Get your reader invested in your protagonist right from the start.
You guys remember the comic strip Goofus and Gallant from Highlights Magazine?
For those who never had to go to the dentist (which is where most kids discover Highlights), Goofus and Gallant were two young men who had been named by their parents with frighteningly accurate prescience. Gallant was a model of good behavior; Goofus showed you how not to behave. Gallant held doors for people; Goofus let them swing shut in people’s faces. Gallant helped his mother set the table. Goofus mumbled an excuse and ran away. Gallant carried groceries. Goofus threw balls at people carrying groceries. Here’s a prime example of a brilliant plotted Goofus and Gallant strip:
I think it’s safe to say that Gallant would succinctly and helpfully stick to the point in a blog post, while Goofus would go off on an irrelevant tangent.
Which brings me to my point: I am Goofus. Goofus is me. I frequently find myself inadvertently illustrating what NOT to do. So here’s my writing tip: Don’t be a Goofus like me and make the following mistake:
In the very first pages of my novel If You Lived Here, You’d Be Home Now, the protagonist, Rickie, is about to take the family dog out for a walk. Just as she’s clipping on the leash, she gets a phone call from a guy she hasn’t seen in ages, saying he’s in town and would love to see her right away. She unclips the leash, telling the dog the walk is canceled, and the disappointed pup follows her sadly to the door.
Rickie’s mother ends up taking the dog on a walk, so–please note–the dog IS FINE. She would have been fine even if she hadn’t gotten a walk. I mean, my dogs frequently don’t get taken on long walks, and they’re fine. A little neurotic, admittedly, but that has nothing to do with the number of walks they get.
After the book was published, I was shocked to discover that some readers disliked Rickie. I mean, sure, she was sharp-tongued and a little self-centered, but she proves over the course of the novel that she’s devoted to her son and loves her family. She was good folk, deep down–at least as far as I was concerned. Why wasn’t that coming through? Then I realized that a lot of the reviewers were saying they disliked her at FIRST but later came to care about her, and that’s when I realized it:
They hated her because the first thing she did in the entire novel was disappoint a sweet dog.
It was such a throw-away moment for me (and wasn’t the original beginning to the book–originally she started off picking up her kid at school which would have made her much more sympathetic) and it set more of a tone for the book than I realized (as first pages are likely to do). If she’d rescued a dog from being caught by its leash in a bush or something, readers would have instantly liked her. But instead she said no to the dog and it took readers a while to get past that.
The goal is to get your readers to like, respect, and feel invested in your main character. That doesn’t mean that he/she has to be the most noble, perfect, and beautiful human to ever walk the planet–flawed heroes are the most interesting. But it does mean that our first view of them matters. Would we love Katniss as much if she didn’t instantly sacrifice herself for her sister’s sake? Or Harry Potter if his first act were to tease Dudley for being fat?
So find a nice little moment at the beginning of your novel to create a reason why it should matter to the reader whether your protagonist succeeds or not.
And, most importantly, don’t ever let him or her disappoint a dog. A cat, MAYBE. But never a dog.