Start-ups

Before we get started, just a reminder of my poetry event with other poets at 3:00 pm on April 14th at Byrd’s Books at 126 Greenwood Avenue in Bethel, Connecticut. As I said last time, these won’t be poems for kids, but I’d love to see you there, and there will be time to chat.

Now for the post.

On January 4, 2018, Morgan Hanna wrote, What are some tips on writing the very beginning of a story? I’ve always had trouble with beginnings. I usually end up staring at a blank page and wondering why the words won’t come. I worry about starting too soon or too late, whether I should use dialogue, action, or description as an opening line, and how to make my beginning flow smoothly into the rest of my story without feeling forced. Does anyone else struggle with this, or has anyone overcome it?

Christie V Powell answered, Oh yes, beginnings are the hardest for me. Some general bits of advice that seem to help:

Don’t stress about the first draft. Give yourself permission to write bad stuff. This is especially true of the opening line–in your finished draft, you want to give it lots of attention. To get started, you can use “once upon a time” or “there was” or any cliche thing you want, as long as it gets the juices flowing. It’ll probably change later even if it was brilliant.

Instead of starting with story, I sometimes start with a line or two of my vision for the story. For instance “Two families escape persecution for their abilities to travel through dreams” or “The stereotypical Chosen One is a young widow with toddlers in tow.” You can also start by summarizing your ideas for the first scene: “Mira shows off her climbing abilities, has some dialogue with her sister, and hints of danger… right before the griffin carries her away!”

Sometimes switching from computer to hand-and-paper works for me. It doesn’t always work as well for beginnings, because it’s easy to cross out or start over when coming up with a first line, but sometimes the change in medium gets things moving.

And Bethany wrote, Make the first sentence something interesting, something that grabs the reader’s attention right away. The first sentence can even have foreshadowing to something later in the story. I’ve done that. Hint: don’t pull out the paper until you know what the first line will be. Once there’s a few words filling the blank space, the page is less terrifying.

I am heart-and-soul with Christie V Powell. Not that I’ve always followed her advice! But it’s a waste time fussing over beginnings at the beginning, as if, once we get the first pages right, the rest of the story will scroll out like magic; characters and plot lines won’t change; our perfect start will set the course perfectly.

Oh, how I wish that were true.

Occasionally I have gotten the first scene right painlessly–but not the second and/or the third, which are still part of my beginning. I always have to revise later-much later.

We can start by typing or writing, blah-de-blah-blah. Here I go again. I think I’ll call my main character Quasia, and I’ll give her a deep dimple on the left side of her mouth. There she is, sitting on the threshold of her mother’s house idly watching a gaggle of geese peck holes in the lawn.

And I know, because I have a glimmer of what my story will be, that a peddler is about to ride up, so I make him do that, and I’m not at all sure if this is the right moment for his arrival, but I bring him in because I want to get things going. Without thinking too deeply, I make his mule skinny, and I give him a dimple on the left side.

And I’m in. Blah-de-blah-blah will almost certainly not (though who knows what kind of story I’ll wind up with) pass muster as a beginning in my final draft, but it succeeded in putting me at ease. The blank page is beginning to fill up. I’m a little less scared, and I am absolutely not allowing myself to criticize what I’ve written.

I keep writing. The story begins to develop, and I discover that my peddler is such a sweetie that he would never let his mule be hungry, even if he has to go without. Either I make a note for my revision or I jump back and make the mule fat and the peddler emaciated. (The note for revision is preferable, because the girths of the two could change yet again–or one of them could disappear entirely).

In one of the many books and articles I read during my long writing apprenticeship, I found the suggestion that, when we get tight and scared, we cover the screen or actually close our eyes and type. I’ve done it, and it helps to shut down the judgment monster. (Weirdly, I also type more accurately with closed eyes!) When we finally open them, we can look at what we wrote, but we may not, on pain of–name your poison–revise.

This is embarrassing, but for the sake of the blog, here is the beginning of the first draft of Fairest (which, just saying, I wouldn’t have if I didn’t save what I write!):

Areida wasn’t pretty.  Her dark hair was lank and stringy.  Her skin was white as day-old snow.  She blushed easily but unevenly – a splotch of pink on one cheek, across the bridge of her nose, along her jaw line, and above her delicately arched eyebrows.  Her neck was a trifle long, causing her brother Stefan to call her Giraffe. She resembled a giraffe in more ways than just her neck.  Her brown eyes were huge, and her eyelashes were thick and splendid.  Her expression had the tentative sweetness of a giraffe.

