A while back I posted about why I dislike large expository dumps in fiction (Trust the reader to keep up). I still stand by what I wrote there, but thanks to a great essay by Cecilia Tan, Let Me Tell You, I realize that advice like that feeds into a misperception that all exposition is inherently bad. At best, it ignores the fact that there is a big difference between expository dumps and quality exposition. I’ve linked to Tan’s essay before, and it is well worth the read, but the crux of her argument is here:
Tan is hardly the first person to point out that the cliched advice to ‘show, don’t tell‘ is problematic: Why “Show, Don’t Tell” Is the Great Lie of Writing Workshops or 5 REASONS ‘SHOW DON’T TELL’ IS BAD ADVICE. But the easiest way to see that it is at best an oversimplification is simply to remember that writers are story tellers. You can’t tell a story without, well, telling some things.
These are the do’s and don’ts of MFA programs everywhere. They rely on a shared pool of knowledge and cultural assumptions so that the words left unsaid are powerfully communicated. I am not saying this is not a worthwhile experience as reader or writer, but I am saying anointing it the pinnacle of “craft” leaves out any voice, genre, or experience that falls outside the status quo. The inverse is also true, then: writing about any experience that is “foreign” to that body of shared knowledge is too often deemed less worthy because to make it understandable to the mainstream takes a lot of explanation. Which we’ve been taught is bad writing!
From the point of view of teaching people how to write, ‘show don’t tell’ is part of an entire tool kit which is used for gatekeeping. See, if you do not understand enough of the cultural touchstones being alluded to (but not actually told about) in the so-called literary novels, you can’t understand the novel. In other words, the less that your upbringing resembled a white, male, cis het, upper middle class childbood, the less likely that those novels will be understood by you, and therefore less likely they will appeal to you. And if you admit that you didn’t like them and didn’t understand them, that is used by some people to label you as unsophisticated, unintelligent, and tasteless. You can get past those gatekeepers if you don’t fall into all of those categories (there are a number of works by gay male authors, for instance, that are routinely accepted into the category because those authors understood the culture and learned all the tricks), but the entire toolkit of the literary elite created a situation where you must learn the secret codes in order to understand the stories.
Several science fiction and fantasy authors have pointed out that it is impossible to tell a good sf/f tale following the ‘show don’t tell’ stricture because in order to put the reader into a world that differs from ours, you have to at least occasionally tell the reader some things.
But you don’t have to do that by placing large chunks of your world-building as a lecture or debate about history that goes on for pages and pages. You certainly don’t have to make your viewpoint character an outsider who doesn’t know anything about this world, so has to constantly have things explained to them by others. You can explain things without slowing down the plot. You can tell the reader about the setting in small sips. You can do that in context along the way.
Trust the reader to understand, yes, but trust the story, too. You’re a story teller, so tell your story.
The frustration about the opening line is a symptom of the character’s internal conflicts, but as the story goes on and the external conflicts snowball into ever more ridiculous issues (not to mention the very real issue that the protagonist becomes wanted for the suspicious disappearance of his ex-wife), the opening line becomes a symbol of all the conflicts, internal and external. And so, when the possibly senile Momma interrupts the main character while talking about the word choices (while they are fleeing the police on a train to Mexico), to tell him the word he’s been looking for is “sultry” it forces the crisis point of the plot.
What I love about that surprise (besides being funny) is that it doesn’t just come out of left field. It had been established earlier in the movie—more than once—that Momma is a crossword enthusiast. One of her son’s daily routines is to fold the newspaper to the crossword and lay it out for her with a cup of tea. We see it several times. The son mentions “Momma’s crossword” at least once in the dialogue.
It was foreshadowed.
But subtly. And because of what happens next (and the epiphany that follows from it) we see that the opening where the character struggled to find just one word eventually leads to the character finding his voice again.
So the opening led to the ending.
I don’t know the process that Stu Silver (the screen writer of Throw Momma from the Train) went through to produce this specific script, and movie making is a different kind of storytelling than prose writing, but we can take some educated guesses. First, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if originally the movie started with a very different opening. It is quite possible that the discussion about opening lines was originally something written in the middle of the story, and it was only when the writer was trying to come up with a reason for the protagonist to snap that the whole “Sultry! The word you’re looking for is sultry!” came up.
I’m guessing this because most first drafts don’t begin with the same opening that will ultimately be used in the final draft. Quite often we don’t know how the thing ought to begin until we’ve finished the first draft and we’re looking at the ending. Which is why my first rule I mentioned in the first post in this series was: Don’t get hung up on the first line. Just get the story going, knowing that anything can be fixed in rewrite. Once you have finished the first draft, if you’re happy with the overall shape of the tale, then figuring out the beginning is a matter of looking at the ending and how the character got there, and figuring out which kind of beginning works best with the tale, and try writing several.
If you aren’t happy with the overall shape, ask yourself why. And if you can’t write down specific problems, if all you’ve got is “I don’t like it” or “It doesn’t work,” then there may be nothing wrong with the basic structure of the story, just that you’re feeling doubt. But to be certain, remember to do each of the following:
- Read it aloud in a room by yourself. All sorts of problems in stories become crystal clear when we do this.
