show a kind person being kind, and paying a price for it.
  • Show an abused person trying to hide the signs of abuse.
  • Show a lonely person eating alone at a crowded wedding reception.
  • Show a bitter person reacting to someone else’s success.

And then you can bring on your Catalyst. Your Inciting Event. Your Call to Action. Your Story.

About Donna Maloy

History, Mystery... and sometimes a touch of Fantasy. Historical adventures for Teens, Tweens and Young Adults.
This entry was posted in Character-driven action, Character-driven action, Openings, Susan Hawk, Uncategorized and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Monday Advice from Agents and Editors: Start with Character

  1. Gerry says:

    Great advice, Donna. Thanks for sharing. Now I have to go back and check to see how I started my latest. Sigh.

    Like

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