How to Start Your Novel

I used to think you should start a novel on page one with a bang, that you should throw the reader straight into conflict. I heard agents and publishers want novels full of conflict, novels that immediately hook them, and I thought, I can do that. So I cut out all my world building and characterization and focused on the central plot from the very beginning.

Now I know how misguided I was.

While it’s true you can take too long to introduce conflict to your novel, with conflict, there is such a thing as too much, too soon.

how to start your novel

Photo by Maegan Tinari

Since I started editing books, I’ve been surprised to see more of the latter, books with so much conflict the reader can’t create an emotional attachment with the characters.

Emotional Attachment versus Conflict

Novels should begin with character and world building. You need to introduce the reader to your world and let them explore your world a little before you can introduce the main conflict.

More than anything, the first ten to thirty pages are there to show us why we should like your protagonist.

You can and should still have conflict, but it should be a simmering kind of conflict, under the surface, threatening but not breaking out into full boil just yet.

Case Study: Avatar

James Cameron’s Avatar is a perfect example of this. It begins with Jake, the marine, landing on the Pandora and his first days exploring his new home. In other words, it begins with world building, character building, and not much conflict.

One good question to ask is, do we like him? And I think Cameron does a good job of getting us to like Jake. We learn about  his disability (he’s in a wheelchair), and the surprising accident that led to restoring his legs. He’s a tough, kind guy who is getting a lucky break.

Case Study: Crime and Punishment

Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment’s main conflict, the murder of the pawnbroker and her sister, doesn’t happen until about one-sixth of the way through the novel, about seventy pages in. The first pages mostly deal with Raskolnikov’s life in St. Petersburg, his philosophical reflections, and his interactions with his soon to be victims. In other words, it begins with world building and character building.

Do we like him? Well, not really. We might if we were Russian intellectuals in the 19th century. We do understand him, though.

Case Study: Lost

Lost seems to disprove my theory. Lost’s pilot episode begins with a plane crash. You can’t start off with much more of a bang than that.

However, Lost finds the perfect balance between conflict and character building (remember, J.J. Abrams got his break in television with the show Felicity).

After the plane crash, we spend most of the rest of the episode exploring Jack’s character and why he was on the plane in the first place. In other words, it begins with lots of conflict, lots of character develepment, and some world building.

Do we like him? Yes! The easy way Jack handles all the external conflict makes us see hero power in him.

PRACTICE

Practice writing the first pages of a novel about a group stranded on a desert island.

How will you balance conflict and character building?

Write for fifteen minutes. Post your practice in the comments section when you’re finished. And if you post, please be sure to give some feedback to the other writers who practice.

Have fun!

About Joe Bunting

Joe Bunting is a writer and entrepreneur. He is the author of the #1 Amazon Bestseller Let's Write a Short Story! and the co-founder of Story Cartel. You can follow him on Twitter (@joebunting).

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  • http://TeenLifeHope.org/ Kati Lane

    I just checked the novel I’m currently slugging my way through and sure enough, character development happens first:

    “Isaac’s mother was dead five years but he hadn’t stopped thinking about her. He lived alone in the house with the old man, twenty, small for his age, easily mistaken for a boy.”

    Maybe that’s why I’m still hanging in there with it, post-crisis, slow as it is to resolve. Who doesn’t want to root for a lonely small thoughtful loyal guy whose mom is dead?

    Thanks for helping us get our priorities in line!

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      Good job, Kati! Great intro.

      • http://TeenLifeHope.org/ Kati Lane

        ugghh, sorry to misadvertise. in this case, I’m just slogging my way through someone ELSE’s novel! Phillip Meyer — his first book, “American Rust.”

        • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

          Ha. I was wondering about that, but I chose to give you the benefit of the doubt. Still, it IS a good intro.

  • http://www.pjreece.ca/blog/wordpress PJreece

    Hey, Joe, you really have a knack for contentious issues. Does the protagonist need to be “likeable”? I’m reading “Whatever You Love” by Louise Doughty, wherein the main character is not at all likeable. But the situation oozes tension. She’s on a trajectory for disaster. I think that’s the most important thing. A quick assessment of her in the situation she’s in and I anticipate all sorts of challenging consequences. So I read on. We all want to see the hero fall so hard that she has no choice but to wake up. Maybe we’ll like her after she wakes up. Perhaps if that possibility is hinted at, we’ll stick with a less-than-savoury character. Cheers.

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      I suppose it depends on the reader. Some readers will not read a book without a likeable protagonist, but that’s one reason why I included Crime and Punishment. Raskolnikov is certainly not likeable, not until the end actually, but those first pages show us what his life is like.

      I haven’t read Whatever You Love, but from the synopsis on Amazon, it sounds like the protagonist is pitiable if not likeable. It sounds like the audience is given a reason to sympathize with her, if nothing else.

    • Mattaui

      I think it’s less about being out and out likable (though I tend to want to at least not feel any dislike or contempt for my protagonists) and more just making your reader care about the characters, as well as the setting. I’d even say opening up with characters being lost on a deser island is pushing it, and that’s part of the reason I never did enjoy Lost, though certainly not the only reason.

      You have to make your readers at least care about what happens to the protagonist, and sometes even making them a little less than sympathetic or saintly makes them seem all the more realistic. He could be an enemy spy, but with a family he’s trying to protect back home. Or she’s an aloof diplomat that hates her job, but she’s looking for a way to start living again. Might seem like miserable or unlovable people at first, but some hooks help draw you in. After all, we’ve got a very popular series about a lovable serial killer.

      • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

        Right. We all love the bad boys.

  • E G Lewis

    I’ll utak a stab at the desert island:
    The pink sand of the coral beach dusted Mira’s bare feet as she walked along the water’s edge. On her left a continuous row of waves rolled in from the sea. As they entered the narrow bay they piled one upon the other like the folds of the blue comforter on her bed at home.

    Home…just to think the word brought tears to her eyes. She glanced at the pitiful line of packing crate shacks, their only shelter these last weeks—she refused to call them home. Elton insisted on referring to them as their compound. Call it what you like, it didn’t alter the bleak reality one iota. Next thing, he’d dub this God-forsaken atoll their kingdom. Perhaps even declare himself King Elton the First.

