17

A reader of one of my works told me, "It was very interesting, the last two thirds of it anyway." Her fear was that I might lose my readers in the first one-third of the work.

The above work was a three act play, with a crisis and hardship in the first act, and characters that were "nothing special." Of course, they became "special" coming out of the hardship, and took off in the second and third acts.

Another work is a teen novel about the romancing of the high school "science queen." (One purpose of the book is to convince girls that they are still datable if they take STEM courses). It takes the hero about four chapters (out of 12) to pull her out of the "laboratory," after which things are fine.

Referring to published fiction, if the work were the "Wizard of Oz," how does avoid losing ones readers during the hum drum days of Dorothy's life with Aunt Em, and the farmhands in "Kansas," and the hardship caused by the sudden tornado? Once we get to the "land of Oz," I know what to do.

So how do I keep reader's attention during the first third or so of the work long enough to get to the "good stuff?"

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    I feel like the question What constitutes a 'hook?' might be quite important to you. – Secespitus Mar 12 '18 at 19:16
  • @Secespitus: That question is somewhat related, but mine is about the first three or four chapters, not the first three or four paragraphs. – Tom Au Mar 12 '18 at 20:31
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    If you decide to follow up the STEM-woman angle, I suggest doing research that specifically involves women in STEM. :) Possibly there are gender - specific differences that we aren't aware of. Possibly we understand our own gender better than other genders and possibly we assume certain things about other genders that are blatantly false. – DPT Mar 13 '18 at 3:47
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    You might want to remove what your story is about, since it attracts a lot of off-topic comments. – pipe Mar 13 '18 at 8:33
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    Other options include "Delete the first third", "compress it drastically to the highlights", or re-order the book so a chunk of it is told in flashback after the reader is already hooked. – pjc50 Mar 13 '18 at 10:23
23

The Wizard of Oz:

What makes the first part of The Wizard of Oz engaging is the wicked witch, on her bicycle, stealing Toto.

Each of the Oz characters is introduced in Kansas, within Dorothy's normal life. Also - She runs away from home. Also - Auntie Em thinks Dorothy will die. So, there are a lot of stakes here, in boring Kansas. Dog is stolen, kid runs away, mother-figure thinks daughter-figure will die. There's also tension/humor with falling into the pig trough, and a nice song that kids to this day still sing in talent shows.

And a tornado.

Kansas is crammed full of things. Consider the possibility, too, that TWOO reached for contrast, quite literally with B&W v color, but also with the characters, who don't grow. Except Dorothy, who learns her lesson. Each character represents a thing, and contrasts with each other thing, and that's it.


I'd say make the science part incredibly fun in the first third. Have some lab accidents, some funky experiments, liquid nitrogen on hand, helium, goofy stuff she plays with even though she shouldn't. Have some nerdy characters that she bounces off of (contrast). Have a non scientist around, perhaps a hot and funny guy that does paperwork but has no interest in science per se. (again - for contrast; romance is optional). One of the built in advantages about contrasting characters is that the dialog becomes more interesting - there is more opportunity for conflict and viewing issues from several sides.

Have your MC speculate about scientific reasons for things like vampires, zombies, other paranormal stuff. Have her dress up as something ridiculous on Halloween, in the lab.

I hope she has sass, like Abbie on NCIS or similar.

Recently I reworked a 'boring' part of my story using suggestions from many answers. That section moves really nicely now. It's actually a little amusing, even though the protagonist is bored out of her mind.

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    Also "Somewhere Over The Rainbow" - Dorothy has dreams and desires - compelling overwhelming intention coming up against insurmountable obstacles. By the end, the obstacles have been overcome. And a catchy melody and beautiful singing voice doesn't hurt. – Todd Wilcox Mar 12 '18 at 20:14
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    You seem to have guessed the contents of the novel. Your "hot and funny guy that does paperwork but has no interest in science per se" is actually her date.(We find out why in Chapter 11.) – Tom Au Mar 12 '18 at 20:34
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    @TomAu Nerdy girl and hot guy is the most outdated idea ever, especially if the girl is "hot with glasses" and the goal is to make her lose her identity and make her basic. Watch "Not another teen movie". – Boat Mar 13 '18 at 7:24
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    Agreeing with Boat. Obligatory TV Trope warning - tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/UnnecessaryMakeover – Smeato Mar 13 '18 at 8:11
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    @Boat Retelling the same stories in new ways is what is really happening with all story telling. TV Tropes is not a list of cliches to avoid. It's a warehouse of ideas that can be used to construct new stories. This is basically the ugly duckling, which people love to hear/read/see again and again. As long as it's got something new going on. – Todd Wilcox Mar 13 '18 at 14:48
33

