Posts Tagged beginnings
Are you making an outline for NaNoWriMo?
We all need different levels of planning. Some writers like a step-by-step map so they can settle back and enjoy telling the story to the page. Others want the joy of discovery while their fingers are flying.
However you do it – whether formally beforehand or as your wordcount builds, these are the questions you need to tackle. (And even if you’re not doing NaNoWriMo, you might find them useful.)
Why is this story going to grab a reader?
All stories need to dangle a lure – an element of intrigue, the remarkable, the sense of something unstable, a disturbance. That could be:
- a literal outrage like a murder
- a dilemma that puts a character in an impossible position
- an event that appears to be ordinary to you or me, but is a profound challenge in the character’s life.
Unless you are deliberately exploring the ‘anti-remarkable’, ask yourself what will make the reader curious from the start? Something exciting? Something weird? Something horrifying, unjust or wrong? Something comical? Something the readers will recognise as part of their own lives? This will probably be your way into the story too.
Why are your protagonists and antagonists compelled to take part in the story? Why couldn’t they just turn around and walk away?
What is the first change that starts the story rolling?
Why does the story begin where it does? Have you started too soon, in order to get set-up in? Might you be better cutting those scenes and filling in the back story at natural moments further in? Or have you started too late and missed some moments the reader will enjoy?
How does it escalate?
No matter how bad the situation looks from the start, it needs to get worse or the story will seem stuck. As the narrative goes on, the events and what people do must matter more. The price of failure must rise. If you’re writing in conventional three-act structure, which movies follow, there will be definite points where the story shifts into new gears – these will be the quarter, half-way and three-quarter marks. But even if you aren’t, you need a point where everything totally blows up, and a moment where the characters feel the worst has happened.
I never would have thought…
How does the story take directions the reader wouldn’t have guessed – and how will you convince them that they are fair?
Is it still the same quest as it was at the start?
Most stories start with the main characters wanting or needing something, but that goal can change. A simple search for a lost dog becomes a crusade against the fur trade. Perhaps at the end your characters want the opposite to the thing they fought so hard for in the early days. Stories where the characters’ priorities shift are very powerful. Stories where they don’t can seem predictable.
In the end…
What does your ending resolve? How has the characters’ world changed? Can the story really go no further? Is anything left unresolved – and if it is, does that suit your needs?
Speed is of the essence in NaNoWriMo and it’s much easier to write characters when you’ve spent time getting into their skins.
Do you know a few trivialities about their daily lives? You might need a hobby for them to do to get themselves out of the way, or a commitment that might put them on a particular road when something happens. Have a list of a few likely trivialities about your characters, and then when you need one you don’t have to stop the flow.
But if you don’t have time for that, just insert a tag such as [findout] and come back to it in the revision.
Much more important is to know how they relate to each other in the story – because the best plot moments will grow from friction and alliances. Do you know who gets on with whom (or would if they got the chance to meet)? Which characters would never understand each other? If you gave them all the same challenge, how would they show their different mettles? Which story events will really push someone’s buttons?
That’s my template for starting a NaNo novel. What would you add? Share in the comments!
You can find tips for researching, outlining and what makes a robust story in my book, Nail Your Novel – Why Writers Abandon Books and How You Can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. Available on Kindle and in print. You also might like my multimedia course with Joanna Penn – more than 4 hours of audio and slides with an 86-page transcription – find it here.
Never begin your story with weather. This we hear for many good reasons. For example, Joe Konrath, who is spitting bolts of lightning after judging a story competition.
So I started reading The Rapture by Liz Jensen, and she begins thus:
That summer, the summer all the rules began to change, June seemed to last for a thousand years. The temperatures were merciless: thirty-eight, thirty-nine, then forty in the shade. It was heat to die in, to go nuts in, or to spawn. Old folk collapsed, dogs were cooked alive in cars, lovers couldn’t keep their hands off each other. The sky pressed down like a furnace lid, shrinking the subsoil, cracking concrete, killing shrubs from the roots up…’
It’s weather. Or is it? I rather liked it, so why does she get away with it?
