How to Mess Up Your Lead Character’s Ordinary Day

by James Scott Bell

On the first page (preferably in the first paragraph or even first line) of a novel, I want to see a disturbance to a character’s ordinary world. It can be subtle, like a midnight knock on the door (The Pilot’s Wife by Anita Shreve). Or extreme, like a ticking bomb (Final Seconds by John Lutz and David August).

What I don’t want is “Happy People in Happy Land” (HPHL). I’ve seen a few of these openings in my time, mainly in domestic settings. The happy family getting ready for the day, etc. The author thinks: If I show these really nice people being really nice, the reader will care about them when the trouble starts.

But we don’t. We start to care about characters when trouble—or the hint of it—comes along, which is why, whenever I sign a copy of Conflict & Suspense, I always write, Make trouble!

Now, there are two ways to disturb HPHL in the opening. One is something happening that is not normal, as I mentioned above. It’s an “outside” disturbance, if you will.

But there’s another way, from the “inside.” You can give us a character’s ordinary day as it unfolds—while finding a way to mess it up.

That’s the strategy Michael Crichton uses in his 1994 novel, Disclosure (made into a movie with Michael Douglas and Demi Moore).

The plot centers around Tom Sanders, an mid-level executive at a thriving digital company in Seattle. He’s married to a successful lawyer named Susan. They live in a nice house on Bainbridge Island, with their four-year-old daughter and nine-month-old son.

As the book opens, we learn that Sanders expects this to be a good day. He’s sure he’s going to be promoted to head of his division, which will set him up for a windfall of millions after an expected merger and IPO. So it’s essential he get to the office on time.

Crichton is not going to let that happen. Here’s the first paragraph:

Tom Sanders never intended to be late for work on Monday, June 15. At 7:30 in the morning, he stepped into the shower at his home on Bainbridge Island. He knew he had to shave, dress, and leave the house in ten minutes if he was to make the 7:50 ferry and arrive at work by 8:30, in time to go over the remaining points with Stephanie Kaplan before they went into the meeting with the lawyers from Conley-White.

So Tom is in the shower when—

“Tom? Where are you? Tom?”

His wife, Susan, was calling from the bedroom. He ducked his head out of the spray.

“I’m in the shower!”

She said something in reply, but he didn’t hear it. He stepped out, reaching for a towel. “What?”

“I said, Can you feed the kids?”

His wife was an attorney who worked four days a week at a downtown firm.

So now he’s got to feed the kids? He hasn’t got time! But that’s life with two working parents, so he quickly begins to shave. Outside the bathroom, he hears his kids starting to cry because Mom can’t attend their every need. Crichton stretches out this sequence. Even something as innocuous as shaving can be tense when the kids are wailing.

Tom finally emerges from the bathroom, with only a towel around him, as he scoops up the kids to feed them.

Susan called after him: “Don’t forget Matt needs vitamins in his cereal. One dropperful. And don’t give him any more of the rice cereal, he spits it out. He likes wheat now.”

She went into the bathroom, slamming the door behind her.

His daughter looked at him with serious eyes. “Is this going to be one of those days, Daddy?”

“Yeah, it looks like it.”


He mixed the wheat cereal for Matt, and put it in front of his son. Then he set Eliza’s bowl on the table, poured in the Chex, glanced at her.



He poured the milk for her.

“No, Dad!” his daughter howled, bursting into tears. “I wanted to pour the milk!”

“Sorry, Lize—”

“Take it out— take the milk out—” She was shrieking, completely hysterical.
“I’m sorry, Lize, but this is—”

I wanted to pour the milk!” She slid off her seat to the ground, where she lay kicking her heels on the floor. “Take it out, take the milk out!”

Every parent knows how true to life this is. A four-year old has definite ideas on their routine, and what they want to control!

“I’m sorry,” Sanders said. “You’ll just have to eat it, Lize.”

He sat down at the table beside Matt to feed him. Matt stuck his hand in his cereal and smeared it across his eyes. He, too, began to cry.

Can’t you just picture this?