    Mira sighed. Was she being too harsh in her judgment? In the end, she, Elton and the others all did what they had to do. Hope couldn’t survive without a dream. And without hope they’d all devolve into raving maniacs. Maybe Elton needed these false illusions of grandeur the same way she relied upon her memories of home.

    An errant wave broke over her feet, causing her to skip away. Mira listened to the splash of the sea and tried to make sense of her life. High on the beach, well above the tide line, smoke billowed from the morning’s cooking fires. The relentless trade winds that ruffled her blond hair, scooped up the smoke and carried it skyward. A sooty gray smudge blurred the tall trees bordering the unexplored forest and obscured the sun rising behind the craggy peak near the center of the island.

    Mira wished that once, even if only for a few moments, the smoke would blot out the sun-bleached ribs of what had once been their ship. No such luck. Instead, it lay there in full sight, taunting them with its utter uselessness.

    • Themagicviolinist

      Love the description. :D

  • http://bikerider.Writing.Com/ Angelo Dalpiaz

    Your post comes at the perfect time for me. I’m kicking around the rough draft of my novel, chapter one, page one. It’s not taking place on a deserted island, but I’m going to post some of it here as part of this practice. I hope that’s alright.

    I cut out some of the beginning of this scene so it wouldn’t be too long. I’d love to hear what others think about this. Remember, this is only a first draft, so please be gentle.

    The wooden platform vibrated under Severino’s boots as the heavy train lumbered into the station. Naked light bulbs, strung along the edge of the platform, swayed in the sudden breeze caused by the locomotive as it passed, followed by its empty passenger cars, squeaking on their springs . Grumbling to a stop, a cloud of hissing steam frothed from under the wheels and drifted into the early-evening air, leaving an eerie silence in its wake.

    Unlike so many of the young men gathered here, Severino was not holding a small child in his arms. No young woman looked up at him with adoring eyes. No one had accompanied him here to send him off with words of encouragement. After bidding farewell to his parents, Giorgio and Lucia, he had walked alone to the Cloz village center and was picked up by a military truck and brought to the Trento station to await the train that would take him and his unit, the 2nd Regiment of the Tyrolian Imperial Rifles, to war.

    Severino watched a young woman lift her child from her husband’s arms, the babie’s wail broke the heavy silence shrouding the station. Groups of men began to make their way through the crowd to the waiting train as the conductor drew out each word of his announcement.

    “Tutti a bordo!”

    Uniformed men passed small children to their wives and bent to pick up their bags, only to drop them as their wives pressed against them in tight embraces. More children began to cry.
    Again the conductor called out in his sing-song way, this time louder and more insistent. “Tutti a bordo!”

    Men stiffened as the conductors words echoed through the station, then knelt to hug and kiss their children. Realizing their uncertain future, fathers paused to let their eyes linger on their children’s faces, knowing it could be the last time they would ever see them. Then standing, husbands embraced their wives passionately as words of love passed between them, their bodies shaking with sobs.

    Severino stood in the dim light, his bag over his shoulder, watching as men and women said their tearful good byes. He listened as men promised to return home safely and he knew that not all of those making those promises would fulfill them. He heard small children cry out, “Papa, papa,” as their fathers turned away and boarded the train that would take them to an unknown fate. The cries of small children grew louder, their wails filling the air.

    Stepping to the train, Severino grabbed the metal hand hold and pulled himself onto the train steps and turned for another look at the shrinking crowd. The sound of crying children frew louder and pierced the air as men boarded the train and pressed past him, their eyes wet from their painful farewells, and because they knew they had just made a promise they didn’t know they would be able to keep.

    A young woman, her eyes wet with tears, walked to the train window with an infant in her arms. Seeing her husband through the window she held up the baby for him to see. A minute later a young soldier joined Severino on the small platform outside the passenger car and the young mother held her baby out for him to see. Severino felt his heart grow heavy when he heard the man’s words, mumbled quietly. “I hope to live to see you again.” As tears fell from the young father’s eyes he turned and hurried back into the car.
    The train lurched forward, then seemed to stop, then moved inexorably forward. Severino looked toward the engine and watched steam rise the whistle as the engineer signaled the train’s departure. Turning back to the young mother holding her child up to her husband, he watched as the she clutched the child to her bosom in an attempt to quiet the baby’s cries.
    As the train slid out of the station Severino saw older men and women clutching each other as their eyes followed the train’s forward movement, carrying their sons with it. He saw sobbing young women as they walked along next to the train in an attempt to stay with their husbands until the final possible moment. And he heard the wail of children who would soon be fatherless.

    As the train cleared the station Severino looked back and saw hands waving in the air, and the cries of the children. A sound he knew he would carry with him for the rest of his life.

    • Themagicviolinist

      That was very good. The only thing I would suggest is that you seem to use the words “young woman” and “young women” a lot. Maybe try to switch it up a bit? Use girl instead of woman so it’s not so repetitive. Hope this helps! :D

    • Oddznns

      Yes a problem with individual replies. This is great. it would pop if u started at the first sentence with tutti a bordo, and the English translation.. Then everything else follows so much more poignant.

  • Taylor Leigh

    Here is my fifteen minute practice:

    Alicia looks around at the scene around her in utter shock. A dry wind rushes through her hair sending piercing small bits of sand into her skin. The sun beat down on the small beach that she stood on in tattered clothes and confusion. A strong hand grips the back of her shoulder and shakes her back and forth. “You alright, kid?” a gruff voice asks behind her. She nods her head slowly, watching the remnants of the boat she had been on begin to slip underneath the huge waves that were crashing onto the shore.

    “Then ya’ wanna help me check on the others?” The person asks, his hand still resting on her should. Alicia clears her hoarse throat and croaks out a “Yes sir” to the man behind her. She turns around slowly, and her eyes meet those of the Captain, who had looks of guilt, sorrow, and defeat plastered on his face. “You tried to save most of them, didn’t you?” She whispered, trying to hold back tears. The man rubbed his brow, as if trying to keep back weakness, but he finally broke and nodded his head with tears streaming down his face. “I tried my hardest, kid.”