1 It’s interesting
Weather is usually not interesting. Most of the time in real life, weather is a conversational gambit used by those who wish they had something better to talk about. It’s throat clearing. It’s asking for permission for a conversation. It’s perhaps a plea for the other person to think of something less dull to talk about. In writing, it’s often a hesitant moment as the writer wonders exactly how to introduce everything. ‘Er, there was a blue sky…’
But here, Liz Jensen has made extraordinary weather. It’s hardly even weather, in fact – it’s a dangerous setting, a war with the environment that makes living perilous. It skews the familiar – like that off-kilter opening from George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four:
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
2 It’s about people
We’re more curious about people than we are about things. Which would you rather hear – a story about a chair or a story about the people whose attic it ended up in?
In The Rapture, Liz Jensen makes her opening paragraph about the people and how their lives have been changed. Where normality is disrupted, a story is bound to happen. (In fact, this excerpt has a double dose of people because it turns out to be first person – but that’s not apparent here.)
3 A storyteller is luring us in
Opening paragraphs aren’t just about the events. Like the opening bars of a song, they’re an introduction to the writer’s voice. Liz Jensen’s piece is assured, phrased with pizzaz, visualised with an eye for the interesting. It persuades you to lie back and be charmed.
The writing world is full of rules and taboos and it’s easy to take them too literally. Beginning a story with weather isn’t the problem. Neither is looking in a mirror, describing a character, waking up or getting dressed. The problem is failing to be interesting, failing to show us characters, failing to convey a state of unease or instability and failing to cast a spell over the reader.
Thanks for the pic Larry Johnson
What else makes a good beginning? Let’s discuss examples… especially if they involve some of the traditional taboos
Last week Dave had a piece in the Huffington Post about the day his father took him, age 6, to meet a Dalek at the BBC, and then to watch Doctor Who being filmed. That evening we dug out the DVD of the old black and white story he saw filmed all those years ago.
More riveting than that story, though, was a feature on the extras about how the series was originally devised – the forms it might have taken and how much refining it took to get to its distinctive shape. On and off, inventing Doctor Who took about a year.
1 A sci-fi story about telepaths or time travellers, or a time-travelling police force, or scientific troubleshooters keeping experiments under control for political or humanitarian reasons
2 Characters are a handsome young male hero (Cliff), a well-dressed heroine age 30+ (Lola), a maturer man with a character ‘twist’ (no name yet). They are scientists with different skills operating from an HQ with a lab and a Sherlock Holmes-ish office where they interview people who need their help.
3 Scrap that, make Cliff and Lola teachers, and add a teenage pupil (Biddy) to get into trouble and make mistakes. Cliff is a hunk, because everyone likes a hunk. Maturer man is now 650 years old and called the Doctor. Their HQ is a time machine the Doctor has stolen from his people, an advanced civilisation on a distant planet.
4 Hey, what if the Doctor was a villain who wanted to travel back to the perfect time in history and stop the future happening…? (Stroke your chin now)
5 Hey, let’s call Biddy Susan and make her alien royalty. And Lola is called Barbara. Cliff is called Ian and he’s not so much of a hunk, more an average guy.
6 Susan is the Doctor’s granddaughter. And the Doctor’s a mysterious time traveller in an unreliable machine that disguises itself to blend in with its surroundings. Ian and Barbara don’t trust him, but they’re stuck in his ship. Conflict…. nice!
7 The ship won’t disguise itself. The series will be educational.
8 No, it won’t be educational, that sounds dreary and condescending. As you were.
We all do this
As those BBC dudes wrangled Doctor Who out of infinite possibilities, the questions they tackled were the questions all writers grapple with -
- who might we identify with?
- what kind of story do we want it to be?
- which of our ideas are in tune with that and which are derailing it?
- what makes it fit in its genre (and therefore the audience) and what makes it distinctive? Are any vital ingredients missing or misused?
- what will make it distinctive enough and allow us to take it in a new direction?
- what will cause conflict and drama?
- does it have enough mileage – for a whole novel or a whole series?
Few ideas descend fully formed on a lightning bolt. All the writers I know spend time banging heads with their ideas, fiddling with prototypes that are discarded and even forgotten. Our stories start as experiments and hunches – and when you think about it like that it seems so magical and random.
