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Saturday, January 17, 2015

Beginner Mistakes - Where to start the story

One of the biggest beginner mistakes in writing is where to start their story. But there’s all this important stuff that leads up to that. So finding the beginning of the story is probably the most difficult thing for newbie authors to do. Start with the action. Um, yeah, what are you writing? Not everyone has the reflective glint as the knife slashes into the shadowy figure in the alleyway. But maybe she is standing on the ladder at the building supply store, and as she lifts one thing from a shelf, she sets off an avalanche of boxes. Or maybe she turns her ankle as she steps off the curb.

Is he attempting to settle the feeling from his morning granola bar of the peanuts and raisins battling in his stomach as he gets into the elevator? We don’t want to know that he’s a Yale graduate and has always been top in his class or that his father was a former Senator and now CEO of a Fortune 500 company. You can tell us that stuff later! The first few sentences need to grab the reader’s attention and let the reader identify with the character. And all that important stuff that leads up to that starting point? Weave it in later. And don’t give it in big chunks. Little bits carefully chosen can be added here in there, often in conversation.

Since I don’t write suspense or anything that will make you sit on the edge of your seat finding the beginning isn’t always easy because there are no dead bodies. It’s that way for many authors, so look for those places to start. I often suggest that people write whatever it is that they want to write with all that back history stuff and then put it in its own file. Now what?

I’ve heard agents say they don’t want to read another opener with someone sitting in the car with the windshield wipers sloshing back and forth. But we have to start someplace! Maybe sitting in that car isn’t the best place to start. Can you move it up another paragraph or two? Maybe she need to scurry into the building - drenched.

Yes, you want a powerful first sentence that will set the tone for the entire story. It was the best of times… Is considered by many as the most famous and most powerful opening line and the worst is considered to be: It was a dark and stormy night, the rain fell in torrents—except at occasional intervals… But writing that incredible first line is often near impossible and even if you found that amazing line, the next few paragraphs have got to be great. The next few pages have to be super and you’ve got to keep your readers turning the pages breathlessly awaiting the conclusion of your story and if it ends too soon for them because it’s not a 150,000 page tome… You got the picture? The trick is to draw the reader into the story. Allow the reader to bond with the character or characters. You must do that quickly.

Years ago, we’d walk into our favorite bookseller and grab a book with a cover that appealed to us. Maybe it had that hunky guy on the cover or a beautiful mansion/castle in the English countryside. And what did you do? You read that first page. You might read the first pages of ten books, but one of those books had you reading to page five and that’s the one you bought. Was it really the opening line? No. It was because that story sucked you in. It made you identify with the character and keep reading.

For some, reading an opening that had a man stumbling across the battlefield with the stench of decay all around him would be enough of a hook to keep many readers reading. For others, it’s an instant shelf return. Just remember to set the tone, capture the reader’s attention quickly, give them some info instantly without telling too much, and keep moving forward.

That beginning is important. I don’t begin to write a single word until I’m certain where that story starts. That means I write it in my head, but occasionally I will type the story until I find where to start - the moment that pulls it together and kicks off the story. I promise it’s not where she’s home alone waiting for her husband to come home from the war because there’s nothing happening with her at home. Speed it up to where something does happen and then let the reader see that she’s alone and her husband is at war.

James Michener was famous for opening his books with lots of description. As a newbie, don’t do it! People today don’t want three pages describing the mansion, the gardens, or the cemetery. Yes, you need to anchor the scene and set the tone, but it can be done in other ways that aren’t pure description.

I’m going to present several openings from my books to give you an idea of smooth setups that drop the reader right into the story. Each imparts relevant info that becomes apparent later and captures my reading audience.

Here’s an example from my book Mariner’s Cove.

"Be good for Grandma,'' Nikki Winchester admonished her daughter.
"Yeah, whatever.'' Hannah frowned then rolled her eyes at her younger brother.
Logan shrugged and started to turn away.
"Don't I get a hug before I leave?'' Nikki asked.
Logan threw his arms around his mom and almost towered over her. Skinny, yet sinewy, he was going to be tall like his dad. He wasn't her baby boy anymore.
That terrible empty feeling filled Nikki. Her heart pounded against her lungs. It was all she could do to keep from crying. She reached out and pulled her daughter into the embrace. When she let go of her children, Nikki turned to her mom and forced a smile. "I'm going to be fine. I need this.''
"I know you do. I just hope you find the peace you've been looking for since…''
Nikki nodded. "So do I.''
Nikki gave her mom one last kiss and walked out the front door. She'd never done anything like this in her life, and if she had to start over she was determined to make it a positive experience. Tears welled. She swiped her fingers across each eye wiping away the moisture that had collected and forced herself to focus on the long drive ahead of her.

What do we know from that? We know that Nikki is going far away, she’s a mom with two children, but they aren’t little. The children are staying with their grandmother. And Nikki’s starting over. What the reader isn’t getting is why. Well, the why is a little complicated, but I will tell you that she’s a widow and it’s a huge part of the story because it’s made her what she is.

