Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Magic Paragraph

DAY 59

Word Count: 37,550

Sentence of the Day: She lifted her chin, a more ladylike approach instead of lifting her palm and slapping the smirk off his face--though not nearly as satisfying.

Have you ever started reading a chapter and found yourself a bit bewildered? You read on, mostly because you just shelled out $15 for the book and you WILL finish the thing or die trying, and eventually you find out 3 paragraphs later that you're in the hero's POV. 2 paragraphs more and you discover he's in an abandoned warehouse. And it isn't until paragraph 7 that you find out what he thinks about the situation.

Whew. That was a lot of work to figure out.

And that's exactly what you DON'T want to do to a reader. Never fear, though, for I've got a handy dandy magic bullet to ward off this particular bugaboo...wait a minute...make that a magic paragraph.

Disclaimer: The Magic Paragraph isn't my invention. It's gleaned from Ron Benrey's The Complete Idiot's Guide to Writing Christian Fiction.

Whenever you're starting a new chapter, the first paragraph is crucial. You've got to connect in several ways with your reader or they'll be confused, either outright or subliminally. So here's what you need to do every time you open a new scene:

#1. Signal whose head to enter.
Let your reader know up front which character's POV that they're in. Don't get cute and make them wonder. It's not cute and readers don't have time to wonder.

#2. Twang an appropriate sense, emotion or mental faculty.
Your reader is living vicariously through the POV character. What is that character experiencing at the moment? Share it. The best way is to show it via one of the 5 senses instead of telling by means of heavy internal monologue.

#3. Show an appropriate action or response to #2.
Cause and effect. That's what I'm talking about. For example, let's say we open in your hero's POV and you show him shivering at a bus stop. What's his response? Maybe he looks at his watch and curses out public transportation for being late. Or perhaps he tugs his coat tighter, the seam at his shoulder rips, and he's glad it happened now instead of when he was in the job interview he'd just left.

Then simply repeat 1-3 as needed and/or desired.

Savvy?

Here's an example from my current WIP. See if you can spot the steps.

Nicholas focused on the remaining daylight pooling on the floor in the magistrate’s office. He ought lift his head, show a measure of respect, but the cold wooden planks were preferable to the fire in Ford’s eyes. He sucked in a breath and held it, the tightness in his chest matching his nerves. Would this day never end? Keeping a foolish woman from harm, comforting his dying sister, finding his employer dead, and now this. Not that he’d never been dressed down by the magistrate before, but with fatigue fraying his tightly woven resolve, this time the man’s censure nipped particularly deep.

There. Did you see it? The first sentence let's you know you're in Nicholas's head(1). He feels guilty for staring at the floor but not shamed enough to lift his head(2)...which makes him uncomfortable so he sucks in a breath(3).

That's the Magic Paragraph in a nutshell. Give it a whirl. It's a great hare to pull out of your writerly hat, and after using it awhile, it will turn into a good rabbit, I mean habit.

Wow. Do I need a cup of coffee or what?

8 comments:

Gwendolyn Gage said...

Love the magic paragraph tips. :-) I always find it annoying when I don't know who's POV I'm reading the scene from. Being clear is more important than being artistic when it comes to writing stories. Great paragraph from your WIP! I can't wait to read it.

Michelle Griep said...

When I first learned the magic paragraph, it took my writing to a whole different level. Translation: yep...just do it!

And I agree, Gwen. It is TOTALLY annoying when I don't know who's head I'm in.

Jessie said...

I do need more coffee but it's 10:00 at night! Now you've given me more work to do. :)

Problem? I've only got 4 days until its due to the editor.

Okay but...how to avoid starting every chapter with the MC's name. That's something that annoys me more than wondering. But I can already tell I need more work on this in my WIP.

Great tips and I too enjoyed your example and want to read more.

Michelle Griep said...

Bingo, Jessie! Starting out opening paragraphs with a person's name is a huge concern, and yes, as annoying as finding only 1 square left on the toilet paper roll.

Granted, in the example I used, I did start it out with the hero's name, just to make it simple for explanation purposes. But it doesn't HAVE to start that way. Here's another opening paragraph from my WIP that still uses the magic paragraph, but doesn't start with anyone's name...

Death was in the air. Heavy. Ominous. Nicholas could feel it in his bones. He inhaled a fresh waft of Emily’s lily-of-the-valley sweetness, but if his surmise was correct, a stench would soon follow. The only way to know for sure was to keep trailing the grim-faced butler who ushered him and Emily down a short corridor.

Jessie said...

Ah ha, yes good example. I've been going through my WIP and alas, my opening scene didn't have a name so...I changed it,

She despised her name. Her mother told her Fadia meant savior but...

But then what about this? Once a reader already knows the characters does hinting work? For instance;

They pulled up to the Mosque, the third Holy Unity Center that her brother founded and the most magnificent to date. She stood on shaky legs, relieved to get out of the limo. Ever since the accident she hated to travel and envied those who knew how to ride a bike.

-----

So readers already know that she is a Muslim character, that her brother is founder of Holy Unity Centers and that she has been in an accident. Good nuf? Or shall I put names? I definitely could be accused of over thinking! :)

Michelle Griep said...

It depends on if your story is completely told in her point of view or if you're switching between her and other(s). If it's all in hers, then you could get away with it. If not, though, then you'll have to stick in her name. Savvy?

Jessie said...

Savvy! You're making me work. LOL Okay but... since I'm the bad pupil, what if she is the only female POV?

What say you?

In a couple hours it will be too late anyhow but this is a good discussion and something I will refer back to for sure. :)

Michelle Griep said...

If your entire book is told solely from her POV, then you can get away with not putting in her name in the first paragraph. But (and I've always got a big but) the rest of the items apply. You should definitely twang some kind of sense or emotion and then have her respond to it.

In the example that you sent, it looks like you did that. She's in a limo, stands on shaky legs, relieved to get out. Looks like you intuitively get the idea. Nice work, little buddy!

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