I’d really wanted to spend more of this month blogging about either fun holiday things or writing. Serious topics keep dominating, and while some of them have at least been holiday-related, it hasn’t exactly been Ho! Ho! Ho! time on this blog. That isn’t because I’m only thinking dark thinky thoughts, or even that I’ve been in a bad mood. Honestly, it’s mostly because I’m trying to get this year’s Christmas Ghost Story finished, as well as get everything else ready for the party, and finish Christmas shopping all while dealing with more than a few long days at work.
Which, admittedly, isn’t very different from any of the last 20-some Decembers.
This year’s Christmas Ghost Story had what I thought was a very straightforward plot. And it hasn’t been the plot that has been giving me trouble. But I keep writing dialog and then futzing with it because it’s wrong…
Why December is always bad in this way is because none of my usual methods of powering through a clogged story work. All of them are based on the philosophy that no matter how bad the first draft is, you can fix it in re-write. The Christmas Ghost Story is something that I will read to the attendees of our annual holiday party this Saturday. So I have to revise and fix as I go. At least, that’s how it feels.
Intellectually, I know that if I had just powered through and forced myself to write to the end two weekends ago, I would have had all this time to go through it and fix things. But that seldom works. I’m going to keep futzing until sometime Friday when the overwhelming knowled that I have to finish this now pushes me through to the end.
One thing that’s different this year than from previous: I didn’t make a new Ghost Story Playlist as the end of November. I know, I know, as if I need another playlist. I have so many (literally thousands).
I also haven’t been listening to as much of my usual Christmas music. Please note that I didn’t say as much Christmas music as usual, but rather as much OF my usual. Among my playlists are a bunch of holiday music lists that are usually my go-tos if I don’t have a craving to listen to a specific album. Playlists with names such as, A Caroling Caroling, A Class-ic Xmas, A Dame & Diva Christmas, Xmas Oddments, A Gay Yuletide, A Jazzy Christmas, A Quirk-y Christmas, A Silly Christmas, Last Bells for the Christmas Parade…
The problem when one has a Christmas collection as big as mine, is that it is easy to just listen to a few hundred favorites each year and ignore the 4500+ (I am not exaggerating) others. So, several years ago I made a Smart Playlist: all the songs tagged either Christmas or Holiday, and they have not been played in at least two years. I would listen to that list on shuffle for a while–usually only three or four days– and then start listening to other lists or specific albums most of the time. I would go back to the Smart List every now and then, usually when I couldn’t decide what I wanted to listen to.
The beauty of this list is that it shrinks as you listen to it. Once a song has played, it drops out of the list, because its Last Played Date is now, right? When I fired up the list a few days before the end of November, I was happy to see that it only had about 1600 songs–about a third of the collection. So I did a better job listening to a wider variety of my library that last couple of season, because usually it’s closer to half the collection. I started listening to the list, as usual, but instead of only listening to it for a few days, it was the primary source of my listening for nearly two weeks. Yeah, from time to time I’ve decided to listen to a specific album, but it wasn’t until this week that I started choosing some of my usual go-to lists. The upshot of all this is that the smart list only has a bit over 600 songs left in it. And that’s kind of amazing.
I’ve also been plugging away at wrapping presents. I got most of the presents for the relatives I was hand-delivering to finished before I drove down to Mom’s last Friday, and now I have about two-thirds of the presents for other people we’re giving stuff to, finished.
Just before Thanksgiving my husband found a 4-roll pack at Costco in which (as he described it when he texted me at the time) “all purple or penguins.” And since on the roll of cartoon penguins, some of the penguins have purple scarves, all of the wrap is purple. And it’s really good paper. Now I understand why I have heard people talk about the Costco paper (we didn’t get any of the reversible rolls). The paper is heavy enough to be sturdy, and it has the grid printed on the back so even I can cut nearly straight lines.
Now this is the first year in a long time that we needed to buy new paper. Not that not needing paper stopped us before! But we both had this bad habit of buying cute wrapping paper when we saw it in stores, and winding up with more gift wrap than we wound up using. So our stash of wrapping paper kept growing and growing. During the move, I looked at the stash (only half of it would fit in the special plastic wrap-storage thingie that my late husband bought 22-23 years ago) and realized that there were still some rolls in my collection that were also 22-23 years old. One of them was a particular design that Ray had gushed about when he bought, and for all the years since he died, I only used any paper off of it a few times–specifically when wrapping a present for his mother. Other years I will pull it out, think about how much Ray liked it and then decide not to use it because then I wouldn’t have it any more.
This is, by the way, extreme packrat pathology. I recognize it.
But it gets worse!