From A Skeleton at Her Door.

The peephole revealed a man in a skeleton costume. Angie laughed and opened the door. "Omigod, Matt, come in. You look a little bony. Did you lose weight? Where did you get that costume?" She turned and called up the stairs of the tiny two-bedroom townhouse that she shared with her daughter, "Lissy, come see Matt in his Halloween costume."
She turned back to her neighbor. Every speck of his face was covered in black and white paint, including the lips that were painted like teeth. "Who painted your face? They did a phenomenal job."
The skeleton didn’t answer.
"Afraid to talk for fear of messing it up?"
The skeleton nodded.
She stared at the incredible hunk standing before her in his skintight, black and white costume with a hood. It looked like something a speed skater would wear during the Olympics. "Geezzz, if you weren't such a baby compared to me and didn't have a steady girl, I'd be all over you. Really, Matt, you need to show off those muscles more often. You're hot! Very hot! Talk about jumping bones." She giggled. "Oh yeah!" She fanned her face with her hand and grinned. "Lissy, get down here!"
"Coming," a young voice hollered back.
At the sound of footsteps, Angie turned and watched her young daughter descend the stairs. Seeing the child's face was worth it.
"Wow!" Lissy's eyes grew round with amazement. She sat on a step so she was equal in height to the man standing by their front door. "But, Mommy, Matt has blue eyes and this skeleton has brownish eyes."

What do we know? Angie just opened her door to a total stranger - it’s not Matt. Angie has a daughter. And this skeleton is hot.

This is from A Rancher’s Woman

     "We're here." Frank Coleman called from his buckboard.
Malene Goddard kept the quilt tucked tight to her body and watched as her sister, Adie Reiner, pulled herself to the edge of the open wagon and looked around.
"What do you see?" Malene asked.
"Nothing. A wooden fence and more nothingness. Frank is opening a gate."
Malene protectively slipped her hands over her lower abdomen where the child within her grew. As Adie snuggled back between the quilts that failed to keep them warm, Malene groaned and her teeth chattered. "I will never travel in the winter again. Never."
The wagon jerked forward a few feet and stopped. She listened to Many Feathers jump from the driver’s seat of their wagon. Then she heard the squeal of the gate being closed. She pulled the wool scarf once again from her nose and lower face to speak. "I'm going to die of cold."
Adie giggled. "Ja. But we are warmer than they are."
"We can't get any colder," Malene whined. Frank had promised they would have a bed and a warm place to stay tonight, but she was beginning to doubt it. She tried to remember the last time she'd had a real meal or slept in a bed.

What do we know so far? The opening sets a tone. It’s obviously a historical, bitter cold, there are two sisters and one is pregnant, plus there’s Frank and an Indian named Many Feathers. And wherever they are, they aren’t really there, and they’ve suffered some hardships.

Here’s another example from A New Beginning. (Warning: adult language in example)

The doorbell rang as the microwave beeped. Patrick Makowllen wasn't expecting anyone so he ignored it. His stomach rumbled as he removed his meal from the microwave and peeled off the film covering his food. The rising steam stung his fingertips. He winced. With his fork, he stirred the mashed potatoes and then the mushroom gravy surrounding the Salisbury steak. The obnoxious bell sounded again. He scraped the vegetables into the garbage disposal. Why do they put peas and carrots in these meals? Disgusting.
Then the doorbell rang a third time. Whoever it was laid on the button. Annoyance crawled up his spine. Can't I eat my dinner? The grating noise sent him to the door. Through the peephole, he could see silver and blue spiked hair on a short person. He wasn't about to open the door to some kid trying to sell magazines.
He started to turn away when the stranger began to pound on the door and called, "Patty, it's Dallas. I know you're in there. Open the door. It's freezing out here!"
The familiarity stopped him in his tracks. He turned around and opened the door.
Dallas shot into the house. "Fuck, it's so cold, my tits will never defrost."
He looked at the apparition in front of him. Yep, Texas has tits.
His gaze traveled upward. Whatever makeup she was wearing had now run in dark rivers down her face and then had been smeared across her cheeks. She also had yellow contacts in her eyes and her ears were so heavily pierced there wasn't any place left to make a hole.

What do we know about Patrick and Dallas? He’s older, eats microwave meals, hates peas and carrots, she’s still somewhat young with a Goth/punk/grunge-look, they know each other, and they are total opposites. Does it matter that he doesn’t eat his vegetable? Yes! It’s an odd tidbit that is important to the story

Here’s an example from A Child’s Heart.