"The purpose of the book is to convince..." That is likely the source of your problem right there. If a book is didactic or polemical in nature, it is generally only of interest to those who support that message and only of interest to them while it is actually preaching that message.

A book can certainly have a didactic or polemical effect, but it has to a secondary effect. The primary effect has to be to portray a real human being in a recognizable way. We have to look at the character and say, ah, yes, there is a human being. We are social beings and we love the company of others of our kind. A book begins -- must begin -- by placing us in the company of a human being whose character and prospects can engage our interest.

You are going to hear a lot about starting with a "hook", but a hook has to catch in flesh before you can reel anything in with it. No event, no crisis, is of general interest until it happens to a human being we sympathize with. And sympathize here does not mean approve of, it means recognize as sharing our human frailty. They don't have to look like us. We don't even have to like them. But we have to recognize them as human. Once we recognize them as human, we begin to care what happens to them.

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    I've been thinking over recent weeks that Black Panther has a nice set of messages in it. Of course, I'm on board with those messages. I applaud the OP's goal of de-stygmatizing STEM girls. – DPT Mar 12 '18 at 22:32
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    @DPT The real trick is to get people to read stories whose messages they are not already on board with. That can be very hard to do in non-fiction. Fiction can do it, but it does it by changing hearts in order to change minds. But it can only change hearts if there is engagement at the human level. And if you can do that, as Dickens and Steinbeck did, for example, people will continue to enjoy the stories even after the issues are moot. People did not stop reading Oliver Twist the day the last workhouse closed. – user16226 Mar 12 '18 at 22:41
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    So sad I cannot give more than one upvote. That is exactly what I thought when I read the OP. Stories that preach end up flung across the room as elitist, pedantic and well... preachy. Present the situation, the character and let ME, the reader decide how I feel. – JP Chapleau Mar 13 '18 at 13:32
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    "My motivation in writing is to explore" is exactly where I think you should be in fiction, but it still matters how that sentence ends. It should be about exploring the nature of human experience, not about exploring a philosophical or political idea. Ideologies are seldom true to the human experience. They are simplifying propositions that ignore some of the complexities of life in order to advance the interests of one party or another. Even those we consider laudable are still false to one degree or another, and any reader who is not enraptured by the ideology detects the falseness. – user16226 Mar 13 '18 at 17:14
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    What @MarkBaker said, also ime as a woman in STEM, we don't really worry about whether men will want to date us because of it anyway. – MissMonicaE Mar 14 '18 at 12:54
11

Conflict and Action.

It doesn't make a difference what your character does, really, as long as she is in conflict in every scene, small or large. From disagreements with friends or enemies to fighting, or running, or defying her mother or father or brother or sister or teacher or school counselor or class bully, male or female.

Perhaps she makes an error in the lab, she is just a student after all.

I would guess a female science nerd (I knew them in school) is NOT a sassy or outgoing girl: It doesn't really fit my image of a girl reluctant to date and feels like a pretense.

Science nerds in general, of either gender, are intellectually confident in realms with systems and clear rules: Mathematics, chemistry, physics, computers, even D&D and chess.

One reason they are not socially self-confident is because the rules seem unclear and arbitrary when it comes to humans, for banter, humor, expressing feelings (sexual or otherwise), and for the romantically inexperienced, all the rules and physical mechanics of any kind of romantic interaction, from "looking sexually attractive" to actually having sex. Sure, they have free access to books and movies and porn, but forgive the highly analytical for thinking perhaps real life is not so straightforward as a fictional script, or not seeing themselves in the assigned roles.

That social insecurity is another obvious source of conflicts.