- Show the story to someone you trust to give you honest feedback. If they say the story isn’t working, they’re probably right. But remember that when a reader tells specifically what is wrong and how to fix it, they’re usually wrong. If they say they lost interest at a particularly point, yes, by all means, try to figure out what you did wrong there, but take the reader’s reaction as a general observation of overall soundness, not for detailed diagnosis.
- If your current draft has an Into Pot, Already Boiling beginning, try rewriting it as an Opening Statement to the Jury, and then as a Calm Before the Storm. Neither of those may be a better beginning, but comparing them my give you a clue as to what you need to fix elsewhere before the story structure is sound.
- Confirm that you have an emotional hook and have given the reader a reason to sympathize with the character.
If after all of that you the beginning is wrong, go pick up a favorite book that you know really well. Read the first two pages of this other person’s book. What kind of beginning is it? Write your own, using one of the other types. Do this a few more times until you’ve managed to create three alternate beginnings for this other person’s novel that you believe might work to hook the reader. Now go back and re-read your story. Having made yourself write several openings for another story, you should have some fresh insight into openings. If anything comes to mind now, give it a go.
Finally, it is vitally important to remember this: there is no such thing as a perfect opening line. But there are hundreds if not thousands of good enough opening lines. There are slightly fewer good, maybe great opening lines. It won’t be the end of the world if you wind up putting a story out there into the world with a good enough opening line. And chances are, after you’ve done all this work, your opening might be closer to greatness than merely good.
And you should never feel ashamed of writing that is “merely” good.
A few weeks back I started this series (part 1, part 2, part 3) referencing a running gag from the movie Throw Momma From the Train, where one writer is hung up on his opening line, trying hundreds of variants of “The night was…” instead of just concentrating on the story itself, then fixing the opening later. The opening is important, of course. When your story is published, you won’t be there to whisper in the reader’s ear “It gets really good once it gets moving. Keep reading and scroll down. It’ll be worth it.” Your opening line (and paragraph, and scene) must do that for you.
The three classic openings are:
- Into pot, already boiling.
- The calm before the storm.
- Opening statement to the jury.
Let’s look at each type:
Into Pot, Already Boiling
With an Into Pot, Already Boiling opening, you begin with something happening. In the first post I made on this topic, I called this method “when the protagonist is hit in the head with brick.” In that post, I talked about the classmate who buried the best opening line for his sports story on page 11: “We had to move the ball 20 yards in 8 seconds.” Into the pot already boiling doesn’t have to be an action-packed opening, there doesn’t have to be violence or fighting or even danger. For example, the opening to Raymond Carver’s short story, “Are These the Actual Miles” is:
Fact is the car needs to be sold in a hurry, and Leo sends Toni out to do it. Toni is smart and has personality. She used to sell children’s encyclopedias door to door. She signed him up, even though he didn’t have kids. Afterward, Leo asked her for a date, and the date led to this. This deal has to be cash, and it has to be done tonight.
Or how about this opening from Ptolemy’s Gate by Jonathan Stroud:
The assassins dropped into the palace grounds at midnight, four fleet shadows dark against the wall. The fall was high, the ground was hard; they made no more sound on impact than the pattering of rain.
Or this classic from Thirteen Days to Midnight by Patrick Carman:
Jacob Fielding stood in a small room and stared at a body.
This is the kind of opening that most people think off when they talk about a narrative hook. The advantages are that you engage the reader’s curiosity right away. This disadvantage is that you have to balance filling in background with keeping the story moving forward. The more intriguing the opening is, the more leeway the reader will give you in filling in those details. This kind of opening can work for any story, but it is particularly good for a story when most of the plot is driven by the external conflict.
The Calm Before the Storm
With the Calm Before the Storm you show the readers a situation that isn’t obviously a conflict. It seems like a perfectly ordinary day, at first. It’s okay to start by lingering over details–though you should at least hint that there is something else going on. If you hint that something is amiss, the reader will stick through the detail to find out what it all means. But you have to know that something is going to happen, you have to have those hints, and you need to stick to details that create a context for what’s going to happen. For example, the opening to Erich Maria Remarque’s war novel, All Quiet on the Western Front:
We are at rest five miles behind the front. Yesterday we were relieved, and now our bellies are full of beef and haricot beans. We are satisfied and at peace. Each man has another mess-tin full for the evening; and, what is more, there is a double ration of sausage and bread. That puts a man in a fine trim. We have not had such luck as this in a long time. The cook with his carroty head is begging us to eat; he beckons with his ladle to every one that passes, and spoons him out a great dollop. He does not see how he can empty his stewpot in time for coffee.
The hints are there: five miles behind the front, we have not had such luck in a long time. The reader knows that this peaceful situation can’t last. But this opening also demonstrates another trick of this kind of opening. The reader comes to a story expecting something to happen, for the character to have some kind of problem. So more you emphasize how good things are, the more the reader will suspect you’re about to drop on anvil on someone.
That isn’t the only way to start with a scene which seems to be calm, but really portends something worse. Last week I quoted the beginning of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Clark. Let’s look at that one again:
When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.
