Animals in Stories

A common way to use pets in stories is to get us all emotionally attached to them… and then kill them off. And then we all hate you for it because WHY? How dare you kill off Fido! Pets have been introduced and killed off in nearly every book I’ve read or movie I’ve watched, and it’s always sad. Obviously this is a great way to evoke emotion from readers, but what if–what if–I told you that you could let the pet live? No really, you can do that.

Pets can be more than just your twisted idea of a sad chapter to bum out the protagonist (and the rest of us). They can do so much more for the plot line and your MC.

In the high fantasy I’m working on, one of my characters has a wolf who she often leans on for support in difficult times. He is her comfort and safety net. Without him she feels alone. Having an animal who is important to the protagonist in such a way can really give them the courage to face all the conflict ahead of them in the story–especially when separated from the pet at times when they need the pet to be brave.

Animal senses can also be implemented into the story to provide little hints, such as a dog growling or barking at a character who is revealed to belong to the dark side later, or a horse who gets skittish in certain parts of a forest rumoured to be cursed.

Pets can warn characters of danger or stop them from doing something dangerous. Instead of the MC risking their life fighting the minor thugs of the story, the pet can protect them instead. This shouldn’t be used as a crutch, but it can be used at the start of the story–before development–to establish the trust between human and pet. (Later, the MC must be able to stand on their own to show how far they’ve come.)

Not all animals can be on the protagonist’s side, of course. In Rise of the Planet of the Apes, humans clash against the apes in battle, and in The Hunger Games, animal-like creatures try to take a bite out of the heroes.

Just be careful what you write where animals are concerned (or violence in general). No one wants to read about animal cruelty. It isn’t cool and it certainly isn’t entertaining, and you’ll find your story being thrown aside pretty rapidly. But, of course, I shouldn’t need to point this out… unless you’re the kind of monster who grins the whole way through Marley and Me.

Happy writing,

Sandra

For Procrastinators (Like Me)

So you’re a procrastinator. Most writers are (from what I can tell, at least). Over the years I’ve found different ways to battle against procrastination, and I’ve compiled a list to help my fellow sufferers. You can thank me later (get it????) Ha ha ha…. ahhhh.

Ahem.

  1. Reading! This is not only fun, but it helps you learn. Reading improves your writing ability and often sneaks a word or two into your vocabulary.
  2. Blogging! If you’re stuck on your novel, write a blog post about what’s on your mind. Sometimes it helps. Other times you’re stuck staring at the computer screen. In which case–
  3. Social Media! This seriously helps clear my head. Interacting with writing peers and talking about books always helps me get my focus back. At the same time it also helps build your writer platform, so it’s all good.
  4. Chores! When you’re procrastinating writing, even chores can be accomplished! Trust me, I’ve cleaned a lot of things to get out of writing a chapter I’ve been stuck on.
  5. Watch a Show! People (the scientist-kind) say you should have breaks while writing. Taking a 40 minute break to watch a television show you’ve fallen behind on is a great way to relax until you need to write again.
  6. Motivating Snacks! Mmmmm… snacks! No ice cream until you write that page! Usually works well.
  7. Organization! Figure out what you want to write before you sit down.
  8. Write about what you want to write about– Basically, write a blurb of the scene you just can’t get out of your head. After a while, it will come to you.
  9. Setting! Not the one in your plot. That one is important, too, but I mean the room you’re in. Have good lighting and a comfortable place to sit. I tend to zone out if the lighting is poor and I get sleepy. Avoid that. It makes you think about bed. Mmmmm… bed.
  10. Coffee or Tea! Last but certainly not least, the ultimate motivation: having a cup of hot coffee or tea! It always gets me out of a tired, procrastinating state.

Hopefully some of these tactics will help you get back into the zone.

Happy writing,

Sandra

The Importance of an Opening Line

Usually you can tell if you’re going to like a book or not by the first line of the story. The first line is called the “hook” and–if done correctly–will draw the reader in to read more. A good hook creates intrigue and causes the reader to think. For example:

Rain fell that night, a fine, whispering rain.” — Cornelia Funke, Inkheart

In a hole in the ground there lived a Hobbit.” — J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” –C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader

What happened that night? What’s a Hobbit? Who is this boy? In the very first line, you are already curious of what’s about to happen next. A good writer will draw you into the plot with a hint of what’s yet to come.

The hook should be related to the plotline, and–more specifically–the plot of the chapter. It doesn’t have to be short, though it needn’t be several lines long, either. Many popular books have entire paragraphs as their hooks, while some have only a few words. The hook in Moby-Dick is only three words long.

In the high fantasy I’m writing, I went for a line that placed a descriptive picture in the reader’s head–a picture that isn’t pleasant–to allude to the misery ahead. I found it appropriate for a story that edges towards dark fantasy elements and rarely sees a speck of light. “The room itself was frightening, filled with half-melted candles and eerie shadows that stretched along cracked walls.” My line echoes the grim atmosphere of not just the room, but another unknown source. The following paragraph goes on to talk about a dying man who has left two children behind.

Sometimes people keep reading even if the hook didn’t grab their attention, because the summary on the back cover was so enticing. Yet not everyone works that way. I often put down books whose opening lines didn’t compel me. Is that fair? Probably not, but sometimes I only have a few seconds to spare while browsing and will only remember the books whose opening lines drew me in.

So how can you tell if your story has a great hook? I have a few suggestions.

  • Leave out complex names, dates, places, or obscure references. I find books that start with “Mordecai van Oldenburg was scheduled for an appointment in Caledonia on the twenty-first of September” to be giving too much information in a hook. Not everyone will think so, but I find most people like keeping it simple. Having several names thrown at you in a sentence is usually not a good thing.
  • Don’t be too vague. This should be obvious, but write a hook relating to the story. If you go for intrigue, don’t go so far no one will understand what you’re talking about.
  • Ask people to read the opening line. This is perhaps the best way to truly know if your opening line is good.
  • Being blunt can often be effective. Like the line from Moby-Dick, “Call me Ishmael.” Blunt, though effective. The character is introducing himself in a pretty casual way.

Practice writing hooks and don’t be afraid to experiment with what to write. Often writers are held back by the strange fear of writing something “wrong” or “stupid”. We’ve all been there. Maybe you aren’t happy with the hook you’ve written, or you think it’s already great. Even if it is, it’s good to keep challenging yourself with other ideas and to show your work to others for critique. Just remember that the first page of a book is what sells the story for those who browse quickly, and having an enticing hook will stick with readers even years later.

Leave your opening lines in the comments if you’d like to share! 🙂

Happy writing,

Sandra