Urgency in Fiction, Part Two


If you haven’t read “Urgency in Fiction, Part One,” I’d suggest that you start there: otherwise, this blog post, which is a continuation of that one, won’t make much sense. Part One was about the types of Urgency and putting it into the actual fiction you are writing.

Though these posts are aimed at fiction writers — since they are excerpts from the upcoming Mastering Fiction & Point of View: Create Conflict, Develop Characters, Revise Your Work, & Improve Your Craft; Revised, Updated, & Expanded; 14th Anniversary Edition of the original 2001 Mastering Point of View, published by Story Press — the concept of Urgency applies to all types of writing, from non-fiction to poetry, from screenplays to memoir. Because the first edition of the book was aimed at fiction writers, the revised version is, too.

This post is about how editors in the Traditional Publishing Land of New York use it in titles as marketing tools — which is their job — and how you can learn to do it, too. There are plenty of examples from Indie and self-published authors here. If they can do it, so can you.

And by the way, no one taught me about Urgency when I began to write fiction. Another writer I knew who was accepted into a prestigious MFA program read one of her stories in class — a story that I’d read and liked a lot — and was blasted by the professor in front of the entire class. The writer was told that she needed to put something in her story that would make it “a lot more urgent.” When she asked the professor what he meant, he said, “You’ll have to figure that out yourself.”

Since she knew that I’d borrowed $18K at 17 7/8% interest from the bank to take a year off work, without pay, to write my first novel, she passed that “message” along to me via a mutual friend. So I had to figure out exactly what the professor meant by making fiction “a lot more urgent.” It took me a while, but eventually I figured it out, coined “Urgency” as its name, wrote my first article on it at the request of editor Sylvia Burack (for The Writer, in 1997) and have been passing it on to writers ever since.

The original article has also been anthologized in many books and other magazines, including those published by Writer’s Digest Press, so you may have seen shorter version of it there, or on my website, under Mastering Point of View since a shortened version appeared in the first edition of that book.

Urgency in Titles

In traditional publishing, the contracts give the editors the final say on the title of an author’s book — because the title is part of marketing, and that is the editor’s job. All authors can learn to put Urgency into their own titles, however, so that they do not get changed by the publishing house.

Urgency in titles is also vitally important if the author is Indie publishing since he’ll have no editor helping him make his book more marketable by making the title have Urgency.

Here are some examples of titles which have Urgency, randomly chosen from a variety of genres, including short fiction, novels, plays, memoir, and non-fiction since all titles must have Urgency to get readers’ attention.

  • My Date With Satan (Stacy Richter)
  • Church of Dead Girls (Stephen Dobyns)
  • The Killer Inside Me (Jim Thompson)
  • I Married a Dead Man (Cornell Woolrich)
  • Waiting to Exhale (Terry McMillan)
  • Possessing the Secret of Joy (Alice Walker)
  • The Killing Gift (Bari Wood)
  • Of Human Bondage (W. Somerset Maugham)
  • The Man in the Iron Mask (Alexandre Dumas)
  • A Good Man is Hard to Find (Flannery O’Connor)
  • Cracking India (Bapsi Sidhwa)
  • As I Lay Dying (William Faulkner)
  • A Streetcar Named Desire (Tennessee Williams)
  • Girl, Interrupted (Susanna Kaysen)
  • Me Talk Pretty One Day (David Sedaris)

A trip to your local bookstore or library — or a scan online — will reveal an exciting array of titles.  Some are good; some aren’t. Unless the authors are already bestsellers, however, only the titles with Urgency are likely to attract readers.

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Urgency in Classic Opening Lines

Most stories and books, no matter when they were written, contain Urgency. And they have it in the very first sentence, despite what some neophyte writers believe. Look at the wonderful Urgency in these classic opening lines, in various Points of View.