    The first hint of a smile spread across Alicia’s face. It wasn’t anything great, but it was all she could muster in the situation. She walked away towards a lone body that was sprawled out on the sandy shore, willing to try to save the life of at least a few of the strangers around her. She could already see a few lifeless bodies beginning to appear at the surface of the water, one of which was her little sister Kim, who hadn’t lived to see the age of 10.

    Wiping away the sea salt from underneath her eyes, Alicia crouched down beside the unconscious figure, and checked for a pulse. In finding one she smiled, hoping that there would be a more that would continue to live along with her.

    • Themagicviolinist

      Wow, that was awesome. Such a sad story, but very well written. :)

      • Taylor Leigh

        Thank you! I am about to read over the two you just posted! Thank you for the feed back.

  • Themagicviolinist

    I wrote for about thirty minutes, but here’s my short story! :D

    Laurel sat down on a rock, pondering what she should do to get out of this mess.
    Laurel and her family had gotten shipwrecked, along with her friends, the captain, and the rest of the crew, not to mention the other people she didn’t know. The boat had scraped a sharp rock and started to sink. Luckily, they all escaped and landed on an unknown island.
    Laurel walked over to her friend, Allison, who was still shivering with shock and fear. She put a comforting arm around her quaking body.
    “We’re all right,” she said soothingly. “Nothing bad happened. We’ll get out of here, I promise.”
    Allison gave a shuddering gasp and tears fell down her face.
    “I’m s-so scared,” she sobbed. “I d-don’t know what t-to do.”
    Laurel didn’t know either, but she didn’t want to make Allison feel worse. She was a nervous girl by nature, and when things like this happened she completely broke down. Many bullies at her school knew Laurel as the teacher’s pet, but her friends considered her as the kind and gentle girl who knew how to comfort anybody.
    “At least we’re not stranded here with Jared,” Laurel joked. Jared was the main bully who was strange and eccentric. He often picked on Laurel and Allison. Allison gave a feeble laugh at this and calmed down a little.
    “Let’s walk around,” Laurel suggested. Allison nodded and walked with her friend.
    The wandered around the island hand in hand, trying not to stray too far from the crowd of people. They didn’t want to get lost.
    The island looked like a normal beach except for an ominous forest of palm trees off into the distance. Laurel’s curiosity tended to get her into trouble and she knew this from experience, so she tried to stay away from the forest. Allison could sense that Laurel was trying hard not to let her curiosity get the best of her, so she steered her away from the forest and off towards the ocean.
    “Allison,” Laurel said slowly, trying to find the best way to say what she was about to say. “Do you want to-explore a bit?”
    “What do you mean?” Allison knew exactly what Laurel meant, but she was hoping that Laurel meant something else.
    “I mean, do you want to explore the island? Well, look at the forest,” she said in an off-hand voice. “Do you want to-check it out? It looks promising.”
    “Laurel,” Allison said in an exsasperated tone. “You know the answer.”
    “It’s ‘no’, isn’t it?”
    “Of course it’s no,” Allison looked at Laurel with a teasing smile. “You don’t know what’s in there. There could be anything. Think about what has happened to you in the past.”
    Laurel thought about the time she had peeked inside an abandoned building and fallen through a gap in the floor, landing hard in the basment and breaking her leg. She thought about the time she had listened in on a conversationg her parents were having and accidentally finding out about her surprise party. There were so many other incidents that Laurel thought about. Allison had a point, but she couldn’t stop thinking about the forest. It was calling to her; whispering to her.
    Come to us, Laurel, the forest called. Come see what we have to show you.
    “You’re right,” Laurel said reluctantly.
    It was getting dark and the captain hadn’t made any progress on getting them off the island, so everyone started pulling out blankets and food that had been salvaged from the ship and started to settle down for the night. Laurel waited impatiently for a little while until almost everyone was asleep to set off for the forest.
    Laurel pulled her jacket tight around herself and walked towards the forest.
    Come to us, Laurel, the forest called again. We have many secrets. Come and see for yourself.
    “Where are you going?”
    Laurel turned to see whom the sharp voice belonged to, even though she already knew.
    “Go back to bed, Alli,” Laurel whispered to a bleary eyed Allison.
    Allison crossed her arms indignantly.
    “You’re going to the forest, aren’t you?”
    “No, I’m just walking around. I couldn’t get to sleep.”
    “You do realize what a bad liar you are, right?”
    Laurel sighed.
    “Yes, I’m going to the forest and you can’t stop me or do anything about it. Now shoo.”
    “I can’t do anything to stop you, but I can come with you.”
    Laurel turned on her heel and set off without another word. She heard the soft footfalls of her friend from behind her.
    They continued through the sand towards the palm trees. The only sound that could be heard was the ocean rushing and crashing against the rocks. As they got closer Laurel could hear the wind rustling the leaves of the palm trees. Should she be doing this? Should she be dragging her best friend into this?
    Come, come to us.
    What if there was some horrible, dangerous monster waiting there to eat them?
    Come, Laurel. We have many secrets.
    Laurel’s breathing became rapid. What should she do?
    Come. Secrets.
    Laurel’s heart was a drum. What would be in there? Wonders and treasure or danger and monsters?
    Secrets. Secrets.
    Closer and closer they walked. Laurel shivered and broke out in a cold sweat.
    Come. Come.
    Boom!
    Laurel and Allison had stepped inside the forest and found themselves staring at a giant palm tree with branches and roots shaped like arms and feet. On the trunk was a pair of giant, black eyes and a mouth that was a slit.
    “Who are you?” He bellowed in a booming voice that echoed all throughout the island. Laurel heard Allison gasp.
    “W-we’re humans,” Laurel stuttered. “We d-don’t mean any h-harm.”
    The tree growled and stared at them with eyes that refused to blink. Laurel guessed that he probably couldn’t blink.
    “What do you want?” He boomed.
    “We were curious,” Laurel answered.
    “We?” Allison whispered.
    “I-I was curious,” Laurel corrected.
    “Curiosity killed the cat,” the tree said in a low voice.
    “It might also kill us,” Allison muttered.
    “What did you say?” He yelled.
    “N-nothing!” Allison squeaked.
    “We trees are harmless,” the tree said. “We won’t hurt you. But, we do like our peace and quiet. If humans discovered us, then we would become dangerous. Leave us alone and do not speak of us and we shall let you go.”
    “Of course!” Laurel said, trying not to show her relief. “Your secret is safe with us.”
    “Then go,” the tree said. “Thank you for keeping this quiet.”
    Laurel nodded and turned her back on the tree, beckoning for Allison to follow her back. Laurel heard a creak, a thump, and then snoring. The tree had fallen asleep.
    “Sorry for dragging you into that,” Laurel apologized. Allison waved the apology away and shrugged.
    “Hey, at least we didn’t get eaten.”
    “I heard that.”
    Laurel laughed and glanced back at the tree. His eyes were still closed but there was a small smile on his face.

