Workshop: The Fine Art of Starting

Issue 63


The Fine Art of Starting


Lazette Gifford

Copyright © 2011, Lazette Gifford, All Rights Reserved



I have come to believe that the one thing stopping more authors than anything else is the act of starting a story or novel. I see people agonize over this all the time and I hope that I can help some of you out with a few pointers and some exercises.



There is one important factor I feel a lot of people overlook. This is something to always keep in mind as you start a story:




You can always change the opening.




In fact, you should be willing to change it. You should consider the opening the most fluid part of your story. Why? Because you may not clearly see what you need until you have written your very last scene. How a story ends should, in some ways, reflect something of how it began. Not a mirror scene, necessarily, but whatever 'question' you set in the opening, needs to be answered by the end.




It may be that your question changes during the writing of the book. It may start as 'will the MC find true love' but somewhere the question is really 'will the MC find his lost sister who ran off with someone?'




Be willing to adjust your story, from start to finish, as the story grows. Never believe anything you have written cannot change later.




But let's get back to getting started!








Point 1: Who and why




The first question is to decide who the story is about and what is their background, drive and motivation.




When you decide who your MC is, you also decide why he is the center of the action. What has happened to place him where he is and what motivates him to go on? The sooner you can show that motivation the better.




Motivation is obviously connected with the problem that needs to be corrected in the story line. And yes, except for some esoteric story types, there will always be a problem. Since it is unlikely you would have started a manuscript without any idea of what's going on, we can assume that you know these two things, but perhaps have not focused on them enough to place your character firmly on the story path. Not having the MC on that path is one reason a person has trouble locating the opening.



Exercise 1:





Define your character in no more than twenty words.




Define your character's problem in no more than twenty words.








Marcus is an IWC pilot who survives the destruction of his ship.



Marcus must survive a crash on a dangerous world and get word of treachery back to the fleet.





Point 2: When 





You should look for is the inciting incident which is the point in a situation where your character must take action. It's this bit of action that starts the story moving. This seems straightforward, but there are really at least three (and maybe more) ways to play the opening scene out.



1. Just before the change





In some cases, a short (usually very short) view of the normal world may be the best way to set the scene. In this sort of opening the character is shown in the 'real world' just before something changes.



Potential Problems:




The author may write too much of the 'real world' because they want the reader to see and appreciate the setting. This leads at best to a dull opening and at worst to a prolonged info dump.




2. In Medias Res





This is a common writing term and it means in the middle of the action. The action is started and the reader is thrown into the thick of the trouble. This is best used for action scenes, which might be things like battles, arguments or races.




People often say they can't start 'in medias res' because the reader won't understand what's going on. They don't have to understand -- they only have to be intrigued enough to stick around and find out the rest.



Potential Problems:





In an action heavy scene, it's possible to go on too long and confuse the reader about what is happening. This is especially true if this is a multiple POV scene, in which the main character may not be apparent.



Also, if you start in an action scene and then immediately drop into a flashback, you are likely starting at the wrong spot or introducing material in the wrong way. Remember that any time you step out of the forward movement of the story, you are destroying the flow and the tension, which you will have to build up again when you come back.




3. After the trouble




There are many stories that are not about the problem itself, but rather about the survival after the action. These can be post-disaster tales, for instance, in which the character is leaving the ruins of the old world behind.




Obviously, this means there is action different from the destruction (or break up, or whatever other problem has already occurred) and this different action is propelling the story forward.



Potential Problems:





The usual big problem with this sort of start is trying to explain too much of the disaster without actually showing it happen. The writer wants to give a depth to the fall of the world (or the devastation of a divorce -- or whatever else has just happened -- when he should be focusing on the aftermath. The story is not about the disaster happening, but rather about



Exercise 2:





Examine one of your stories and decide which sort of opening it best fits. Does it have a problem that you can now define?




Take that same opening and write it in both of the other two styles. You need not do more than a few hundred words, but see how it would work if, for instance, you took it from 'just before' to 'in medias res' and 'just after' scenarios. Play with the different possibilities.







Here is a story opening from The Hunter and the Hunted. This is a 'just before the change' scenario. There is a hint of trouble that has already happened in the story world, but the focus of the story is what happens to Teon and Britta. 





It was just our luck that Teon Delphison and I were out to dinner -- together -- when all hell broke loose in Elegis.



We were not on a date. This was a business meeting and we held it at the nearest decent restaurant. We had spent all day on a Hunt in the city and tracked down two out of three of our quarry. With the Elegis transportation system down for the third day in a row -- they said restructuring -- it had been case of hiking all over hell, and then waiting while Andradora Force sent out someone to pick our catches up. Payments were late on three earlier bounties and even Teon looked annoyed about working for nothing.