Something is amiss, but it isn’t clearly anything serious. The narrator’s little sister had a nightmare and went to sleep in Mother’s bed. It’s only at the end of the paragraph that you get that ominous mention of the reaping.
The Calm Before the Storm can also work with almost any story, though it does go really well with tales where the plot is driven more by the internal conflict–stories where the reader often fears more for whether the character will remain true to their principles or loyal to their companions than whether they survive the external conflift.
Opening Statement to the Jury
The Opening Statement to the Jury is is the hardest one to pull off, because you begin by explaining, in at least an abstract way, what’s going to happen. It’s not unlike when a stage magician tells the audience what the trick is going to be before it happens. But it can be very rewarding if you pull it off. Because by beginning with the statement of your theme, you can also tell the reader’s what’s at stake, and what the conflict is going mean. One example comes to us from Edgar Allan Poe, as the opening line to his short story, “The Mystery of Marie Roget”:
There are few persons, even among the calmest thinkers, who have not occasionally been startled into a vague yet thrilling half-credence in the supernatural, by coincidences of so seemingly marvellous a character that, as mere coincidences, the intellect has been unable to receive them.
It’s a little abstract, but it can be very effective, especially if what is at stake is a moral dilemma or personal tragedy. I was shocked some years ago when a story I’d been struggling with the opening to for years (and the middle of the story also had some problems in each draft), finally crystallized around a statement to the jury. This is how I finally opened the short story, “The Throne of Osiris”:
It was Karaya’s gift and curse to know the feelings of others better than her own. Perhaps this is what had first drawn her to Faust, in the months after he joined the crew. Despite the considerable talents of the geneticists who designed her, and the battery of experts who had trained her to derive reams of information from the subtlest nuances of body language, Faust had been opaque.
I tell you Karaya’s tragic flaw in the opening sentence, then distract you with those other details, so that as the plot of the tale unfolds, you almost forget the opening line. Until you reach the end of the story, and realize exactly what that opening sentence meant.
An Opening Statement to the Jury can be especially effective in a tragedy. Though I don’t necessarily mean where everyone dies. In my story, for instance, the external conflict is resolved victoriously: the protagonist and all the the supporting characters survive, the villains are defeated, and the population of an entire planet is saved. But, in the end, the protagonist fails to realize something important, and her internal conflict remains unresolved, though the reader has little doubt that that part of her tale is going to eventually lead to tragedy.
And that gets us to the main type of story you should consider this sort of opening for: if what the story is really about is something bigger than either the external conflict alone or the internal conflict alone.
How Do You Choose?
Remember what I said back in part 1, don’t make the mistake of trying to pick the perfect opening at the beginning, and don’t spin your wheels because you don’t know whether you have the perfect opening. In the first draft, just go with what first came to you and keep going until you reach the end. Then, as soon as you do, flip back to the beginning and read your opening once more. Does it still work with your ending? If not, analyze your opening a bit. Figure out which category it fits, then try writing a new opening paragraph or so of each of the other types. Is one of them better?
Spend some time thinking about what drives your plot. Is your story primarily concerned with the internal or external conflict? Is there something bigger going on? Give each a try, and see how those read.
If, after reading these four blog posts and following all the advice leaves you without a killer opening, then what? Well, we’ll talk about that next week!
Two weeks ago I started the discussion about beginnings in fiction by referencing a great running gag in the movie Throw Momma From the Train. I’ve covered when (in time) to start the story (The Night Was Sultry, part 1), and how to select an internal conflict to go with the external plot (The Night Was Sultry, part 2). In other words, we’ve talked about the narrative hook and setting the stakes.
But in addition to the narrative hook, you need an emotional hook.
Last week when I talked about the internal conflict, that was in relationship to how the protagonist feels about the process, what they care about, and what is going to drive them to solve the problem. While that involves the protagonist’s feelings, it isn’t what I mean by emotional hook. The emotional hooks is the answer to this question: why should the reader care about the protagonist’s success or failure? And most importantly, why should they care from the beginning?
The narrative hook engages the reader’s curiosity, but the emotional hook engages the reader’s heart. You want the reader to root for your protagonist to succeed, and to do that the reader has to care—the reader has to find redeeming qualities in your protagonist, something the reader will sympathize and/or identify with. This doesn’t mean that your lead character must be a paragon of virtue, or obviously heroic. Just that they are worth the reader’s time.
Two weeks ago I talked about a couple of notorious bad ways to begin a story, one of which is the dreaded alarm clock going off. The problem with that beginning isn’t that there is inherently something wrong with beginning with your protagonist waking up for the day, but that generally that sort of beginning doesn’t involve the character interacting with anyone or anything important. But, there are ways to start with the character waking up that do intrigue the reader, hint at the stakes, and deliver the emotional hook. And a particularly brilliant and sneaky one is this opening paragraph:
When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.
You may recognize that as the opening paragraph of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Clark. Just take a moment to marvel at the first sentence: ‘When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold.’ You have no idea who this character is, but you infer that there should be someone in bed with the character, but they are missing. Who is it? What is their relationship to the narrator? If they’re sharing a bed, does that mean they are romantically involved? And why are they missing?
