Fast out of the gate

On May 20, 2012, Jillian wrote, I always like stories that aren’t slow and get going quickly. But now I look back at my story and am thinking, It’s going too quickly. I have had my friends read it and they understand the beginning completely. I even have backstory in there but it’s just very quick. Is there such a thing as too quick a beginning?

I wasn’t sure I understood, so I asked for clarification, and Jillian answered with this: Continuing my last comment, I guess it moves quickly in that I feel like most beginnings have parts where the narrator takes its time in explaining what’s going on. Like in Ella Enchanted in the beginning she talks a lot about her mom to give backstory. But in my story I give backstory, but it’s slipped in here and there, and the events move quickly one after the other, making a very short exposition. Is there such a thing as too short?

Hard to tell. My favorite writing teacher used to say that a story, and this would go for a beginning too, is the right length if it’s as long as it needs to be.

Let’s consider what the beginning is, because that may be part of the confusion. In Ella Enchanted, to take Jillian’s example, is the beginning those first two paragraphs about the fool of a fairy, Lucinda? Or the first few pages, in which the curse of obedience is explained? Or does the beginning continue through the funeral of Ella’s mother?

I’m not a student of story arcs and rising and falling action, although maybe I’d have an easier time if I were. So I’m not sure. If the beginning is just revealing the curse, very few pages are involved. If it includes Ella’s mother’s death, then it’s two chapters.

Maybe it will be more productive to think about what a beginning needs to do. I mean a final beginning, not the beginning that gets us writers into the story, but the beginning after we’ve reached the end of the entire tale and done all the revising.

First of all and most of all, a beginning needs to engage the reader and make her care enough to keep reading. There’s no such thing as too quick for that. I don’t mean that there has to be a crisis on the first page. Some authors are leisurely about drawing the reader in. It’s gradual. But there has to be enough from the start to intrigue. Why are we examining the wallpaper in an ordinary bedroom? What’s going on? That curiosity may be enough.

Everything else pales in comparison with the imperative to make the reader want to read.

A beginning also acquaints the reader with the world of the story, which is different for every book or every series. Two books set in a contemporary suburb, for example, will still be in different worlds. The characters will differ, their families, their friends. One character is home schooled; another attends an enormous high school. One character likes to buy from thrift shops, another favors big box stores. One lives in a condo subdivision, another in an old house that was built by her great-grandfather. And so on. Both may mention the antique clock tower by the train station, where the trains no longer run, but that’s it.

Familiarity with the world may take a while if POV or time period or setting shifts from chapter to chapter. The reader may be four chapters in before she feels completely at home. In the novel I’m reading right now, Adam & Eve by Sena Jeter Naslund (high school and above), all three change. Some sections are told in first-person, others in third. Time and setting move around too. I have to pay attention! But the story is strong enough to keep me interested.

The beginning also introduces the voice of the story, or voices if the POV shifts, and if it does, the beginning will also be prolonged.

There’s nothing wrong with either approach, consistency or variation. The same voice, same time period, same narrator all the way through are absolutely fine. They’re just likely to shorten the beginning.

Some stories require more set-up than others. If there are aspects of the world that the reader needs to know going in, we’re going to have to spend more time getting started, which is neither virtue nor vice, only a little harder, because while we’re doing the set-up we still have to engage the reader.

We can make the reader care about main character Kira right on the first page. She rescues a puppy then gets hit by a bus and then says something endearing to the EMT who’s loading her on a stretcher.

But we don’t have to. We can lead with the wallpaper. There’s a spot where it’s torn, and the tear is in the shape of a crescent moon. The surface of the dresser is dusty, and in the dust someone has drawn a five-pointed star. The area rug has a pattern of suns. So far the reader has seen only setting, but she’s curious. Why all the celestial symbols?

The thing that would make a beginning feel rushed to me is an absence of detail. If we start with the rescued puppy, the reader will want to know the circumstances. Is the puppy being abused? Or is it alone in a cardboard box on the street? Did whoever left it also leave a few dog biscuits and a toy? How cute or un-cute is the puppy? And then there’s Kira. Does she love dogs? Is she afraid of them? Allergic? Does she have time to pick up the puppy, or is she making herself late for an interview for the internship she’s wanted for five years?

In the wallpaper example, I’ve given a few details but the reader will certainly want to know if anyone is in the house. And what’s the smell? Is there silence? Is the electricity working, the water running?

Without detail the reader can’t enter the story.

Let’s try some prompts.

∙ Now I’m curious. Write the beginning of the puppy story. If you like, keep going.

∙ Write the beginning of the wallpaper story. What is going on in that house? Delay the entry of characters for as long as you can while still maintaining the reader’s interest. Continue and make it a story.