Almost as magical as a grainy production still from nearly 50 years ago, where there might just be a small wonder-struck face.
Thanks for the pic Machernucha
I just finished a novel I should have loved. As I read the climactic scenes I could see how they were supposed to work. A scene brought certain ends dramatically together. A character’s action had poetic parallels. Certain lines of dialogue resonated with the themes and echoed a casual utterance early on. The twist should have been an exquisite emotional ambush. A character was symbolically repeating acts from earlier in the story.
Neat as it was, dramatic as it was – it left me cold.
Because I didn’t care about the characters.
Drama isn’t about intellectual parallels or puzzle solving. Drama works on the heart, not the head.
It’s the same with beginnings. The usual advice to start a story with something attention grabbing can mistakenly be translated into a big bang for its own sake. A car crash, a bomb going off, a chase or a fight. They work much better if we know the people these events are happening to – if they matter to us.
Drama isn’t a bang, it’s a fright, a clench of anxiety. It’s not the event, it’s the feeling. And at the end of a book, the events, parallels, thematic repetitions are simply box-ticking if we’re not bonded to the characters at a closer emotional level.
So I looked back at where I became so detached reading that book. It all hinged around the central romantic relationship.
I didn’t see the relationship matter very much to the narrator. I didn’t see him pin hopes on it, worry about it or indeed react to it in any strong way. I didn’t see what life might be like if it went wrong.
It’s easy for writers to take the reader’s reaction to a relationship for granted. And of course, you don’t want too much hand-wringing or moping, but you do need to remind us, with story sleight of hand, that it’s important.
Also, it’s easy to forget to intrigue us. If the narrator is intrigued by the other character, make us captivated by them too.
Anyway, I came away with a reminder to always ask myself this question. To make my ending work, what do I need the reader to care about?
Thanks for the pic epSOS.de on flickr
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Writers often have trouble deciding where they’re going to start their story. The first chapter takes multiple rewrites, mind-changes, tweaks and deletions. Chapter 1 frequently has more scar tissue than any other part of a novel.
There are so many decisions to make about what to squeeze in and what to leave out. Sometimes writers get carried away and I see novels with any or all of:
- an introduction
- a mission statement
- an explanation of themes
- a foreword (which as a tweeter has pointed out is technically written by someone other than the author)
- a prologue
- or sometimes two prologues.
Often these are little more than instructions for how to read what follows. But there are times when a prologue is welcome. Here’s my guide to using prologues responsibly.
Not all bad
Readers relish prologues when:
- they show us something important that is out of the main story’s timeline, for instance something that would otherwise have to be shown in flashbacks or cumbersome exposition
- they show action or characterisation that the reader needs to understand chapter 1, for instance the start of a war or a quest
- they are vivid and entertaining in their own right
Even prologue enthusiasts do not like:
- an info-dump for its own sake – or back story that should be worked into the main text in a more natural way or was simply not needed (writers are prone to include too much back story and resort to prologues to shoehorn it in)
- when a prologue is really just the first chapter, given a fancy name – if you put prologue at the top, it had better be truly separate
- when a prologue is a rehash of a dramatic moment from later in the story, shown out of order because the start of the book does not have enough of a hook.
However, as with everything arty, there’s a fine balance to be struck. You can get away quite nicely with a prologue that comes from a scene near the end of the novel, to make us wonder how the characters got into such a mess.
Genre makes a difference
Some genres are more forgiving of prologues – fantasy and science fiction, for instance. These readers enjoy being plunged into unfamiliar worlds, and so the scene-setting aspect of a prologue is a helpful device.
But the closer the genre is to the everyday world of the reader, the less necessary a prologue is – because these readers want to be whirled in, immediately, to the people and the story they are going to follow, at the point that is most likely to hold their interest. They want you to unravel everything naturally and with your storytelling skill. However, they don’t mind:
- prologues that show a crisis from near the end of the novel – perhaps the main character on their deathbed or in some sort of showdown
- an event from a point of view that we will never revisit.
If you’re doing the latter, does it need to be a prologue? Many thrillers start with a startling event that happens to a character we will most likely never see again – quite often their gruesome demise. But these are usually called chapter 1. Why? Because they are the start of the story. Even though we’re probably not going to hear a squeak from those unfortunate characters again. If your opening could quite happily be called chapter 1, you don’t need to call it a prologue.
