In our last analysis, we mentioned that we took on two short stories and the first three chapters of a novel-length piece for this submission round. In our last manuscript analysis, we tackled one of the short stories. In this one, we dive into the novel-length piece. As always, we broaden our comments so that they can be used for more than just the manuscript we’re discussing. We’re hoping our readers take something away from these posts.
An issue I run into frequently is a story that starts in the wrong place. A story’s first three chapters have to pop. It’s what agents and editors look at, and it’s what you need to set up the story. We are often asked what our story is about, and we are told we should be quick with an answer. But even more important than your elevator pitch is having a story that begins to pay off on that promise very early.
A story should start as closely as possible to its inciting incident, also known as the incident that sets up the rest of the story. You want this at least beginning to happen somewhere in Chapter One, preferably at the end, so that you hook readers in for the rest of the ride. At the very least, you should be able to get some tangible idea of what’s about to happen by the end of the first chapter. This sustains the reader’s interest in the story so the payoff can come in Chapter Two. But the story should already be starting to get underway before Chapter Three, so an agent, a publisher, a reader, is hooked into the story early on.
This is why we, as readers, are often encountering advice that tells us not to start a story with a dream, or with our character waking up in the morning. A dream gives us a false start, so we don’t really know who the character is. Our character waking up in the morning usually means we’re going to see a lot of the mundane process of them getting ready to do what they are supposed to do, instead of just doing it.
Leap into the story. Start us as close as you can to the part of the story that makes you say, “that’s where things got interesting,” and you will have your reader completely hooked.
When you write a story, aside from your characters and plot, you usually pick a tense and POV. First person, third, limited, all knowing. Every writer chooses a different tense and often some work better for certain stories. Present tense gives a more immediate sense of events as they take place. This can also be done in past tense too, but there is greater room for reflection since it already happened. First person creates a stronger link to your main character given you’re in their head, but third person can grant you a broader view of characters other than your main one. Each of these techniques possesses their benefits and drawbacks and I always recommend choosing the tense you’re most comfortable with writing.
Once we pick a tense, the main rule is to stay consistent throughout. There will be exceptions to this rule, but usually it holds. If you switch tenses too often – this does happen in manuscripts by accident – your reader loses focus. They not only have to pay attention to what you’re saying and the plot, but also how it is being written. The narrative, instead of streaming on to progress the story, gets muddled down and this is something you definitely don’t want. You want a smooth read where your characters and plot can come to life.
If you find this happening, one easy technique to catch it is reading your sentences aloud. Shifting from past to present, or vice versa, is a very sharp contrast and you’ll be able to hear it easily. A good amount of past tense verbs end in ‘ed’ whereas a lot of present tense verbs are in a singular form or end with ‘s’. I would suggest too if you’re struggling, to pick the one that feels the most natural. There are conflicting views on whether past or present is more natural, but it’s up to everyone’s individual discretion to pave the path for their story.
Clarity in writing is often hard to achieve. The simple reason for this is that we know what we mean to say when we write something and hence, the meaning is clear to us. It is important to remember that the reader doesn’t have access to your thoughts. What might be obvious to the writer, may cause the reader to struggle for understanding, or may go completely unnoticed. Proper communication can only be achieved when the message is understood as intended. As writers we must strive to make our prose as clear as possible.
Ways to fix this problem are to have someone who has no knowledge of the story read it for you. Sometimes it helps to put the story down for a bit, or work on something else for a while before rereading, so that your thoughts are not as connected to the piece as they once were. You could also read the story out loud, allow yourself the chance to hear how the words sound and see if it still makes as much sense as you once thought.
However it is done, clarity must be achieved, otherwise the reader is deprived of the full scope and intent of the story.