Sanders got a dish towel to wipe Matt’s face. He noticed that the kitchen clock now said five to eight. He thought that he’d better call the office, to warn them he would be late. But he’d have to quiet Eliza first: she was still on the floor, kicking and screaming about the milk.

“All right, Eliza, take it easy. Take it easy.” He got a fresh bowl, poured more cereal, and gave her the carton of milk to pour herself. “Here.”

She crossed her arms and pouted. “I don’t want it.”

“Eliza, you pour that milk this minute.”

Throughout the scene he’s looking at the clock, trying to gauge how late he will be. At the end of the chapter, Susan has finally come to Tom’s rescue, and says—

“I’ll take over now. You don’t want to be late. Isn’t today the big day? When they announce your promotion?”

“I hope so.”

“Call me as soon as you hear.”

“I will.” Sanders got up, cinched the towel around his waist, and headed upstairs to get dressed. There was always traffic before the 8:20 ferry. He would have to hurry to make it.

End of chapter. We want to read on. After what this guy’s been through just to get ready for work, we hope he’s day’s going to get better.

It’s not, of course. This is Michael Crichton. Things are about to get a whole lot worse for Mr. Tom Sanders.

This strategy will work whether you open in a home or office; in a car or on a boat; in a coffee house or Waffle House.

Just decide to be mean. Mess up your character’s day.

Do you have happy people at the beginning of your manuscript? What can you do on page one to make sure they don’t stay happy?

Ten Penalties All Writers Must Avoid

by James Scott Bell

Screen Shot 2016-02-04 at 10.56.26 AM

Forgive my second sports-related post in a row, but come on! It’s Super Bowl Sunday! Across America––and indeed the world––fans will gather around big screens in homes and bars to watch the most exciting spectacle of the viewing year: funny commercials!

Oh yes, and a football game.

This one has drama. On the one side we have the Denver Broncos and their quarterback Peyton Manning. Manning is without question one of the greatest QBs of all time, a lock first-ballot Hall of Famer. But injuries and Father Time have taken their toll. Thus, this will likely be Manning’s final game and his last chance to win one more Super Bowl ring.

On the other side is the new kid, the immensely talented Cam Newton. This guy is huge––6’5”, 260, with a cannon of an arm and legs that can go. He led his Carolina Panthers to an amazing 17-1 season. And now he makes his Super Bowl debut.

I will be with friends noshing sausages, pulled pork, chili, and items from the other essential food groups–the salted nut group, the nacho group, and of course the chocolate-covered anything group.

I hope the game is a good one. I’d love to see it go down to the final minutes. I’ll also be very happy if a kicker does not miss a last-second field goal and thus suffer from nightmares the rest of his life.

And let us hope the game is not marred by a lot of penalties! Hate to see those yellow flags all over the field.

It occurred to me there are some penalty flags that are thrown on writers. So in the interest of helping you write your best, here are some violations you must avoid lest you lose yardage (which, for writers, is measured in pages) and, much more important, readers.

  1. False start

Are you warming up your engines at the beginning of your novel? Do you spend too much time with exposition and backstory? Do you go several pages without a disturbance? Are you giving us “Happy People in Happy Land”? That’s a false start. Penalty: five pages.

  1. Illegal use of the adverbs

Are you using too many adverbs to prop up weak verbs? Worse, are you using adverbs to prop up dialogue? Are you writing things like:

“Get out of here, you louse!” Sheila yelled angrily.


“I’m gonna cut your heart out and feed it to the family dog,” he said threateningly.

If you do, you’ll be penalized, and it’s a big one: fifteen pages.

  1. Passage interference

Also known as the illegal flashback. This is where you stop a narrative in its tracks to give us a long look backward at some scene from the past. Unless there is a dang good reason for this, you will get a yellow flag and docked ten pages.

  1. Encroachment

Also known as author intrusion, this is when you try to sneak in some exposition that does not sound natural to the voice of the character (this penalty is explained more fully in the book VOICE: The Secret Power of Great Writing).