The first steps are the hardest
Novels are big. It’s always hard to work out how to introduce an enormous work you know intimately to someone who knows nothing about it – and to do justice to it. You’ll find this with the first chapter. You’ll also find it with the pitch you’ll write for an agent or editor, or the sales blurb, or if you try to answer that beastly question ‘what’s your novel about?’.
Sometimes prologues are useful and welcome. But make sure you really, really need one. And you probably don’t need two.
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In the meantime, share your thoughts on prologues – good and bad – and examples if you have any!
I put a tweet up this morning that’s been causing trouble. I was summarising a point from Ingrid Sundberg’s series on plots.
In my tweet I summarised a paragraph I thought made a great point: ‘Plot is always linear, but story doesn’t have to be.’ And so the tweet-storm began, showing that such a point can’t be adequately explored in a space the size of a bird’s chirrup.
First a few definitions. In the nature of a self-taught craft, we all mean slightly different things by our writing terminology. Indeed sometimes I’ve used ‘linear’ to mean a predictable plot with no twists and surprises (as in Nail Your Novel). Here, I’m using linear to mean, as Ingrid did, A, then B, then C… and so on – possibly (hopefully) with surprises, reversals etc. In other words, the timeline of the characters’ lives in chronological order. What they saw as the clock ticked through each day and night. That’s linear.
Spice it up
But storytellers don’t have to stick to that order.
We cut away to another story – a sub-plot, a parallel plot. Maybe slip in some back story. And if we have a scene that ends on tenterhooks, we shuffle a few cards in from a different pack to keep the reader tingling a little longer. That’s the storytelling part of the job – what you do with the material.
Use the shuffling as an integral part of the story and you end up with the time-hops of The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger – although that novel has both because the main character’s life unfolds chronologically and everyone else’s timeline jumps around.
On Twitter, Marc vun Kannon leaped on my tweet to point out: ‘Plot is not always linear. It’s easier to synopsize if it is, though.’
Good point. And one of the reasons I wanted to talk about this at greater length is that I see manuscripts where the writer has attempted something daring with structure, but has got themselves confused. I know it not just from the text, but from the shiver of horror when I ask ‘just tell me, chronologically, this character’s life in the book’. It’s incredibly easy to confuse a reader, especially if you’re making it up as you go along.
Do it in order first
If you’re timebending or rewinding or flashbacking or Groundhog-daying or getting surreal or showing a series of vignettes that add up to a whole or chopping around like the film Memento, you the writer need to know what the simple order is. In some cases, it might be better to write it like that first, then mix it up later. If you do it that way, you can also experiment with the best possible order.
Good storytelling is about doing only what’s necessary. Some novice writers seem to do it without any clear artistic reason. You shouldn’t do it just because you can. Check that your fiddling and shuffling does actually add something. Again, taking Memento as an example, on the DVD you can watch it in chronological order and you can see that version is not nearly as interesting.
In my novel Life Form 3 I decided my most interesting hook came a quarter of the way through. So I lopped off the first section – but instead of consigning it to back story I made it into a mystery, which the character had to unlock. This gave the story far more tension and momentum.
If your novel is exploring themes, you might find you can reinforce these by the way you cut between different sets of characters. Shakespeare is fond of this – in King Lear he has the scene where Lear splits his kingdom and Cordelia refuses to play ball, then shortly afterwards we see the sub-plot characters talking about legitimate and illegitimate offspring. This creates the sense of a universe where the usual laws of family are going to be bent and upset.
Okay, I’ve run out of examples for now. Give me yours in the comments!
My Memories of a Future Life is now available in full, undivided form on Kindle (US and UK) and is now also available in glorious, doormat-thumping, cat-scaring print. The price of the individual episodes will stay at the launch offer of 0.99c until 15 October, and will then go to their full price of USD$2.99. They’ll always be available, but if you want to get them at the launch price, hie on over to your Amazon of choice (UK, DE, rest of world) now. You can also listen to or download a free audio of the first 4 chapters over on the red blog.