In the next sentence you get a name, but you also get the detail of the rough canvas cover of the mattress. Not a satin sheet—not any sheet at all. They sleep directly on the mattress cover, which implies things about their circumstances, probably indicating that they are poor, or at least struggling.
In the third sentence, ‘She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother.’ Now we know it is a sibling, not a lover, and since they are sharing a bed in the home shared with their mother, they are probably fairly young. But also that guess at bad dreams tells us that our narrator knows the sibling cares enough to understand the sibling’s likely state of mind. This isn’t one of those sibling relationships where one resents the other or things of the other as a nuisance. The narrator’s first thought on waking is to notice their sibling is missing and to reach for them, tells us that the narrator cares, right?
Then we finally get to the ‘day of the reaping.’ We don’t know what that means, yet, but since it gives Prim nightmares, we can assume it doesn’t mean harvesting grain or vegetables.
By the time you reach the end of that paragraph, you’ve been hooked, you have an idea of what the stakes of the story might be, and you know that the narrator is someone who cares about their sister. You still don’t know the name or even gender of the narrator (you might infer that only sisters would share a bed, but that’s not necessarily so), but it’s likely that by the time you reach the end of that paragraph, you’re both curious enough and are beginning to suspect this character is worth caring about—at least enough to read for a few more pages.
How do you create the emotional hook? You do it by spending some time thinking about what your character cares about. Think about their admirable qualities. This may seem difficult at first if you’re telling a tragedy or a tale centered on an anti-hero, but remember that the character isn’t expected to be perfect, merely someone that the reader can identify and sympathize with. Who or what does your character love? What or who would they risk their life for? Who do they feel loyal to?
Once you’ve spent some time thinking about the protagonist’s yearnings and fears in a general sense, bring it back in: look at your narrative hook—the moment the brick hits your character. Ask yourself: before the brick hits the character, what are things they care about at that point in their life? Who does the protagonist care about? Were there any urgent matters on their mind before this issue surfaced? What does your protagonist worry about (and what will they worry about once the issue arrives)? What brings them joy at this point in their life? Who or what would they be happy to see?
Think about all of those things, then write a paragraph or two describing what is going on inside your character’s mind. This is before the brick, so don’t write about how they will feel once they realize that they are in a plot. You’re trying to get yourself into the head of the character without the conflict.
After you do that. Look at the opening sentences you had already written. Is there any hint of these things going on in the character’s head in there? Do you find yourself wanting to rephrase a couple of sentences now that you’ve been trying to think like your character? The emotional hook is about nuance and color. Look back at the example I pulled from Hunger Games, see how the narrator’s feelings are only hinted at in each sentence. That’s what you’re going for when you’re laying the emotional hook.
It’s something that is hard to plan. You have to feel your way into it. But doing so makes it much more likely that you will continue to write your character in a way that keeps the reader’s sympathies.
And that keeps them turning pages!
Now, once you’ve figured all of this out, how do you decide whether the opening you have is working? We’ll talk about that next week!
Last week I started the discussion about beginnings in fiction by referencing a wonderful running gag in the movie Throw Momma From the Train. I covered the first two things to remember when you are stuck about the opening of a story you’re trying to write: 1) Don’t let yourself get hung up trying to think of the perfect word—write what you can and get the first draft done, then worry about the best sentences in the edit phase, 2) Start the story at the moment your protagonist is hit with the brick (the moment she realizes something is terribly wrong, isn’t going to get something she needs/wants, et cetera) and not the moment that someone began manufacturing the brick.
I’m not saying that you have to start the story with gunshots ringing out or in the middle of hand-to-hand combat. The brick can be metaphorical. It can be very abstract. But the point of a story is that a protagonist faces a problem, obstacle, or riddle, and struggles with that problem to achieve something they want. So the story gets underway when the character knows there is a problem.
When people talk about opening lines, they often focus on the narrative hook—something that grabs the reader’s attention. And that something is usually an external conflict: the evil step-mother doesn’t want Cinderella to go the the ball, for instance. Or the dragon must be fed a virgin at regular intervals lest the kingdom be destroyed.
But if the only conflict in the story of Cinderella is her step-mother keeping her from the ball, why doesn’t the story end when Cindy arrives at the palace? The reason is that there is also an internal conflict: Cinderella doubts herself. Depending on which version of the story you read, Cinderella can be interpreted as not believing she is worthy of love. Why else do her stepmother and stepsisters treat her so cruelly? The point is that getting to the ball doesn’t solve Cinderella’s inner conflict.
If looked at this way, it can seem as if figuring out the inner conflict is only about how you keep the story going and how you find your ending, but it is just as important to the beginning of the story. Because the inner conflict tells you how the protagonist feels about the outer conflict. When the brick hits the the protagonist in your opening, is it a minor annoyance, or a serious problem? The difference between those comes down to how your main character feels about it. How important it is to her or to him. What are the stakes in this problem.
Of course, that’s what gives the problem drama, isn’t it?