A friendly heads up: From a psychological reality standpoint I would question the cliché of the "hot and funny guy that has no interest in science." Female nerds take pride in their intellectual prowess, like all humans their self-worth is closely tied to what they excel at and what makes them special. Let the beauty queen and football star take pride in their looks that are 99% genetics they got for nothing: I learned calculus, physics and chemistry!

A guy that isn't interested in science is not appealing to that girl, he's an object of ridicule and "being hot" doesn't matter: He doesn't value what she considers most valuable about herself: her analytical mind, and isn't interested in anything she wants to talk about.

That same analytical mind will tell her all he is interested in: Her body, like all guys. That will likely be her assessment whether or not it is true. And by the time she is of dating age she knows full well, as a girl, that if all she wanted was a guy interested in her body, those guys are a dime a dozen in high school or college, just ask 'em.

Women are only superficially attracted to a "hot guy", the hot guy can ruin that the minute they start talking. Especially if the woman, like a female nerd, puts a high value on intellectual competence, reasoning, and scientific understanding, and the "hot guy" really doesn't value anything she values or defines herself by, and only cares about a physical relationship.

  • "The hot and funny guy that has no interest in science per se" becomes a "convert" to science through her, which is plenty of validation. He even comes up with a parody of a class lecture to the tune of a popular song, and a third party observes that they have similar senses of humor. He's in the story because he is a perfect foil. She decides that she prefers him to a "natural" because they cover each other's weaknesses.And even though most women don't like rogues (or claim they don't), many of the same women will go for one who seems willing to "settle down." – Tom Au Mar 13 '18 at 0:59
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    @TomAu Perhaps too perfect. This added info makes HIM seem like the hero, the prince pursues the girl, with minor setbacks until she gives in. Written from the POV of Sleeping Beauty or Cinderella (happy / miserable in life until their prince comes) doesn't make the girl the hero. What is she pursuing (which should be nerd-science related) that she wins in the end? "She doesn't realize what she wants until her prince comes along" is, IMO, a sexist trope, not empowering or uplifting to women. It is her that should have a goal and her that tries and fails until she conquers it. – Amadeus Mar 13 '18 at 10:28
  • First, while "the female nerd, puts a high value on intellectual competence, reasoning, and scientific understanding," he has those qualities (in liberal arts) except that he is "weak" in science (B+ or A- instead of A.) Second, while women prefer good boys to bad boys, what many want more than either is a bad boy turned good, (particularly on "their" watch). So you have a boy that may not be quite what she wants, but he's tantalizingly close. Which is the point of the story. – Tom Au Mar 15 '18 at 7:52
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    @TomAu It's your story, dude, I am just trying to help you sell it, and your image of women does not seem empowering to me. I spent four years in high school and over a decade attending college and years as a professor, I've known many, many women in STEM classes and STEM professions. I don't think women think like you think women think. But if you don't agree with my view on women or writing I am fine with that, perhaps it will help other writers instead. – Amadeus Mar 15 '18 at 9:54
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One way would be to condense the "Kansas" part as much as possible. I don't have "The Wizard of Oz" on me, but let's look at "The Hobbit" as a similar example. It starts with about two pages of what are hobbtis. Bilbo is established in one paragraph:

"This hobbit was a very well-to-do hobbit, and his name was Baggins. The Bagginses had lived in the neighbourhood of The Hill for time out of mind, and people considered them very respectable, not only because most of them were rich, but also because they never had any adventures or did anything unexpected: you could tell what a Baggins would say on any question without the bother of asking him." - The Hobbit, J.R.R.Tolkien

That's Kansas. That's all the Kansas we get. All the boring life Bilbo has been living for almost 50 years before Gnadalf showed up - condensed into a paragraph. Third page in, Gandalf arrives. WHAM! Adventure just knocked on the door. Gandalf is Bilbo's "hurricane".

Sometimes, of course, you can't condense all "Kansas" into a few pages. But then, maybe the "hurricane" can be preceded by strong winds? Some dramatic build-up to what's about to happen?

