Monday, December 23, 2013

9 Inspired Openings: Care About Your Character by Jackie Garlick-Pynaert

Today's guest post was written by debut author Jackie Garlick-Pynaert, who's fantasy steampunk novel LUMIERE, just came out. Martina met Jackie at YALL Fest this year and fell in love with her writing, so needless to say we are super excited to have her on the blog today, and so should you! 

Care About Your Character by Jackie Garlick-Pynaert

The most important advice I received about starting a book came from my mentor, and story guru, Lorin Oberweger, as well as from the teachings of Don Maass, James Scott Bell and Christopher Vogler.

In essence, what was said is this…though author’s are encouraged to start with action, which I too would encourage you to do (Lorin and company talking…) it is essential that we care about the character and their situation first before we are willing to invest in their journeys.  As readers we need to strike a chord with them, a strong emotional chord, before we care about, or are wiling to root for them on any journey.  That last part is the most important thing, think about it…we only root for those we truly love. 

Thus, throwing our characters straight under the bus (me talking…not as eloquent but…) the character gets run over and no one cares. Literally, no one cares. 

The trick is to get the reader to care, and care deeply enough that the reader actually experiences the character’s pain. Many writers think they are on a mission to evoke empathy. That’s wrong. Empathy is an outside emotion. We want our readers inside the skin of our characters. We want our readers to experience what’s happening to our characters first hand, not just feel sorry for them, we want readers hurting, suffering, moved to the point the reader rises up out of their comfy chair and shouts…That’s it. Let’s go kick some serious ass!

How do we accomplish this, you say? I have to words for you. Back up.

As writers we often start too late. By this I mean, at the point of action (as I mentioned earlier) a high-tension moment (or shortly before) that we feel will grip the reader by the throat and keep them turning pages. What we should be doing is creating that high point of page turning tension through emotional engagement with our characters, first.

Example: I’ll use Lumière to illustrate. Originally, I started the book with a combination of current chapters one and two. Both involve action-packed, high-tension elements that negatively impact my main character, Eyelet. The super-charged meeting with her arch nemesis Professor Smrt, where we learn she is orphaned by her father, has a terrible condition for which she could be placed in an asylum, and has been pegged a social pariah among her peers and townspeople, all of which she must keep a secret. Pretty heavy stuff, right? But wait, I’m not done. The opening chapter also included the tragic, unexpected death scene of her mother, leaving her truly orphaned and on the run. Omgod, you say. Yeah…

I may have mastered high tension and had readers turning pages, but when it was all done…would they care? Would they worry for Eyelet? Would they leap into a run along with her, hearts pounding, willing to invest in her journey for 300 more pages?  The hard truth came next.

Dear, and long-time friend Veronica Rossi wrote this. “Do you really need the scene with her mother dying? I don’t think its really accomplishing the emotional goal you’re seeking here. Perhaps revisit or eliminate it.” Gulp.

What? (I gasped.) The mother dying is essential to the plot. (I railed.) Her death is pivotal! (I panicked.) Or at least it was supposed to be.

Then came this from my mentor, Lorin. “Why should we care?”

Just four little words written in the margin, couldn’t have spoken more truth. Why should a reader care? I had to admit, reading it over, I didn’t. It was then I realized, I had evoked empathy…but that was it. Big whoop.

“It is my understanding,” Lorin went on to say, “that Eyelet’s world has been physically destroyed by some strange thing that happened in her past, correct? And she’s has been left fatherless because of it, and her mother has become the focus of public scrutiny, and Eyelet now lives in fear of being discovered because of her losses…” That’s correct. “Then, wouldn’t it make sense to show us what happened? Better still, why not give readers a glimpse into Eyelet’s perfect, little, life (world) prior to the catastrophe…perhaps, on the very brink of the day of destruction???” BINGO. The lights came on…

And so the prologue was born, whereby we meet a young and vibrant Eyelet, full of hopes and dreams (and piss and vinegar) and the searing love for her parents, and then…disaster strikes…and Eyelet loses everything.

Lesson learned: It is vitally important for story openings to have a pulse—a beating heart—that by the end of that chapter (or two…no more), (sadistic) authors (like myself…and hopefully you…) can rip out, throw on the floor, and stomp, leaving our characters to bleed all over the page, and our readers to weep. Once you do, the reader is hooked and the journey can begin.

Back up people. Trust me. Works every time.

Some of my favorite opening lines that set that fictional heart a beating…

“I wake up. Immediately I have to figure out who I am.” every day, David Levithan.
“I’ve confessed to everything and I’d like to be hanged. Now if you please.” Chime, Franny Billingsley.
“I wasn’t reborn. When I was five I realized how different than made me.” Jodi Meadow, Incarnate.
“Once upon a time there was a girl that was special…(the whole first paragraph).” Ultraviolet, R.J. Anderson.

About The Author

Jacqueline was nicknamed “Little Erin” (as in Erin Brockovich) after she took on her school board over being placed in black toxic mould and, well...lost. BUT if she hadn't lost, she's still be teaching with no time for writing, which would be the real tragedy because more than anything else in the world Jacqueline loves to write. 

These days, she is affectionately referred to as the Quentin Tarantino of YA, known for her edgy, rule-breaking, Tim Burton-esque style of writing. Jacqueline likes gritty stories with beating hearts, dislikes wimpy heroines and whiny sidekicks, and loves a good tale about an irresistible underdog. 

Jacqueline is a graduate of Ellen Hopkin’s Nevada Mentoring Program, and has also studied under James Scott Bell, Christopher Vogler and Don Maass, where she was the 2012 recipient of the Don Maass Break Out Novel Intensive Scholarship. She is represented by Josh Adams of Adams Literary. 

Website | Goodreads | Twitter | Pinterest

About The Book

One determined girl. One resourceful boy. One miracle machine that could destroy everything. 

After an unexplained flash shatters her world, seventeen-year-old Eyelet Elsworth sets out to find the Illuminator, her father’s prized invention. With it, she hopes to cure herself of her debilitating seizures before Professor Smrt—her father’s arch nemesis—discovers her secret and locks her away in an asylum. 

Pursued by Smrt, Eyelet locates the Illuminator only to see it whisked away. She follows the thief into the world of the unknown, compelled not only by her quest but by the allure of the stranger—Urlick Babbit—who harbors secrets of his own. 

Together, they endure deadly Vapours and criminal-infested woods in pursuit of the same prize, only to discover the miracle machine they hoped would solve their problems may in fact be their biggest problem of all. 

Lumière: A Steampunk Fantasy 

When darkness is safer than the light… 


  1. Great tips on the opening. I had a critique with a publisher once who also told me to back up in the opening of my first chapter. Good luck with your book. It sounds fantastic.

    1. Thanks so much Natalie! I'm glad you think it sound intriguing! (smile)

  2. The beginning chapter is so tough. I've read so much advice on it and it's still the toughest part of the book.

    1. Agreed Stephsco! Another tid bit of advice I got from the clan I mentioned, is to treat chapter one like you would a car in heavy snow...just keep taking a run at it until at last you blast your way out. ;)

  3. Different pieces of advice can come from many sources, but getting to the heart of why the reader should care is an essential thing to address.

  4. Excellent tips! Nothing is more important for most readers than caring about the characters! Thanks :)

  5. Thanks for all that good advice. Excellent post. The book looks terrific. I will check it out.

  6. Thanks to you both Jemi and Rosi!


Tell us what you think. We'd love to hear from you! :)