  • I looked at my notes and I didn’t like them. (Isaac Asimov, I, Robot)
  • It must have been a little after three o’clock in the afternoon that it happened. (Edgar Rice Burroughs, The Land That Time Forgot)
  • Looking back to all that has occurred to me since that eventful day, I am scarcely able to believe in the reality of my adventures. (Jules Verne, A Journey to the Center of the Earth)
  • It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. (Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice)
  • All happy families resemble one another, but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. ( Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina)
  • They found me in the gutter. (Mickey Spillane, The Girl Hunters)
  • Once upon a time when the world was young there was a Martian named Smith. (Robert A. Heinlein, Stranger in a Strange Land)

Though the concept of Urgency may have been called different things in the past, or may not have even been called anything at all by the earliest storytellers, it’s always existed, and it exists to keep the readers (or the listening audience, when storytelling was oral, before books were readily available) attached to the story to find out what happens.

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Urgency in Contemporary Opening Sentences

Most fiction, whether contemporary or classic, starts with Urgency. That means in the very first sentence. Some authors call it a “hook,” and some call it the “attention-grabber,” but it’s all Urgency by other names. It gets the reader’s attention and makes him want to continue reading. Look at the opening sentences of some contemporary novels, and you’ll find wonderful examples of Urgency.

  • When I was little I would think of ways to kill my daddy. (Kaye Gibbons, Ellen Foster)
  • Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. (J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone)
  • They shoot the white girl first. (Toni Morrison, Paradise)
  • When I was a young lad twenty or thirty or forty years ago I lived in a small town where they were all after me on account of what I done on Mrs. Nugent. (Patrick McCabe, The Butcher Boy)
  • Throughout the long summer before my mother’s trial began, and they during those crisp days in the fall when her life was paraded publicly before the county — her character lynched, her wisdom impugned — I overheard much more than my parents realized, and I understood more than they would have liked. (Chris Bohjalian, Midwives)
  • Stupid me — I fell right into the old pattern and spent a week pretending I was a moving target. (Peter Straub, Mr. X)
  • Red is the color of violent death. Red is the color of strong feelings — love, passion, greed, anger, hatred. (Tami Hoag, A Think Dark Line)
  • Through the doorway which led from her receptionist-secretary’s office into her own, Catherine Morris Perry instantly noticed the box on her desk. (Tony Hillerman, Talking God)
  • I was late, and I don’t mean the kind of late where I spent too much time doing my hair and was now stuck in traffic. (Gemma Halliday, Spying in High Heels)
  • People disappear all the time. (Diana Gabaldon, Outlander)

images-11 copyUrgency in the Opening Sentences of Indie Authors

When the 1st edition of Mastering Point of View was published by Story Press in 2001 (it had been researched and written in 2000), e-books did not exist. Neither did the concept of Indie authors. Only traditionally published authors and self-published authors got their books into print, and only the former had a chance of getting their work into bookstores.

Print-on-demand (POD), which allowed publishers to print books only when they were ordered by bookstores rather than to do print-runs of thousands of copies in advance — necessitating warehousing of any un-shipped copies — revolutionized the printed book industry. Furthermore, the creation of e-books and portable, functional e-book readers allowed more authors without traditional representation in the New York publishing conglomerate to get their books out to potential readers. Since those markets didn’t even exist in 2000, none of those authors were included in the 1st edition of Mastering Point of View.

Since its initial publication, however, with the advent of POD and e-books, more Indie authors have been able to get their fine, well-written books out to the public via online bookstores. Many of these authors have become best-sellers, and all of the Indie authors cited in this book, many of whose work will be found excerpted throughout, are excellent authors who deserve special recognition for their courage in choosing Indie publication as well as for their mastery of fiction fundamentals and Point of View. All these authors, writing in many different genres, have Urgency in their opening sentences.