In the final draft, the book is told in first person. Areida isn’t the MC, and there is no brother Stefan. Plus, the description of the eventual MC isn’t accurate. Also, I start with my MC’s backstory. But at that point, when I wrote the paragraph, I had no idea of all the changes that were on the way. It was a beginning that got me started.

Moving on. Part of Morgan Hanna’s question was whether she should use dialogue, action, or description as an opening line.

Yes. Any of the above, plus thoughts and backstory. Not only in a first draft. Any of the above will work in a final draft. The traditional advice, which is still offered, is to begin in medias res, which means in the middle of action. But not every great book does. Tuck Everlasting begins with description. James Michener’s Hawaii (high school and up) begins with a long chapter of geology! And it was a huge best-seller in its day.

How dull it would be if every story began formulaically in the same way.

It’s conceivable that we fiddle and agonize over the beginning out of fear of the fiddling and agonizing to come when we move into the middle. For many writers–I’m one!–fretting is part of the territory. Some books flow reasonably well, but some are bears. I’m resigned–and happy–because struggle is a writer’s life, as well as the life of our characters!

Here are three prompts:

∙ Keep going with my story of Quasia, the geese, the dimples, the peddler, and the skinny mule, but don’t change the blah-de-blah-blah until you finish and revise.

∙ Write a story of whatever happened to you yesterday. Start with the first thing you remember someone saying.

∙ Write three beginnings of the Greek myth of Helen of Troy. In one, start with action, in another with setting, in the last one with a thought.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Smol Writer says:

    I have a random question that has nothing to do with this post (I’m new here- where do I post questions?). I need help diversifying my characters. For instance, I myself am an American, Caucasian girl, so when I picture my characters, they always come out like that. However, sometimes when I read a book, I criticize the lack of diversity. I don’t know exactly how many of which kind of characters is considered “diverse” either, and “diverse for the sake of diversity” characters never come out well. Sometimes you can get away with not specifying (ex, I don’t need gay characters in a story with no romance, or you can describe a character’s looks without specifying their race), but that doesn’t always work. Does anyone have any advice?

    • Yep, this is the place to ask questions.

      For me, I have my own fantasy world, so I get to make up my own different races.
      My world has six different clans (who originate from two different races). Each one has a different magic, which is more important to the characters than appearance. I think the main thing is to represent each group fairly–each one has value and isn’t just sticking to potentially offensive stereotypes.

    • I’m pretty much dealing with the same issue in my current WIP. I adjusted the country’s background to give a reason for the diversity. The history doesn’t actually get discussed, but it helps in my head. I forced myself to change a couple characters’ ethnicities, started replacing some types of food and dances to reference the different backgrounds, and decided today that the clothing styles worn depend on the weather or season, since the cultures come from different climates. Some other stories of f mine have more diversity, but I often default to white characters and generic white fantasy settings.

      • I feel like this is a good example of “write what you know”. Sure, you may write fantasy, but I think our characters are modelled off of yourself, or people you know. For me, I’m white, in a white area, so most of my characters are white. I’m not racist, I just tend to write about what I know well.

    • Great question, Smol Writer! I have the same problem. I am actually half Asian and half Caucasian, but most of my characters end up Caucasian, especially if it’s a historical piece where there aren’t many immigrants in the area the story is set in.
      But if it’s a modern story, it’s usually not impossible to make a diverse cast. For example, you can make the main character’s parents two different races. That doesn’t mean the character has to be constantly talking about their racial background, of course – I personally don’t think my mixed-race background affects my everyday life much.
      If you’re still stumped, I suggest finding a diverse group of people in real life and using them for inspiration. Sometimes I use Olympic athletes and their backgrounds for the bare bones of my characters, then fill in their personalities however I like them. For example, the US women’s gymnastics team from 2016 had two African Americans, one of Puerto Rican descent, one Caucasian girl from Texas, and one Caucasian girl from Massachusetts, and they all seemed to work fine together as one team. In my story, their ethnic backgrounds didn’t really get in the way; they were just facts about the characters.
      Hope this helps! Good luck with your story!