    • Katie Axelson

      I’m glad they were safe. What time of day was this? I didn’t realize it was night until They talked about going to sleep. What happened to all of the other people? Are they sleeping? And why is Laurel sorry? She and Allison discovered a great secret.

      Katie

    • Taylor Leigh

      Great idea and great writing, but maybe you could try to be less straightforward about the character of laurel and show her fleshing out her qualities. Other than that good job!

  • Themagicviolinist

    I love all the stories! :D Great job! :D

  • Themagicviolinist

    Could somebody give me some feedback on the first chapter of a story I’m writing? It’s called “The Sorceress.” I’m looking for honesty opinions. :D Here it is.

    Chapter 1

    Anya ran through the woods, fear beating against her heart in a rhythym worthy of a drum.
    She wiped sweat off her forehead, breathing hard. She was sure the goblins had seen her. How could they not have noticed the immistakable glint of green as she stole the emerald?
    Anya quickly climbed a tree and removed her pack. She pulled out the precious emerald and clutched it tightly, hardly daring to believe that it was real. Was this the actual emerald she had been attempting to steal for months now? Anya pressed her ear to the emerald. Sure enough the familiar buzz of energy that meant the emerald was real was there.
    Anya replaced the gem carefully, wrapping it in the cloth she had with her. She closed her pack and slid down the tree, scratching her elbow as she went.
    Anya heard a branch snap and, with practiced grace and speed, she leapt behind a bush and landed lightly on her feet, not making a single sound. She moved a few branches out of the way so she could peer through the bush.
    Ten naked green creatures were running through the woods on all fours. They were extremely skinny and their arms and legs were long and fragile looking. Their ears were long and pointed like an elf’s. Their eyes were small and always black. Their voices were either very high-pitched or very low. It was never in between. They were obviously angry.
    Anya squinted her eyes and strained to hear what the goblins were talking about. They were speaking in loud whispers. One goblin was pushing another goblin to the ground agrily and seemed to be accusing him of something. The other eight were huddled in a circle and were talking a little more calmly. They seemed to be plotting something.
    “I told you to stay by the emerald!” a goblin said to another goblin lying in the dirt. “Where were you when you were on guard?”
    “I-I- was guarding the C-Captain,” the goblin in the dirt stammered. “H-he needed p-protection.”
    “No he didn’t, you brainless git. We can get another Captain. What we can’t do is get another emerald!”
    “Please! Please!” A goblin armed with a smaller version of the sword Anya held pulled the goblin off of the terrified creature cowering on the ground.
    “Stop wasting time, Snorc,” the deep-voiced goblin growled. He grabbed Snorc’s arm. “We need to find the human.”
    Snorc pulled his arm away from the other goblin and bared his teeth.
    “I want to make sure I don’t get punished for this,” Snorc said. “When we inform the Captain of what happened, I want it to be made clear that I didn’t do anything.”
    Goblins, Anya thought. Always looking out for others.
    “We might not have to tell him anything if we find that girl fast and get the emerald back.”
    “You don’t understand,” Snorc protested, fear visible in his eyes. “You don’t have to be scared of anything. The Captain won’t punish his second in command. You don’t know the means of torture he punishes us with.”
    “I know full well what the Captain does for punishment,” the goblin retorted. Anya saw his ugly green face draing of color slightly. “And I agree full-heartedly. Now let’s get a move on.”
    Anya waited with baited breath for the goblins to gallop off into the woods. Unfortunately, they were going the same way Anya needed to go to get to the King’s castle.
    Anya peeked around the bush for any remaining goblins and, spotting no danger, set off down the woods, landing lightly on the balls of her feet. Anya sticked to the shadows, hoping if she ran into trouble that the goblins wouldn’t notice her in the darkness.
    Any noise that Anya heard made her jump: a squirrel scurrying across the leaves, a bird singing loudly, an occaisonal deer that snapped a branch in half.
    The woods were darkening faster and faster as the sun set. The trees rich with leaves blocked out most of the sunlight, making it harder to navigate the large woods.
    Anya had no trouble though. She could walk through the woods with her eyes shut and her feet would take her right where she needed to go. Anya couldn’t keep track of how many times she had walked this path. She had come to these woods many times to hunt for food with a poorly made bow an arrow before the king had sought her help. Those days were the worst. Anya remembered the times where she had to beg for scraps from the garbage can and people felt bad for her and tossed her change for food. She remembered when her ribs were poking through her skin and half a loaf of stale bread was a feast. She remembered a soldier coming through the woods on horseback and watched her fight off two goblins that had swords. She remembered his stunned face as she finished them off with a flourish. The soldier didn’t explain anything but told her to climb on behind him. She was taken to the castle and was given a bath, some proper clothing, and more food than she could ever imagine she’d be able to eat. Then she was brought to the king and the soldier was right next to him. She listened to the soldier explain to the king was he had seen her do and how she seemed to glow when she was fighting. The king had listened thoughtfully and then told her all about the emerald and the goblins want to take over the kingdom. He had told her that the emerald gives the holder magical powers and that the king needed it back so the goblins wouldn’t over throw him and leave the kingdom in ruins.
    Anya made it out the entrance of the forest and saw no goblins. She hurried down the lane and into town where most of the shops were closing up for the day. She hurried to the castle and the guards let her in, closing the gate behind her.