The other roll that had been hung onto that long was a design that I thought was really ugly–but Ray had bought it and thought it was beautiful and therefore while I never wanted to use it, I also wouldn’t get rid of it.
Which is packrat sociopathy or something!
I decided the storage container was aiding and abetting our worst packrat tendencies. It’s also kind of difficult to store, because all of this parts are rounded, and it has handles that stick out awkwardly, and the lid for the section where you’re supposed to store tape would pop open if you sneezed near it. So the storage thing and every roll of wrapping paper (and bags of bows and so forth) were all taken to Value Village.
The hope is that maybe we’ll be less likely to hang onto excess wrapping paper now that we’ve learned our lesson. Wish us luck!
I need to get back to my story…
There is something very relaxing about making a cup of tea, then sitting down with a book (or my Kindle or the iBook app on my iPad) and reading. It was especially nice to do that out on the veranda when the weather was warmer. I still go out there with a mug of tea, but I wind up drinking the tea faster because it’s getting cold (and I’m chilled). So I come back inside once the tea is done. Besides, now that we get frequent visitors to the bird feeder, I feel guilty being out there and scaring the little guys off.
I do sometimes sit in front of the window and watch them. Which means I don’t always get much reading done. But it’s all good.
It has only been a few weeks since I changed the format of my Friday round up of links, and I have to say that the much shorter list has made Thursday night feel much more relaxing. I wish that I had been self-aware to realize that the old long form version was such a stressful chore, but that’s okay.
I’ve mentioned that I began questioning how much effort was going into the process because the number of people reading the round up had gone way down. What I didn’t mention was the timeline. If I look at the stats on my blog, I can point to a very specific time when the readership dropped: the first Friday after the Inauguration. They didn’t drop all the way to the recent lows right away, but the drop off was noticeable.
Now, long before then, the round up had always included a stories about unpleasant topics. And I dare say the ratio of bad news to good news was about the same. But I totally understand how exhausting it is to be reminded about this bad stuff since there is now so much of it, and it’s hurting everyone, and it feels as if there’s nothing we can do about.
So, that’s another motive for the change: I don’t want to contribute to other people’s sense of exhaustion or hopelessness, and I don’t need to wear myself out, either.
This doesn’t mean I’m not still reading as much news as before. Nor does it mean that I’ll stop calling my congresscritters and adding my voice to the throng. I’m just not spending as much time aggregating the news for other people.
There are other habits I’m trying to get into to try to limit how often I’m having to think about unpleasant topics. That’s part of the reason there is a lot less activity from me on Twitter, for instance. I still find reading my friends, acquaintances, et al on Twitter useful, I’m just limiting how much time I spend on it.
I’m behind on my writing goals (NaNoWriMo notwithstanding; there are things that I meant to have done before November that I didn’t get done). But there’s a lot of stuff going on, and I just have to accept that some of my energy is going to go into other things. And some of those other things are about taking care of myself and my husband.
Like curling up with a good book and a nice warm cup of tea.
One of those things we’re doing this week specifically along that line is we are not going to drive down to see family for Thanksgiving. I don’t need the stress of the drive each way. Neither of us needs the stress of constantly biting our tongues around my Trump-voting, Bible-thumping relatives. It will do wonders for the blood pressures of several of my relatives, too, truth be told.
Which means that instead of figuring out what dishes I can make in advance and transport down there, we’re doing a whole dinner! So far it’s just the two of us; which will be fine. And since I love talking about food, here’s our current menu:
- Relish tray (many many olives, pickles, pickled carrots, pickled green beans, pickled asparagus so far…)
- Turkey (my hubby found a 10-pound one, so not too big!)
- Green bean casserole
- Creamy sweet potatoes
- Sweet potato pie
There will likely be other things added before we’re done.
Also, the official cocktail of our holiday will be a Spicy Manhattan. Based on the recipe suggested at Central Market, this weekend, but after trying it, I have to change it so:
2 oz of your favorite bourbon or rye
1.5 oz of sweet vermouth
Several dashes of orange bitters
Tillen Farms Fire & Spice Organic Maraschino Cherries
Chill your glasses. In a cocktail shaker with ice, mix the vermouth and bourbon, stir at least 45 seconds. Shake a generous number of dashes of bitters into the cocktail glass, strain the contents of the shaker into the glass (turn the glass while he do so to mix the bitters better). Garnish with two of the spicy cherries.
Cheers! And happy holidays!
(Also, feel free to leave your menu or your favorite holiday food in the comments!)
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.
Let’s tell some stories!
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.
All too often, that wish for the artwork to be good becomes the greatest obstacle to finish the story. It’s like the proverb, “Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good.” It is easy to fall into the trap of rewriting and revising a story (or a single scene) again and again because it isn’t perfect. We may scrap what we’ve written already altogether and start over from scratch because we don’t think it’s good enough. We may refuse to ever show our work to anyone because we don’t think it’s good enough.
