Writing Beginnings That Don’t Suck (Writing Workshop)

Every great journey begins with a single step forward. Where your story is concerned, that first step is absolutely, without question, the most important one. Doesn’t matter how fantastic the rest of the book is, if the first few sentences don’t compel the reader into the next paragraph, and that paragraph doesn’t force them to finish the first chapter, then you’re sunk right out the gate.

Your opening line is the front line. It’s your readers first interaction with the story and everything, and I do mean everything, depends on those first few lines doing their job.

But it’s not just a matter of starting the story with whizz-bang-boom in the first few sentences and then resting on your laurels. That next paragraph has to latch onto your reader by the scruff of the neck like a rabid Daschund. The paragraph after that must add another meanie-weenie dog. The one after that? You guessed it. Another ferocious ankle biting fur-ball.

daschund

Ferocious and Delicious.

The first chapter of your story needs to heap puppy after puppy on the reader until they are crushed beneath the dog pile and couldn’t walk away even if they wanted to.

When it comes to opening your story, it’s a dog-eat-dog world, and we’re playing for keeps. By the way, what’s up with all these dog metaphors? Hm… we’ll get to the bottom of that later, for now, let’s focus on what really matters: Writing a Stellar Opening! Or, barring a stellar opening, let’s write something that doesn’t completely suck.

Onwards and upwards as they say!

Okay, so now we grasp the importance of a great opening, but what does that even mean? What does a great opening look like?

When done properly, we barely notice a great opening. You know why? Because we are so enthralled that we don’t even stop to consider the fact that we’ve fallen headfirst into this majestic world of centaurs and jello fueled jetpacks until we come up for our first huge mouthful of air which, depending on how strong your opening is, could be hours later.

So what does a good opening need? I’m glad you asked, please refer to the handy-dandy list I’ve compiled down below:

What Every Good Beginning Needs

1) Hook the Reader

Hooking the reader can be done in all sorts of ways. Maybe there’s something really compelling about your character. Does he/she have a unique voice? A weird perspective on the world that immediately clashes with our own? If you’re from a more literary bent, then the language itself could be the hook. Read some Patrick Rothfuss and right off the bat you’re hooked by the sheer beauty of language.

Quick note: Not everybody can pull off this sort of opening. Nine times out of ten I’d say people fail because they come off as flowery and pompous. You don’t want to be that guy, so tread carefully.
Inevitably, whether you have a compelling character or beautiful language, the beginning comes down to the hook. The reason why the reader should invest their time in your story.

Most books do this with a question. Will Mary figure out who put the Butcher’s head in her freezer? Will she figure out whether or not she thinks it’s kind of sweet and romantic or a little too forward and a bit creepy?

Most books get put down because the reader is bored. They aren’t compelled forward; they aren’t hooked. If that happens, you have nobody to blame but yourself.

2) Establish Bond With Lead Character

Right off the bat we want to know who’s skin we’re going to be living inside for the next couple hundred pages. Introduce us to your lead character and then make us feel something for her. Do it quick, you’ve only got a hundred or so words to really grab me and yank me in. Don’t waste time.

Refer to the post Cheating Your Way to Likable Characters for ways to establish this bond. Here’s a quick list for you lazy SOB’s out there.

Jeopardy

Hardship

Underdog

Vulnerability

Likability

Inner Conflict

Don’t know what any of that means? Too bad, go read that other post.

3) Present the Story-world

This doesn’t mean info-dump or take a paragraph to describe the skyline and the underlying political system governing your little world. In the beginning every word counts double, so figure out ways to introduce the story-wono dumpingrld without taking a step sideways to draw attention to the fact that you’re introducing us to the story-world.

I’ve done other post on exposition and infodumping (CLICK HERE and I’ll prove it), but here’s the nitty gritty to help you navigate the treacherous waters of your beginning.

Exposition

Act First, Explain Later: I’m not going to stop and explain why Daryl is about to shoot Wesley in the kneecap. I’m gonna do it, and you’re gonna trust that it’ll all make sense in the near future.

Comprende? Bueno. Now get over here Wes, Daryl’s got something for you.

Iceberg Explanation: Give us only 20 percent of what you think we need. Leave the rest underwater.
Information Inside Confrontation: Whenever possible use confrontation, or interaction with another human, to sprinkle information and propel the story forward.

Example:

/scene/

The gun bucked in Daryl’s hand harder than he expected. “That’s for fucking my wife.”

Wesley whimpered on the blistering plasticene sidewalk, clutching his gut. “I didn’t—”

Daryl didn’t have time for more lies. He took aim at the space between Wesley’s eyes and fired a second time.

/scene/

Notice a couple things. We jump straight into the action without introductions or back-story. Daryl thinks Wes slept with his wife, so there’s his motivation conveniently dispensed in the form of dialogue rather than some kind of internal monologue.