So, don’t just think about what the conflict is. Think about what it means to your protagonist, how they feel, what’s at stake, why it matters, and why the solution isn’t obvious. Not just what’s going on outside, but what is happening in their head and heart.
If you’re having trouble figuring out what the inner conflict is, go back to the conflict. I said before that point of the story is a character facing a problem, obstacle, or riddle—struggling to achieve something they want. That’s the key. What do they want? And make sure that what the character wants is something, not nothing.
That may seem obvious, but surprisingly it isn’t. You don’t know how many times, when I was editing the ‘zine with the mission of fostering creative skills, that I would ask a writer what their main character wanted, and they would answer, “She wants to be left alone” or “He doesn’t want to be involved; he wants all this to go away.” That isn’t something the character wants. And it should be no surprise that the authors who said this were all struggling in the middle of their story with no idea how to move forward.
They didn’t know what the characters wanted. Above I suggested that Cinderella’s inner conflict can be interpreted as believing she is unworthy of love. So what does she want? She wants to be loved.
So rather than think that your character wants to be left alone, ask why? That’s where you should be able to find several whats that can be the inner conflict and drive your character to keep fighting. Does the character have family members they love and want to be happy? Does your character have a passion? Does your character long for something they don’t have? Figure out which of those things is threatened by your external conflict, and that will lead you to the inner conflict, and help you see how the story begins and how your character feels and behaves when that brick first hits.
So we’ve gone over how to decide where the beginning is, and now how to decide what it means to the protagonist. Next…? Well, we’ll talk about that next week!
The movie Throw Momma From the Train begins with a writer who is having severe writer’s block. He keeps typing the opening line, “The night was…” and then he can’t decide. Was the night hot? Was it moist? Was it hot and moist? And since the movie was made before the era of cheap personal computers, we watch the character, portrayed by Billy Crystal, typing on a physical piece of paper, then tearing it out and throwing it away again and again and again and…
We learn that he’s been stuck unable to write for years since his ex-wife stole his previous novel, got it published under her name, then said novel became an international bestseller. Now the wife is living the high life in Hawaii. In his day job, he teaches creative writing at a community college, and one of his students misunderstands a conversation they have about writing as a proposal that the student kill the teacher’s ex-wife, and the teacher will kill the student’s abusive (and senile and otherwise seriously ill) mother. Various horrible misadventures ensue, culminating at a moment when the two are discussing opening lines again, the teacher talks about the whether the opening line should be “The night is hot” or “The night is moist” or “The night was humid” or “The night was foggy” at which point the ill mother says, “The night is sultry!” Which is, of course the word that combines both meaning the teacher had been trying to go for.
I could write multiple blog posts about the movie: about the problematic way it handles the declining mental and physical health of the mother; about the problematic way it portrays most of the women in the story; about the many myths of writing it perpetuates. But today’s topic is going to be opening lines. Or, more broadly, openings in stories, because it’s about more than just the first sentence.
Among the things the movie does get right is how frustrating and utterly debilitating writer’s block can feel.
As awful as it feels, you should never get as frozen on the opening line as Crystal’s character does in the movie. A completed draft of a story with a bad opening sentence is better than a blank screen with nothing because you can’t think of the perfect opening. And the truth is that most of the classic opening lines in literature—the ones that get quoted in all those articles about the best opening lines—weren’t in the first, second, or even third draft of that story. The writer figured them out later, once they’d wrestled with the entire story for a while.
There are several things to consider about the opening of your story that are more important than picking just the perfect word. Even the opening sentence isn’t necessarily important. If you’re working on a short story, then eventually, yes, you need to come up with a nice hook in the opening sentence. But if you’re writing a novella or a novel, you will wind up worrying more about the opening paragraphs. Readers expect a longer story of have more characters, subplots, and complexity, so they’re more likely to stick through several paragraphs before they need to be hooked.
The first question is where to begin. This may seem like an easy one, but let me tell you from my years reading the slush piles of several small publications, many people don’t have any clue where to begin the story. “But I started at the beginning!” is the usual response I would get when explaining to someone they had started at the wrong place. There is the classic of beginning in the wrong place: an alarm clock rings, the character wakes up and the author expects the reader to slog through many paragraphs (or pages) of description of the character brushing their teeth, eating breakfast and so on. But thats not the only way that writers start at a spot that seems like the beginning.
I encountered the best (or worst) example of how not to do this back when I was a university student. For reasons too complex to go into here, I was taking a Creative Writing class that was aimed at a much less advanced writer than I was, but that I needed to finish before I could get into other classes. And the professor had seen my work and knew it was too basic, so she had let me into the class on the condition that any time it was my turn to comment on someone else’s story I would tell the whole truth of what I thought. Yes, that’s right, she made me the designated bad guy. Anyway, one day a guy is reading a story, and it begins by describing the trophies and mementos of high school on his desk and shelves at home. At the bottom of the first page he finally mentions the game ball from a football game, his most prize possession, and then he starts describing the football game beginning from the opening kickoff. It was absolutely the most boring sh*t for nine more pages until finally he came to the line, “We had to move the ball 20 yards in 8 seconds.” Which should have been the opening.
