This is a continuation of my series of first chapter dissections where I take apart the opening chapter of a successful novel to find out what makes it work, how the author hooked the reader, which rules were followed, and which were broken to good effect
Why is the antagonist so important? No antagonist and no story. I think most craft books make a critical error. They assume us noobs know more than we do. Most new writers don’t understand the antagonist the way they need to. We have some hazy basics from high school or college English and then we try to go pro. Then it takes years of trial, error, rejection and therapy to see any success. Um, yeah. Bad plan. The antagonist is critical, and is often one of the most troublesome concepts to master.
As I have said in previous posts, there is no story without the antagonist. Period. The story IS the antagonist’s agenda. No Buffalo Bill, no Silence of the Lambs. No Darth Vader, and Skywalker doesn’t have a Death Star to destroy. If Joker was a choir boy, Batman’s life would have no meaning.
Every story needs stakes, right? And every story needs suspense–after all, what’s the point in high stakes if you’re not worried the protagonist won’t make it there? Suspense doesn’t have to mean Hitchcock style terror–it can be King George VI’s big speech at the end of The King’s Speech, or Hugh Grant’s mad dash at the end of Notting Hill. Every book needs a will-they-or-won’t-they element, and that’s where suspense comes in.
When I turned 29, all of a sudden out of nowhere I got this feeling that I wanted to write a novel — that I could do it. I couldn’t write anything that measured up to Dostoyevsky or Balzac, of course, but I told myself it didn’t matter. I didn’t have to become a literary giant. Still, I had no idea how to go about writing a novel or what to write about. I had absolutely no experience, after all, and no ready-made style at my disposal. I didn’t know anyone who could teach me how to do it, or even friends I could talk with about literature. My only thought at that point was how wonderful it would be if I could write like playing an instrument.
Do you write dialogue? Did you know that many acquistions editors at publishing companies use dialogue as the "test" for whether a manuscript gets read?
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Renni Browne and Dave King tell the story of interviewing different editors in the publishing industry. What do you look at first, when reviewing a manuscript? they wondered. More than one revealed this: Editors scan through the pages for a section of dialogue and read it. If it's good, they read more. If it's not good, the manuscript is automatically rejected.
One of the most common advice to aspiring writers is to read. Read everything. This advice comes from everyone: writers, teachers, people in the street... Undoubtedly, if you want to write fiction, you should read fiction. In fact the reason you want to be a writer is probably because of stuff you’ve read. But exactly what are you supposed to glean from reading other people’s books? And how will it make you a better writer?
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