    • One of my favorite tips is to watch the people around you. When you are in a public place, and perhaps you have a notebook handy, take the time to people watch. See what they look like and how they act. Write it down, whether in sentences or just notes doesn’t really matter at this point. See what inspires you and where this takes you.
      Here is a description of someone I saw once, and later used in a story. I added in parts that I failed to notice about her appearance and changed some things as well. — The tall brown haired woman is to my right. She is wearing a brown, blue and green skirt with a zigzagging pattern on it, a brown tank top and brown sandals. Her hair hangs loose, and is pulled past her ears and held there with black sunglasses. On her tanned leg is a tattoo of a snake.

    • This is the spot to leave questions! 🙂
      I’ve had problems like that too! Most of the time my problem is that I feel I can’t describe the other person’s diversity without stopping the action or having the main character come off as prejudiced. I’ve found this link helps: http://writingwithcolor.tumblr.com/post/96830966357/writing-with-color-description-guide-words-for
      (A website ran by diverse writers with different backgrounds.)
      Most of the time, if you drop a few subtle hints with their style or name (ie someone with the last name Kim might be Korean) will make the reader visualize who they’re reading about.

      If you’re worried about how many to make diverse, that depends on where your story takes place. 1700s America would probably have more white people than 1800s America would. If it’s in a modern city, try to visualize where it is. Saint Louis, a city in Missouri, is the most diverse city in the country, because it has the most immigrants, versus a small town in Pennsylvania might be less diverse.

      • Thank you for that link! It looks interesting and super helpful.

        I’m puzzled about why there’d be more white people in America in 1700 than 1800. Wouldn’t it be the other way around?

  2. Hey guys! I’m in the middle of writing a trilogy (eek!) and I’m a little stumped. The story is based on Snow White, except it involves vampires. Basically, Snow White starts off as a pampered princess (her father spoils her) and she has a best friend, this young prince from the neighboring kingdom who has slowly become…more than a friend. He visits her during the summer but lives in his own country most of the time, so they mostly communicate by letter. Snow White’s father brings home his new wife, aforementioned evil stepmother murders him, and Snow White gets framed for it. She escapes prison, but the evil queen shuts down all the roads out of the country, so the only way to get out is through a forest full of vampires. The vampires catch her, but they’re really running this resistance movement against the queen, so they want to help Snow White. One of the vampires is really young and handsome, and Snow White starts falling in love with him (by the end of the trilogy, she has to choose either her best friend or the hot vampire – no spoilers!). Eventually, the evil queen figures out she’s hiding in the forest and sends some bad guys to kill Snow White. One of the men stabs her, but the vampires bite her back to life and then she becomes one of them. Then they set off for the castle where her best friend lives, because they need his army to overthrow the queen. That’s the end of Book 1.
    My problem is with the pacing; the middle of the story slouches for me (I think Gail calls this the “sagging middle”). Because for several chapters, they’re holed up in a cottage in the woods. Of course there’s all this romance going on with Snow White and the handsome vampire, but i feel like there’s not enough meat to the middle of the story and not enough motivation for them to just sit around in this cottage when there’s an urgent need to get to the other country. And I need time to pass somehow, because there has to be enough time for them to fall in love and also some crazy stuff needs to happen in the capital with the evil queen while they’re gone.
    Any suggestions would be appreciated! (I know, it’s a tricky one!)

    • Aria Memori says:

      There could be something mysterious in the cottage; a mini mystery or some old vampirick thing.
      You could also use bat messengers to have them know what’s going on-and say one of them is killed and the messengers is taken. Or the handsome vampire has a disease that stems from something in the cottage.
      Time passes through the messages. I think the sickness thing would really work, though.

  3. Great post, Gail! I think beginnings and endings are the hardest to write, but I have a few tips too:

    1. Blake Snyder, in his book Save the Cat (which is a very informative guide to plot structure I highly recommend) calls the beginning the “opening image”. Often, it’s a scene or image that represents the “feel” of the story. If you close your eyes and think of one image that represents your story, you might get an idea of what your opening should be. You can also look at your ending; according to STC, the “opening image” should be the opposite of the “closing image” in order to show what’s changed.