  • I have a way of becoming invisible. (Cecily Anne Paterson, Invisible)
  • This is the way the world ends — not with a bang or a whimper, but with zombies breaking down the back door. (Amanda Hocking, Hollowland, Book 1, The Hollows)
  • His movements were slow, his roots ripping free of the earth and then replanting with every step. (Emma Kathryn, “Tidal,” Puppets & Dolls)
  • From the first moment I laid eyes on him, I knew I was going to murder him. (Peter Dawes, Rebirth of the Seer, Book 1, The Vampire Flynn)
  • The hardest thing about killing a hitchhiker was finding one to pick up. (Blake Crouch & Jack Kilborn [J. A. Konrath], Serial)
  • Sarah Sawacki checked her watch against the clock on the dash and returned to her vigil. (John Potter, Chasing Innocence)
  • Killing someone is a lot harder than you’d imagine. (L. T. Vargus, Casting Shadows Everywhere)
  • The planet recedes rapidly in the viewport as I gaze upon it. (Drew Wagar, “Metal,” Fusion)
  • It wasn’t supposed to happen this way. (Seumas Gallacher, Vengeance Wears Black)
  • Boone Sumner sat in his pickup truck, gnawing the same thumbnail that he always gnawed when his nerves went a-jitter. (Aaron Saylor, Sewerville)
  • Oh, bugger. I had been hoping for a quiet evening. (John Dolan, Everyone Burns, Book 1, Time, Blood, and Karma)
  • The ship hung above the earth that had created it like a giant, old style compass needle, pointing towards the stars and potential salvation. (John Hoggard, “Baby Babble,” Fusion)

Don’t take any chances on not grabbing your reader’s attention from the very moment they pick up your book or look at a sample of your work. Put Urgency in your first sentence.

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Urgency must be maintained throughout the piece of fiction to be effective. Chapter 2 of Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych, for example, begins with this line: “Ivan Ilych’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible.” That’s fantastic Urgency and it’s in Unlimited Point of View.

Though it may seem artificial for you to continually have to be aware of Urgency as you’re writing the novel, it will not be artificial to your audience. On the contrary, even when an experienced writer reads other books with Urgency, the writer is still turning the pages as rapidly as he can to figure out what’s going to happen, just as any other readers would. As you make the Urgency integral to the plot, character development, or Voice, you can write in any Point of View and effectively maintain your readers’ interest.

Successful authors in all genres maintain Urgency. Diana Gabaldon’s bestselling novel Outlander demonstrates consistently maintained Urgency in First Person Point of View: her female protagonist, Claire, while on her second honeymoon in Scotland, is transported from 1945 back to the past in the early 1740s. While there, Claire constantly worries about getting back to her own time, even as she agrees to a marriage of “convenience” with a young Scottish clansman whom she finds physically and sexually attractive. Gabaldon maintains Urgency through plot (conflict) and character development.

In Book 1 of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring, author J. R. R. Tolkien ends virtually every small section within each chapter with Urgency. So each time there is additional white space — when a scene is changing — Tolkien puts in Urgency. He also puts it at the end of each chapter, but, surprisingly, that Urgency is not always as compelling as the Urgency at the end of each section. In any event, he consistently includes it — in plot (conflict), dialogue, character development, or Voice — to keep the story moving steadily forward and to keep his readers engaged.

George R. R. Martin does the same thing in his Song of Ice and Fire [Game of Thrones] series, which is written in Unlimited Point of View. Each chapter is from the perspective of a different character, and the chapter is titled with the name of that character. (Martin calls them “viewpoint” characters, but I’m not sure what that means; what I do know is that while most of the events in each individual chapter are related from said-title-character’s perspective, the entire series is written in Unlimited Point of View.) At the end of each character’s chapter, Martin ends with Urgency, usually in plot (conflict).

Chris Bohjalian, author of several best-selling books, including Midwives and The Law of Similars, is an absolute master of Urgency in plot (conflict), character development, and Voice. Many of his books use First Person Point of View, often presenting different perspectives. No matter the perspective, the Point of View, or the subject matter, Bohjalian consistently maintains Urgency throughout all of his works. As a fellow author, I can see perfectly well when he is putting Urgency in, but that doesn’t stop me from staying awake all night to keep turning the pages and discover what happens to his characters.

