Thursday, 26 April 2012

The Best Place To Start Your Story

Let's start at the very beginning...
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In The Sound of Music, Julie Andrews said it best, “Let's start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.”

Sounds easy, right? But the most common mistake among new writers is to put waaaaay too much back story in the first few paragraphs.


That's valuable real estate. Let go of the notion your MC won't be interesting unless we know all about them on the first page.


Stephen King says, “Good books don't give up their secrets at once.”

And neither should your character. Let us learn about your MC slowly, as the story progresses.

Let's say your MC is stuck in traffic.

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Lenny pulled on the steering wheel and leaned forward. He craned his neck, trying to see around the cab in front of him. He checked his watch and swore under his breath, then began to jab the stereo buttons, changing the radio channels.

Then you fill in the space with the fact he's a hit man—make that newly retired hit man, soon to be engaged to his high school sweetheart—but he's breaking his promise to his girlfriend by doing this one last job.

But when he finally arrives at the location of the assassination, his stomach drops. The only way to get to the penthouse is by taking the glass elevator that runs up the side of the one hundred story plus building. Lenny's last hit will be one of the city's most notorious mob bosses. This one will pay off big time, and Lenny needs the dough. He has to hire a big shot lawyer to help him get custody of his kid from his ex-wife and her alcoholic boyfriend...blah, blah, blah.

Don't bore you reader
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Still here? You don't have to lose all that stuff, but instead slowly add the elements of Lenny's story as the story unfolds. Make the reader wonder why, instead of telling them right off the bat.

Get out your WIP and go to your favorite part of the first few chapters. Now start the story from there. Yes, right there! The stuff you had at the beginning can be threaded into the later chapters or chucked out all together.

Deep breaths. It's all about playing with words, relax. It's not brain surgery, that's easy compared to writing.

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Let's check back in with Lenny. By this time he's entered the building and started to take the elevator. Why not the stairs, you ask. Duh—over a hundred flights!

Lenny made sure the elevator was empty before he stepped inside and pressed the button to the penthouse. When the doors closed behind him, it was as quiet as a tomb, then there was a jolt. Lenny felt himself being lifted up, but the ground fell away so smoothly it seemed like he was still, and it was the earth that was moving instead.

He breathed in through his nose and focused on the horizon, just like his shrink told him. And it worked—for the first ten floors, then Lenny made the mistake of looking down.

His stomach knotted painfully and his balls tried to crawl up inside his gut. Lenny swallowed, setting off a series of painful spasms down his throat. His gloved hands gripped on the brass handrail.

Lenny froze, afraid to move even a step, hyper aware of how reactive the elevator was to his weight. His eyes traced up the panel, all the way to the one hundred button, then finally the top one labelled PH—penthouse. At least he made sure to put on the gloves before he pressed it. First rule; leave no fingerprints. Lenny stared at those two letters, trying to focus, he needed to get a grip.

Isn't that a better beginning compared to Lenny driving in the car thinking about EVERYTHING in his past, present and future?

Keep your reader guessing. Give little tidbits and hints about Lenny a bit at a time. Why the heck is this guy taking a glass elevator to the penthouse if he's so afraid of heights? Also, the mention of the fingerprints hints to something illegal, and therefore more interesting than a trip to the dentist.

And why is he afraid of heights? Is there a childhood trauma you can start to thread into the story? How has it affected his character? How does it affect the choices he makes in his life?

Donald Maas, President of the Donald Maas Literary Agency, regularly tweets tips on writing. Check this one out, What's the big thing your MC must do at the end? Make it the one thing he/she has sworn never to do.

Another reason a good beginning is essential to any story—is because it also helps with the ending. Since we've established Lenny is afraid of heights, we can use that for the finale.

What if Lenny botched the hit in the penthouse because his fear of heights incapacitated his ability to follow through with the job? And what if that set off a violent series of events leading to the mob bosses rise to power, taking innocent lives along the way—including Lenny's girlfriend?

This nicely sets up a confrontation scene between Lenny and the mob boss. Put them on the scaffolding of an unfinished skyscraper. What will it take for Lenny to win? What has Lenny learnt about himself that will help him defeat his own fears?

I hope this helps your writing.

For kicks and giggles, leave the first few sentences of your WIP in the comments!

Next Monday I'll be blogging the latest episode of Once Upon A Time.



Anonymous said...

Ooooo, neat stuff! In my youth, (six/seven thousand years ago) I wrote a five paragraph background for a nasty piece o' work my protag incounters in the first chapter and NEVER AGAIN. Five. Paragraphs. Never. Again.

Then, with the guidance of a good coach, a crit group, a 12-step, gum, and a patch, I gave up the Robert Ludlum school of writing. Then I culled out one sentence from each paragraph, then cut to the three most interesting sentences, and finally wrapped those sentences into the dialogue to add weight to the tension.

Now if you still care here's the first three from my crime novel:

Roosevelt Prejean cut across the dark cow pasture to avoid the darker road, deep ditches and headlights bobbing over broken asphalt. His neighbors shared rides on the predawn commute to hard-money jobs around Fort Sill. After a night slinging weed and pills on the whore stroll in Lawton Roosevelt hiked to his mom’s house.

Thanks, BR. This is fun.

BR Myers said...

Great opening, Elias.

Although (don't you hate how people always want to change your stuff?) I think the impact is greater if you put the last sentence first.

After a night of slinging wee and pills on the whore stroll in Lawton, Roosevelt Prejean hiked to his mom's house...yadda, yadda, yadda.

Thanks, man. Cheers!

G. B. Miller said...

Sadly, no work in progress that I can post here. I'm currently trying to complete a trunk novel so that I can dig out another trunk novel that is in the same vein as my recently sold debut.

However, I'm impressed that you'd managed to create an interesting short story while writing about how to properly begin a story.

BR Myers said...

Thanks, G.B. Good luck with your novel with Solstice and all the others that will surely follow!

Anonymous said...

GBM, congrats on the sale and on the reviving the truck.

Anonymous said...

Now I got something to toy with (and a great excuse) instead of that yard work. Thanks, BR, you're good peeps.

Anonymous said...

Oops, that's supposed to be reviving the trunk. The trunk novel, novel from the trunk you're reviving. Now, back to my communication of stories through writing words.

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