The skilled referee usually finds this in dialogue. The author wants to slip information to the reader through the characters’ words, but they are words the character would never use. Such as:

“Listen, Martha, you’re my lovely wife of twenty-eight years, and I wouldn’t be the head of surgery at Johns Hopkins without you. Especially after suffering that head injury in college when I foolishly went out for the rugby team. But dammit, you can’t dwell on your past as a stripper in a Nevada roadhouse when you were known as Cling Peaches. Please try to relax, like your sister Mary, who is two years younger than you, so we can go enjoy dinner in our hometown of Denver, Colorado.”

Encroachment is an automatic five pages, and loss of down.

  1. Delay of plot

Have you pushed your protagonist through the Doorway of No Return by the 20% mark of your novel? No? Then here’s a hard truth: it’s starting to drag. It doesn’t matter how quirky your characters. They have overstayed their welcome if they are not, by this time, into the struggle of Act II. Penalty: ten pages.

  1. Ineligible character downfield

Do you introduce a major character after the midpoint? Near the end, do you have a minor character show up out of nowhere to solve a plot problem? If you do, you need to go back to the first half and plant these characters. Five pages.

  1. Roughing the villain

League rules are protecting the antagonist more than ever. What do I mean by that? Simply this: if you have an antagonist who is evil, you must give him his due. You can’t just make him pure evil or insane. Boring! Every villain feels justified, and you the author must “make his case” in the book. Far from excusing his evil, this deepens the emotional currents in the reader and, ironically, makes the evil all the more scary. Fifteen page penalty for this one, plus the league may order you go to some rehab, like right here.

  1. Intentional sounding

Have you fallen in love with your sentences? There’s a reason the axiom “kill your darlings” exists. I should explain that this doesn’t mean cut every sentence you like. You’re allowed to delight in your own good writing. But you have to make sure it works for your story, and is true to character and context. Ten pages if, in the judgment of the officials, your pretty prose is more showing off than storytelling.

  1. Illegal motion

Does your story feel unfocused during that long struggle through Act II? Are there scenes that meander? Have you lost narrative vitality? While this penalty is only five pages, enough of these violations will keep you backed up on your own goal line. One place to look for help is the “mirror moment.” This tells you what your novel is really all about so you can write scenes with organic unity and powerful forward drive.

  1. Unauthorlike conduct

Do you head out to social media without a plan and a brand? Do you fly off the handle when you tweet? Do you slip into unethical sockpuppetry in order to slam your perceived competition? This penalty is severe: you might get thrown out of the game. Worse, the league office may suspend you indefinitely.

A good football team knows how to move the ball. A great football team knows how to correct weaknesses. A championship football team does all that, and avoids the penalties that kill scoring drives.

May you write like a champion.

And enjoy the game! I know I will, even though I am completely impartial.


Has your writing been penalty free lately?

