Thursday, January 10, 2019

Let’s Start at the Very Beginning...

            Sound of Music reference for the WIN!!!!  
            Okay, maybe not
            So I’ve been thinking about what would make a good first topic for the start of the year.  Which made me think of a topic that comes up a lot at the Coffeehouse or at different con discussions.  And that topic is “how should I start my book?”
            Now, right up front, here’s the catch.
            I can’t tell you.
            I mean, it’s not like it’s a secret and I want to make you beg or pay for it.  I can’t tell you because I don’t know.  Nobody knows how your book needs to begin except you.  It’s because every writer is different and every story is different.  We each have our own styles and preferences, and each story has its own needs and narratives.
            Heck, even if we’re telling the same story it’s going to be different.  If I told you to write a modern take on Frankenstein (the monster, not the scientist) you’d be telling a different story than me and we’d both be telling a different story than her and a much different story than him.  I mean... seriously, what the heck is that guy doing?  That’s a seriously weird take on Frankenstein.
            But the point is, even though we’d all be telling more or less the same story, we’d also be telling very different stories.  I might decide to start with the lightning storm, the night the monster awakens, but your version might start with Victor in medical school and she might decide to begin with the event that inspires Victor to create the monster.  All of these are completely valid ways to begin a narrative about Frankenstein.
            And this is why nobody else can tell me how to begin my story.  There are so many elements to consider, it’s pretty much impossible for anyone to know but me.  You and I could talk for an hour about your story, and I might get a vague sense of where it should start.  But that vague estimate is still based off a very limited amount of information, and it only applies to that one specific story.
            So... yeah.  I can’t tell you where to start.  Sorry.
            BUT...
            (you didn’t think I’d leave you hanging like that, did you?)
            I can offer you a few general ideas of what you should and shouldn’t use as starting points.  Not things specific to a story, but things specific to storytelling.  As a wise man once said, the code’s more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules.
            I’ve talked about a lot of these things before, so be prepared for links.
            So, when I consider how to start my story...

            DO start with action.  I’ve talked about this one before, so I won’t go into too much detail here.  “Starting with action” often gets misunderstood as “my manuscript needs to begin with a ninja stopping a hostage situation on a high-speed train with his explosive throwing stars.”  This is, of course, a really weird way to begin a romantic fantasy novel, but people try to do it anyway.
            All starting with action means is that I need something to happen.  Being fired from my job (or written up, or promoted) is action.  Getting beaten up (or asked out) by the quarterback in high school is something happening.  Buying groceries is something happening.
            And, yes, so is having a ninja stop a hostage situation with explosive throwing stars.

            DON’T start with someone writing their novel or screenplay.  Seriously, don’t.  Yes, technically, it’s someone doing something, but it’s a minimal, inactive something that involves one character sitting alone at a desk.  Plus, it’s an opening every editor, agent, and producer has seen at least a thousand times.  Seriously.  One thousand times, minimum.  I don’t want to begin with something everyone’s already bored of seeing.

            DO start with something relevant.  Relevant to this story.  Relevant by at least a third of the way into the story.  An opening scene that makes no sense until the end of my book is an opening scene that makes no sense (and we’re going to forget).  Which means we don’t need it.
            My opening pages should hook the reader right into my story.  They should pay off soon, and that payoff should draw them in even further.  The goal is always to draw them in, not to push them away or hold them at arm’s length.  If I’m trying to distance the reader in the first chapter... that’s not going to work out well.
            
            DON’T start by killing everyone.  Nine times out of ten, if every character from chapter one is dead by the end of chapter two, it means chapter three is where my story really starts.  No matter how cool chapter one and two were.
            A lot of folks stumble into this trap.  They “start with action” (see above) by having a bunch of nameless, unimportant people get killed by some threat, and then they introduce their actual characters and get on with the story.  Which tells right me there that those opening bits are just more wasted pages.

            DO be aware that the story started long before page one.  There were events in my protagonist’s (and antagonist’s) life that made them the person they are now.  They already have relationships and jobs and histories. We all instinctively understand and acknowledge this (Clive Barker wrote a beautiful introduction about this idea in his book Weaveworld).
            Right from the start, I need to keep in mind that my characters are in this world.  They’ve been there for a while.  It doesn’t surprise them or catch them off guard.  Neither does the existence of their siblings, lovers, employers, or their own body parts.  If my opening is my protagonist expositing about her apartment, her girlfriend, her own body, or the dual nature of this amazing futuristic world she lives in, my readers are going to be rolling their eyes.

            And that's a few things to keep in mind when deciding how to start my story.  Again, these are just guidelines, but... y’know, guidelines exist for a reason.  I should think long and hard before ignoring them and declaring that my story’s the exception they don’t apply to. 
            Because odds are... it’s not.
            Oh, in other news for SoCal folks, this Sunday is both the Writers Coffeehouse (at Dark Delicacies in Burbank) and the dystopian book club We're All Gonna Die (at the Last Bookstore in downtown Los Angeles).  Please stop by and hang out.  Although for the book club, you may want to pick up the book first...
            Next time, I’d like to talk about something really powerful.
            Until then, go write.

No comments:

Post a Comment