The first five pages of your book are so important. As aspiring authors, we are well aware of their significance. And we place so much time and emphasis on getting them right. While we probably have a fair idea of what to do and not do in our first five pages, here is a quick recap of things to keep in mind when looking at the start of your novel.
Important questions to ask yourself:
Does the first line engage your reader?
Is your main character properly introduced?
Has the POV and narration style been made clear to the reader?
Does your reader get a good feel for the world – i.e. have you set the status quo?
Have you established your main character’s deepest desire?
Is there an inciting incident?
The most important thing to avoid at the beginning of your novel:
The information dump.
Your reader is only starting to get to know your main character and within these pages, so you don’t want to overwhelm them with backstory or world building information so early on. Remember, you’ve got a minimum of 80,000 words to work with, you can take your time introducing the important background information.
There are many ways that we can provide our audience with the information they need to follow along in a story. Many of us will use dialogue secondary characters to expose important tidbits of information that are integral to the plot.
However, sometimes another technique that can be used are flashbacks. These are moments within a story that take you back to specific moments within a character’s life. Flashbacks are not to be confused with simple memories. Memories can be summed up in a few sentences like “Alice held the melting ice cream cone in her hand, thinking back to the breakup. She hadn’t touched mint chocolate chip since.” Instead, flashbacks are a whole scene set in the past that takes your reader to that exact moment. And, flashbacks usually tend to expose something important.
I had a professor in college once who described flashbacks as sort of like an “aha” moment for the reader. They are supposed to make something click in the story, whether it’s a key plot point or a breakthrough in character development.
Since flashbacks are usually set in the past, they can be a little tricky to write as they can be jarring for the reader if not done correctly. That is why some writers tend to stay away from them. Personally, I love a good flashback. I think they’re great for giving readers very in-depth insight into a character’s origins. But flashbacks should be used sparingly – don’t include one in every single chapter or else you’ll end up with some very confused readers.
The rule of thumb that I tend to follow for setting up a flashback is essentially what my college professor told me. She said keep them short and sweet. They don’t have to be any longer than a paragraph. And don’t use dreams as a way of setting up a flashback. It’s too cliché. Instead, she taught me to think of all flashbacks as being a doorway for your reader. While your character might be your reader’s guide, you still need something that will take your reader through that doorway. This has to be a trigger for your character to then open up that door. For example, that trigger could be the smell of lavender if your flashback is set in lavender field in the south of France. Or, perhaps a stack of dishes crashing to the floor in a busy restaurant can trigger your character to flashback to a traumatic moment in their past. Either way, it has to be something that will pull them into the flashback and then pull them out.
So, if your character is an old woman harboring a secret about her eldest child not being her husband’s child but rather the product of an affair with a French lavender farmer, then you have two options. You can either expose it through dialogue or some other means like a found letter, etc., or you can reveal it during a flashback. If you decide that a flashback is how you want to expose the secret then you need a doorway. If the old woman smells the fresh lavender in her garden and thinks back to that wild summer in Provence, then she needs to come out of that flashback through the scent of lavender. If your character is escaping an abusive relationship and the sound of shattering plates takes them back to a really dark moment in their past, then those shattered plates need to bring them back to the present – that can be the scraping of the dishes being swept up or something like that.
Flashbacks can seem intimidating to write, but they do add something unique to your writing. Are you pro flashbacks? Let me know!
Dragon Soul Press sat down to interview Fairytale Dragons Author Ashley L. Hunt.
Where do you get your inspiration?
My inspiration comes from a lot of places. Sometimes it’s a way I had wished another story ended. Some of it is adventures I would have loved going on, if they were possible. (Anyone know where I can team up with a dragon?) Sometimes characters just form and they need places to go.
When did you start writing?
I was very young, I remember that. When I was 3 or 4, my brother and I would get all our toys and we would send them on these long epic odyssey to reach a goal. I didn’t think to set my stories to paper until I was 9 or so.
What does success mean to you? What is the definition of success?
Success to me is completing a task and getting some acknowledgement for it. It’s probably on the smaller scale of what success means to others, but it’s good for me.
How much ‘world building’ takes place before you start writing?
It’s a little bit before and some after. I leave space to build as I go, but I have enough foundation for a solid world.
Describe your perfect book hero or heroine.
A perfect book hero is someone who is flawed, someone who gets scared or isn’t always sure, but does their best anyway. For me, they need to do what they can to make the world better, and they learn a lesson on the way.
What was the inspiration for the Fairytale Dragons story?
