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People often ask me how I write like I do—presumably, like an over-caffeinated and under-sleeped nerd with a Conspiracy Wall of newspaper and thumb tacks and string, because everything’s connected! And also with a devastating emotional punch (or heart-hugging gift) every couple of pages. And my answer is always a resounding *MAKES ‘I DUNNO’ NOISE*, because I’ve never thought of myself as an expert…
But I have written a lot of published books, stories, poems, and other Weird Things, and gotten a taste for what I both like to read and write, and, because I can’t stop hyper-analyzing crap to save my life, I think I also understand why it works.
So, this will be the first in a series of Writing Tips (tm), which are really just things that have worked for me, that I enjoy, and other people seem to enjoy too.
So, let’s start at the beginning.
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…Aw, crap. The beginning. I hate that thing.
First sentences are freaking hard. And then you have to write a whole first chapter, which is even harder, because you have to get your readers to give a crap, and that’s made of a whole bunch of sentences, so… see the first sentence in this article.
It’s pretty universal, I think - at least for everything I’ve ever written, from cozy romance to pulse-pounding cyberpunk goodness. But hardest of all, in my experience, is the action starter. When you have a huge, sweeping story that you have to lead into from a very small point. A single scene. And if that scene is in the middle of action, like a battle or disaster… hoo boy. You sure know how to pick ‘em.
But when done right? Oh, they can be great. They suck you in and make you care about this place and the people in it, and need to know more. You need to know they’ll be okay. So you keep reading.
So how do you do that? How do you start a story with a bang, with a huge dramatic action scene, with explosions and LASERs and/or sword fights, to show that this is an exciting world, where exciting stuff happens… and make the reader actually want more? Because we’ve seen this before. Everyone’s seen a million swordfights/space battles/natural disasters, in movies or the news.
So yours, which is not just another firefight, but the opening to an incredible story, needs to do two things.
- Give us someone specific to latch onto. Let us connect with someone, root for them, worry for them.
- Show us who they are, and therefore, why we should care.
Take the huge, and focus on the small. Once you have that personal connection, that anchor, you can have all the chaos you want. Go absolutely wild—as long as you anchor it with someone in the middle who we immediately care about. Without personal stakes (ours!), it’s nothing. It’s just some explosions.
And the hardest version of this incredibly hard-mode starter scene? The solo hero.
Why? Because if the scene is just them being heroic (or even being scared, overwhelmed, etc)—we still might not care, because we have no point of reference. We have nobody to compare them to - they have no opportunity to show us who they are, in relation to everything else.
So how do you cut through the noise?
You find the squishy center.
Even the most brutal war scenes have them.
The flat-out best example of this I can think of isn't even in a book - it's the opening to Star Trek: Deep Space Nine.
Let me show you what I mean...
We open on, yes, a space battle—Wolf 359, the biggest and bloodiest massacre in Federation history. The chaos and damage is sweeping across five freakin' thousand starships and Borg cubes. It's overwhelming by nature, and that's fine, the audience is supposed to feel the shock and awe, and collectively (ha) go Holy Sh*t!
The show assumes viewers are at least a little familiar with the Star Trek (specifically The Next Generation) universe, but right now even that doesn’t matter.
Because the reason we get invested in any of this is the people. We zoom in almost immediately and we see Benjamin, Jake, and Jennifer Sisko. Very, very small focus in this huge disaster scene all around them.
In that moment, we don't care about the war, even though we know thousands are dying. And if you’ve already seen TNG it’s even worse, because you know it’s Captain Picard as Locutus being forced to commit these atrocities. We’re not going to forget any of that big picture. But right now, lifelong fans and total newcomers all get sucked in immediately—because we care about this specific battle, and these specific people.
Because they show us who they are immediately.
Mom, dad, son. A scared family just trying to get out alive. When Jennifer dies (spoilers, I guess), we’re already hurting. We want to know Benjamin and Jake are going to be okay. That attachment makes us follow them through the rest of the premiere, and hopefully, the TV show.
And that's what makes the DS9 opening manageable and comprehensible—and totally freaking awesome—instead of just a clusterf*ck of shooting and explosions.
The people in the clusterf*ck. Get use to care about them, and you’re golden.
Bam. Noise, cut.
You are forcibly encouraged to read the rest of the book.
And yeah, I trust this method and use it in my own work all the time. I could have just described Chameleon Moon’s prologue - everything's collapsing and exploding, you bet, but at the center of all his chaos is Radio Angel, a very human sweetie on the air trying to talk everyone through this disaster.
I give this advice to my friends and loved ones too. My partner Jack is writing an epic story of their own about sad gay Androids and the humans who love them. Their story starts with a bang, oh yes—our adorable and curious Android protag is smack in the middle of a terrifying sea battle. It’s overwhelming and adrenaline-pounding, and we definitely have someone in the middle to focus on and root for…
But it still needed something. The thing that immediately… what?
- Makes us care on a personal level.
- Shows us who the protag is as an individual and sympathetic person.
So I suggested giving our Android a friend to protect and interact with. Jack ran with it, and, actual convo copy-paste:
HE’S GONNA SAVE THIS TINY HUMAN - oop, human dead
YES THO, THATS GOOD! if he tries to save someone early on and fails…
1) that's some f*cking instant devastation
2) but now we know exactly who HE is! he's not just an anonymous android in a fight scene, he’s a good bean trying to save a person. And when he fails, he's sad!! he has emotion, he cares deeply, he’s a special robot!
this hurts GOOD!! I LOVE YOUR BRAIN!!!!!!
I love my brain too. It’s lovingly sadistic—always a good quality for a writer—and it helped Jack’s story start off on a more powerful-because-relatable note. I bet it’ll help yours too.
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So that's it for today! I’ll be back with another tip soon! (And speaking of tips, if I’ve made your writing life easier or day brighter, let me direct you to that friendly button at the top of the screen~)