If you are caught in that kind of a cycle, it isn’t easy to get out. As frustrating as it is to be in that situation, let me tell you it is at least as frustrating for your friends and loved ones to watch you spin in circles. I don’t have a magic solution, but I have a suggestion. You need to let it go. Show the imperfect draft to someone you trust. Think of it as tearing a bandaid off all at once, so the pain is over quickly. If you can survive showing it to someone, that should tell you you can survive moving forward.
It’s okay if the person you show it to doesn’t like it. But it is even more important to make yourself believe this: it’s also okay if they like it. Don’t listen to the voices in your head telling you that they are just saying it to be nice—listen to this person (who you chose to show it to because you respect and trust them, right?) who is telling you they like it.
And if you’re having trouble believing someone who tells you they like something you wrote or drew or made, think about this: when you don’t believe them, you aren’t being self-deprecating, you are insulting them. You’re saying that your friend has poor taste or is too unsophisticated to judge quality.
Maybe one of the ways I’ve lucked out in life is that I never had people who told me everything I made was wonderful. My mom has absolutely no problem telling me which parts of my published works she wishes I had done differently, for example. Back when my nice Grandma was alive, she similarly had no trouble saying, “I don’t understand it, and didn’t really like it, but if you’re happy…” And don’t get me started on my evil grandmother!
Which gets me to the other part: if people don’t like it, that doesn’t mean it is awful. It may mean the story (or painting or whatever) simply isn’t for them. I think every author that I have ever said I loved, has written at least one book or short story that left me cold. I absolutely adore many other things they’ve made, but for one reason or another that one either put me off, or bounced me out, and left me unsatisfied. And that’s okay. It doesn’t mean that book or story was bad. It just means that story wasn’t for me.
Let go of the doubt. Let go of the fear. Rip off that band aid and let the art speak for itself. Don’t apologize. Don’t tell people it isn’t very good. And don’t reject any compliments you may get.
If you decide to shelve it after showing it to someone, fine. As long as you move on to the next story. Because a writer writes… and keeps writing!
I’m participating in National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) once again this year! If you don’t know what that means, let me quote their website:
National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) is a fun, seat-of-your-pants approach to creative writing.
On November 1, participants begin working towards the goal of writing a 50,000-word novel by 11:59 PM on November 30.
There are rules, but for years I participated as a Rebel, until a few years ago when they dropped the one rule that kept making me a rebel.
- Write one 50,000-word (or longer!) novel, between November 1 and November 30.
Start from scratch.
- Write a novel. We define a novel as a lengthy work of fiction.
- Be the sole author of your novel.
- Write more than one word repeated 50,000 times.
That second bullet is the rule that they changed. Most years I use NaNoWriMo as a motivation to work on some stalled or otherwise unfinished projects rather than starting from scratch, which is why I was always over in the Rebel category. NaNoWriMo is a lot of fun, and I find that having a few friends participating and mutually cheering each other on (and in a couple of cases to try to race against, word-count wise) helps me get a lot of work done.
NaNoWriMo isn’t for everyone. But I’ve seen people who didn’t think they’d like it come out happy that they’d given it a go.
Usually about this point in this post I would veer into some advice about the virtues of getting a draft down and not worrying about quality. And probably will write something about that in the next few days, but a friend shared an interesting post that goes in a slightly different direction that I think many people might find valuable. I should note a couple of things. The Story Nurse gives out customized writing advice, and this particular letter writer talks about struggling with thoughts of suicide and other types of anxiety, and how trying to force themselves to power through stalled writing projects makes that worse. So, consider yourself warned.
Having more than one friend who has found that a lot of their frustrations with writing and similar projects were actually symptoms of untreated mental health issues, I can appreciate how the sorts of advice people like me often give out (“just put one word after the other, whatever it takes”) is not only not helpful, but can actually cause harm. I like the way that the Story Nurse breaks out some things to try that are completely different that just trying to force more words out. I am particularly enamored with this suggestion:
Set the goal of creating works that are explicitly for practice, rather than going directly to big projects that you care passionately about. The less emotionally attached you are to the work you’re doing, the less energy you’re feeding into that self-doubt dynamic.
She also suggests keeping a compliment file. That’s a place where you save kind things people say about your work or just about you.
Anyway, take a look at that column. I think several of her suggestions for this letter writer are good things to try. And check out the Story Hospital website for earlier columns.
And if you’re planning to participate in NaNoWriMo, and would like a writing buddy, you can add me: FontFolly. Let’s tell some stories!
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!