On August 5, 2014, nevvawinter wrote, I have a question about beginning a story. I often come up with elements for a story, such as a setting and a character or some dialogue and a conflict, but I have trouble putting these elements together and adding elements to make a complete story out of my initial slightly-fuzzy vision. Any advice would be appreciated.
I have all those problems, too!
End of post.
Just fooling–about it being the end of the post.
I started The Two Princesses of Bamarre prequel that I’m working on right now by telling the reader something my main character doesn’t find out until much later. It’s a dramatic revelation, and it provides instant interest. I’ve been sending my editor fifty-page chunks of the manuscript to keep me from getting seriously off track, and she disagrees with my choice. She thinks the reader shouldn’t learn this truth until my MC does. Maybe she’s right. I won’t be sure–if I ever am sure–until I finish the book and go back and probably try it the other way.
In Two Princesses itself I didn’t get the beginning right until after the advance reading copy had gone out to reviewers–for which the book suffered in the reviews. Then I finally figured it out, and the published beginning is fine, or so I believe.
Before I was a writer I used to paint, and I loved using watercolor. But in watercolor you cannot correct mistakes–or you can, but to a very small degree. Oil is more forgiving; still, in all of painting that isn’t done digitally, earlier versions are covered over. It’s hard to go back.
Writing is infinitely forgiving, especially writing on a computer or laptop, but even pen-and-paper writing is, too, as long as we don’t destroy what went before or cross out so mercilessly that the earlier version becomes indecipherable.
I love that. It takes all the worry out of beginnings. I often start in one place then realize that important scenes precede my beginning, so I add them to the front, sometimes more than once.
Or, going the other way, I may discover that my beginning presents information that the reader doesn’t need. It’s back story that helps me develop my character or my plot, but it doesn’t come into the present adventure. When that happens, I move the unnecessary part into a document called Extra, in case I discover a use for it later.
When I’m fooling around with an idea for a book or a story, I write a lot of notes. Many writers think without writing. They may stare out their window, daydreaming productively.. I can do a little of that, but usually my mind really shifts into gear when I’m typing. I write about where my idea might take me, what characters I need to put it in motion. I may think about the setting, the world it will be in. Often I wonder if there’s a fairy tale I can use to help me with my plot. During this process a beginning usually comes to me. The way that it generally comes has to do with the conflict at the heart of my idea. When that happens, I write my tentative first scene and then go back to my notes.
One way to begin is to start with the central conflict at its height and take it from there. For example, suppose we have a village under some sort of threat, and the village is divided about how to address the threat. Let’s imagine that the danger is seasonal flooding, which seems to get worse every year. The villagers, some unwillingly, have raised their houses and public buildings on stilts. We start with a flood. Alas, the stilts aren’t strong enough, and several houses are swept away, including the home of Skye, our MC. In the disaster her father, Quinn, is killed.
That’s a fine way when it works. We tear into the problem and then we present the difficulties with solving it, revealing character and setting as we go. In my historical novel, Dave at Night, I begin with the death of Dave’s father and plunge the story into the central problem right away.
I tried this with Two Princesses, too, less successfully. In one of my attempts to get the beginning right, I introduced Meryl’s illness immediately. As soon as the book opens, she gets sick. It was a powerful start–too powerful, because the reader couldn’t focus on all the other things I needed to set up: Addie’s timidity, monsters, and the epic poem that features Drualt.
In Dave at Night and my example of Skye and her dear departed dad, the beginning may succeed because these beloved characters are dead and done with, and the story can move on. But suppose Skye’s father doesn’t die. Suppose he’s last seen clinging to a ceiling beam in a rushing river. The reader may be unable to pay attention to anything else because she’s so worried about him, and yet we need to set up the rest of the story.
So instead we start with something not quite so intense but that introduces elements of the conflict to come. In Skye’s story, we might start with a town meeting where Quinn argues loudly against raising the houses and in favor of a system of dams to control the water. Meanwhile, Skye wishes her father weren’t so confrontational. Then we move into the work to raise the house, which Quinn does with all the skill at his command. He disagrees with the town’s decision, but he’s going to do his best. We show the relationship between him and Skye and anyone else we decide to put in the family. Maybe we show that Skye is her dad’s opposite. She’d rather not get what she wants than argue. Since, in my mind, the village is kind of a character in the story, we introduce a few of the residents: the mayor, Skye’s best friend, the horse doctor, the owner of the inn. We produce weather reports. We don’t send in the flood until at least a few scenes take place and establish this world and its inhabitants.
Specifically, our beginning can be presented just about any way: through dialogue, action, thoughts, emotion, more than one. Setting is harder, but that can work too. In this story, which has to do with the natural world, setting may be just the thing. We may want to start with rising water. Or with how beautifully the village has recovered, finally, from the last flood twenty years ago.
And, of course, we can change our mind. We can start with a few lines of dialogue and then decide that the dialogue should come later or isn’t needed at all.
Here are four prompts:
∙ Write Skye’s story beginning with Quinn’s death in the flood.
∙ Write Skye’s story beginning with Quinn being borne away by the rushing water. See if you can make it work.
∙ Write Skye’s story beginning, as I suggested, with the village meeting.
∙ Start the story several ways and just write a few paragraphs. Start with dialogue, then with setting, then with action, then with thoughts, then with emotion. Keep writing from the beginning that interests you the most.
Have fun, and save what you write!