    2. I sometimes like to work backward from the inciting incident. If the inciting incident is the thing that knocks your MC out of their normal life, then everything before that is meant to paint a picture of the MC’s normal life. So sometimes I just list the events that logically lead up to the inciting incident. (Example: in my Santa story, the inciting incident is that MC sees something she shouldn’t have on her school’s tour of the North Pole. So working backwards from that, the events leading up to the inciting incident are: MC goes on the tour <- MC arrives at the North Pole <- MC is on the train to the North Pole, and the train scene is where my story starts.)

    3. An opening scene doesn't necessarily have to have action, but it does need to have conflict and stakes. I feel like so many books (especially YA Fantasy) start out with something big, like a murder, fight, or chase, but something quieter can work just as well. As long as your MC is someone the reader can root for, and there's a sense that something bad (it can be something as smalll as missing the bus) is going to happen to them, the reader will want to read on. A lot of books do this by giving the MC a small problem to solve at the beginning of the book, before the main problem shows up in the form of the inciting incident. For example in Shannon Hale's PRINCESS ACADEMY, the book starts off with Miri trying to sneak out to work in the mines despite her father's objections.

    4. I've heard a lot of people say that you should write your opening scene last, because once you know how the story plays out, you'll naturally know how it starts. I think that advice is very true, and more likely than not your opening will change anyways after a few drafts, so it's best to just get it over with (or skip it) so you can get on with the fun stuff.

  4. Song4myKing says:

    On the subject of plot structure … How much do you think about it as you write or edit what you’ve written? Do you have a plot structure in mind (such as the three-act structure) and try to figure out how your book fits it or could fit it if you tweek something? Or do you just write and edit the story based on “feel”?

    The reason I’m asking is that I use to consider it all a bit formulaic and silly. I couldn’t figure out how my projects fit. Then several months ago, I tried again to see if a story of mine fit – and this time, I figured out how it did without major adjustments. Now I’m using its thoughts to help bring out how the MC’s goals and attitudes change slightly over the course of the story. It’s helped me see how two threads of my plot really are intertwined (I always sorta knew they were, but I thought one was the main plot and the other the sub-plot. Now I’ve started seeing it as two different motivations for the MC, that start to pull her in two different directions until she has to choose one over the other. Basically, both threads are the main plot)

    So, plotters and pantsers both – how much thought do you put into fitting your story to a particular plot structure?

    • I wrote my first book without using any particular plot structure and just wrote how events would logically progress (though I still outlined the book), which resulted in a ton of pacing issues that I had to fix later on. When writing my second book, I followed a very basic plot structure (inciting incident, midpoint climax, and Act 2 climax, AKA the all is lost moment) and then filled in the rest as I saw the story naturally progressing. This also resulted in some pacing issues, though I think that was less because of the plot structure and more because I tended to overwrite some scenes more than others. For my current WIP in the planning stage, I’m going all out and using a plot structure spreadsheet (based on Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat structure) to allot wordcount. It works okay and it’s definitely an efficient way of doing things, but I think I normally still gravitate towards the method of my second book. The three basic beats a plot needs, in my opinion, is the inciting incident, midpoint, and the act 2 climax. Everything else can be filled in based on how your story naturally progresses.

    • On my first 3 books, I made up my own outline style that fit the series. I have been studying Weiland’s technique lately and using it to turn my last messy rough draft into something presentable. I have not tried to use it when first drafting a story yet–so far I like it better a’s an editing tool.

      • Song4myKing says:

        Thanks for your comments, both of you. Like I said, I haven’t experimented much yet, but I suspect I’ll come out at about the same place as you – using a vary basic form for starters and then using it a little more for editing. I like hearing how others do things and what helps them!

  5. Could I get some help brainstorming for a story? I need to come up with a magic system that
    1. requires both a teachable component (since the story requires a magic school, the magic must be structured in a way that requires formal learning) and innate ability (since the story is about two teens who have lost their magic sneaking into the school and trying to pull of a con to steal back their magic).
    2. is not associated with some existing famous work.

    I’m okay with something cliched (the story is meant to parody a lot of YA Fantasy/Paranormal tropes anyways, so cliched is perfect), but I’m trying to avoid anything that’s strongly associated with a specific famous book. Like how though many stories involve wands, the first thing many people think of is Harry Potter. Or the steles and runes from the Shadowhunters series.