I’ve been studying fairy tales since I was a child and I absolutely love dragons. Cinderella is easy to mock because in today’s day and age she looks weak. It’s not fair because she was a brave and courageous young woman who stands up and she bears her part well. She deserves better and I hope I gave her that.
What were the key challenges you faced when writing this story?
In the original, Cinderella is passive and docile. She reacts to the plot rather than inspiring it. The plot happens around her. So I had to give her an active role in the story. Her godmother is also this strange shadow in the background who shows up randomly then vanishes from the story again. (According to the French telling, she’s absent in the German and Italian) so an added challenge was to show a relationship with Cinderella and her godmother while giving her a reason to not help Cinderella.
Who is your favorite author and why?
Favorite author is harder to pin because there are so many for a million different reasons. Madame Du’alnoy stands out among fairytale writers because she has a particular style to her writing that is rich but doesn’t bog down the story. My favorite book is the Wizard of Oz, by Lymen Frank Baum so of course he has a special place on.
What was your dream job when you were younger?
I wanted to be a singer, but I can’t hold a note. My dog runs up to check if I’m dying.
When written correctly, side characters can actually be some pretty interesting people. Plus, they add a lot to the story. Yes, we all have to put effort into making our protagonists and antagonists multi-dimensional characters, but that doesn’t mean we’re allowed to forget about our side characters. While they might be minor characters in the grand scheme of things, they’re still vital to the telling of the story as they serve many functions such as revealing key details, motivating the protagonist or foiling the protagonist, and sometimes helping to outline certain plots in the story. These secondary characters can either interact with the protagonist through dialogue or through a memory that the main character has of them.
Whichever way you choose to have your main character interact with your side character(s), it’s important to remember the main function of the side character: to help progress the story forward somehow.
With that in mind, here are some tips to making sure your side characters are not one-sided.
Don’t get stuck on the little details:
Yes, writing a rich backstory is important to understanding your side character. But not everything has to be in your story. Just include the parts of the character’s backstory that are relevant to the plot and that move it forward. Don’t get stuck on the little details that don’t matter. It’ll only end up confusing your reader. A good tip to bear in mind is to ask yourself “does this add to the main story or distract from it?”
Don’t make them solely good or solely bad:
The best way to add dimension to your characters is to avoid making them one-sided. If they’re completely good or evil they’ll read completely flat. What I like to do for all my characters, including the side characters, is to give them three good virtues and three negative ones and work from there. The way I see it, if you mix black and white you get grey – and grey is where things get interesting.
Don’t create too many characters:
Creating characters is fun. That is why it’s so easy to get swept up in the desire to write more and more characters, leading to your story to become very convoluted. If you ever read War and Peace, you know just how long that list of characters is. And if you read Tolstoy’s masterpiece, you probably had to refresh your memory a couple times while reading as you tried to keep up with all the characters. While Tolstoy somehow made it work in 587,287 words, most of us are probably working with a much smaller word count goal. Therefore we shouldn’t make it too confusing for our readers to keep up with our cast of characters.
The side characters are there to develop the main character(s):
No matter if you have one side character or five, they all share the same exact purpose: to develop the main character. Side characters can be used to expose key plot points without you necessarily going into exposition mode and “telling” what is happening, but rather “showing” it through the characters. A side character should never be just background noise, each side character should be an active participant in the story and either support your main character or provide an obstacle for them (without necessarily being the antagonist).
Use them to help bring the world to life:
This is particularly helpful if you’re writing fantasy or sci-fi. Secondary characters can be tools used to help bring the world you built to life. Physical descriptions, personal experiences, these are all ways that the side characters can help to better illustrate the world you’ve created.
Try to keep them in one space:
In order to make it easier for your readers to keep up with your secondary characters, it’s a good idea to tie them to one location whenever possible. That means that your side character exists in one spot, like the bar, school, the library, etc. and they never venture beyond this point. But remember, even if they only exist as the woman in the coffee shop, they still need to serve a purpose to moving the story forward. It’s easier for your reader to learn character names etc. when they are in one location. But if you do move a secondary character around, do it with purpose.
Give them a reason for being in a scene:
Speaking of purpose, you should make sure that your secondary character has a purpose for being in a scene. Like I said in the previous point, your side characters should really be kept to one location if it can be helped. But if you do end up moving them around, make sure that there is a reason for them to be in a different scene with your main character. If there is no good reason for your side character to be in the scene then it’ll just read as awkward and confusing.
In my recent social media adventures of IG and the Twitterverse, I’ve seen the recurring question:
How do I title my WIP?
Today, I’m going to walk you through how I title my works-in-progress!
