Writers Write, Right?
Generally speaking, starting writing isn’t the problem. If you’re up for it then getting words on the page isn’t that hard. At first.
Enthusiasm, motivation, belief in your ideas — these things tend to be in abundant supply at the beginning.
Two weeks later, though, things may have changed. It’s all very well sitting down with the right intentions, but what do you do when all that drive you had goes missing?
Predictability stems from familiarity. You know what’s coming next before because you’ve seen it before and you know where it’s going.
But familiarity is also a basic part of storytelling.
Good versus evil, boy meets girl, monsters in the dark — these sorts of stories have been told in one form or another since we developed the ability to communicate.
So, how do we write stories that satisfy our need for certain types of narratives, and at the same time make them seem fresh and original?
There are many books on writing that break down the structure of a novel into individual building blocks.
Characters Are Developing All The Time
A reader follows a plot by the changes that occur in a character’s life. If their aim is to find the lost treasure of the Incas, then how the situation develops—if they seem to be getting closer or further from the goal—will be the primary way to tell how things are progressing.
Changes in the physical world indicate that people are acting in order to realise their goals. If the scenario remains static, then you have no plot.
But as things change in the physical world, they have an effect on the character instigating them. If things are going well, if things are going badly, if outside forces are getting involved—all these variables not only change the external situation, they also change the character internally.
Starting With Subplot
There are stories where you start in the middle of things and keep going. In the case of thrillers and books that are part of a series the reader doesn’t really need an explanation of what’s going on, they’ll work it out on the fly.
In most cases, though, readers prefer to get an idea of characters and setting before things really take off. The inciting incident that propels the main character into adventure may not occur for several chapters.
When you’re trying to establish the world so the reader has an idea of who they’re going to be following for the next few hundred pages the approach is often to show ordinary life, important relationships, interests and activities. And this can be quite dull.
Complications Of Storytelling
All stories get more complicated the further you get into them.
This isn’t a bad thing, it’s just inevitable. The reader starts off knowing nothing, and over the course of the story they get fed more and more information.
If it’s a properly written story anything the reader is told will be relevant to further developments. That means they have to remember everything that’s happened so far and how it relates to everything else that’s also happened and everything that’s going to happen.
This network of events, consequences and reactions will get ever more intricate. To the point where it can become so overwhelming that when a character says, “Hey, Mary’s back!” all the reader thinks is, Who the hell is Mary?
Zen And The Craft Of Writing
When I first started writing fiction I read a lot of books about how to write. How to write attention grabbing stories. How to engage emotionally with the reader. How to keep the story moving forward. The inciting incident. The danger of excessive adverbs. Why you should show instead of tell.
I’ve read widely enough to have a fairly well developed sense of taste. I know when something’s really good. I know when something’s bad. I know when it isn’t quite working.
The difficult part though is knowing what needs to change, and how to change it.
The Little Reasons A Story Works
It’s not enough to have something dramatic happen in a story. The reason why it happens is also important.
In terms of impact on a reader, there’s a big difference between a character getting upset about losing their house to the bank and getting upset because their favourite tv show got cancelled.
What happens keeps the reader interested in the short term. Why it happens is what keeps them interested over the course of an entire novel.
Starting The Story In The Middle
Starting a story in the middle of action is fine if that’s the kind of story you’re telling. Generally, that’d probably be something in the adventure/thriller genre. But not all stories suit the kind of opening where assassins are chasing a monkey over the rooftops of Buenos Aires (although I have no doubt that book would be a huge hit).
And even if you are writing in that genre, you might prefer to build up to those kind of scenes. Having someone hanging from a twelfth storey window ledge can feel very hackneyed.We don’t know the character, we don’t know why he’s up there, and frankly, we don’t care. It’s not always enough to just put some random person in peril.
A high tempo opening scene might not be right for your story and it quite often reads like an attempt by the writer to inject the story with drama it hasn’t really earned and can feel contrived.
But an energetic set-piece out of an action movie isn’t the only way to make the reader feel they’re in the middle of something interesting. Another way a story can benefit from starting in the middle is to start in the middle of emotion.
Forcing Readers To Like Characters
The story you’re writing may have the kind of lead character that people automatically root for. He may be a good guy doing the right thing; or a decent woman trying to sort out something that needs sorting. Heroic behaviour and overcoming adversity can bypass the whole need to tell the reader this is someone to cheer on. It’s obvious.
But they might be a little more complex than that. Maybe flawed, maybe even a bit awkward. Or they may not get to their heroic moment until much later in the story. How do you get the reader on board as quickly as possible without having to add ‘stick with it, things get good later’ at the bottom of each page?
2013 For Book Lovers
Sometimes I’m reading an ebook and I’d like to flip forward and see how many more pages till the end of the chapter. But I can’t.
Or I might be on a train and see someone reading their Kindle or Nook, and I wonder what book they’re reading. Bu there’s no way to tell.
Then I pull out up my own Kindle from the inside pocket of my jacket, with over a hundred books on it, and a bunch of comics, and even a couple of WIPs, and I think, it’s probably a fair exchange.