Everything was going to hell on Andradora. I wanted to blame men -- our usual scapegoat -- or the interference of the IWC




An 'in medias res' might start a little later in the story: 




The news that Councilor Agila NiShalla had been assassinated by a group of men had barely been announced before the restaurant erupted into chaos and far too much of it focused on Teon, my male hunter partner, and me.





"Time to go. Pay the tab," I said and stood, shoving back one woman and then another. I didn't listen to what they were shouting. Everyone had gone crazy -- everyone from the stupid men who attacked one of the least popular and useless councilor's to ever sit in government to the angry women who seemed to think Teon and I were to blame. We were easy targets, and I knew it. We needed to get out of here.



Though I couldn't believe anywhere else would be safe right now. 




And an 'after the trouble' opening: 





I grabbed Teon by the arm, trying to shove him up towards the alley and out of sight. I hadn't seen the blood on the side of shirt until then.



"Damn!" I shouted, and won a look of shock from him. Teon and I had been to dinner together -- not a date, a business meeting -- Councilor Agila NiShalla was assassinated by a group of men. I thought we'd gotten clear of the reaction without anything worse than some heated words. "Who --"





"Don't know her name," he said and looked frantically past my shoulder to the door. He was right; we didn't have time to talk.



"I need to get you to the clinic --"





"No." He stood straighter. "No clinic, not on a day like today."



Damn. He was right. On a world ruled by women -- until recently -- the assassination was going to turn far too many of the female population against anyone they thought to blame. Teon Parason, the only registered bounty hunter on Andradora, would quickly become a target.





I looked at the spreading circle of blood on his shirt. He already was one.




An important aspect of this exercise is to remember these are first drafts. I have purposely not fiddle with the two new openings. I could fix them later.



Point 3: Where





The last thing to worry about in an opening is where it takes place. World building is not just a term for science fiction and fantasy writers. Every person who sits down to write a scene has to create the spot in which it takes place, whether that is fully out of their imagination or the recreation of a real setting.




How much detail is used is an important part of the opening. Too much can overwhelm the story. Even in a story that begins before the action starts, detail needs to be kept to a minimum. If you overburden the start, the reader is likely to get bored.




The problem stems from two areas. First, the writer has often done a great deal of world building and wants to show the reader all the neat things about the setting. Second, the writer believes that the reader needs all the information to be able to 'see' the scene or else they won't realize what is going on.




As pointed out before, the reader needs to be intrigued, which does not mean boring him with minute details about the color of the carpet -- unless it's to contrast that color with the stain of blood across it. Any detail given in the start of the story should be important to the action and not merely setting the scene.



Exercise 3:





Create a setting for an opening. Write out everything you can imagine would be there.



Then choose the items that would give a vivid, quick impression of the setting and write a single paragraph where those words work with the action of the story. This does not need to be the opening paragraph -- just one in which you begin to set the scene. 







  1. Alien world including
  2. higher gravity 
  3. small polar caps 
  4. few large bodies of water
  5. flat lands in large tracks with few hills
  6. plants of strange shapes and colors
  7. several local creatures, mostly small, burrowing animals
  8. odd taste to air 


The vid equipment had been damaged in the explosion and we didn't have a clear view of the world as we came down. As I forced the warped door of the airlock open, I could see what had looked like uneven bare ground actually had a greenish plant covering, dense but not solid. It moved in the breeze . . . and maybe something else moved through the short stalks, but I couldn't be certain




Final notes: 




I am sure you have all heard the rules to never start a story with the character just waking up and never start with weather. However, like all rules, they can be broken. For instance: 





As I opened my eyes from a deep, restful sleep, I could see blues skies and a field of wild flowers outside the window by my bed. The breeze blew back the curtains and I sucked in the fresh air.



However, I had gone to sleep in the heart of New York City, in a dingy, rat-trap of a hotel.









It had happened again!












Lightning flashed so brightly that for one heart-pounding second I thought a bomb had gone off over the city. I hit the brakes at the same time thunder shook the world. The wind picked up with a frantic gust, bouncing my Subaru against the pavement. I still thought it might be the end of the world until the rain fell and hail started hitting the car.



Just a storm after all.






In the second case, the storm is the trigger to a number of things. Starting anywhere but the storm would not create the focus the reader needs.



If you have a reason to 'break a rule' do so, but make certain you do it wisely. Be willing to experiment.






Remember you can change anything and you need to be willing to do so. Never let 'the opening isn't right' stop you from writing the story in your mind, and also don't let an opening you have interfere with the story you need to tell. Writing is a pliant art. Words are easy to change, and not allowing yourself that flexibility is denying yourself -- and your potential readers -- the best story you can tell.



Now go write something!