Look, for example, at Zelazny's "Amber Chronicles". The "hurricane" doesn't happen until halfway through the first book. Until then, Corwin doesn't have his memories, doesn't have his powers, and consequently isn't yet in the books' main conflict. However, the book starts with Corwin waking up with amnesia, convinced somebody's after him - pretty strong wind right there, and proceeds to family politicking, moving between worlds, and more. The "hurricane" doesn't come without a build-up full of awesome drama. Could you insert awesome drama into your "Kansas" part?

One more important thing about the "Amber Chronicles": while until the "hurricane", Corwin isn't moving towards what will become his major goal, he is moving towards a goal. He is proactive. In fact, he chases the "hurricane". It isn't interesting to read about things just happening to the character, and it is even less interesting to read about a character leading a drab boring life. That I would condense. However, if the character is actively chasing something, things would be a lot more interesting.

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    In the Wizard of Oz, the cyclone lifts the house off it's foundations on the fifth page. And page three is a picture. – Arcanist Lupus Mar 13 '18 at 5:19
6

re:Oz; I haven't read the book; but in the movie there was a lot of conflict and every moment was about playing up the sympathy angle with Dorothy.

This is the most important thing going into a crisis: You want your characters at one of the far ends of the spectrum on sympathy. If you hate them, you'll be happy to see them suffer; if you love them, you'll watch to make sure they're going to be ok. Make people fall in love with your characters anyways. Basically, the mistake is thinking they were nothing special to begin with and writing that way. They were always special.

That is, if you want to spend any amount of time here. If it's really just boring or strenuous, then you need to cut it down to the gem, discarding most of everything that is boring.

6

After having read far too many books and watched far too many movies that would have been great if they had just been edited more tightly, I have to ask: If the second two thirds are great, can you just lose the first third? Maybe that section is really important world-building, but for you, not for the audience. If there's stuff you really need, maybe you can find a way to pull it back in later.

But what if what makes the second two-thirds good is because it follows the first third? Can you start in the middle, and then jump back to the start? It's a time honored technique, and it works because sometimes what people need to feel engaged is just a bit of context.

If neither of those solutions work, then you probably need to do more in the first section to dramatize and foreshadow the main conflict of the novel. What is it the main character will need to overcome by the end of the book, and how can you show that in this first section?

6

I don't know much about writing, but studying maths maybe I can give you some ideas anyway. First: Just because someone likes science doesn't mean they just walk through it and understand everything because they are such a genius (in contrast to how "science people" are usually depicted in fiction). This stuff is hard. That is why professors in STEM degrees often start with a motivational speech. And you probably can use this kind of struggling to make your introduction more interesting. I mean imposter syndrome is really common in that field I think.

I am kind of writing this because of the answer with:

I'd say make the science part incredibly fun in the first third. Have some lab accidents, some funky experiments, liquid nitrogen on hand, helium, goofy stuff she plays with even though she shouldn't.

If you want people to get into STEM, if you depict STEM like that, they will feel like they are bad at it, because their experience will be different. Because this is not the experience you have when you do STEM. Even if you love it.

A few anecdotes:

My Analysis 1 professor started, by drawing a "yellow maths heart" with a marker pen on a piece of paper, which was projected on the screen, and said: some people will love maths some of the time, and sometimes they will hate it. You will never love it all the time. He then said that we could now mark him well in "media usage" in the teaching evaluation, because he used a projector. (Maths lectures are blackboards only basically)

He also distributed a package of jelly pigs at some point and said: don't eat it yet, keep it until your first year is over. Whenever you get stuck, punch it, remind yourself that you can do it.

You don't even understand the lecturers in the first semester, if you start to be able to ask questions in second semester (because you understand enough, to know what you don't know), you are basically already in the top 3%. Sometimes you will work on an exercise for hours, give up, try the next day, give up again because you have no clue, start googling, and then find it on wikipedia and realise that it could be proven in 2 f**ing lines. And on other days you will solve a "hard" exercise in 10 minutes.

And when you think back about the first semester you always think, man that stuff was easy! Because you got so used to that way of thinking. It is similar to how arabic numerals make calculations easier compared to roman numerals, because you can use the decimal places to divide and conquer the calculation. Similarly other definitions and concepts will enable you to do things which seem more complicated before. But for that you first need to understand those abstract definitions. And get used to them.

But once you understand those concepts, it become really easy to use them and you can't remember how hard it was in the beginning.