∙ In a new version, combine the puppy story and the wallpaper story. Switch settings and POVs and time frames. The EMT, the puppy, the rescuer can all have their own chapter. The house with the wallpaper can come much earlier or much later.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. I'm an extremely young author…But I would like to know how to set up a story/novel. I can begin a story but I can't seem to finish because I haven't thought it out. I don't know what I'm going to do, what the main climax is going to be or how I'm going to end it. I just wanted to ask: What "outline" would be best for creating the plot? I've tried multiple things, but I always end up writing halfway through and get stuck at my mid point. I don't like writing blindly but that's the only way I seem to know how to do. I have extreme difficulty with plot, supreme extreme difficulty and was simply wonder what to do.

    I've read your only Planning one, and I don't seem to click with it. I'm an odd one. As I'm so young, and just trying to kick start myself into writing. I have been telling stories since I was able to talk and I love it. I read everything I could get my hands on. By nine years old, I was in adult fiction. It wasn't enough. I started to write my own stories, yet I could never finish one because writer's block would poise itself in the middle of a sentence somewhere.

    When I'm writing, I write tons but when I'm not, I have no ideas. A story of mine has fallen into the humor category simply because I'm filling space. I'm going to go back and edit it out but I haven't a clue how to plan ahead. It's a bad trait of mine and I do hope I'll figure it out but to me the light is way at the other end of the tunnel, a couple hundred miles and I can't quite tell if I'm going to get there before a train comes barreling in my direction.

    Thank you,

    • I started loads of stories and then never finished them b/c the plots got too complicated and I couldn't see where they were going…so before I even start writing now, I write out the entire plot using bullet points. It's very useful – it keeps you on track but isn't so strict that I can't add things here and there and often stories have taken off by themselves outside the confines of their structure.

      The light in the tunnel is nearer than you think, and fortunately trains don't happen along very often.

    • I'll try bullets again. I gave it a go back a few months ago and ended up writing…again, halfway through the plot line. I hadn't even gotten to my climax yet. Planning is just that hard for me. Even for non-writing events, I can't seem to plan ahead for anythings, it's always blind intro so I seem antisocial.

      I'll give it a few more tries but I'll have to harness all my ideas ahead of time, also being a difficult thing for me. I tend to stray from my main idea. I'll try to come up with a main climax first, and work myself towards it.

      I hope that light is a little close and I'll keep on heading towards it. If a train comes flying at me, I'll just turn to ghost and fly right through. I'll give it another go. I hope it all works out.

    • I always force myself to write a roughly one page summary of the story before I start writing, because once I'm writing, I have to know where I'm going. If I can't write the whole summary, including the climax and end, then I think about it and write an idea for an ending, even if it's a bad one, so that I have a road map for what I'm writing. Some things will change, but that helps me a lot. Just a suggestion.

    • I think that will also help me a lot. Thank you! I'll try a combination of one page summary and a bullet plot line. They both seem like good ideas, now if only I can put them into good play. I'll try it with my current story, a past life to my current characters. It'll be interesting because I do know how they are both killed but I have no idea where to take it. I'll work on it for now and see what all I can come up with before I keep going.

      Thanks bunches.

    • I'm not much of a planner either, as you probably know from reading the blog, and I get lost, but I keep going anyway. Often I do see a glimmer of the end, which I write toward. If you can imagine an ending, maybe that will help. I'm hoping to figure out how to do more planning, and I'll share my discoveries here.

      I'm adding your question to my list, a post about planners for people who don't.

    • At least I know I'm not the only one that writes with no thought in place. It's good to know that some of the professionals sometimes just write on one idea. It's quite comforting actually.

      Thank you! Today's been a really good day to say the least. Especially when learning about another author such as yourself.

    • I don't know if this will help, but one of the simplest strategies I've learned is the "no/yes, but" strategy. Basically you turn your situation into a yes/no question. For example: Your character is running from someone. The question would be: do they get away? If you answer "no," what are the consequences of that? Or say yes, they do get away, BUT the person chasing them catches their friend, or finds their hideout, etc. Then what are the consequences of that? So the bad guy catches the main character's best friend. Are they able to rescue them?

      Anyway, that helps me generate ideas. The same author I learned this from (Brandon Sanderson, he teaches writing and had someone post his lectures online) says that he comes up with his endings first and goes backwards from there. I can't do that, but maybe it might help you.

      I know this is long, but one more thing I've found very helpful is to make a list of all of my characters, major and minor, and write out exactly what their goals are. Then you can see who wants what and where you can build conflict.

    • You have no idea how good of an idea that is to me right now…I think that is probably the one I will use the most of all. I think I'll try applying some of these techniques to my current story.

      Thank you so much!

    • I think a good way to learn how to plan is to look at some of your favorite book and see how they're structured. What about this makes a good beginning? What is the main conflict? How do you think the author figured out that that path would be best for that character?

      It's great you're thinking about these things so young. It will really help you as a writer. I wrote thousands and thousands of words back then that didn't go anywhere because I didn't know what structure even was! But it's all good practice.

      Also: my Captcha word is Falloma. Someone should steal that and use it as a name.

    • Thanks for the link! I'm always looking for ways to improve my writing.