   Trent Callahan intended to fill the day with a few pleasant memories of his four-year-old son, and he was not about to have this day ruined over false advertising. He brought his son to see dinosaurs, and the child was going to see them.
   He strode into the room to have a word with the museum curator, but what he saw made him want to gag. Mummified remains of small animals seemed to be everywhere, and in the middle of all of it was an Oshkosh-clad young woman with white-blonde hair. Trying not to stare at the dead creature next to him, he held his son's hand a little tighter as he cleared his throat. "Excuse me. I was told I'd find the curator in here. It's quite obvious that no one in this place seems to know anything."
   The young woman rose from her crouched position and smiled. Her eye color matched the denim blue of her overalls. Pulling a pair of gloves off and extending her hand to him, she politely answered, "I'm Cassandra Jones, the curator. How may I help you?"
   Taken aback, he hesitated, then took her hand. Standing there without a trace of makeup, she looked very young, except for the crinkles around her eyes. He stammered, "You're the curator?"
   "Yes. Again, how may I help you?"
   "We came to see the dinosaur exhibit, and I'm being told we can't go into those rooms."
   "Oh, I'm so sorry. The exhibit officially opens to the public tomorrow. Tonight is the Dino Tread."
   "I can't afford to come back tomorrow. I took today off from work to bring my son. According to the billboard, the exhibit opens today."
   Tears were brimming in the child's eyes.
   "I understand the confusion. The posters are more accurate than that billboard. Give me a moment to finish," she replied with a broader smile, which made the lines around her eyes more noticeable.
   He watched as she returned to what she was doing when he walked into the room. It was as if she were ignoring him, and his blood boiled. He looked down at Shawn, whose eyes were washed in tears that were starting to spill. "Don't cry, Shawn," he whispered. "I didn't pay all this money for you to miss seeing the dinosaurs. You're going to see them."

What do you know? Trent has a son, he took the day off from work to take the child to the museum to see dinosaurs, and there’s a mistake in the way the exhibit has been advertised. Trent is angry and determined that his son is going to see dinosaurs. Obviously, Trent is not a wealthy man.

The last two stories are from my River City books, which are more mainstream with romance, but both examples immediately put the hero and heroine together. That’s not required. Yet in both instances, it kicks the story off without a lot of background on either character.

Only you can decide where your story starts, but start it quickly. Don’t look back, look forward, and weave in that important info from their backgrounds in tiny pieces as the story progresses. Give the reader a reason to like the character or even feel sorry for the character. The reader must identify in some way in order to connect with the character. That commitment will keep the reader reading.

Got a question? Just ask.


Rose Anderson said...

Great post, E. Lots to think about. I've heard publishers don't want stories that open with a dream. My magnum opus starts just that way!

Personally, I think authors should write the story how the story says it should unfold. Homogenizing creativity, in my opinion, does several negative things -- It puts unnecessary limits on the emotion it takes to create artwork (fiction is no less a work of art than a painting or sculpture). It also tells the reader they're too dumb to take it all in. Some of the most famous literature in history begins outside the box. Who knows, authors today may be writing tomorrow's famous literature.

Here's a fun thought: Diana Gabaldon's Outlander was once called "too big and unusual". I wonder how that's going for her today. lol

Best luck in the new year. :)

Jane Leopold Quinn said...

I love the opening sentence - "The peephole revealed a man in a skeleton costume." That's a grabber. And I also can't stand peas and carrots together so that would interest me in a character.

Probably beginning a book with an action or dialogue is my favorite way, but a lot of it is a writing instinct. Just like providing all genres and time periods, I think writers should write. The rules aren't hard and fast.

E. Ayers said...

Each person has to find their own place to start their story. For some new writers, it's not easy and I suspect some genres make it even more difficult. And standing out from the pack is tough! But it's part of the process of writing.

In or out of the box, it's important to grab that reader's attention. But personally, I like out of the box. It really ups the skill level.

Diana's book was even longer. The publisher went in and just cut huge chunks from it, leaving Diana with a mess to try to clean up in a few days.

E. Ayers said...

The rules are constantly bending but the ability to hold and capture a reader's attention is important even in non-fiction writing.

Someone's ascent up an icy mountain can be boring or fascinating.

A child's battle to overcome cancer has to draw the reader in and keep them glued until the final sentence.

It's all about the author's ability to capture us in the pages no matter what the genre. And it has to start at the beginning.

Thanks for liking my examples.Mr. I-Don't-Like-Vegetables was one of those that took me awhile to find the start of their story. At first, I started it where she was thrown out by her parents.

Kelley Heckart said...

Great post and examples from your books. Thanks for sharing. The best advice I received from one of my editors was: action first, explain later.

E. Ayers said...

But finding the right action... As I replied to Jane, I started that book with Dallas being tossed out by her parents and her quest to find a place to stay. All very scary to a young woman who was desperate but as I wrote it I realized where I need to start was with Patrick It was an oh-shoot(!) moment with pages and pages already written. Everything I wrote was saved and used about half way through the story. So the reader does get the details of that horrible night but right away. By removing it, I added to the story.

E. Ayers said...

Also, thanks, glad you enjoyed it. Hoping it helps writers to see the beginning of their stories. It's a very common problem.

Sandy said...

Informative post, E. It makes me wonder if I have started some of my stories in the right place.

E. Ayers said...

You are the only one who can decide where the story should start. It's just not always easy finding it, and it doesn't start with the back story.