Limit the Exposition in Your Opening Pages

James Scott Bell

Since I am the resident zombie fiction guy, the first page I’ve been given for critique is, not surprisingly:
Z.O.M.B.I.E. Squad:  Hot ZOMBIE Nights
Jaz surveyed the semi-dark alley after escaping from her BMW. Drat. ZOMBIES. Not what she needed at the moment. How would she explain this to her new boyfriend?  Not the ZOMBIES per se, but the fact that this would be the third time this week that she’d bailed on dinner with him. Well, if he was a quality catch, he’d let her make it up to him, if not, there were other non-ZOMBIES out there in the world. Right?
There was a screech of metal on metal, as one of the ZOMBIEs dragged something along the side of her M3, and it would definitely leave a mark.  Ok, “drat” just officially became “double-damn” the minute both her love life and her car became casualties. Being undercover with ZOMBIE International Technologies was never easy. Often it downright stunk, just like this alley. It always seemed to be us or them and just a street away from normal. Whoever thought that all aliens were smarter and more techno-savvy, never met a pod-ZOMBIE.
The pod-Zs looked almost as unearthly as they were. Jaz could see their sallow, waxy faces as they stepped out of the shadows and into the moonlight. Light-colored images of the humans they might have been. Ok, maybe she could see why someone who didn’t know better might think they were just the walking. Jaz’s chest heaved a bit as she took in one, deep, cleansing breath. It was warm, wet, and tasted a bit like the Cuban carne asada she’d planned on having for dinner. She sighed as she pulled the transonic pen-dart from her bra: her $100 Dior Du jour, lace alternative, super-sexy, continental blue bra, with matching underwear. Yes, they did match her Beemer perfectly. That should say something about the level of clothing perfection and date desirability she had worked so hard for as she prepared to meet up with 3DP-vid god, Wylie Taylor.
It pained her to risk her Dior bra by using it as a weapon holder, but without stockings, there were few choices to secure a pen-sized super weapon and keep it accessible.
Paranormal fiction. Zombies. You have to build a world, and that’s what the writer is attempting to do here, plus give us exposition to boot. And the instincts are good: weave the exposition within the action.
However, this opening is weighted too heavily on the informational (notice how “blocky” the text is on the page). It’s a common mistake made because the writer feels the reader has to be clued in to a lot of background before he can understand what’s going on.
Almost always a wrong choice. Because readers will wait a long timefor explanations so long as something is happening that is disturbing.
This first page delivers a great opening disturbance. To make it even more effective, let the action be primary and drop exposition in later, a bit at a time.
To show you what I mean, here is the opening rendered with just the action sentences:
Jaz surveyed the semi-dark alley after escaping from her BMW. There was a screech of metal on metal, as one of the ZOMBIEs dragged something along the side of the M3.
She could see their sallow, waxy faces as they stepped out of the shadows and into the moonlight. Light-colored images of the humans they might have been. 
She sighed as she pulled the transonic pen-dart from her bra.
I am much more in this scene now. I want to keep reading. I want to know what that thing in her bra does.
The author has me hooked, and can begin to drop in exposition as needed. But keep it brief. The next lines might be:
Being undercover with ZOMBIE International Technologies was never easy. Often it downright stunk, just like this alley.  
Then get back to the action. Then later the stuff about the boyfriend. More action. And so on.
Also, I’d cut: The pod-Zs looked almost as unearthly as they were. This is a “tell” just before the “show” of the next sentence. The latter creates a picture for the reader, who can then draw his own conclusion.
I like the voice that is “lurking” here. But it sounds “once removed,” e.g. in this line: That should say something about the level of clothing perfection and date desirability she had worked so hard for as she prepared to meet up with 3DP-vid god, Wylie Taylor.
This is the author commenting on Jaz, not something from Jaz herself. I wonder if the author might consider turning this into a First Person narration. Then the fun aspects of the voice could come out more naturally, e.g.:
I pulled the transonic pen-dart from my $100 Dior Du jour, lace alternative, super-sexy, continental blue bra, with matching underwear. Matched my Beemer, too. But this was about date desirability. Hard work, but then again it was 3DP-vid god Wylie Taylor I was going to meet up with.
If I ever got away from these Zs.
That’s just a suggestion, something to consider. You can achieve pretty much the same effect in Third Person, but you should make sure the narration sounds like thoughts your character would actually think, and keep author commentary out of it.
I like this concept. Hey, fun zombie thrillers are my bag. So hook me with action in this first chapter and drop in only the exposition that is absolutely, positively necessary for the understanding of the scene.
It is much less than you think. And a much better start without it.

First Page Critique: Character in Motion

James Scott Bell

Filling in for Kathryn today, with a first page from a story entitled “The Wizard of the Middle Realm.” Here we go:

Katie stared restlessly at the creamy white ceiling as she lay back on her bed. The summer holidays started two weeks ago, but she was not enjoying them at all. Apart from the fact that she was hot and sticky, a discomfort the whirring pedestal fan by her bed was doing little to ease, Katie was feeling lonely. She had never had a lot of friends, but she did have one very good friend who was unfortunately at this very moment moving to the opposite side of the country.

Katie rolled over onto her stomach and rested her cheek against her pillow. The book she had just finished reading lay discarded on her bedside table. At least she still had her favourite characters to keep her company on the long summer days ahead.

Katie pulled herself slowly up from her dampened bed, unsticking her white cotton t-shirt from her stomach as she did so, and wandered moodily over to her bookshelf. She fingered each book looking for another novel that might transport her mind to some faraway fantasy land and help her stop thinking such depressing thoughts.