The reasons why the first 10 pages of this story were awful was because first: none of the rest of the mementos from his school year had the slightest thing to do with the story. Second: to anyone who knows anything about football, knowing that our narrator has the game ball already tells us the ending—to wit, the narrator is going to make the play that wins the game. Third: even to a hard core football fan, a narration of a game whose ending we already know is just not interesting enough to sustain 10+ pages of following. The beginning of this kind of story is going to be where the drama hits. In that case, “We had to move the ball 20 yards in 8 seconds.”
Which isn’t to say that explaining any other parts of the game are worthless, you just need to hook the reader first. That line is something that even a non-football fan recognizes as a challenge. Then your second sentence can be explain that this was a game against your big cross-town rivals, and how every year for as long as you can remember this was the game that everyone attended, and then explain which position on the team the narrator plays, and then summarize some of the game up to that point, in order to set the scene and introduce characters. Up until that “We had to move the ball 20 yards in 8 seconds” moment, it was just one more sportsball game being played by people the readers doesn’t know or care about. And laid out in that order, the reader doesn’t know why he ought to care.
But if you first hook the reader with the drama, then you can fill in details. And the reader will understand that this is all stuff to help them understand the answer to the questions the opening lines raised: Who is this? Will they succeed? If they succeed, how will they?
So the first rule about opening lines is: the beginning isn’t necessarily the chronological beginning of your character’s day or involvement in the events, it is the moment where the protagonist is confronted by the problem. Some people like to put it this way: start the story the moment your character is hit in the head with a brick, not back at the moment someone started manufacturing the brick.
Which isn’t to say that every story has to begin with dramatic action… but we’ll get into that in part 2!
Over the years I’ve had many conversations with aspiring writers. This happened especially a lot when I was the publisher of a small zine and attending sf/f conventions where I appeared on writing and publishing panels and usually had a table selling copies of the zine. A significant fraction of these random aspiring writers would talk about stories that they were working on but couldn’t quite figure out how to finish. And once I got into the details with them, it would eventually emerge that they hadn’t actually written any of the story. It was an idea they had and which they had talked about at length with friends. In many cases they would talk about the files they had full of descriptions of characters and an outline of the history of the world, but when pressed, they would admit that they hadn’t actually written a single word of the story itself.
Planning and thinking and even doodling about a story, gathering research and writing up background information are important tasks which are often necessary to the writing process, but none of that is the actual story. So I would tell these writers a few of rules:
- Stop talking about the story to other people, because that just makes the storytelling part of your brain think you’ve already written the tale. Sit down and start writing it.
- You don’t have to do world building before you start writing. Recently I saw a lot of people online passing around an excerpt from on old interview with one of Tolkein’s kids where the kid asserts that dad didn’t start writing the story itself down until the children started catching him in contradictions. I don’t know if the anecdote is true, but you can tell a lot of story before you have to stop and start making notes about the world building.
- Just sit down and put one word after the other. Don’t worry about whether you’ve started the story at the correct place. Don’t worry about the perfect opening line. You can figure that out later. Don’t get hung up (in the first draft) worrying about if people will understand the story or will like the story. Just start writing. The first draft is you telling the story to yourself. Worry about everything else after you have finished the first draft.
- Don’t stop and go back and re-write scenes again and again. Force yourself to leave things in the story until you reach an ending. Yes, you may scrap a ton of what you wrote later, but don’t fall into the trap of rewriting one scene for eternity.
- Write. A writer writes. Do it!
If you are writing a story, you’re writing. If you’re doing something else, you aren’t writing. Obviously, sometimes you have to take a break, or do some plotting, or jot down background information, or update a timeline, and so forth in order to know what to write next, none of that is actually writing. So if you’re spending more time on that than actually writing the tale, you need to stop, sit down at your favorite word processor or writing notebook, and start writing.
The blog post that angered me this weekend asserted that if you haven’t been published you aren’t a writer. I tend to have a knee-jerk reaction to gatekeeping, but even discounting that, I have problems with that distinction. I understand that the author was trying to address the issue of people who are merely daydreaming about writing. And I agree that we do a disservice to aspiring writers if we enable their mistaken notions that writing is easy or that it’s a sort of magic process of ideas coming to us from the ether.
But getting published is a very arbitrary and classist hurdle. And particularly in this age of self-publishing, it’s not a terribly useful distinction.
Are you writing? Not background notes, but an actual story with dialogue and a narrative moving forward? Then you are a writer. Maybe you’re still in the early stages of learning your craft. Maybe what you wrote this morning was completely awful. Maybe you’re still afraid to show it to other people. Maybe you showed it to someone and they didn’t like it.
That’s not important.
Are you writing? Are you doing the work of putting one word after the other striving to get to the end of the tale?
If you are writing a story, even if you don’t know what you’re doing yet, you’re a writer.
Go! Write! Finish that story!
