(Now that I sent out critiques, I’m receiving responses to the First Five Pages Project. No suicides, so that’s good. A few of the writers mentioned having read and appreciated the writing advice essays I’ve posted on this blog and are presently ensconced in the bar on the right. I had no idea my ramblings on writing had impact, but since it appears to have, and because I see a number of people struggling with how to start a story, I thought I would make another.)
Take offs and landings are always the scariest parts of any flight—stories are no different. Getting off the ground in time to clear the trees and not spill the luggage from the overhead bins isn’t as easy as skilled pilots make it seem.
Writers, invented world fantasy writers especially, often feel like the concerned friend walking into the living room of a horder. Where do you even begin? When you set a story in a new universe, there is so much you need to get across to the reader before they can begin to grasp the story you want to tell. The result is often an explosion of information, what I call the wall of noise, and others refer to, more affectionately as, the learning curve. Many authors have famously built giant walls with indifference to the reader. This sink or swim mentality is often lauded—among those who swim. The deeper the water, the stronger the deadly current, and the farther the opposite shore, the more the successful swimmers brag of the author’s excellence, mostly due to their own sense of pride in having survived the struggle. This hazing initiation has its merits, but I feel it has even more detriments. The most obvious is lack of audience, and quite often lack of career.
So how can you avoid the wall of noise in a story where many words don’t even have definitions yet? And how can you build characterization and setting without huge piles of exposition? And how can you grab a reader’s interest, and hold it?
One way to approach the opening of a novel is to treat it as a short story with a loose end, and that loose end can work as a splinter in the skin of the reader. But such a splinter can’t be inflicted on a reader without some context. A scream, or someone yelling “help!” isn’t too likely to elicit a response because anyone hearing them won’t know the circumstance. Maybe the shouting person is just kidding, or playing a game. This is why a fantastically exciting start to a story isn’t good enough. Without context, it can be bewildering. If, however, you can see the person screaming is a child standing next to an adult who is bleeding on the street, a response is more likely to result. To truly set the splinter deep, you first need to establish what’s going on, and who is involved.
The trick to this is that the situation needn’t be complex. It can, and often should be, simple. A character can be in a panic having lost their keys or glasses. They can run out of hot water in the shower. They can step in a puddle on the way to a crime scene, or they can be determining which wire to cut on a bomb with ten seconds left to decide. The point is that the issue at hand needs to be easily comprehended by the reader, because the problem, or tension, in the scene isn’t the point. The real purpose of the scene is to establish the character and setting. The crisis is merely the vehicle. Allowing the reader to quickly, and easily, grasp the situation—the goal and the obstacles to success—grants them the ability to focus on the Who and Where. And how the players in the drama act is the means by which a writer can establish characters, and show rather than tell.
In the opening scene of House of Cards, the main character is faced with a mortally injured dog. This has nothing at all to do with the plot of the series, or even the episode, but everything to do with establishing the character’s personality and the tone of the show. Often the opening of a story isn’t about The Big Event, but a scaled down version, the first symptom, or instance, of the coming storm—as in Stephen King’s The Stand. Sometimes this first instance can be a failure that provides the learning experience that comes in handy in the big moment. This is best handled as an insignificant event that the reader will dismiss, such as losing one’s glasses or keys.
You never want to confuse a reader. That is the surest way to get a closed book. Boredom is another and often holds hands with confusion, as being confused is often boring. Just present the situation, and after that you can have fun.
This brings me to the raccoon.
I know you’ve been wondering about the raccoon since you read the title, and have been thinking, “what does all this have to do with a falling raccoon?” That’s the point. Imagine a story that begins…
“The raccoon fell from the bridge and Bob had to catch it.”
This is easy to read and simple to understand and yet it asks so many questions that readers will need to read on to find the answers to. Why is a raccoon falling from a bridge? Why does Bob have to catch it? Who is Bob? What bridge? What is this all about?
Okay, a catchy opening isn’t that hard. Just throw out some absurd sentence (or raccoon) and you’ll catch attention. So, of course, that’s not enough. You need to back it up. A bait and switch will make a reader dislike you very quickly. Writing: “The President killed…!” only to follow it up with, “with his State of the Union speech,” won’t win you an audience. The opening has to be a shining example of your style and tone going forward. (This is often why many writers just write a book and then cut off the first chapter or two, starting where the story gets going, where they’ve hit their stride.) Creating a short story, or limited scenario, at the start helps this, and also helps limit the scope. You don’t need to explain everything; you just need to explain this one little thing.
The landmine to avoid is the explanations that you feel a need to make to ensure the reader knows why. Resist it. Make it clear what is happening, but drag your feet on why. The reader is a bystander with bad timing. As a writer you hold your finger up toward the reader and say, “Hang on a minute—I’m busy. Can’t you see the falling raccoon?”
String the reader along. After all, you have a perfectly good reason—the raccoon. You’ll explain later, but right now you have this issue of a plummeting animal to deal with, so let’s focus on that right now, okay? And by the time the crisis is over, this bystander (the reader) is impressed by the ingenuity, the courage, the quirky cynicism, the hilarious optimism, or the incredible skill or superpower of the main character, and the focus stops being on why did this raccoon fall and more on who is this interesting person I just met who catches raccoons?
So the first scene should be immediate, active, simple, engaging, and not necessarily connected to the main storyline except in a symbolic or hidden manner, but allow for character and scene development on a limited scale. Once this little intro-short story is over, the reader should be adequately ensnared in your web of words and hopelessly unable to escape your bonds of intriguing questions. At that point you can begin filling them in, a bit at a time leading them ever deeper into your world, a place from which they will never leave, or want to.