A tingling sensation prickled in her outstretched fingers, travelled down her arm and spread throughout her entire body. She felt a tightening in her stomach as though invisible hands had wrapped around her waist and tried to pull her backwards. She dropped her hand from the book she was removing from the shelf and frowned. She looked around, half expecting someone to be behind her, but her room was empty of anyone besides herself. The pulling sensation intensified and Katie lost her balance. A tightness formed in her chest and her breathing grew shallow.

“Don’t panic,” she told herself in a shaky voice, “It’s just the heat.”

Katie turned towards her door thinking she would just go get herself a glass of water. She didn’t make it. As she fell forwards her room became a whirlwind of colours.


This page does get us to an opening disturbance. That’s good. That’s what we want. It’s just that getting there is a bit of a slog. But we can fix that.

As I mentioned in a previous post, starting a book with a character alone, thinking, is not a wise choice. Readers want to see a character in motion and in trouble, and then later on will care about what the character is feeling and thinking.

When I see a page like this, I move forward until I find some action, some motion, closer to that immediate disturbance (which is anything that presents a change or challenge, even small). Sometimes (often, in fact) I have to move right to Chapter 2 to find that place.

Here, I think we can start with a tweaked third paragraph, this way:

Katie pulled herself up from her dampened bed, unsticking her white cotton t-shirt from her stomach as she did so, and wandered to her bookshelf. She fingered each book looking for another novel that might transport her mind to some faraway fantasy land and help her stop thinking about her best friend – her only friend – moving away.

See the difference? We get Katie moving toward the bookshelf right away, where the disturbing thing will happen.

Now, you can put the first paragraph next, revamping it slightly. This will give you a chance to describe the room (e.g., pedestal fan) and drop in the bit about it being summer. What you’re doing is simply a variation of the chapter 2 switcheroo. When you do that kind of surgery, you begin with chapter 2 and drop in, bit by bit, only what is absolutely necessary from chapter 1. Much of the time, you don’t need any of it. Here, drop in a couple of things from paragraph 1 after the ball is rolling.

I think the second paragraph can be cut entirely, as it doesn’t add anything to the scene. Everything there is implied elsewhere.

So that’s the big lesson to draw here. Get a character in motion as close to the disturbance as possible.

And if you really want to zoom things along (and why wouldn’t you?) you can put that disturbance in the very first line and then “drop back” for a bit of set-up. Dean Koontz used to do this all the time in his early fiction.

For example, Dance With the Devil (written under the pseudonym Deanna Dwyer), begins:

Katharine Sellers was sure that, at any moment, the car would begin to slide along the smooth, icy pavement and she would lose control of it.

Koontz then “drops back” to fill in the set-up information – after we are hooked by this character in trouble.

By the way, these opening strategies can be employed throughout the novel. Sometimes, to slow the pace, you can open a chapter with description or introspection. But if you need to pick things up, start with action or dialogue and then “drop back” to explain how the characters got to the scene.

Other notes on this page:

There are chunks of telling in these opening paragraphs: she was not enjoying them . . . she was hot and sticky . . .Katie was feeling lonely . . . wandered moodily (watch those adverbs!) . . . depressing thoughts.

What we want is more showing. The opening line I suggest has her unsticking her tee-shirt, which gets the hot, sweaty impression out there naturally.

Also, the first three paragraphs start the same way: Katie, Katie, Katie. It’s always good to vary the rhythm of paragraphs that are close together.

All in all, this is not a bad set-up. I do want to know about the whirlwind of colors. But we can capture that interest more quickly with the trims suggested.

Any other notes?

How to Grab Them on Page One

It’s first page week here at TKZ, and if you’re an unpublished writer you’ve been treated to some real gold. The instruction from our band of bloggers has been a valuable workshop on the art of what I call “the big grab” – getting the reader hooked from the start.

Last week, I wrote about what not to do on your opening page. Today, I want to suggest to you an opening strategy that works for any type of fiction.