While I admit I’m primarily a young adult or new adult fantasy author, I promise this technique will work across a variety of works, encompassing all target audiences and genres.
Make a list of:
Key Character Traits (~3 each)
Species or Races
Major Point(s) of Conflict
Key Themes (~3 each)
Major Items or Places
Overall Mood / Atmosphere
Emotions (~3 each)
Decide on your top 3-5 from the above list.
Explore definitions, synonyms and like terms for the choice words. Utilize your favorite search engine for quotations or turns of phrase utilizing these words. Play with them, mix & match, combine them at your leisure. Have fun!
Begin to narrow your list. (This is where your possible titles will form.)
Allow me to demonstrate!
Aurelia, the purple dragon shifter
Seru, the electrifying saint beast
Thalasia*, the blue siren
Major Point(s) of Conflict
The Great War (prior to the book)
The Magical Barrier Collapse
The Guiler Invasion
Prismatic crystals (Violet & Purple)
Saint Beast’s enchanted collar
The Golden Lyre (siren charm)
The Golden Drake (dragon coin)
The white sand beach (the site of the MC’s first encounter)
The bridge (point where Thalasia and guilers cross to Prisma Isle)
The central market (place of gathering for all species on land)
Overall Mood / Atmosphere
Even my initial version–which may sound a tad over simplified–gives us more than enough to work with. I’ve highlighted my choices above. Feel free to circle the ones you like and cross out the ones you don’t particularly care for or get good vibes from. There will be plenty of options, so don’t stress.
Upon analyzing the list, I’ve narrowed it down to a few choices I thought really encompassed the story as a whole. Now, I’m going to do a spot of research using a dictionary, thesaurus, and my preferred search engine.
I’ll note down a few relevant examples of what I compiled below for ease of viewing.
A powerful and protective stone
White sand beach
Again, my list might seem overly simplistic, but I’m well versed in this process, so don’t feel overwhelmed or underwhelmed if your list is a touch longer or shorter. Work with what you have!
Now, you play with the words and their meanings until you find an option, or a few, that you think suit your WIP. This go ‘round, my title jumped out at me as I was creating the list. That may or may not happen for you right away. Don’t get discouraged. You will find your title. Just be patient and continue working.
Once you have a handful of viable options, choose the one that you think works best and gives your story the proper spotlight in which to shine.
As you can see, I chose the title Rebel Tides. I, of course, ran this and a few other options past my co-author, Krys Fenner, since we wrote this new adult fantasy novel together. I recommend you do the same with your titles, whether you have co-authors or just a few trusted writer pals. Obtaining a second or third opinion always helps. (Depending on their knowledge and familiarity of your WIP, it may also be wise to include a detailed summary of your story.)
Easy, right? Or, at least easier than you initially thought.
This tried and true method of creating a title has worked for me for many years. It’s a method I turn to time and time again. I sincerely hope it helps you select your next title for your work-in-progress.
If it does, please, feel free to reach out and tell us about it! I love to hear from my fellow authors within the Writing Community.
A few closing explanations on why I chose Rebel Tides as the title of my new adult fantasy novel.
The initial story was intended to be a young adult novel, detailing the friendship formed between two rebellious heroines: a dragon shifter, Aurelia (my character) and Thalasia (Krys’ character), a siren. The two were set to adventure to a magical academy and discover themselves together in the process, making their share of mischief as they went.
Long story short, the collaboration changed hands–and publishers–before their story could be completed.
In the revived and revamped form, their story shifted from a preteen coming-of-age journey to an action-packed struggle of survival, where the disappearance of a magical barrier cues a series of destructive incidents across the island a majority of the characters call home. Thalasia is initially blamed by my protagonist, Aurelia, who finds herself at odds with the newcomer. My secondary character, the saint beast, Seru decided to cozy up to Thalasia, even if it meant betraying his species in the process.
Krys and I were beside ourselves at these dramatic and sudden changes demanded by our cast. But, we decided to roll with it and see where it went. In the end, Rebel Tides still fit our story–if for entirely different reasons.
Our characters first encounter one another by the beach. As time progresses, it becomes evident they must rebel against the societal norms of Prisma Isle and their species to come together in order to save the island from guiler invaders. You might say, they need to create a shift or change the tides from the way things have always been toward a new way. In Thalasia’s and Seru’s case, they even seek to challenge and change fate itself.
… I appreciate you taking the time to read my first-ever blog post for Dragon Soul Press. I hope you enjoyed reading and partaking in the fun exercise provided. I’ll see you next time.