    Also, faires are involved with the school, so anything related to the fairies of European folklore is a definite plus. Any suggestions would be appreciated!

  6. I am looking for a fairytale I read once and can’t remember the name of. It’s about a young princess who couldn’t be pretty because her nose turned up, her mouth turned down, and there was no sparkle in her eye. She goes to live with a widow and her daughters, whose names all end in -belle except for the youngest, Echo. The widow teaches her to be kind and unselfish and work hard, and it fixes her appearance problems. Anyone know this one?

    • I can’t personally think of anything, but surlalunefairytales.com, one of my favorite resources for fairy tales, has a huge collection of fairy tales from different cultures as well as articles about their history and categorization. You might want to poke around there, and there’s also a forum full of fairy tale enthusiasts who might be able to help.

    • I’ve never read that one, and I have read a lot of fairy tales. When you find it could you tell the name? I would love to read it.

    • My little sister found it (a few seconds before the facebook group did!). It’s always auspicious to ask sisters, especially when you have seven of them!

      It’s “The Plain Princess” by Phyllis McGinley, and a lot newer than I realized: 1955 or so.

  7. Superb♥Girl says:

    Hi guys, I have a question. What exactly makes an antihero? Do they have to be flawed, clueless and slightly unkind people who make mistake after mistake after mistake, or do they just have to not be total destructible fearless gods? Thanks!

    P.S. I just started The Lost Kingdom of Bamarre. I’m totally loving it!!!

    • I don’t know the official definition, but I tend to think of an antihero as someone who could be mistaken for a villain, only they’re acting out of some greater good. (That people beside themselves see as good.)

    • To me, an antihero is somebody who isn’t heroic in the traditional sense, but still a relatively sympathetic character that the reader can side with. Usually they either do bad things for good reasons, or good things (or neutral things) for bad reasons. They’re basically the people who aren’t innocent enough to be called “good people” but are definitely not bad guys either. I think a great example is Batman (especially in the Dark Knight movies which are grittier than most iterations), who is a vigilante who enforces his own justice through sometimes-questionable means but is still considered a hero because his intentions are (mostly) good. Compare this to Superman (in older comic books and cartoons; I feel like his character has also gotten gritter in recent movies) who is this goody-two-shoes, knight-in-shining-armour, classic hero type.

  8. Sound prompts? Sounds fascinating, especially since I take sounds for granted in my writing!

    I have a question: I have this germ of a story idea in my mind. A girl from the nobility is kidnapped and left on an island. There’s no one other humans on the island and she’s a very sociable person. To keep herself company, she creates these dolls out of plants and things from around the island and treats them like real people.
    That’s about all I have. I don’t even know the girl’s name. I guess my problem is I don’t read enough survival stories or ocean-related stories. I’m thinking about reading Robinson Crusoe, and re-reading Island of the Blue Dolphins for inspiration. Does anyone have any recommendations of books with similar themes and settings?

  9. I need help, I don’t know what my villain’s motive is. He has kidnapped an eight year old girl and kept her for ten years, and I have know idea why.

    • HeroLass, It’s probably because she has a special (realistic) power that she doesn’t even know she has- something about her genetic blood type or make-up, something that had been developing inside of her for years without her knowing, from her great-grandfather to her grandfather to her father, which her father and the villain had been cracking on for years, though they broke up because the villain wanted to use it for faulty purposes, and the father for noble reasons, like curing cancer or something.

      So now the villain has the key to his medical solution, or something (this being the kidnapped 8 year old), and he’s simply been waiting for her to show signs of-of-of her powers subsisting (like her hair suddenly turns dark, or she can suddenly see hear really well), so that he can USE HER FOR THE GREATER GOOD OF SCIENCE, REMOVE HER DNA, AND GET RICH. But then, she looks so much like her father, whom he had been such good chums with (after all, he saved the villains life once! How could he really use his best chums daughter? Had he really become such a monster?!?).

      Oh wait, did you say it could be science fiction?

      • It’s fantasy, he is a wizard and she is half faerie. My MC is the twin sister of the kidnapped girl, she has been communicating with her sister by traveling into her dreams.

  10. (Also, Poppie, if your sociable royally marooned girl’s plant dolls came to life, it would be sort of like Gulliver and all of the little Lilliput people. Not that the Lilliput’s are small people in heart, of course!)

