Moving My Eight Legs

In which the gentle reader gets to watch the writer in a fight with her unruly subconscious. Or How the Devil Is In The Beginnings
Of all the mistakes a writer can make, the one I find most annoying and recursive – for me, at least – is figuring out how to start a story. No, seriously. Yes, sometimes the voice comes, like trumpets from heaven. I wake up with the character in my head and the opening lines.

Other times… other times, it’s like pulling teeth. I have everything about the story in mind, but I don’t have an “in.”

Lately I’ve found myself making a truly beginner mistake, one that I thought I was exempt from because I never went through it as a beginner: starting the story well before the story starts.

One of my fledgelings is prone to this. And that’s fine. As long as he knows that he’ll have to discard two to three pages off the beginning of his story that works. Because, you know, there could be worse curses, like never beginning at all.

But I used to have this down to an art. I knew, if not the voice, at least the moment when the story started. Now… now, I find myself floundering around in molasses for pages and pages and pages, until finally something kicks up and I go “Oh. So, that’s how it finally starts.” This is particularly annoying since I SHOULD know better. I’ve done better in the past.

Unfortunately writing is only partly conscious for me. Most of it comes from somewhere at the back of the Jurassic brain, where dinosaurs fear to tread. And for some reason the beginning has turned into the La Brea tar pits.

So, as much to help myself as to, hopefully, help the rest of you, because I CONSCIOUSLY know the rules of how to start a story, I’m going to list a series of questions that should give my back brain a hint of how to find the beginning of a story. It goes something like this.

1 – Identify the main problem of your story, then

a) start with a problem that leads directly to the heart of it.
b) start with something that mirrors the problem in the story, or foreshadows it

2 – Identify the characters main strength
a) start with a scene that demonstrates it in such a way that it makes us immediately determined to follow that character through hell and high water.
b) start with a scene that shows his strength failing, in a way that we know this is a surpirse.

3 – Start with a scene that doesn’t contain your main character but which
a) sets up the world and the world’s problem
b) sets up the main villain
c) sets up the limits of the danger your character will face (the answer is “very high” and this is usually done for thrillers.)

4- For extra points combine all three of the above in some form

5- follow the rule of the tangled skein of string, if you can’t find the beginning, cut through and start somewhere.
a) deal with the past via short flashbacks.
b) remember to keep it moving
c) make sure your entry point sounds startling and interesting.

Okay, so now you – and I! – should have some idea where to start. HOW do you start? This sounds obvious, but it’s not.

Look, nine times out of ten, when I read entries for contests or slush for publishers, the main reason I stop reading without finishing the story is that I’ve gone some distance – a page or two, usually – and I still have no clue whose head I’m in; where they are; what the goal is.

So, here goes: You’re there at the beginning, and your character is something and doing something. Try not to make that beginning sound like the sentence above.

Right up front, try to remember to tell us:

1 – Who your character is. Not just the name. Many times the name won’t even tell us the gender of the character, but in whatever order: name, gender, occupation, main characteristic as pertains to story.
Compare these two openings:

Edgar was there. He was doing what he’d come there to do. He’d tried so long to get there and now he was there. And he was going to do it.

Edgar was back in the sacred groove, and he was going to kill the high priestess, if it was the last thing he did. He’d had to fight dragons and mow down entire groves of sacred forests. Now he was going to kill her.

Which story gives you a clearer idea of what’s happening? Which one would you read further on? And no, I’m not even exaggerating with the first example. I wish I were.

2- Your character has a body. Nothing gives more “solidity” to a character than a touch of humanity. His underwear chafes. She has a blister on her thumb. She’s sneezing because she’s allergic to polen. He’s wearing a new shirt that feels uncomfortable.

Make it work in the service of your story, or at least sink it in unobtrusively, and if possible make it work to define the character and/or the time period. However, giving the character something to wear, or something to do with his hands is always good. And it can do double duty. If your main characters is wearing a kirtle or carrying a banjo, you’ve at least given us some hint of a clue of a vague direction to where and when we are. Ditto if he’s wearing jeans and turns on the tv.

Imagine you are in your character’s head. Now look down. What is the character wearing? What gender is he/she? And where is he/she?

Don’t write it in that form, but try to include it soonish, so the reader is grounded.

3- Use props to avoid infodumps. If your character is holding either a violin or a teddy bear, it tells us something about him/her and might postpone informing the reader that this thirty year old has anxiety issues and sleeps with his teddy bear… Who plays the violin.

And hopefully this will help you, out there, and also stop my subconscious from spinning in circles around itself. Honestly – its’ like all of a sudden I grow six extra legs, and I can’t remember how to walk.