    • Themagicviolinist

      Oops, HONEST opinions. ;)

      • AliceFleury

        Well, this isn’t something I would read on most occasions. My first impression is that the beginning is okay. You use too many adverbs which make the piece too wordy and less enticing. Lots of words could be cut for example:

        Anya heard a branch snap and leapt behind a bush. She peered through the branches at the ten naked green goblins hot on her trail.

        Not exactly worthy, but I’m trying to show you the difference with so many wordy sentences. Keep working at it. It will get better.

  • http://golfprotalk.blogspot.com/ Robert

    My mind cried. Get up. Get up. My body said no. I couldn’t move – just need minute, I said to myself. The burn in my lungs had me face down hacking up liters of salt water – half choking, half vomiting. My stomach wrenched; nausea was soon to come. My feet were bloodied and the gash in my side revealed itself as I tried to stand. The burning from the jellyfish stings were the most unbearable. It felt like I had been dipped into a vat of hot oil only to be pulled seconds before death.

    Sitting up, I took inventory.

    Tommy – check. Natalie – check. Billy – check. Dawn, – no Dawn.

    No Dawn? Surely she was nearby.

    It was lucky the kids made it to the skiff and Billy had the strength to paddle it. The fight to shore had us all scattered. Last thing I remember Dawn was clinging to a small ring buoy, kicking and paddling just off to my left. Tommy and the kids right behind her. The kids arrived on shore mostly unscathed but the skiff was in pieces.

    Natalie, looking off at something far away began to shriek. And point.

    “Mommy! … Mommy! … Mommy!!”

    Billy and Tommy ran down to the shore break. Shouting wildly.

    “Mom! … Mom! … Mom!!”

    “Dad, Mom’s out there,” Billy screamed, “I can see her, we’ve got to go get her!”

    “Get up Dad, get up!” Tommy pulled me halfway up; I fell back, sand filling my eyes. Now both boys are tugging at my near lifeless body. I. Could. Not. Get. Up.

    Natalie is screaming and crying and her little fists are pounding at my shoulders. “Save Mommy, Daddy … “Save Mommy, Daddy!

    I tried, I couldn’t get up I had no strength.

    Looking up and out to sea I could tell Dawn must be two hundred yards out and I couldn’t save her.

    [15 minutes]

    • Taylor Leigh

      Wow. This really grips your heart. I really feel for all the characters. You did an awesome job! Keep it up.

      • http://golfprotalk.blogspot.com/ Robert

        Thanks Taylor!

    • http://jblearnstowrite.tumblr.com/ JB Lacaden

      I’ve to agree with one of the comments. I became emotionally invested at the father’s story. Great writing :)

  • Oddznns

    Hi there Untrained and self taught… You’re doing might fine with self training and practice. This is wonderful. There’s action and I’m caught by the poor man’s burden of guilt already. The conflicts that will build up between the children and the father in this desert island are just waiting to be explored further. Can’t wait to read what’s next.

    • http://golfprotalk.blogspot.com/ Robert

      Thank you – I appreciate the encouragement very much!

  • http://jblearnstowrite.tumblr.com/ JB Lacaden

    Here’s my practice for today. :) It’s actually cool because the setting of my current story’s in a desert-like place. So I was able to integrate my characters to today’s practice :D
    Hope you all like it :)

    ***

    March reached the top of the rock formation. He scanned the area and what little hope he had was snuffed out. Everywhere his eyes landed on he saw nothing but red sand. There were a few other rocks like the one he was standing on scattered here and there, but mostly there was nothing but sand.

    From below him, he heard Jess’ shouting.

    “What? Louder. I can’t hear you!” March shouted back.

    “What do you see?” came the strained voice of Jess.

    “Sand!” was all March shouted. He turned back to the red sands of Silcarine before deciding to climb back down.

    Careful to find his footing, March slowly descended down the mini mountain. He could hear below the burning of their hovership. Damn, should’ve never entertained Jess’ curiousity, March thought to himself as he tried to find a place to put his left foot.

    March was fine and happy being a boring patrolman. Jess though, being young and energetic, found the job dreadful. She wanted adventure in and excitement and when she saw what she thought as movement in the vast Silcarine desert, she just had to find out what it was. March was a fool for breaking down and finally agreeing to accompany Jess.

    Lost in his thought, March’s right hand slipped. He tried to take hold of the rock but it was too late. He was falling. March flailed his arms as gravity pushed him down. He heard Jess shout. He saw the red sky. Then he hit sand. He felt the air knocked out of him. For a moment he couldn’t breathe. Jess ran towards him but March’s mind couldn’t comprehend what the girl was saying. March blacked out.

    In his dreams, March was sitting inside a moviehouse. In front of him, a black and white film was being played. He saw his wife on screen, back when she was still alive. Holding his wife’s hand was a younger looking March, a March who was not yet a broken man. They were smiling and laughing and March found himself in tears while seated on his seat with popcorn in hand. March heard a little voice from somewhere. Then the camera moved and March saw a young girl with hair as red as his wife’s. “Mommy!” the little girl shouted.

    March opened his eyes and he was face to face with the thousand burning stars. He tried to move but he felt a sharp pain from his back.

    “Thank Sol you’re awake,” Jess said smiling. “Don’t–don’t move. You fell from quite a high place. You might’ve broken something. Here, I tried to scavenge as much as I can from the wreck of the ship.”

    Jess lifted March’s neck and she placed a cup to his lips. March drank. He felt the liquid wetting his cracked lips, going down his dry throat. It was relief.

    “What happened?” March asked weakly.

    “Well, aside from your near death experience? Nothing. We’re still stranded.” Jess answered as she refilled the cup. “Look, March, I’m really sorry. I–I should never have forced us to come here. I thought I saw something and–”

    “It’s OK,” March interrupted. “It’s OK.” He repeated with a smile. “I’ve never seen the stars like this before. It feels like the whole sky’s about to swallow me whole.” March said. He raised his hand and grabbed as much stars as he can in his hand. “We’ll find a way to get back home.” He said.

