Where to Start Your Story (Exactly)
There are basically two ways you can start a story. You can have all guns blazing action or you can establish the ordinary world of the character before things change.
Both approaches have their pros and cons and a lot of it depends on various factors to do with your story and what you consider to be right for you as a writer. But the problem comes when you show your first chapter to someone else and they don’t react in the way you’d hoped, making you lose confidence in what you had thought to be quite a good scene that set things up nicely.
Questions arise such as maybe the other approach would be better for this story, for this genre, for you as a writer. But the truth is these are the wrong questions. So if the start of your story isn’t attracting the kind of response you want, what are the questions you should be asking yourself?
When A Scene Isn’t Working
There comes a time when you have to face facts. You’ve tried to convince yourself that scene where your main character goes back to her old house and stares at it for four pages is a good scene, an important scene where the reader learns things they need to know, but… it just isn’t a very interesting scene.
You know this because none of the people who’ve read it have ever said anything good about it. Quite a few have said bad things about it. And most have not mentioned it at all. You could take their silence as a sign they’re okay with it, but do you really want to write a story that’s just okay?
So, something’s got to change.
Waiting For A Story To Get Going
Story is about character. There’s what happens to the character, and there’s what the character does (not necessarily in that order).
Of these two key elements, what the character DOES is far more important than what is DONE TO the character.
Readers want to engage with a character who makes decisions and choices and takes action.
If it’s all about what happens TO the character, then chances are it’s going to turn out to be a boring story.
Dramatic Action Is More Than Doing Stuff
Often the reason a scene doesn’t work, or doesn’t seem to have any life to it, is because what’s happening in the scene isn’t very interesting.
People may be doing things, moving around, attempting to reach their goals, but how they’re going about is too straightforward or too easy.
There are various ways to achieve things in life that are reasonable and sensible. You want to be a doctor, you go to medical school and study hard. If you portray that within a story it may feel realistic and true, but it won’t be very gripping.
There is more to a good story than holding a mirror up to life.
Interesting Characters: You are what you eat
Story is viewed differently by the writer than it is by the reader.
A writer knows what kind of person he is writing about, and uses that to inform what that character does on the page.
A reader knows what a character does and uses that to understand what kind of person that character is.
Both are looking at the same thing, but from different ends. The thing they are both looking at is this: what people do reveals the truth of who they are.
But truth and fact are NOT the same thing.
There are some basic rules to writing action in fiction that are straightforward and make sense. Keep sentences short to add pace. Be clear and use simple language when describing complicated moves. Show don’t tell.
This doesn’t just apply to fights and chases. Any confrontation, any physical movement, any visual scene will have an action element to it. However, you can’t just replicate Hollywood movie visuals, the picture in the reader’s head won’t automatically have the same impact as stunt-work on the big screen. You have to find a way to translate what’s on the page into an emotional experience for the reader.
Rewriting: Longer, Faster, Harder
This post specifically relates to getting from the first draft to the second draft. This rewrite is key to the whole rewriting process. Further down the line changes in small details and polishing of the text become important, but at this stage the transition from raw material to story-worthy narrative is what’s going to keep you interested in coming back time and again in order to get the story told.
By establishing exactly what the story is about now, you can save yourself a lot of trouble later.
Don’t Overstuff Your Verbs: Unpack
There are time when it’s obvious an adverb is unnecessary.
He ran quickly to the phone. It’s redundant to have quickly in there, running already implies speed, so you should cut it out. He ran to the phone.
Sometimes it’s perfectly fine to use an adverb (no, really , it is). An adverb is a modifier, and if you’re modifying the verb in an unexpected way that changes the meaning of the verb it can be a useful tool. Examples:
She smiled sadly.
His arm was partially severed.
He whispered loudly.
But most times the adverb is modifying the verb in a way that there is already another word for. Examples:
Build a Story, but Leave the Door Open
People tell stories every day and it is fairly easy to tell the difference between something worth listening to and something that is just small talk. It is a natural ability we all have, to know when something that happened is going to be of interest to others.
Do you want to know why the guy at work locked himself in an office and refused to come out until the police came and broke the door down? Or do you want to know what I had for lunch? You don’t know the answer to either, but one is more of an unusual occurrence than the other, and that’s what draws our attention.
When writing a story it is just the same, although often it may not feel like it.
Your Book In One Sentence
I’m taking a break for the summer, but in the meantime I’ll be reposting some of my old articles you might have missed. Here’s one from last April.
When someone asks you what your book is about, it can be a very difficult thing to sum up in a line or two.
Even after you’ve finished it, capturing the essence in a way that does it justice can be more frustrating than writing it in the first place. I usually end up rambling like I have no idea what I’m talking about.
Not only would it be very handy in social situations, but also professionally. A clear concise way to tell people about the book in a way that lets them know what it’s about, but also hooks their interest in some way.
So how do you do that?