Thursday, May 19, 2011

Act First, Explain Later by Jodie Renner

Gone are the days when fiction readers were willing to read pages of description and lead-up before being introduced to the characters and the plot. Readers, agents, and publishers today don't have the time or patience to wade through pages of backstory and description, so you need to grab their interest right from the first sentence and first paragraph of your story.

As James Scott Bell says in Revision and Self-Editing, about the opening paragraphs, “Give us a character in motion. Something happening to a person from line one. Make that a disturbing thing, or have it presage something disturbing.”

Here are twelve dos and don’ts for making the first page of your novel more compelling:

  1. Don't begin with a long description of the setting or with background information on your main character. Do begin with dialogue and action; then add any necessary backstory or description in small doses, on a need-to-know basis as you progress through the story.
  2. Don't start with a character other than your protagonist. Do introduce your protagonist right in the first paragraph. Readers want to know right away whose story it is, which character you’re asking them to identify with.
  3. Don't start with a description of past events. Do jump right in with what the main character is involved in right now, and introduce some tension or conflict as soon as possible.
  4. Don't start in a viewpoint other than the main character’s. Do start telling the story from your protagonist’s point of view. It’s best to stay in the protagonist’s point of view for the whole first chapter, or most of it, and don’t change the point of view within a scene.
  5. Don't delay letting your readers get to know your protagonist, or present her in a static, neutral (boring) situation. Do develop your main character quickly by putting her in a bit of hot water and showing how she reacts to the situation, so readers can empathize and “bond” with her, and start caring enough about her to keep reading.
  6. Don't start with your character all alone, reflecting on his life. Do have more than one character (two is best) interacting, with action and dialogue. That’s more compelling than reading the thoughts of one person.
  7. Don't start with your protagonist planning a trip, or traveling somewhere, in other words, as a lead-up to an important scene. Do start in media res — jump right into the middle of the action. Present her in a meaningful scene.
  8. Don't introduce a lot of characters in the first few pages. Do limit the number of characters you introduce in the first few pages to three or less.
  9. Don't leave the reader wondering what the characters look like. Do provide a brief description of each character as they’re introduced, or as soon as you can work it in, so the readers can form a picture of him or her in their minds.
  10. Don't have the main character looking in the mirror as a device for describing him/her. This had been overdone. Do work in the description by relating it to his or her actions or interactions with others.
  11. Don't wait too long to introduce the romantic interest in a romantic suspense, or the villain in a thriller. To add intrigue, do introduce the hero (love interest) or villain within the first chapter or two.
  12. Don't spend too long leading up to the main conflict or problem the protagonist faces. Do introduce the main conflict (or at least some significant tension) within the first chapter.
Remember, you can always start your story wherever you want in the draft stage, if it’ll make you feel better. Then in the editing stage, you can go back and cut out the first several paragraphs or pages or even most of the first chapter, so that, in your final draft, your actual story starts after all that lead-up (some of which may appear later, in snippets here and there).

In conclusion, here’s a little rule for writing compelling fiction:

Act first, explain later.

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction manuscript editor, specializing in thrillers, romantic suspense, and mysteries. Her services range from developmental editing to light final copyediting, as well as manuscript critiques. Check out Jodie’s website at and her blog at

Jodie is a member of International Thriller Writers (associate), Sisters in Crime (SinC), Backspace: The Writers Place, The Editorial Freelancers Association (EFA), and The Editors Association of Canada (EAC).

Jodie has traveled extensively throughout North America, Europe and the Middle East. In fact, Jodie loves traveling so much, she’s thinking of changing her tagline from “Let’s work together to enhance and empower your writing” to “Have laptop, will travel.”


Tracey Devlyn said...

Hi Jodie,

Thanks for another great post! I'll have to keep these in mind when I begin my next book.


Rochelle Staab said...

Hi Jodie,

Thank you for the great post - a excellent list of reminders to start the morning as I sit down to write. So nice of you to share your wisdom with us!


Jodie Renner said...

Thanks, Tracey and Rochelle. I hope aspiring authors out there find my researched articles helpful for creating a more compelling story and characters.

Joelle Charbonneau said...

I'm so glad you had #10 on the list. Every time I see that in a manuscript or a book I cringe:)

Thanks for the great tips.

Anonymous said...


Thank you for this wonderful post! Page went into my favorites so I can refer back to it often. Best to you.

Jodie Renner said...

Great! Thanks, Bryce. Glad my articles are useful. You can go to my website at or my own blog at for more articles.

James Scott Bell said...

Thanks for the citations, Jodie. I appreciate it. And I agree. I have
been teaching "Act First, Explain Later" for years.
Here's a blog post you and others might find of interest in that regard:

Jodie Renner said...

Thanks for stopping by and leaving a comment, James! You're at the top of my list of recommended resources for my aspiring author clients. And as you know, I keep quoting you in my craft articles! I'll definitely check out your link.

Rita said...

Coming to the party late but this is perfect. Great post. My reading time is limited and I resent an author wasting my time with unnecessary back story or making a grocery list when a meteor is going to hit soon and take out the world.

Jodie Renner said...

Love how you state that, Rita: "making a grocery list when a meteor is going to hit soon and take out the world." Good one! I hate interruptions and digressions when it should be pulse-pounding fast-paced action - at the beginning or any other time!

Autumn Jordon said...

Hi, Jodie. Great list. I love that you said write what you want during the first draft and then edit to perfection.

Jodie Renner said...

Great! Glad my articles are helping writers hone their craft - we all benefit!

Marlyn said...

Thanks, Jodie. I'm going to print this out and save them. I know I'm going to write a novel someday.

Peg Brantley said...

Jodie, one of your many articles worth printing out and reading again and again. Thank you!

Jodie Renner said...

Thanks, Marlyn and Peg! BTW, I also have my craft articles published on Blood-Red Pencil blogspot and Crime Fiction Collective blogspot.

Mark Sadler said...

It sounds like I have most of that covered! Need to get back to the book. Know any good editors?

Jodie Renner said...

Hi Mark,

You asked if I know any good editors. Yes, me! I'm a freelance fiction editor, specializing in thrillers, romantic suspense, mysteries and other crime fiction, as well as mainstream, YA and historical fiction. My website is And you (or any other writers looking for an editor) can contact me at