  • http://writex3.blogspot.com/ Steph

    Angelo, the sentence that really “popped” for me was the one that concluded with the words “to war.” Those two words raised the stakes immediately. Is this part of the story you submitted for one of the earlier contests? (Solstice, maybe?) The era alone is primed for character building and tension. Keep going with it!

  • http://bikerider.Writing.Com/ Angelo Dalpiaz

    Thank you Steph. Yes, Winter Solstice was the very short story about what the novel is going to portray. I decided to begin the story with my grandfather going to war in the mountains of northern Italy. He fought at Mount Pasubio, a gruesome and brutal place that claimed many lives.

    Thanks for taking the time to read my post.

  • http://bikerider.Writing.Com/ Angelo Dalpiaz

    To the magicviolinist.

    For some reason I’m not able to reply to individual posts. Thank you for the suggestions, I’ll definitely make some changes.

  • http://writex3.blogspot.com/ Steph

    “By definition, the arctic is a desert,” Captain Chapman proclaimed. He paced the icy beach, as though continual movement might solve their predicament. “And to survive, we must treat it as such.”

    He spun and faced what remained of his company. Six sled dogs, two Irishmen, and an Eskimo squaw they had picked up in Anchorage stared at him from the trench they had scooped into the side of a snowbank. They hunkered facing south, both to duck the north wind and to keep an eye on the ocean, riddled with ice floes, in the event that a rescue ship would come.

    It wouldn’t. Captain Chapman knew he had gambled and lost. He had timed their expedition too late in the season. It was September, the month to gather apples and sweet hay and school books back home. But here, September was the beginning of winter, a winter that would lock them onto this barren island until the ocean opened up again in June.

    He tightened his mouth at the grim thought, and the ice from his mustache cut into his chapped lower lip.

    • http://golfprotalk.blogspot.com/ Robert

      What a crew … ripe for the writing … the doom is palpable. Very cinematic.

  • Just B

    Sunlight seemed to pierce through his closed eyelids like shards of hot glass, stabbing, relentless. Jason raised himself up on one elbow and slowly opened one eye, then the other, squinting from the glare. He could feel the heat on his face, his neck and arms, the deep down, burning heat of a nasty sunburn. He was parched, his mouth and throat so dry he couldn’t have made spit if his life depended on it. Painful as it was, he forced himself into a sitting position and, as his eyes adjusted to the brightness, he surveyed his surroundings. To his left, then right, beach stretched endlessly in both directions. Nothing but sand, rocks and a few pieces of driftwood, worn completely smooth and washed ashore to become permanent fixtures, like sculptures in the sand. He saw the ocean. Sapphire blue water as far as the eye could see, sunlight glittering off the surface like thousands of tiny diamonds. He watched as wave after white-capped wave, rolled in, rolled out, in and back out, again and again. Constant ebbing and whooshing.
    The sand was coarse and hot beneath him. It stuck to his legs and arms, stuck to the sweat. He stood up, brushing off as much of it as he could. Down the beach, in a small patch of shade provided by a line of palm trees jutting out of a long horizontal berm, sat his five sailing companions. Joe, his law partner and best friend, and his fiancée Susan, sat shoulder to shoulder in the sand. Jack and Lillian, or Lily, as they all knew her, sat across from each other in the small circle of friends. Jason had met both of them his freshman year of college and they’d stayed in close touch ever since. The three had been known as The Three Musketeers, at least they were, until Lily and Jack realized their friendship had turned into something more and the threesome, inseparable in those college years, became a twosome. And lastly, his own girlfriend of four years, Gillian, sat in the sparse shade with her back against a palm, fanning herself with a large leaf. How long had he been out? Why hadn’t they woken him up? And then, Jason saw her.
    About 200 yards away, her hull buried up to about halfway in the sand, was the Mirabel, the 40’ sloop they’d chartered for the weekend. They’d intended on dropping anchor near an island, spending several hours sunning, swimming and drinking, just relaxing and letting off some steam from another stressful work week. They’d checked everything ahead of time. The yacht was available and the weather forecast was perfect. Everyone had pitched in to pay the two-day rental on the beautiful Mirabel, her decks gleaming white, polished chrome everywhere and teak interior, waxed to a spotless shine. They’d bought plenty of provisions and had met up at the marina, setting sail about 2 pm Friday afternoon, with a plan of getting the first 33-mile leg of their trip completed by nightfall. But things hadn’t gone as planned and now, the six of them found themselves stranded on a beautiful island, certainly a paradise under better circumstances, with a damaged boat and no means of communicating they needed help. They were alone.

    • http://jblearnstowrite.tumblr.com/ JB Lacaden

      I love your descriptions and the way you smoothly introduced the other characters. I would love to know more about the story. How did they get stranded? Will they get off the island? How?

      Is this from an on going story?

    • Sandra D

      The characters have a good beginning. I also love that you bring in the detail of the ship in great detail. I did not see any paragraph breaks, which I would have liked.

  • http://writex3.blogspot.com/ Steph

    JustB, you have lots of description and potential conflict between the people who are stranded due to their relationships with each other.

  • http://writex3.blogspot.com/ Steph

    I have the sense that your grandfather’s story is just waiting for you to tell it, Angelo. I hope you continue to show us pieces here. It would be fun if there was some sort of critique section to this site for those of us with works in progress… ;-)

  • http://writex3.blogspot.com/ Steph

    Robert, you had me the minute I realized a family with children had been marooned. Then you ratcheted up the tension with mom needing saving and then again when dad couldn’t move. What will happen to her? The kids? Can the father speak and direct them? This could go in many directions with the potential for tragedy and heroism and certainly character growth. Well done!

  • Kathryn Vaughn

    Kat looked around at the bodies and began counting. All ten students lay lifeless on the scattered like pick-up sticks. She felt the burning over her right eye. The image was a blurred. What was the last thing Kat remembered?