Maintaining Urgency, in any form, will keep your readers interested in your work, even if it is a series of books, running into thousands of pages. Without Urgency, readers will quickly lose interest in the fiction, so you need to master it before you attempt to master anything else.

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Since Urgency in achieved through plot, character development, and Voice, it can be maintained in any Point of View. Voice may be easier to develop in First Person Point of View, and so, the more fascinating the Voice of a narrator, the greater the Urgency would be. There are many examples of novels in First Person Point of View that have Urgency in plot and Voice, such as Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. However, there are many other books which develop and maintain Urgency in various Points of View, including Second Person (Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City), Unlimited (C. L. Bevill’s Bubba and the Dead Woman), and Outer Limited (Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy).

Urgency takes a little practice at first, but once an author understands the concept of Urgency as “the thing which keeps the reader turning pages” through plot, character development, Voice, or any combination of the three, then Urgency can be present in all Points of View.

Also, this is where your beta-readers (called “family and friends” when I was first publishing) will be most helpful in giving you feedback: to determine if your work has lost Urgency, simply ask your beta-readers, whether they be friends, family members, or paid professionals, to indicate any points in the work where they lost interest, put the work down to do something else that was not an emergency, or wanted to read some other book. If all your readers mark the same places, then you know you need to work on Urgency in those areas of your book.

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1. Go to the bookstore and spend an hour or so reading the opening lines of novels. How many of them impart Urgency? How many of them keep you turning pages, right there in the bookstore? How many of them do you buy so that you can finish reading? If a book can’t pass the Urgency test, it isn’t very likely to have either a large or an enthusiastic audience.

2. Write the first sentence of your novel and make sure it has Urgency, whether in plot, character development, or in Voice. The point of view doesn’t matter, so long as there’s Urgency. Pretend this is the only sentence your audience will read, that they’ll buy the book based on how intriguing or interesting they find this first sentence. Make it the best piece of writing you can. Now, show it to as many other people as you can and ask them the following questions:

  • Would they want to continue reading based on the first sentence alone? If so, then you do have Urgency. If not, you need to work on it.
  • Would they want to buy the book — as an e-book — based on the first sentence alone? If so, then you have good Urgency.
  • Would they want to buy the book — in paperback — based on the first sentence alone? If so, then you have better Urgency.
  • Would they want to buy the book — in hardcover — based on the first sentence alone? If so, then you have excellent Urgency.
  • Would they want to buy the book — in hardcover or paperback — and every other book you’ve written, based on the first sentence alone? If so, then you have fantastic Urgency, and you’ve definitely mastered this concept.

3. Write the first paragraph to the first sentence you wrote for exercise 1. Make sure you periodically include Urgency in the paragraph and that you end with Urgency. Show this paragraph to your readers, as many as you can find, and ask them the same questions you asked for the first exercise, substituting “the first paragraph” for “the first sentence.”

4. Write the title for your novel and make sure it has Urgency. Show this title to your readers, as many as you can find, and ask them the same questions you asked for the first exercise, substituting “title” for “the first sentence.” (Don’t get too attached to your titles, however, since editors and publishing houses have the contractual right to change the title: a title is for marketing purposes, and there are many stories of famous authors who say they simply never got used to the title of their published book, which was chosen by the editor. However, after my first book, none of my titles have ever been changed, so you can learn to put Urgency in your titles — marketable Urgency — and keep the titles you like: just think of the title as a marketing tool.)

Read excerpts from
Mastering Fiction & Point of View


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from Mastering Point of View: Using POV & Fiction Elements to Create Conflict, Develop Characters, Revise your Work, & Improve Your Craft; Revised, Updated, & Expanded; 20th Anniversary Edition; © 2001, 2011, 2012, 2014, 2017 by Alexandria Constantinova Szeman (originally published by Story Press, 2001). All rights reserved. Please do not quote or excerpt without accompanying copyright information.


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