      "I tried to be fancy and post a clickable link.." 🙂 I have spent the last few weeks working on getting a blog website up and working so I can certainly relate to that.

  2. Oh, and here is a question that my brother wants me to post. He's never written a full book, but he has fantastic ideas. He wants to know…

    How do you plan out and order the parts of a mystery?
    Several attempts to write a mystery up to this point have ended in failure because of lack of planning. I now understand that to write mystery, I need to plan extensively, but I can’t seem to find the starting point. I tried working an idea backwards from a stunning conclusion to a simple start in a handful of facts, but it all seems too simple and boring when read forward. My other problem is that I have a hard time keeping my characters alive. The last time I tried to write mystery, I killed off all my suspects by accident, just because I was trying to make things interesting. Please help!

    That last one is unusual, but if anyone has thoughts, he'd really appreciate it!

    • Your brother's question has to do with planning, too. I've written three posts about writing mysteries, which he may find helpful. He can click on the links, "mysteries" and "writing mysteries" to find them.

    • Here's my brother, trying to explain his problem a little better…

      I am a math guy a little more than a writing guy, but I still enjoy writing. Coming from a mathematical background, I like to make things clearly defined before I try to do something with them. I've had some good ideas for mystery books before, and have been working on one idea for some time now, but I have trouble fitting things together. I took time to read all your mystery posts, and they helped a little, but I am still somewhat confused. For instance, what is the basic plot structure of a mystery. Is it better to work it forward from a string of facts or backwards from a climax to seemingly unimportant details. I am a big Sherlock Holmes fan, so whatever I write I scrutinize by a standard of literary genius. That being said, as much as I try, I just can't work my rough ideas into something interesting. Please Advise.

    • I'm generally in favor of working forward, but every writer is different. And I think the plot structure varies from mystery to mystery (except for the puzzle at the core). Have you explored your characters? They may be the key.

  3. Courtney, it always helps to have only one novel, even if you have a hundred ideas. Whenever I write, I'm trying for that novel, but I also have another document entitled: "A collection of short and unfinished stories". This is my master collection of every idea I've ever had. I write down a beginning if the idea seems good, and once I know that I can go back to it after my novel is done, I keep writing in my novel.

    So far, (just some bragging about the effectiveness of this plan for me) I have finished a 613 page ms Word document, single spaced, point 12 font. I'm 150ish words into the sequel. This REALLY works for me and I hope it helps you out.

    • I see. I'll try it too. I've got so many mini stories floating about. I think I'll put a couple into my "extinct" folder to be revived at a later date. I'll try to focus on just one but it'll also take a whole lot of work to get it all finished. I haven't exactly placed an amount of pages I want to work towards. I'm on page 6, single spaced, 10 pt font. I'm working steadily on this one because I really need to finish it. But I haven't exactly worked out the kinks in anything so I'll see which one I want to finish first.

      Thanks. I'll try it. It seems like a good idea. I'm just not certain how long I'll be able to keep it up. My mind goes from one thing to the next based on what I'm roleplaying as. I'll give it all a work out though. I'll give it a little more thought and see how far I can go with it.

  4. Let's see… I also have a question. What do you do when you have a dead scene on your hands? Yo know what's mean to happen next. You even know what SHOULD happen in this scene. But it just isn't moving. Your characters, which were alive like just a second ago, are suddenly wooden puppets. How do you rescue yourself? What if everything that follows is riding on this particular scene and it just needs to happen, for Pete's sake?

  5. This is an interesting discussion on the speed a story starts, because most of the time the advice you see is that you need to have a fast beginning. I love the advice "as long as it needs to be"! because my beginnings always tend to be slower.

    When I got a lot of critiques at conferences I was getting rave compliments about my first 10 pages, all except for the story starting too slow. So I started cutting closer and closer to an action beginning. The compliments dropped off. Either my story *needed* the slower beginning, or I'm just not good at fast beginnings. Right now I've decided on the former. 🙂

    But so Jillian I would say that the ability to write a fast beginning is a *good* thing. For an example of a fast beginning you might look at Gregor the Overlander by Suzanne Collins (a little dark but not nearly as dark as Hunger Games). I think it has a lot of the details that Ms. Levine talks about above and that's what makes it work.

  6. I have a question: What do you do when you have two characters who are a boy and a girl, and you want them to be just friends? I'm writing a book where the girl is sixteen and the guy is a little older, and I'm not sure how to set this up. How do I make the audience expect a friendship and nothing more? I've tried a free write to get a feeling for it, but it didn't come out well.

  7. @ Claudie McCarron (and Gail Carson Levine, too): That's a great question! Mrs. Levine, please do a post about that someday. I have a similar predicament. My two MCs, a guy and a girl who are both about sixteen, have a really strong friendship, and I'm considering having them fall in love (if I ever write a sequel that takes place years down the road)… but for now they're just friends. I know that when I read books, I often look for romance even where none is indicated, so do you have any tips for making this an awesome friendship but nothing more? Thanks!

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