Sunday, October 2, 2011

Writing Advice 15 — How To Begin

What’s the most important invention of all time? One person claimed it was the computer. The next said no, computers wouldn’t work if not for electricity, so electricity was more important. The next claimed electricity could not have been invented without writing which allowed the sharing of ideas, so writing was more important. Finally, someone said, you could not have had writing without language. So language was the most important invention of all time, because it came first and without it, none of the other inventions of mankind would have been possible.

This idea of one thing enabling the next and therefore by this virtue being more important, is what makes the beginning of any story the most important part. To put it in a more practical sense, editors, slush-pile workers, and general readers have a tendency to only look at the first page, or even the first few sentences, of any book before deciding to either drop it or keep it. So unless that first page is good enough to grab your reader, you’ll never have the chance to invent electricity, or a computer.

There are three things to keep in mind when starting a story.

1. Start your story where the story starts.
2. Ground your reader immediately
3. Make the first sentence kill.

Start Your Story Where The Story Starts

I was recently at the Baltimore Book Festival and heard author Toby Devens talk about how when she wrote My Favorite Midlife Crisis (yet), her editor told her that her book started on chapter three, and asked why she “cleared her throat” for three chapters before getting to it. Toby loved her first three chapters, but trusting her editor decided to cut the chapters and sprinkle that info throughout the rest of the book, after doing so she realize how much better the book became.

This is not unusual. Most authors have discovered this phenomenon, this tendency to have to settle into a story before starting it, and then having to go back and trim off the front end excess. I’m not sure I’ve ever written a book that began where I first started writing. Avempartha had the first chapter and a half cut. Nyphron Rising used to start on what is now page 101. And Theft of Swords had a whole new section added to the first chapter of what was The Crown Conspiracy.

Most of this is due to the writer’s misplaced desire to establish a foundation, to present some basic information they feel the reader will need to fully appreciate what comes next. This is also called, Setting the Stage. This is the most logical concept in the world and is also one of  the worst things you can do, because by the time you’ve adequately set the stage to begin your story, your reader has already grown bored and closed the book. The solution to this problem is to start with the event—the “action”—and (just as Toby did) sprinkle what used to be the stage setting, in the cracks. Hook the reader, get them interested, then and only then, present them with the information, which by that time they are dying to know.

So many books begin with a lifeless description that says nothing. This is particularly prominent in invented-world fantasy where the author likes to jump right in and start educating you  about their world.

In the year of the Exnox, before the reign of the One-Handed King, when Asifar was still a province of Tripidia before the first of the Haglin Wars that decided the fate of all the inhabitants of Estifar, a boy was born to the tribe of Grangers and his name was Firth. It was in the wet season the Grangers called Kur that the boy was born into the house of Janicy, who were known for their hunting skills. All Grangers were known for hunting as well as archery as their ancestors came down from the Ithinal Mountains to…

Get my point or need I go on?

In this story, which I just invented as an example, but which is typical of the beginning of about eighty percent of invented-world fantasies, the story would go on for about thirty pages of this sort of thing until in the third chapter or so, after little Firth has grown up a bit you might read:

The axe came down at his head and Firth dove to the side to avoid being cleaved in half. Trevor was supposed to train him, not kill him, but before Firth had gained his feet, Trevor was swinging again.

This is where the story actually starts. All that other stuff, all those thirty pages covering the history of Firth’s tribe and the world as well as Firth’s youth, can all be sprinkled in along the way of the story, being brought up when the story requires it. A funny thing can happen if you do this. You discover there never is an appropriate place to add all that back story and world building —what’s more you discover you don’t need it. All that junk just isn’t necessary for the story. It’s great for you, the author, to know as it helps underpin the reality of your world, but other than that it is just extra stuff that weighs a story down. It is the scaffolding and sheets that need to be removed once the building is up. Some readers have developed a taste for excessive world building that extends far beyond the scope of a story, but I feel this writing style is what keeps fantasy from reaching more mainstream readers, who would prefer not to have an invented history lesson to go with their story.

And if you’re writing a thriller, well…you’d better thrill right out of the gate. The floor needs to drop out from under your character’s feet and he/she needs to be in near constant free-fall at least through the first few pages. I’ve never written a romance, but I’m actually thinking a sex scene would be a great way to start one. If you’re doing a mystery, start with the unanswered question.

There is a flip side to this that you need to be aware of. Starting with “action” (action is in quotes because I don’t actually mean physical movement, but an event-of-note,) can be detrimental to the story if there is no context to give it value. Which leads me to the next thing to keep in mind.