When people find a person in their midst who does not conform to their expectations, their reaction is to try to find a behavioral cause of that non-conformity. Because admitting that different kinds of people exist naturally challenges the simplest notion of normality. So when confronted with a smart, slightly gender-non-conforming kid who seems to know about things people don’t expect kids to understand, they go looking for an easy explanation of why I’m different. And it really was both of those differences that confused people. More than one relative on different sides of the family commented that as a young child I seemed like an adult trapped in a kid’s body.
When you are clinging to the notion that there is a limited number of ways to be normal with someone who doesn’t fit any of your notions, the easiest thing is to look at which of the non-conforming person’s interests seem least like theirs. So in the 1960s and ’70s, people focused on my interest in science, science fiction, fantasy and related topics. Because before the era of the personal computer and the cultural behemoth that was the original Star Wars, those things were completely beyond the kin of normal humans. Some of the cover art of magazines and paperback books raised a few eyebrows. At least one relative asserted the belief that reading superhero comics, with all of those skin tight costumes on the male heroes, would turn a boy into a sissy.
In retrospect I find it hilarious, because of all the media/fiction I can recall from my childhood, the only place where gender fluidity and related topics occurred regularly was not in science fiction, fantasy, or science fact books, but in one of the most popular forms of pop culture of many decades: Looney Tunes cartoons, specifically Bugs Bunny cartoons.
Even before Bugs Bunny had the name “Bugs,” he was dressing up as a woman to seduce a male character. Long before he ever dressed as a woman to distract Elmer Fudd or Yosemite Sam, the character then referred to informally as “Happy Rabbit” disguised himself as a female version of the unnamed hunter’s dog to distract the dog from his trail. So if everyone’s theory that someone what made me non-conforming was the shows I watched, clearly it should have been Bugs Bunny they focused on, right? Contrariwise, Bugs is a great argument against the whole media-causes-queerness argument: as I pointed out in a post last week, for a number of years the Looney Tunes cartoons weren’t just ubiquitious, they were almost universally adored by a couple of generations of folks. If media exposure causes queerness, then just about every single person aged 40-something through 60-something alive in North America right now should be an out queer, because Bugs taught us all that to be a drag queen was to be triumphant.
This meaning of drag: “Women’s clothes as worn by a man; (less commonly) men’s clothes as worn by a woman; a party at which such clothes are worn” as rendered in the Oxford English Dictionary has been around since the late 19th Century. The first written citation coming in 1870 as a reference to male actors portraying female characters on the stage. At various times in the history of the theatre, it had been common to cast young men in the feminine roles, because it was considered inappropriate for women to perform on stage. So there is a certain tradition the theatre (which cropped up later in movies, though usually for comedic effect) of men dressing as women on stage. There is also a tradition of characters of either sex on stage and in movies dressing in disguises—sometimes disguises that shouldn’t fool anyone—and carrying on for scene after scene completely pulling the wool of the eyes of other characters.
The disguises that Bugs donned in the various cartoons weren’t always drag. The point of the gag was how gullible Bugs’ adversary could be in light of the disguise, no matter how ridiculous. Which is why I don’t think it ever occurred to anyone back then that how easily the hero of the story could adopt the persona of a woman and seductively entrance the villain might be just a little bit queer. Maybe it was the fact that the audience was in on the joke—Bugs was dressing as a woman to fool his antagonist and make the audience laugh, not because he enjoyed it, and certainly not because he was actually trying to seduce the other character. Maybe it was simply the fact that they understood the jokes in a Bugs Bunny cartoon, but sf/f didn’t appeal to them, and a lot of that cover art looked erotic, demonic, and sometimes both.
To me, the ease with which Bugs transformed himself in his various disguises is a manifestation of a much, much older narrative tradition: The Trickster God. One of the oldest examples of which is the Old Norse story of the time that Loki is tasked by Odin with getting the gods of Asgard out of a particularly unwise bet. The gods had made a deal with a builder to create a magnificent fortification, but that if the builder couldn’t do it in a ridiculously short time with no help except that of his horse, the gods would never have to pay for the fortress. It quickly becomes clear that that both the builder and his horse are possessed of magical abilities and will succeed at the seemingly impossible task. Loki tries various things, but eventually is only able to succeed by transforming himself into a beautiful mare in heat, and thus lure away the magical horse away. In the Norse story, Loki actually mates with the horse and later gives birth the another magical steed, Sleipnir, which becomes Odin’s horse and figures in a lot of other mythologies.
I’m just glad that I never pointed out that little similarity back then. It was one thing when I was sometimes forbidden to check out certain books from the library, or buy certain paperbacks at the used book store. It would have been infinitely crueler to forbid me from watching Bugs and Daffy!
Then I read the story aloud to my monthly writers’ group.
I honestly don’t remember much of the critique I got from the group that night. And truth be told, I didn’t read everything I’d written. I only read the opening scene, and by the time I reached the end of the scene, I already knew that the story was a disaster. Part of it was the nonverbal reaction of the group, yes, but that wasn’t what killed the story for me. No, just hearing it aloud in my own voice revealed that it was an awful opening to an unpleasant story.
