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Posts Tagged how to write the beginning
I get a lot of emails about the beat sheet revision exercise I describe in Nail Your Novel. I’ve just prepared an example for my Guardian masterclass using the opening of Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 so I thought you guys might find it helpful.
Bradbury is one of my heroes for the way he explored science fiction ideas in a lyrical style – and indeed he described himself as a writer of fables rather than SF. Strong influence there for my own Lifeform Three, in case you were wondering. Anyway, creating the beat sheet made me admire Fahrenheit even more so I thought it would be fun to share my discoveries here. (Discreet cough: spoiler alert…)
First of all, what’s a beat sheet?
It’s my absolute rescue exercise for revision. Think of it as an x-ray of your draft. It lets you check the structure, pacing, mood of scenes, character arcs, keep control of plots and subplots, wrangle your timeline – all the problems you can’t see when you’re lost in a sea of words. And you can learn a lot if you make a beat sheet of a book you admire.
Here’s how it’s done. You summarise the book, writing the scene’s purpose and add its mood in emoticons. Either use an A4 sheet and write small, or a spreadsheet. Be brief as you need to make this an at-a-glance document. Use colours for different plotlines or characters. Later you can draw all over it as you decide what to change. This is the first third of Fahrenheit 451.
- Intro Montag, startling wrongness, brutality of burning scene :0
- Meets C, explanation of fireman job + role. Establishes M’s alienation from
natural world & how people are isolated
- M ” home. Wife overdosed :0 !
- Horror/desperation of rescue, texture of deeper sadness :0, concealment of
true feelings, everyone’s doing this
- Morning. Wife doesn’t remember. M isolated with the horror. TV gives people substitute for company
- M meets C again, disturbed by her, fascinated by her curiosity & joy
- Intro to mechanical hound. Brutal games other firemen play. M hated it & feels threatened by hound. Guilty secret :0
- Friendship with C deepens. She’s misfit. Explanation of how kids are
- taught in school. Other kids as brutal as firemen. M increasingly drawn to her outlook
- M progressively more alienated & uncomfortable :0 Goes with firemen to house. Steals book ! Woman defends her books & sets fire to herself !!
- Men shaken. Captain B pulls them together
- M too upset/afraid to go to work. Tries to talk to wife. Wife’s priority is for him to keep his job & buy gadgets. Can’t comprehend or notice M’s distress :0
- B visits – pep-talk, history lesson. Wife finds concealed book ! Does B know?
- M confesses :0 ! Is B friend or foe? ? !
- M confesses to wife ! He has 20 books !! Now she could be in trouble too. Furious. Persuades her to start reading !!!…
So that’s how it’s done.
Now, even more delicious, what can we learn from Mr Bradbury?
Beginnings are tricky – what information do you show? Bradbury gives us a lot, but makes it memorable and entertaining with his use of contrast.
First is the startling close-up of the books being burned and the brutal relish in his description. Next is the conversation with Clarice McLellan, the kooky neighbour who seems to come from a completely different, gentler world. Third scene is Montag’s home life. (We can see this from the colours – blue for work, orange for the conversations with the intriguing girl, yellow for home.)
We’re probably expecting the home scene, so Bradbury keeps us on our toes and breaks the pattern. It’s no regular scene of domesticity. It’s Mildred Montag’s suicide bid. There follows a horrifying scene where technicians pump her out, routine as an oil change. It builds on those two emotions we’ve seen in the earlier scenes – the brutality from scene one (brought by the technicians), and the sensitivity from scene two (Montag’s reaction). In just three scenes, the world is established – and so is the book’s emotional landscape. A brutal, despairing world and a sensitive man.
Connecting us with the character
In the next scene, Mildred is awake, chipper, and has no memory of the previous night. Only Montag knows how dreadful it was and he can’t make her believe it. She is only interested in talking about the new expensive TV gadget she wants. This confirms Montag’s isolation and disquiet. And ours. We are his only confidante. We’re in this with him.
In each of those scenes, something is changing – Montag is being surprised or upset (or both). Although Bradbury is acquainting us with the world and the characters, he is also increasing Montag’s sense of instability. As you’ll see from the beat sheet, the later scenes continue that pattern.
