I use this blog as a soap box to preach (ahem... to talk :-) about subjects that interest me.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Writing the beginning of a story

What follows is my summary of the first two chapters of the book “Beginning, Middles & Ends” written by Nancy Kress. It is a book that I recommend to everyone who is interested in writing fiction.

You have about three paragraphs in a short story, three pages in a novel, to capture the editor’s attention enough for her to finish your story. This means that by the time you submit your story, its beginning must be as good as you can make it.

Every story makes to the reader two promises, one emotional and one intellectual, of which you have to be fully aware of. The beginning of a story is where you make your promises, which you then have to maintain throughout your story and fulfil by the time you reach the end.

The emotional promise is: Read this and you’ll be entertained, or thrilled, or scared, or titillated, or saddened, or nostalgic, or uplifted, but always absorbed.

The intellectual promise can be: Read this and you’ll see this world from a different perspective, or, alternatively: Read this and you’ll have confirmed what you already want to believe about this world. You also have a third possible intellectual promise you can make, in isolation or together with one of the first two: Read this and you’ll learn of a different, more interesting world than this.

Whatever you choose, and regardless of how implicit your promises are, you must know them and stick to them throughout the story, otherwise the reader will feel cheated or disappointed.

To make an opening interesting and original, you rely on four qualities: character, conflict, specificity, and credibility.

Your opening should give the reader a person to focus on. In a novel, this doesn’t need to be the main character but, in any case, somebody interesting must appear very early in your story, or the reader (and any potential publisher) will lose interest. And the reader is more interested in what a character feels and thinks than in how she looks and what she wears, although some exterior aspects of a character can very forcefully convey what is happening inside her brain.

A way of describing conflict is that something doesn’t go as expected. In a short story, this should happen in the first few paragraphs or even in the very first line. In a novel, you have a bit more latitude, but are probably best off if you introduce conflict in the first page. The conflict can be physical or emotional, large or small, but without any conflict your story will start flat and quickly become boring. A way of introducing conflict is to present issues that need to be resolved, questions that need to be answered.

Make use of specific details of speech, setting, characters’ thought, or anything else relevant to your story. Details anchor your story in concrete reality: give the reader an image describing a specific action, place, and time to which the reader can relate. Details set your opening apart from hundreds of others similar to it: add to your opening some details that are fresh, original, and individual without being bizarre. This will transform a common scene into a unique one. Details convince the editor you know what you’re talking about: when your details are accurate, perhaps taken from your own experience, the editor will unconsciously award you the precious prize of credibility.

In this context, credibility refers to your use of the language. You want the editor (and the reader) to think: If this guy can write prose this smooth, it’s worth seeing whether he can also tell a good story. I’ll read on. To write a credible prose, you have to pay attention to words, sentences, and tone. Do not misuse words, and ensure that you use as many words as you need to create the effect you are seeking, not more and not less. Also, be economical with adjectives and adverbs. Construct your sentences carefully and try to variate their length. Long sentences are more likely to sound awkward. Maintain the same tone throughout your story. Keep the focus on the story rather than on yourself.

The first scene
Once completing your first few paragraphs, ask yourself: Do you have a genuine character on the page? Have you hinted at conflict? Are your details relevant and concrete? To complete the first scene, you have to ensure that something has changed. A character might have learned or discovered something, or arrived to a new place, or met with somebody. Or an event might have occurred.

The Prologue
A prologue can avoid what might otherwise be a jolting transition between two scenes widely separated in time or space; the reader more or less expects the story to start over again after a prologue. And if it is interesting enough, a prologue can wet the appetite for the main story. A prologue must contain a strong promise of conflict to come. The disadvantage of a prologue is that you effectively have to write two opening scenes instead of one.

The second scene
To complete the beginning of your story, you will probably need to write a second scene to follow your opening one. You have three basic options: backfill, flashback, and continuation. In any case, use your second scene to introduce and develop your characters, through actions they initiate or through their reaction to other characters’ actions. Rely on dialogues, thoughts, gestures, body language, and appearance to flesh out and enrich your characters, so that your readers want to read more about them.

This is basically expository background, explaining who your characters of the opening scene are and how they got into this mess in the first place. You can write it as a straight exposition or as a sort of pseudo-reminiscence in the voice of the point-of-view character. A backfill will slow down your story, but the stronger and more forceful your opening scene was, the less the reader will mind a backfill. In fact, if your story opening is explosive, a slow-down would be an appropriately resting second scene.

This will also slow down your story. Further, a flashback will distance the reader from the action. For it to succeed, you must follow three criteria. First, the opening scene must be strong and root the reader firmly in the character’s present. A flashback happening to a character we don’t know is boring. Second, the flashback must bear some clear relation to the opening scene. You don’t want to “jolt around” the reader when he is still easing into your story. Thirdly, and finally, don’t let your readers get lost in time. Indicate clearly how much earlier the flashback scene took place. All in all, use a flashback if you gain more in depth and clarity than you lose in immediacy.

Just go on with the story, dramatising whatever happens next to whoever is your point-of-view character. Work on the conflict and control it. That is, if the opening scene is full of conflict, go easier in the second scene, and vice-versa.

One last word
The major function of a beginning is to set up the implicit promise that you will develop in the middle of your story and fulfil at the end. But your beginning must also function as an interesting reading experience in itself, full of character and situation and pleasing language. It must claim its reader’s attention in its own right. That’s what will keep the rest of us reading, eager to see what comes next.

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