So… here we go. Move one leg forward, then the other… one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight…

18 thoughts on “Moving My Eight Legs

  1. I thought you were supposed to start with a bang, introducing some aspect the problem and the hero, “007 movie” style in an action scene?

    1. Sort of depends on what you’re writing. Let’s go with movies, simply because it makes it quicker. Most thrillers, like 007 will start with action — particularly if it’s a thriller that centers on a “superman” like Bond. You see him performing some feat that would defy normal men, then the music, and then to the “setup” which is often the real beginning of the story — he’s relaxing in the sun and he gets a call, or he’s in the office or… That action scene functions by the way of a prologue to warn “there is action ahead, even if the setup will get a bit slow.” (Books do this too, and I’ve done it, to wit with a sex scene, because otherwise the reader would have no clue there’s sex ahead, as it were. I think I need to do it with an action scene in the historic fantasy, because after that the setup starts in a ballroom, and it can give too much the idea that it’s a romance. Which it is, too, but not primarilly.) But take Independence Day — it starts with the flag on the moon trembling. Then pans to the underground listening office and the guy practicing golf. Then there’s The Patriot — there’s the rider going through the fields. Grosse Pointe Blank, again, starts with a botched assassination. Again, it must match the movie. Or the book. Terry Pratchett often starts with a bit of “no character” setup about the history of the world or some obscure bit about his particular universe. Heinlein often started with action, but not always. F. Paul Wilson often starts with action, but often not involving his character yet. Actually that’s typical of thrillers. Start with the bad guy and give us an impression of what he can do. And if you’re going to say “Decide what best suits your book, then start with that.” Yes, of course, that is obvious. What is not obvious is “how much do the readers need to know about the other stuff?” Lately I find I tend to put a heck of a lot of the other stuff into it and slow things to a crawl without need.

      1. Thank you.
        My personal belief is that you can start with anything but a talking head. In this day and age, with so many entertainment options, you need to get the reader’s attention and HOLD it right away.

        1. Actually a talking head will work also, provided it’s a FASCINATING talking head. Um… if you wish I shall do a post on how “to fascinate and attract” which is a voice thing. I can’t always DO it, but I know it when I see it.

  2. Actually, I’m beginning to hate the “corpse dropped at my feet” beginnings. I still need a reason to worry for/about the protagonist, and yes, I’d like a bit of setting to go with my character.

    Oh, and the pattern is 1-4, 2-3, 5-8, 6-7. If you’re trotting, that is 🙂

    1. Two things — first, there will be “chapbooks” on how to various things on Amazon sometime this year — hopefully.
      Second — should I endow this here blog with a donate button?

  3. 1) Donate button or tip jar — yes, definitely. When I was keeping my blog up it was a small but notable source of income. Not now, but that’s because I’ve gotten lackadaisical about updates.

    2) Please grade this opening according to the criteria above:

    “Dale Calvert half-woke and turned over, and air got into the covers. The clammy slither of sheets impregnated with two days of sweat brought him further awake, and as he muzzily took stock he realized that he no longer shook with chill, and that he was hungry. That meant the fever had broken, and about time. Now for something to eat, to replenish the energy he’d burned fighting the bug.”

    The nuclear detonation doesn’t happen for another three paragraphs 🙂


  4. Famously, Director Frank Capra was sure he had a bomb on his hands — test screenings indicated audiences HATED his adaptation of Lost Horizon, a film which had had a record budget and then proceeded to run WAY over budget. Capra resolved his problem by throwing away the first two reels of the movie and a film classic was born!

    Which demonstrates the importance of beginning at the beginning.

    At least, according to Capra’s autobiography which can be relied upon to have gotten a few things right: the author’s name and chosen career, the titles of his films and the actors therein, and the name of boss of Columbia Studios. All other information from that wonderfully entertaining book should be ingested with multiple grains of salt.

  5. Ah, er, excuse me … when I was here earlier I apparently neglected to check the box offering to notify me of follow-up comments via email. So sorry, I am tewwibly embarrassed. While I could knock-up an additional comment, such as praising the virtues of an editor (you know, the old kind — back when SF was only available in magazines) or observing that Louis L’Amour, whatever his flaws as a writer, was absolutely terrific at openings, the simple truth is I erred. I beg your (collective) pardon.

    Oops again – checking the inbox revealed the confirmation email was merely unusually slow arriving. Never mind; please carry on.

  6. I always seem to start with a lot of infodumps and worldbuilding in my starts. Later, I just cut it out and paste it in a notes file for reference. Some times splicing it back in further on, in small bits. I think I eventually find a good starting spot, but it never occurred to me that every start ought to, well, start right where it would start in the final draft.

Comments are closed.