Pressure and relief: reflects the character’s inner life
Look at the emoticons. They show us the mood of each scene and, cumulatively, of the book. But successive scenes of pressure (action, perhaps, or upsetting events) can wear the reader down. That’s one of the reasons why we might have a moment of relief – downtime around the campfire, or a brief flash of humour. These relief scenes often carry enormous impact because of the contrast.
Fahrenheit 451 builds this atmosphere of a brutal world, and we notice it quickly. The only relief is in the conversations with Clarice – so the reader’s need for relief mirrors Montag’s internal state. Reader bonded to the main character by the author’s handling of mood. What perfect, controlled storytelling.
I could go on, but this post is long enough already. And we need time to discuss!
The beat sheet is one of the tools in Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and how you can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence. More here
And more about Lifeform Three here
Have you made beat sheets of your own novels, or novels you admire? Are there any questions you want to ask about beat sheets? Or let’s carry on the discussion about Fahrenheit 451. Ready, aim, fire
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It’s planning time on The Mountains Novel. I have the scenes spread out on cards and the dining table is out of bounds (see Two authors in the house).
At the moment I’m taking a hard look at the set-up chapters. Of course I’ve got my own spider sense, but it’s rather fun to have a guide to remind me of what I might not be seeing. (And what I might be ignoring because, well, to change it would be inconvenient.) So I’m sharing the fun with KM Weiland’s rather useful new book Structuring Your Novel.
Today, she is reminding me what I need by the first plot point, roughly a quarter of the way through my story.
Introduce the setting and world
I need to establish where the story takes place, what era, what special things might be interesting or significant about the world. A setting isn’t just any old backdrop. It’s the perfect resonant environment for themes and the characters’ plights. I’m making sure my beginning gives inklings of this, while still seeming entirely natural.
Introduce the main characters
By the end of act one, I need to have the major characters established. The reader must know who they are, what makes them individuals (and distinct from each other), what their beliefs and dilemmas are, where the instabilities and disturbances might be in their lives. Even if I’m going to reveal more later, I have to give the reader enough to provoke their curiosity.
Make the reader care
Curiosity isn’t enough. The reader must feel emotionally bonded to my protagonists. Whether they’re Mr Average or someone extraordinary, I need to show their humanity. Indiana Jones has a fear of snakes; Winston Smith feels an urge to write a diary even though it’s against the rules. (In Winston’s case, his streak of humanity is going to draw him into danger. If I can combine any of these set-up steps, that will look very smart.)
Establish the need and the stakes
By the end of act one, the reader needs to understand what the main characters want. Perhaps they want to solve a crime or murder their uncle. Perhaps they want to stop their family finding out about their secret life. The reader must also understand why this is so personally important – and what failure will cost them. This is the other half of making the story matter.
Back story on a need-to-know basis
There’s quite a lot of background to establish, but it must be done – as much as possible – with scenes that advance the plot, rather than pages of explanation. Back story is important, of course, but we need to earn the space for it. Deploy back story only when the reader is hungry to know.
Add an element that makes sense of the ending
The story’s ending must resonate with the beginning. Perhaps it answers a question, solves a problem, resolves an imbalance. But if the seeds of the end aren’t in the opening, it will not be so satisfying.
The first big change at the quarter mark
Just as I have all that bubbling, I have to push the story over a point of no return. The characters make a choice, cross a Rubicon. Perhaps disaster strikes – and that dreaded event becomes reality. Why is this a quarter of the way through? As Katie points out, readers – and moviegoers – have an innate story clock. No matter how interested and enthralled they are, if you don’t shift the goalposts at a quarter through, they’ll feel the story is slow.
And now to work
Right. I’ve got some fine-tuning to do on the beginning of The Mountains Novel. If you follow me on Twitter you’ll know that KM Weiland is one of my favourite writing bloggers. Her book is as clear and wise as her blog posts and I recommend it – whether you’re writing beginnings, middles or ends.
In the meantime, tell me: what stage are you at with your WIP?
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