Ground Your Reader Immediately

It can be extremely irritating to a reader if a book begins in a nebulous space where nothing is defined. This is one of the reasons I hate the relatively recent trend to create prologues, as prologues are almost always designed to be nebulous things. Moments out of context where the subjects, actions or settings are often never identified.

Heil struggled to grasp the plastic toggle that flittered about like an insane snake. She shifted her shoulders and hips, and found herself spinning, which only disoriented her more. Time was running out and still she had yet to even touch the toggle with her freezing fingers. What if it did nothing? Heil’s heart hammered in her chest and thundered in her ears. If only she could grab it. But what would really happen then?

This story starts with heart pounding action, but for all its urgency, it isn’t compelling because we have no idea about anything. Who is this person? Where are they? When are they? What’s happening? What’s at stake? None of it makes sense, and unless answers are very soon forthcoming, frustration will cause the reader to close the book.

It is therefore important to ground your reader, plant their feet securely on a stable footing. I always imagine that when I open a book I am being teleported though a random portal and will appear somewhere inhabiting the body of someone else. Just like in the old tv show Quantum Leap, the first thing I want to know is who I am, when and where I am, and what am I doing and why. Until I know this I feel disoriented and I am not focusing on the story so much as trying to answer these questions. Sometimes this “reader in the dark” technique is useful—most often I see this used successfully in short fiction where discovering what’s going on is the story. Other than that, starting a book and keeping your reader hooded like some poor hostage will likely cause them to have similar feelings about the experience. The best way to provide the needed information is by using the techniques in the previous blog post—multitasking—to present the “action” while at the same time slip in these essentials that provide the event with context and, as a result, value.

Consider how much more the previous scene would mean if it began:

Heil had ten more seconds to discover how to pull the ripcord before she hit the ground.

And finally…

Make the First Sentence Kill

If the first page is the most important because it comes first, the first sentence is the most important of the most important. The holy of holies. This, all by itself, can be the difference between someone publishing you, or reading you. At that same Baltimore Book Festival author Michel Swanwick explained how experienced slush pile editors only read the first and last sentences of a manuscript before deciding what pile to put them in, “read later” or “reject.”  The first sentence is also, as in sports talk, one of those stats that are remembered and quoted.

It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.— George Orwell, 1984

It is  a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife. — Jane Austin, Pride and Prejudice

Who is John Gault? — Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged

These are just a few of the classic first sentences of novels.

Oddly enough, one of the most famous first lines ever, (and a lot of people’s favorite) I personally feel, is one of the worst. That would be Charles Dicken’s Tale of Two Cities:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times

That’s usually all anyone knows, and most think that’s the whole sentence. It’s not. This is the full sentence:

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

That’s one sentence, a total of one hundred and nineteen words. Com’on grammar Nazis are you going to tell me this sentence is not rife with errors? The man’s not even using semicolons to separate complete sentences. The real problem I have with this sentence is that, aside from being an insane run-on, it ultimately says nothing of value beyond what could have been encompassed in “It was a day like any other day,” which is about as tedious a beginning to a novel as I can think of. So the man wrote over a hundred words to say something that wasn’t necessary.

Before I get hate mail from Dicken’s fans, I should mention I love Dickens. I also recognize that he wrote in a different age—it was a time of elaborate exposition, it was a time of wordiness, and times have changed—reader’s tastes have changed with them.I'm pretty sure if someone submitted this as the first line of a modern manuscript, it would be rejected fairly fast.
So the first sentence of your book should be a thing of beauty that can be taken out of context and still rock people’s worlds.
Although I still suffer from chronic depression, I don’t hear the voices anymore.
The door handle turned, the light went out, and all I heard was screaming.
These are first sentences waiting for a story.
A good first sentence should make you stop and think…whoa—I want to know more. It is the single showcase for your literary skill, the dressed front window of your Fifth Avenue store two weeks before Christmas. It needs to draw customers inside with its exquisite beauty, clever wording, and shocking impact.
The problem with creating the world’s best opening is that you can’t just stop there. A common mistake is to craft a perfect first sentence, then pull a bait-and-switch, where the sentence really has nothing to do with what follows. This is the sort of bad reporting you might find on a really sleazy news show.
The President drown today...
…in a sea of red tape.
Whatever clever beginning you create to capture the reader, you need to make it pertinent to the rest of the paragraph and to the story as a whole. Readers don’t like to be lied to.
So start your story where it begins, not after your reader has closed the book; ground the reader to provide context value, and punch the reader hard in the face with a stunning first sentence that will keep them reeling until you so thoroughly wrapped them up in your tale they will never escape.
That’s the bell. Next week: Making it Snow


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  7. Great advice from an experienced writer. I read your stories and I understand that you are a master of your craft!
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