As summer comes to an end and teachers and students prepare to enter the battle of the classroom, introducing yourself to a new group of people is like donning war armor. No one, and I mean, no one likes the first day “go around the room and say these 3 things about you.” Which is so odd considering introductions are how we gauge people.
You only have 7 seconds to make an impression. In writing, this equates to the first sentence of your work. If you want people to read your book or your email or your recipe, you cannot assume you have the entire page to make your case (why do you think most recipe blogs have “jump to recipe” buttons?). So, if you only have 7 seconds to make an impression and info dumping your life makes you want to watch paint dry, here’s a way to keep people interested.
Cracks in the Armor
I recently finished Daughter of the Pirate King by Tricia Levenseller (hah. You thought I was gonna tell you how right off the bat. Sucker.) and as a major Pirates of the Caribbean fan, I was, well, majorly interested. While the actual quality of writing comes across at the young-adult level, the protagonist, Princess and Captain Alosa, is a well-written female character. In the first chapter, and even first paragraph, we learn that Alosa is riddled with weapons.
This continues throughout the book as she produces stowed knives and stashed lock picks, but an initial description of her is provided as such: “My hair is bound on the top of my head, secured in a bun under a small sailor’s hat. My sword is strapped tightly to the left side of my waist, a pistol undrawn on my right” (Levenseller 1). Starting off the bat with a physical description is generally a no-go in my book, and many other authors’, but in the case of Alosa, I love seeing a girl who’s ready, willing, and able to fight.
The second physical characteristic of Alosa provided in chapter one is learning her age. Alosa’s ship is invaded by another group of pirates and the Captain makes a comment about Alosa being younger than he expected. Alosa, in turn, thinks to herself, “He’s one to talk. I may be three years shy of twenty, but I’d bet my sword arm I could best him in any challenge of wits or skill” (Levenseller 7).
This wasn’t my favorite line since it reads like Levenseller is trying to provide traits but dressing it up like exposition. It does help classify the protagonist in that relatable YA age, but the phrase of “I may be three years shy of” are all one-syllable words and it just doesn’t sit well on the tongue or with me.
Actions Speak Louder Than Cannon Fire
However, several internal characteristics about Alosa are revealed in the first chapter. She is confident and she is ruthless. Her confidence, and honesty, are revealed on page 2 in the following exchange:
“Two more down, Captain,” Mandsy, my temporary first mate, says from where she peeks through the trapdoor.
“I should be up there shoving steel between ribs,” I say, “not hiding like some helpless whelp.”
“A little patience,” she reminds me. “If we’re to survive this, you need to stay put.”
“Survive?” I ask, offended.
“Let me rephrase. If we are to succeed…”
While this also demonstrates Alosa’s ruthlessness and confidence in her abilities, it also portrays her protectiveness. A few pages down, Alosa bargains for her crew’s lives as does the other ship’s captain:
He is certainly eager to prove his reputation. But if he thinks he can intimate me, he is wrong.
Again, I pick up my sword. Then I rake it across the throat of the pirate recovering from the strike to the neck I gave him.
Riden’s eyes widen while the captain’s narrow. Draxen pulls out another gun from the waist and fires at the second man in line. He goes down like the first.
I ram my sword in the chest of the closest pirate next to me. He cries out before dropping first to his knees, then to the deck.
That’s all within the first 8 pages. 8 pages! It’s hard not to fall in love with Alosa. The way Levenseller presented the information also serves as world-building through stylistic choices in phrasing and vernacular. There is a challenge authors face in dropping readers into a new world; you want to get the story going, but you have to provide context without overwhelming readers.
Morsels to Watering Mouths
I wasn’t exactly impressed with Daughter of a Pirate King, but Levenseller laid down this trail of M&Ms that was hard to resist.
In CW's Supernatural, 01x02, Dean packs a bag of M&Ms as his only provisions for hunting down a wendigo. When he's taken by the monster, his brother, Sam, finds him based on a trail of the colorful candies. There's a lot to unpack with Dean bringing candy on a hunting trip, but it provides a glimpse into his carefree character.
Glimpses are the moments where a character’s internal traits spill through the cracks of their exterior traits. That’s the sweet stuff, that’s the M&M trail you want to give readers.
This is the first time audiences meet these characters; this might be the first time someone is meeting you. And because of those glimpses in Daughter of a Pirate King, I kept picking up those M&Ms and following the candy trail. Levenseller did this so well that it made me buy the second book! And the book isn’t that good! But that’s what compelling characterization can do: turn snacks into sales.
The next time you meet somebody over lunch or stand in front of a board meeting, don’t panic. You don’t need to spill your guts (unless you’re an unfortunate pirate that crosses Alosa’s path). You just need to be you, in whatever way that looks like. Whether that’s withholding information, allowing your actions to speak for you, or your appearance to express the whirlwind of a day you’ve had. Allow people to be the Sherlock Holmes of your life and deduce the intricacies that make you who you are. It’ll just be one sweet morsel after another.
Levenseller, Tricia. Daughter of the Pirate King. Square Fish, 2018.