ONCE YOU’VE HOOKED readers, your next task is to put your early chapters to work introducing your characters, settings, and stakes. The first 20-25% of the book comprises your setup. At first glance, this can seem like a tremendous chunk of story to devote to introductions. But if you expect readers to stick with you throughout the story, you first have to give them a reason to care. This important stretch is where you accomplish just that. Mere curiosity can only carry readers so far. Once you’ve hooked that sense of curiosity, you then have to deepen the pull by creating an emotional connection between them and your characters. These “introductions” include far more than just the actual moment of introducing the characters and settings or explaining the stakes. In themselves, the presentations of the characters probably won’t take more than a few scenes. After the introduction is when your task of deepening the characters and establishing the stakes really begins. The first quarter of the book is the place to compile all the necessary components of your story. Anton Chekhov’s famous advice that “if in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired” is just as important in reverse: if you’re going to have a character fire a gun later in the book, that gun should be introduced in the First Act. The story you create in the following acts can only be assembled from the parts you’ve shown readers in this First Act. That’s your first duty in this section. Your second duty is to allow readers the opportunity to learn about your characters. Who are these people? What is the essence of their personalities? What are their core beliefs (even more particularly, what are the beliefs that will be challenged or strengthened throughout the book)? If you can introduce a character in a “characteristic moment,” as we talked about earlier, you’ll be able to immediately show readers who this person is. From there, the plot builds as you deepen the stakes and set up the conflict that will eventually explode in the Inciting and Key Events. Authors sometimes feel pressured to dive right into the action of their stories, at the expense of important character development. Because none of us wants to write a boring story, we can overreact by piling on the explosions, fight sequences, and high-speed car chases to the point we’re unable to spend important time developing our characters. Character development is especially important in this first part of the story, since readers need to understand and sympathize with the characters before they’re hit with the major plot revelations at the quarter mark, halfway mark, and three-quarters mark. Summer blockbusters are often guilty of neglecting character development, but one enduring exception worth considering is Stephen Spielberg’s Jurassic Park. No one would claim the film is a leisurely character study, but it rises far above the monster movie genre through its expert use of pacing and its loving attention to character, especially in its First Act. It may surprise some viewers to realize the action in this movie doesn’t heat up until a quarter of the way into the film—and even then we have no scream-worthy moments, no adrenaline, and no extended action scenes until halfway through the Second Act. Spielberg used the First Act to build suspense and encourage viewer loyalty to the characters. By the time the main characters arrive at the park, we care about them, and our fear for their safety is beginning to manifest thanks to a magnificent use of foreshadowing. We understand that what is at stake for these characters is their very lives. Spielberg knew if he could hook viewers with his characters, he could take his time building his story to an artful Climax.
K.M. Weiland (Structuring Your Novel: Essential Keys for Writing an Outstanding Story)