At the outset, please note that what follows is not a formula. This isn’t painting by the numbers. But it is a principle, and thus has infinite possibilities for application. No matter what your style or genre, this principle will work its magic for you, every time.

Recall that last week’s post was triggered by something an agent said at a recent conference, to wit: “If you cannot write a compelling opening scene, from the opening sentence, I’m not going to finish your proposal.”

I assume you do want agents — and editors — to finish your proposal. If so, you must grab them on page one. How can you do that?

By beginning your novel with a disturbance to the Lead’s ordinary world.

Why disturbance? Because: Readers read to worry. They want to be lost in the intense emotional anticipation over the plight of a character in trouble. Only when that connection is made does reader interest truly kick in.

But in their opening pages many writers fall into what I call the “Happy people in Happy Land” trap. They think that by showing the Lead character in her normal life, being happy with her family or dog or whatever, we’ll be all riled up when something bad happens to this nice person, perhaps at the end of chapter one, or beginning of chapter two.

Or they fall into the “I’m the Greatest Literary Stylist of Our Time” trap. This is where a writers desires to display brilliance via pure prose before, somewhere down the line, something like a plot kicks in.

But that’s too long to wait. You need to stir up the waters immediately.

A disturbance is something that causes ripples in the placid lagoon of Happy Land. It can be anything, so long as it presents a change or challenge to the Lead. (It’s important to note that this disturbance need not be “big” as in, say, a thriller prologue. The opening disturbance can be a jolt, however slight, that indicates to the Lead she is not having an ordinary moment here).

And you need to have that jolt on page one, preferably paragraph one.

This is true for both commercial and literary fiction, BTW. Compare the following two openings, the first a commercial example, the latter a literary one.

They threw me off the hay truck about noon.

(The Postman Always Rings Twice by James M. Cain)

The world outside the window was in flames. The leaves on the pistachio trees shone fire-red and orange. Mattie studied the early morning light. She was lying on the side of the bed where her husband should have been sleeping.

(Blue Shoe by Ann Lamott)

Notice that Cain starts with a character in motion at a point in time that is obviously a disturbance to him. In this case, the disturbance is physical.

In Lamott’s example, we have two lines of description, then the Lead is introduced, and the last line is a ripple of disturbance, this one emotional: where is her husband?

Dialogue, if it indicates immediate conflict, is another way to create an opening disturbance. I’ve heard more than one agent say they like to see dialogue in the first pages. Why? Because it means you are writing a scene. Not exposition or description or backstory, but a real scene. Like this:

“The marvelous thing is that it’s painless,” he said. “That’s how you know when it starts.”

“Is it really?”

“Absolutely. I’m awfully sorry about the odor though. That must bother you.”

“Don’t! Please don’t.”

(“The Snows of Kilimanjaro” by Ernest Hemingway)

From these examples it’s plain to see that there are countless ways to grab readers right away through this wonderful thing called disturbance.

Now why wouldn’t you want to do that?

Perhaps you have a reason. Maybe style is what you’re after most of all. A mood. Or maybe you’re writing a grand epic, and want to “set the scene” as it were. But before you abandon the disturbance principle, look at the opening lines from a couple of “big” novels:

The boys came early to the hanging. (The Pillars of the Earth, Ken Follett)

The gale tore at him and he felt its bite deep within and he knew that if they did not make landfall in three days they would all be dead. (Shogun, James Clavell)

I don’t know about you, but that’s enough narrative energy to propel me through the next few pages. If I get a long weather report up top, or two pages on the sunlight over Rio (no matter how beautifully rendered) I will be sorely tempted to put the book down. If you tell me how the character got to the scene, via backstory or flashback, I’m definitely moving on.

But if you indicate there’s a character here facing change or challenge, uncertainty or conflict, I’m going to want to know why. I don’t need to know the background info yet. I’ll wait for that if trouble is brewing.

John LeCarre once said, “The cat sat on the mat is not the opening of a plot. The cat sat on the dog’s mat is.”

Mr. LeCarre has it right. The opening page of a novel has to draw the reader in with an indication of trouble to come.

Do that by disturbing your characters from the very start.