  11. Superb♥Girl says:

    I love fairy tales. I’ve always wanted to write a magical retelling, and I have had a few ideas for some, too, but there’s one problem. I always overthink it. These old-as-time adventures are so important to me, I always freak out when I start thinking about remaking them. I surround myself with negative questions I eventually just drop it. In fact, I tried my hand at a Snow White, and I made the mistake of being infuriated that it strayed too far and quit, and now I can’t bring myself to go back to it. Arrgh!
    So this may be a stupid question, but does anyone have advice for charging at retelling these timeless and daunting tales? Thanks!

    • There are a few retellings that stick close to the original story, no surprises, instead of twisting it. Robin Mckinley’s Beauty, for instance, adds to the story but doesn’t change anything. You’d have to find a pretty uncommon fairytale to do that with, though, since so many people do retellings now.

    • Hm. Remind yourself that this is a New Thing BASED on a fairy tale, but that the original tale is still its timeless self?

      I love stretching fairy tales in new directions, and the stranger the direction, the better, but the original is always there to go home to.

      Maybe read a bunch of retellings by different authors until the changes don’t feel so strange?

    • Anytime I work with fairy tales, it’s my personal goal to see how I can take iconic moments and pieces of the stories and make them as…surprising…as possible. For instance, Cinderella has got to have her glass slippers, but what can I do to put a completely unique twist on them? I’m working on a story now where the slippers were originally the stepsister’s, not Cinderella’s. Somehow, the reader knows they have to end up in Cinderella’s hands, but the fun part is where I get to come up with how.

  12. Melissa Mead: She’s kidnapped for political reasons (partly inspired by some of the conflict I’m reading about in British history), but the more I think about it, it makes more sense if she’s kidnapped by the “good guys” for protection. If she was kidnapped by “bad guys”, then the question becomes: “why not kill her, or lock her up in the tower?” She’s kidnapped by people trying to protect her because she’s got this magic power involves plants (which works in Carley Anne’s suggestion of plant dolls coming to life) and they’re trying to take her to a safe place, but they’re wrecked on an island…I’ve been inspired!

    HeroLass: could you give a little more detail on the summary of your story? Just so I know more of what’s going on so I can give my opinion.

    • The story starts with a messenger coming to tell my MC that the three keys (one of which she is the keeper) are needed, the other keys are kept by her older brother and her twin sister. My MC and some of her friends begin a quest to find the two missing keys (one is still with the twin that was kidnapped, and the other was stolen from the brother.) The kidnapped twin has been communicating with her sister through dreams, the brother was captain of a small ship until both the ship and key were stolen from him.

  13. This is random, but I was just looking through my old journals for some spare pages when I found one that I used when I was going through all the Writing Magic prompts. I’m so glad I followed your advice, Gail, and always saved what I wrote! Most of them were (intentionally) ridiculously hilarious. Come to think of it, I always loved doing your prompts because they forced me to do something short that didn’t have to be perfect (and I knew it), which was really freeing. I would almost always take the most ridiculous options I could think of and just have fun with them.

    I can’t remember which chapter it was (or perhaps it was a prompt from this blog), but at one point you said to take a main character whose life was perfect, make a list of ten things that could potentially ruin her life, pick one, and write about it.

    I just found this prompt in my journal; I created a character who had literally everything good going for her and then, out of my ten possible life-ruining situations, I chose the most ridiculous and had her get bitten by a radioactive insect!

    I had completely forgotten about that, and seeing it again made me laugh! Thanks for inspiring me to be creative for the past eight years, Gail! (I promise you’ve inspired a lot of more meaningful, less ridiculous pieces, too!)

    • This is so neat! I think it’s really special that you can write so freely like that. I know I have a hard time not going back to “fix” everything as I go. It’s one of my biggest issues as a writer. Just write!

  14. Thanks for the post! I have trouble with beginnings sometimes and then sometimes I just get so excited about the idea I kind of skip the beginning and dive right in. I do have a similar question, though. In a few of my stories, I have several plot points and ideas, but I always seem to struggle with getting from point A to point B. How do you keep the story moving without losing momentum or how do you come up with plans for navigating between plot points? By the way, I love that last prompt!

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