It is like learning a language by only listening to it. Because you can't explain the language maths in a language that is not maths. Once you understand the language it seems easy. And people around you treat you like a genius or something, even though you are just doing some easy things. That is where the imposter syndrome comes in.

And in lectures it is always so easy to fall into the trap of: I don't want to ask this, maybe it is a stupid question and I just don't understand it because I am stupid. And since everyone is afraid of the same no one asks and everyone keeps quiet. While the lecturer has no idea that he just left the entire hall behind. There were multiple times I almost didn't dare to ask a question, made myself do it and then the same question was asked by someone in the next lecture because they apparently didn't even get the question in the previous lecture.


It is probably hard to depict this. But if you want a realistic story, then you will be better off if you don't make it out to be a piece of cake. The fun you get out of STEM is like the fun you can get out of sports. It is gruesome most of the time, but when you manage to do something it is all the more rewarding. And some people like that ;-) And aren't stories supposed to be about struggles?

4

I think your comparison with the Wizard of Oz is misleading (and leads to unhelpful answers) and I don't understand why you accepted the answer that recommends that you focus the first third of your novel on making the science funny.

What you and all the answers (as far as I skimmed them) fail to consider is what your novel is about.

You say the story is about "romancing of the high school 'science queen'". I don't know how you play this topic and what the goal of the protagonist is. Maybe in the end she falls in love. However that may be, if you novel is about love and relationships, then your first part must show

  • how your protagonist fails at love and relationships,
  • maybe what her weakness in that area is, and
  • what incites her to set herself a love and relationship goal.

If the end of your novel provides the solution or relief or failure in love, then your beginning must set love up as a theme. You can do this funny or serious, it doesn't matter, but if you have this one red line going through your novel from beginning to end, then it cannot be boring to show how the protagonist suffers from whatever is wrong in her life at first, because you, as a writer, already know (or feel) how you are going to change this for her, and you will set up the right antagonistic and supportive characters and build the right kind of tension and foreshadow the right tasks and obstacles.

  • I accepted the other answer as being the best remedy for the book's goals as I defined them. You have articulated a different set of goals. – Tom Au Apr 26 '18 at 19:40
  • @TomAu I see no goal defined in your question. – user29032 Apr 26 '18 at 19:44
  • "Goal" was the wrong word. "Mechanic" might be a better one. The question was, "what mechanics are there to make the story more interesting. The accepted answer was the best answer to that question. You "redefined" my question is what are the goals for the character. That is a valid point of view. – Tom Au Apr 26 '18 at 19:50
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    @TomAu Then I still say you are looking at your problem the wrong way. If you write your novel following the advice in the accepted answer, you will have a novel in which the first part is a sort of high-school nerd comedy, the second part is about some girl finding her place through acting in a play (your other question), and (I suppose) the last part is a romance. You'll have three unrelated parts that only accidentally have the same character, because you fail to think of your novel as having one unifying theme or premise or developmental task or what have you. – user29032 Apr 26 '18 at 20:00
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    @TomAu Since you seem to have parts two and three, what I suggest in my answer you do is look back at the beginning part from the following parts and find out what beginning these parts need. The mechanics of how you do that may be different from the mechanics of making hardship fun to read. In German we say: you want a novel cast in one piece, not the pieces cast separately and soldered together with the weldseam showing. Stop thinking of your novel in parts. Think of it as one story. The beginning (that you are looking for) will then follow from the end (that you have). – user29032 Apr 26 '18 at 20:02
2

Some Japanese manga have lots of hardship, and most get you hooked right from the start or the first few chapters.

In shoujo in particular, the heroine or female main character tends to have it difficult on some attribute (unpopular, short, ugly, poor, unhappy, lonely, etc.). But triumphs over it.

It is difficult for me to pinpoint exactly how those mangas hook the reader, but you may find it useful to have a look and try to identify the methods. Perhaps a combination of:

  1. A likable character [perhaps she/he has some trait we can identify or simpathise with], and
  2. Some unresolved question [will the girl get the guy? will X find Y? become popular/rich/happy?]. Maybe these tend to feel like they will be solved soon? (but then either do not or some other problems/questions/situations appear).

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