The character was in a very unpleasant situation, but that’s not what I mean when I say it was an unpleasant story. I mean that it was unpleasant to read the scene that I’d written. And I knew the rest of them suffered the same problem. I had picked the wrong place to start the story, and I was fairly certain that while my new character was interesting, she shouldn’t be the viewpoint character for this particular story. She might still be the protagonist, but she wasn’t the person who should narrate this particular tale.
And I learned all of that before any of the other writers in the group said a word. Just from the act of reading it aloud.
It’s advice I have received for as long as I can remember. Back when I was a grade-school student haunting the library’s magazine collection reading back issues of The Writer and Writer’s Digest I saw the advice again and again: read the story aloud to yourself before you show it to other people. It’s advice I’ve given many times. But I don’t always follow it. That particular story I really should have.
Reading it aloud, either to yourself or an audience, will expose awkward sentences at a minimum. There are all sorts of sentences you can write that make perfect sense, follow the rules of grammar and so forth, but when you try to say them out loud, your tongue trips on them. That’s why I always have a pencil or other writing implement in my hand when I read aloud, so I can circle the places I stumble over awkward phrasing.
But that isn’t the only thing you learn reading it aloud. There are numerous studies that show, for instance, the act of simply speaking about a problem you’ve been worrying about makes you think of it in a new light. Neurologically, they say, that’s because different parts of the brain interact differently. It’s not just the act of putting a problem into words, it appears to also be the fact that as you listen to yourself speak, different areas of the brain react differently than when you contemplate a problem in silence.
That process doesn’t just apply to solving real world problems, obviously. Listening to your story aloud makes you process it differently than reading it silently.
Reading it aloud to someone else brings in a different level of information, much of it non-verbal as I alluded to above. Your listeners may fidget, or become distracted, for instance. You’re not holding their attention. You’ll get other cues, as well.
That particular tale was re-written substantially several times, though I didn’t bring each draft back to the group. I tried telling the story from the points of view of three different supporting characters before I found the right viewpoint character and the right starting point. The fourth version, when it was read, got very positive responses. And eventually was published, and I got a few compliments from readers of the ‘zine.
The key to realizing my approach was wrong was to simply read the opening scene aloud–advice I have tried to follow much more faithfully ever since.
Sustaining the reader’s attention over the course of a book also generally requires sub-plots. The main plot of your novel might be the fate of a young prince about to be betrothed to someone he has never met, but over the course of the story various distractions and obstacles will cross his path, each requiring their own resolution. You may also introduce less-obviously related problems or goals of various supporting characters. Getting all of those interacting in a way that both feels natural and is entertaining to the reader can be tricky
I’m not the kind of writer who starts with an outline. I often start stories without a clear idea of whether this thing that’s occurred to me is going to be a short story, a novella, or a complete book. Very rarely an idea will hit me, I’ll sit down and start typing, and some hours later I have reach the end of a short story. More often what happens is I write for several hours stopping at a point where I either have to stop to go to bed or work or something else, having only then figured out that what I’ve got is a longer story. Even then, I don’t usually stop to do an outline until I hit a serious snag. At that point, I can map out what I’ve written already, start identifying emotional arcs and so forth, and as I make all of that explicit in the outline, start seeing how these various bits might be made to come together in a satisfying conclusion.
Other people I know have an outline when they start, but even with a detailed outline at the beginning, writers get bogged down, hit snares, and so forth. Whichever type of writer you are, when you get hung up, the solution is often to go back to the basics:
- Who’s story is it?
- What do they want?
- What’s in their way
- How far are they willing to go to get what they want?
And don’t just answer those questions for your protagonist. Answer those questions for any villains in the piece and all the supporting characters. I often find the solution to what seems to be a complete dead-end on a plot is to change which subplots cross the hero’s path when.
Another important tool is simply to re-read everything I’ve written before. I had a book-length story moving along a while back, everything going according to plan until I hit this one big snag: I needed two of the characters (specifically, two of the villainous characters), to go to a particular place so they would literally cross the path of some of the other characters. Except I could think of no logical reason they would go there at that point. I really spun my wheels on that for a while. I even tried re-outlining the story from scratch to see if I’d notice something different. While re-reading everything I’d written thus far, two tiny details that I had put in the descriptions of two parts of the story leapt out at me. I had put them in simply because they seemed to fit the mood, and I was trying to give the reader a good image of the characters. But each detail implied a couple of things that I hadn’t consciously thought as important to the plot. And while I didn’t originally intend the two details to be related to each other, I realized if I went with the explanation that did relate them, it gave me a perfect opportunity to drop some new information in the laps of the two characters–information that would send them out to retrieve something, and put them where I needed them when I needed them.
I don’t think that my subconscious put those two details in for that reason originally, but when I found it, it did seem almost miraculous, like a finding a secret bridge across a seemingly impassible chasm in the plot. And once I had that connection between those details, it made several other things later in the book easier to explain.
And frequently, while I’m re-examining those character arcs, or reviewing the outline and comparing what I’ve already written to the plan, I find little gems like that buried in the scenes. A detail or a throw-away line or maybe just a coincidence that I can exploit to leapfrog the plot ahead.
Sometimes, in order to keep putting one word in front of the other, we have to go looking in the muck for something we can repurpose.