Initially your potential agent and/or publisher, which will eventually be your potential reader/audience.
What follows is not intended to advocate writing to a formula, but rather to identify the necessary elements of writing to be attended to and applied after the ideas, inspiration, concept, characters, setting and the basis for your narrative has bubbled into a set of options and possibilities. These notes can, if you wish, be used as the tools in a check list portfolio for the key ingredients needed at the start of the work, and for the first and early scenes. It’s not as scary as it looks, in fact, it’s really simple and anyone can do this in order to achieve success.
Capturing the reader’s attention…
The key factors at the very start: when the reader is browsing, flicking through, examining the cover and the blurb, the opening pages before being interested enough to consider buying and reading. Consider the reader and stimulate an appetite, anticipation, anxiety, curiosity…
Your subject must be of potential interest: the text must carry conviction. This is the launch pad – Bang! Gain attention and pull that curiosity out of your reader. Provide something key. This could be anything from the main issue, key characters, conflict parameters or a grabbing cliff-hanger. Provide brief but tasty information about the setting. Hints of the story’s background are needed at the start, not long descriptions or exposition.
Make the reader reflect on what might happen: get involvement; elements that might concern readers as individuals, help them care and identify, what interests the writer should be the readers’ concerns too. The reader can only focus on a limited number of issues at the start – possibly two. Do not set too much in motion early on. Readers like to feel that they are building meaning from their own observations, help them in this endeavour.
The start of a journey: the beginning of the story is the start of the reader’s journey. It must carry conviction and have sufficient explanation about the protagonist and their situation, the setting, and the problems, whilst teetering on the brink of fuller narrative. If the reader is attached to the characters they will want them to overcome, to escape, to find whatever it is they are searching for. They will want to get involved in your story.
The Basic Elements of the Story
The principle location, associated locations, the historic or environmental background, the period, external linked events, developments, threats, opportunities, all contribute to the story.
If a setting is likely to be widely recognised or welcomed, then it may well be seen by the reader as somewhere to escape to. Conversely, if the main setting is full of danger and evil, the reader can relate to the tension of the characters and their desperation.
An ordinary setting with eccentric characters can be very attractive but also a strange or unusual setting into which ordinary characters are thrust can also be very effective.
That drives the characters.
Generally, it is best to have a dominant theme and perhaps a few subtle ones on the side. There are plenty of themes to choose from: Quest, Puzzle, Discovery, Adventure, War, Pursuit, Survival, Rescue, Escape, Revolt, Revenge, Rivalry, Betrayal, Trusteeship, Underdog, Love, Frustrated Love, Love v Duty, Forbidden Love, Obsession… the list goes on! Find your best theme and stick to it.
Introduce subsidiary issue(s) with care – avoid overkill or confusion.
Have low, medium, and high peaks: crises, discoveries, confrontations, climaxes to sub-issues, denouement, resolution, secrets and hints, threats to protagonist and allies. Stimulate curiosity, make the readers wait, then satisfy them– if readers have to work they must be rewarded.
Have logicality: cause and effect, motivation linked to action, everything fitting together, what happens should stem from what went on before, even if there are twists and turns or surprises during or at the end. Process the story with summaries of the situations leading to expectations, and so to a series of outcomes through the book by teasing, then resolving or delaying.
Concentrate attention, don’t disperse it: plan your scenes carefully and wisely, build the drama. Think of scenes in film terms and see if that works for your story.
The Plot and the Protagonist
What is the situation ?
Is self-deception is likely? What promises/commitments have been made by the characters so far? Are there more to be made?
What problem/s are there, or might there be? Any obstacles that your heroes/heroines have to see past?
Using conflict/s is a great way to enhance characterisation and strengthen the plot.
Ask yourself these questions as you’re writing each chapter. Take a moment to explore the narrative and ask whether your book is interesting enough for potential readers.
Conflict: making things look as bad as possible heightens tension, raises questions for the reader as well as for the characters.
Develop events that grow out of strength or weakness and show flaws or opportunities. By the conclusion, the character(s) has developed, issues are resolved, battles are won or lost. You want to realise the end goal for your character(s) before you’ve begun to write the story.
Half the plot comes from the flaw. Development is how character recognises and deals with that.
Plot, Structure, and Pace
With key elements, balanced actions, and the amount of information presented, the writer must vary the pace…
Allusions, questions, facts, foreshadowing: planting has to be done carefully.
Frequent conflict: these scenes are often needed to generate curiosity, but not all at same level.
Intensify difficulties: this helps to increase tension. Tension can be easily amplified throughout the novel.
A sense of urgency: this is a great way to stimulate the reader’s mind – creating a sense of urgency builds suspense and drama. Try not to overdo it though as this could be a little too much for your reader to digest.
Tease or delay: Match the narrative needed but sometimes add a little tease or delay in ongoing scenes. The opposite, surprise, also has a positive effect. Dare to write the unexpected.
Comfort scenes: Exposition – reader finds out what is happening/has happened, who, where, why, how, when, that helps to balance the pace. Don’t make all your scenes action-packed otherwise you will lose the reader’s interest. Create a sense of equilibrium.
Appetite scenes: curiosity, taste, anticipation (salivant hooks), anxiety (reader now identifies with characters so is likely to care).
Characters and Dialogue
Dialogue: cadence, rhythm, and the wit and the banter, shows characters and their delusions, their pretences, their apparent outward stability, their inward desperation, all of which helps the forward movement of the story to positive effect.
Appearance/Personality: let the reader envisage the character for himself as much as possible through the effect of dialogue and the protagonist’s and other characters’ speech and reaction and input.
Language, Voice, Style, and Point of View
The attention should be on the reader and whatever is the most appropriate and illuminating tool used to give the most effective and satisfying outcome for your story. Think about the tense you’re using and the tone of your narrative. Using the present tense is quite possibility the most effective.
Use senses to create effect: what the characters’ are seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling, can be very effective. Be creative with this, explore different ways of explaining these senses/emotions.
‘Easy reading is damned hard writing’ – Nigel Hawthorne
For certain markets, the writing should be simple enough to reach the widest target audience, for them to read with ease and delight.
Entertaining, in the widest sense, is an essential quality: the more intelligent the entertainment the better.
Make the reader forget he/she is reading: the reader should unconsciously enter into an understanding relationship with author.
Drama, tension: disturb, unnerve, grip the reader. The reader needs to be able to communicate with the world of the book – points to recognise, things to delight, the confirmation of beliefs and views.
Exploit the reader’s receptivity: the voyeur in all of us.
Final Conflict: enormous crisis effective, good if inevitable and yet with exact nature unpredictable. As the Reader approaches the end of the story they should feel some heightened sense of uncertainty.
Add major surprise: resolves story with maximum effect. Everything should fit in, relate, stem from logicality. Make readers want more and wish it hadn’t ended.
Things to Avoid
Lecturing, philosophising: the prime cause for rejection by publishers.
Preaching, patronising: a novel is an entertainment, not an argument. Don’t keep making the same point, labouring the obvious.
Don’t show off: reader doesn’t want writer’s ‘self expression’. They just want natural, honest writing. Good and effective writing.
Avoid chaos at first sight: the reader does not need all those problems, images, worries, just the most appropriate ones at this stage. It is best to avoid confusion too, do not disconnect from the main thread – align yourself with what you should be telling your reader and why.