    William reading something from the guidebook he stole from the library to Melissa who trying to ignore him because she wanted the attention of Smyth. Smyth shifting in his seat to get comfortable had no interest in Melissa nor her entourage. Five of the silliest girls Kat had the privilege to teach American Literature sat in the front rows of the plane. The girls spent countless hours on themselves and managed to look more like quintuplets than unique style each attempted.

    Toby, Megan, and Claire noticed little of the others as they were absorbed in their own obsession playing on an ipad. The trio seldom involved themselves with the others in the class finding them ego-centric and boring. Rich children exert a lot of energy trying to best one another to feel better about themselves, and this group was no exception.

    Kat watched the bodies hoping to see some evidence of life. Still not sure what had caused the blast, she knew she and her students were the only to survive it.

    • Sandra D

      Nice work. I liked the analogy bodies scattered like pick-up sticks.

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  • Themagicviolinist

    Thanks for the advice, everybody! :D I’m making some changes right now. ;)

  • Kanekoa82

    Salt burns my eyes as ocean water pushes coarse sand into my surf shorts. After a brief attempt at standing I quickly realize my ankle is swollen to the size of a grapefruit. I begin to drag myself away from the ocean one handful of sand at a time. With the wind hollowing in my ears and blowing sand in my eyes I hear a distant call for help. I wonder to myself if my friends could have survived the crash. Could I be the only one on the island? Just a few yards away from a dry bush, which the locals in Hawaii call, “Kiawi”, I drag myself under its shade. The sound for help becomes louder and more distinct as I realize the wind is carrying Brandon’s cries.

    “Keola! Bruce! Somebody! Help me!”

    Unable to walk under my own power my eyes search for a branch to use as a walking stick. “Damn!” A long thorn stabs me in the hand, opening up a gash in the middle of my palm. “Great! That’s all I need! A hole in my hand! What else can happen?”

    Suddenly a hoarse voice answers, “Your girlfriend could realize she should be with me.”

    Even with his usual snide remark I was happy to hear his voice. “Damn Bruce. Not even mother nature can kill you.”

    “If I survived my ex-wife, I can survive mother nature.”

    “That’s nice. Now can you please pick me up before I become crab bait.”

    Bruce grabs me by the hand with his meaty fingers and pulls me up to his side. “I think Brandon’s in trouble by the reef over there.”

    “That guy is always in trouble. If it wasn’t for him we wouldn’t be in this mess.”

    “Relax big guy. Lets not point fingers yet.”

    “After we save him, I’m kicking his ass.”

    • Sandra D

      I liked the vividness in the first paragraph and I liked the line, “if I survived my ex-wife.” Very funny.

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  • http://twitter.com/LouiseBroadbent Louise Broadbent

    You don’t like Raskolnikov but you were impressed by Lost and Avatar?

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      I think you misunderstood the point of this exercises. I love Crime and Punishment. I think it’s genius. I think Lost is very clever and one of the best written television shows ever. Avatar was ok. But the point isn’t whether I liked or respected the book/television serial/movie, the point is whether the main characters are likeable.

  • Spycacher

    Hi everyone,

    I am new here and indeed trying to be a writer.

    Yesterday, I came across this site. This is what I was looking for; brillant! Next is the introduction of the novel I’m working now. I want to clarify that this is my first attempt and English is not my mother tongue. It has been tough, but I like it. I want this to work. Therefore, I am ready to receive criticism, observations, comments or suggestions. Thanks for your help and here we go:

    He wakes up in a dark room that smells mouldy, lying on a mattress with blue stripes on the floor. First, his mind comes alive. Mario smells damp; the stink of old abandoned tunnel. Then he makes an effort to open his eyes. Too bright! A pain shot through from his eyes to the depths of the brain. Hastily closes his eyes.
    Intense flashes; confusion. Clouded scenes in quick succession are passing in
    front of him. What happened? He asked trying to sort out his brain. He opens
    the eyes and let them wander around. Where is he?
    The place was sunk in chilly penumbra. Near the ceiling was the only window in the room. The glasses, – surely, to avoid the gossipy stares from outside or to hinder visibility out of the dungeon, he thought – were painted in black. The uneven and rough brushstrokes allowed dim light to squeeze into the room. It is a
    dirty basement. The bare, gray walls made of cold concrete, had, in the same
    wall where the window was, one heavy iron door. He notes that, besides the mattress, he is covered with an old blanket and his head is resting on a pillow without cover. He is just wearing a pair of jeans, no shirt, no shoes, no socks and no belt. Alarmed, he raises his head and hesitantly erects his torso to end leaning on the elbows. He feels a chill. His head is going to explode. He lies down again and places the palms over the eyes – squeezing tightly as to return the eyes to their orbits, the fingers to the forehead. What am I doing here? He asks himself with concern.

    • http://joebunting.com Joe Bunting

      For a non-native speaker, you write very clear and near perfect English. The mattress in the dungeon seems strange. Would they have a modern mattress in a dungeon (which makes me think of castles). This is good though. I wonder where it’s going to go next and who this character is.

      Welcome to The Write Practice! To get the most feedback on your work, I would suggest participating in the most recent practices. Not many will see your posts here in the backlogues.

      • Spycacher

        Hi Joe, thank you for the feedback.

        Dungeon; is the description of the environment in which the character is located. The next paragraph gives meaning to the striped mattress, or so I hope. Because the idea is to persuade the reader to continue; and I think I achieved it.

        Your comment that my English is “near” perfect. Is it possible for you to expand a little? Thanks.

        The severe pain revives old memories and Mario drifts back in time. He remembers, arriving there when he opened his eyes for the first time in days. How many? He did not know. He could not recall. Six
        years before, the caravan arrived there with him lying on the camel-saddle, his arms and legs motionless hanging to both sides. His head dangling over one side of the pommel like a sack full of pebbles was swaying back and forth to the beat of the slow pace of the animal. His head was aching; like today. That dull and heavy pain impeding clear thoughts. Even movements. The pungent smell of the animal, or the saddle garments and the posture made it difficult for him to breath. He was thirsty. Those were his most distant memories. It was impossible for him to see beyond those memories.
        Who was he? Where from? Since, only drudgery and tedious work …

        Mario was not always his name. He had many before Mario. All he knows that at the time they called him Ghareeb: the foreigner. There were some flashes. He could not tell if they were part of a reality, dreams or fantasies invoked to give a sense of belonging. In contrast to the native’s tanned skin and jet-black, curly hair, he had fair skin with, from the constant sun tanned arms and face and light-brown, wavy hair. Of thin constitution, but with strong muscles – cultivated by the hard fieldwork – his young body was somewhat higher than those of the boys of his age. He must have been in his early adolescence as some sparse, fine chest-hairs and a speck in the pubic area insinuate. Some other exciting changes too.

        • Sandra D

          I like your writing and the story definitely makes me want to keep reading.

  • Marzi86

    King Cerdic looked around at all of the nobles gathered in his throne room and smiled. He stood, raising his large, muscular arms as if to embrace them all at once. “Today,” he bellowed, “is a day to be joyful. I am pleased to announce that the kings of Aiken, Avellana, Gort, Bouleau, Vinifera, and Osier have all joined with me in signing the Treaty of Everlasting Peace. We are now as dear brothers to each other and shall meet as the Council of Kings, to rule over our nations justly and peaceably.”
    At this news, all the nobles burst into a round of applause. There were several cries of “Huzzah!” and “Congratulations, Your Majesty!” and the like.
    King Cerdic gazed upon the most prominent men of his kingdom, pleased to see how they rejoiced in his news. He pulled at his strawberry blonde beard, thinking about all of the successful military campaigns he had led in the past 36 years, since ascending to the throne of Sorbus at the young age of 19. At 55, he knew that he would soon pass the throne on to his only son, Bevyn, but he still felt strong and healthy, and today was a day to celebrate the greatest of his victories – finally achieving peace.
    The king raised his hands once again, this time to quiet them down. A hush fell over the assembly. The king raised a goblet of wine and toasted all the other kings of the realm. At his right, his son, Prince Bevyn, only half-heartedly followed along in the toast. “Sire,” he whispered as the nobles began to mingle with each other, praising the king’s great accomplishment, “Sire, many other kings have tried to enter into such an agreement before, and it has never held. I do not mean to doubt your greatness, but how can you have so much faith in the other kings? Might this all be for naught?”
    “Son, one day you will be king, and you will realize that there is only so much you can do to protect your people. I believe this Council is a good start, because it ensures that the lines of communication will always be open amongst all seven of the kings. That is not to say that there will never be backdoor dealings, or that future generations will honor our wishes. But it is the best we can do for now. When your time comes to rule, you must do your best as well.”
    “But Sire, surely King Vasuki,” began Bevyn, but his father cut him off.
    “The Serpent King has signed the agreement freely. He and King Zarek were somewhat resistant, and of course King Kral did not want to take either side, as usual, but in the end, we convinced them all. I must admit that King Alandair was a great ally in the endeavor. And it was his idea to add in a security clause.”
    “A security clause?”
    “Yes,” answered Cerdic. “If any kingdom declares war on another, the remaining kingdoms are duty-bound to enter into war against the aggressor. And any kingdom that abstains from the defense of the attacked nation will be seen as equally guilty as the attacking kingdom and will be subject to attack from the allied nations. The goal is to avoid war, but if war is unavoidable, to end it quickly and decisively. In the past, these treaties have merely been promises of peace, with no real consequences in place for those who broke the treaty.” King Cerdic smiled. “So you see, son, if there is not peace, then all nations must be involved, one way or another. No longer will the Gorters be allowed to sit idly by, getting rich from selling supplies to the warring nations, but keeping themselves out of the line of fire. No, now we will all be equal.”
    At that moment, the doors of the throne room were thrown open, and a deadly hush settled over all of the nobles. A tall, slender woman with long, flowing black hair strode into the room. She wore a dark gown with long billowing sleeves. The bodice was trimmed with silver thread and seemed to shine against the inky blackness of the gown. Her skin was pale, though her pallor was accentuated by the darkness of her attire. Her lips were painted a red so dark they looked almost as if they were covered in blood, and her eyes were a cold, icy blue. She was truly beautiful, but threatening in her appearance as well. The woman strode up to the throne, and every noble in the room bowed down on one knee as she passed.

    • Sandra D

      This was really interesting. Also I liked the idea that all the governments would be involved if a peace treaty was broken. It would make for an interesting and terrifying potential story.

  • Sandra D

    His back burned. He was not sure he could move. He spit sand out of his mouth and rocked his head up and saw his ship crumpled on a bed of rocks. The sand around him was red and he touched his stomach gingerly. Red fingers. He called out for someone. Was there anyone?

    His daughter came running. Her pupils flicked back and forth in panic. “Please help.” He called out but it came out no louder than a whisper and then he broke out into coughs.

    “It’s okay, I’m here. Everythings okay.” She chanted everythings okay several more times like it was a mantra she told herself. Her knees bent down and she reached his torso and tugged. He screamed. “I have to see it so I can make it better. Don’t stop me. I have to turn you.”

    He let her and didn’t resist but his face tightened up as if it were taking all his strength not to scream. She turned him over. She had a first aid kit fro the boat with her. She open the box and look down at the contents, her eyes darting around the inside of the box with focus like lazor beams at it, until her eyes rested on a needle and thread.

    She grabbed some topical anasthesia and rolled it over the place blood was coming too quick. And she poked the needle into the flesh. He screamed again and tears rolled down his weather worn face. But she knitted him back together and pressed down with a rag.

    “Now go to sleep.” she said. Her face was lifeless and white now. He closed his eyes and moved his hand up even though it hurt his stomach to do so and grabbed her hand in his. A small delicate hand compared to his with callouses and thick lines in the palms. And he went to sleep. She watched him. She had sat there bent over him, and when his breathing went quieter she let herself cry thick sobs. Then she lay next to him and slept.

  • Emily Morales

    Thank you for this article :) I’m just about to start writing about a character who has been begging to be let out of my mind for years. I’ve been having stress on how to open this story and this has given me clear insight. So thank you :D