Is Daryl justified in his actions or is he a jealous asshole? Don’t know. Is he even our point-of-view character? Maybe. Maybe not.

For instance, perhaps he has his wife tied up in the back of the car and he’s gonna kill her next. Maybe she’s our main character and has to get away from her insane husband. Then again, maybe we find out she’s been cheating on him for decades and Daryl just learned none of his three children are actually his. Now we can at least sympathize with his anger.

Either way, at this point, we don’t know, but hopefully we’re intrigued enough to find out.

What’s a plasticene sidewalk by the way? Shrug. Not a clue. That’s just a bit of world building to give you an idea that this storyworld isn’t exactly like our own world.

Also, that very first sentence “the gun bucked harder than expected” gives us some idea that Daryl probably hasn’t fired very many guns in his lifetime. So where did he get this weapon? Did he buy it from a crack addict on the corner of 28th and MLK? Possibly.

I guess we’ll just have to read on to find out, huh?

4) Establish Tone

The above example is sort of morbid, huh? It has the sort of grit that would play well in a detective noir or mystery/thriller piece. Which is going to be awfully disappointing if the story you’re telling is supposed to be humorous or a romantic comedy. You need to set the mood immediately, give the readers no doubt as to what sort of story they are reading.

Seriously, don’t get cute and write a super-gnarly murder scene only to undo it at the end of the chapter with the old:

“Joe and Beth sat on the couch as the movie ended, wide eyed and traumatized. Nobody said a word. Perhaps Die Hardest: Oblivion Now wasn’t a good first date movie choice, Joe reflected.”

morgan

Now, the example from above is gritty, but we could easily tone it down into something more lighthearted with a bit of work.

Example:

/scene/

The gun bucked clean out of Daryl’s hand and landed in a puddle of rain water. Daryl stooped over to retrieve the weapon. “That’s for sleeping with my wife, douche-nozzel.”

“What the he–?” Wesley whimpered.

Daryl took aim at the space between Wesley’s eyes, compensated for the anticipated recoil, and fired a second time.

The bean-bag round glanced off Wesley’s kneecap.

/scene/

Is this funny? Probably not. I’m not good at comedy, but the take-away is that it sets an entirely different tone from the first example. The action is pretty much the same but instead of murdering Wesley, Daryl has resolved to use a bean-bag gun. A weapon he is clearly not familiar with.
The important thing is that right out of the gate, with both of the examples, you more or less know the sort of story you’re in for.

5) Compel The Reader To Move Forward

Never give the reader a reason to put your story down. Make it difficult for them to say, “That’s enough for tonight”, by always compelling them to move forward. This means asking a variety of big questions and little questions.

In the examples with Wesley and Daryl we have a couple questions revolving around what brought the two men to that place in their lives, and what’s going to happen next. But you can only string action along for so long before it becomes wearisome. Daryl can’t just sit there shooting Wes in the kneecaps all day long.

No matter how beautifully it’s written, eventually we’ll get bored.

That’s when you as the writer need to…

6) Introduce Opposition

Oh, would you look at that, what a conveniently placed talking point.

The beginning of your story needs to set the stage for the larger conflicts to play out.

How do we do that?

Well, start putting the protagonist in situations beyond his/her control. Introducing us to their nemesis might be a bit premature, because we haven’t really gotten to sympathize with our Lead yet, but we can start making their life suck.

For instance, in that first example we don’t really know what happened in the moments leading up to Daryl shooting Wes. Perhaps Wes was actually the one who tracked down Daryl with the intent of killing him so Wes could marry his wife? There was a struggle for the gun and Daryl came out on top and took revenge. Now, let’s say a patrolling robo-cop-dog has heard the gunshots and is going to arrest Daryl.

robodog

Seriously, what’s up with all the dog references in this post?

What does Daryl do? Run or stay?

Questions have been asked, and now our MC has some decisions to make.

On the other hand, if this is the lighthearted comedic romp with bean-bag guns and the like then perhaps Wes is actually Daryl’s boss and while he isn’t going to press charges (mostly on account of the fact that he’s planning on marrying Daryl’s wife following their soon-to-be divorce), he is most definitely going to fire Daryl.

Now Daryl’s losing his wife and job, but he got to shoot his asshole boss with a bean-bag gun, so that’s cool. What’s he going to do now?

Questions and decisions.

This is getting on the long side, so let’s wrap it up with a quick list of things not to do in your beginning.

NO:
-excessive description
-backwards glancing: ie: flashbacks or navel gazing.
-lack of threat. <—No lack of threat? That’s a weird sentence, but you’re a smart person, I’m sure you’ll figure out. Right? Right.

And those, folks, in a really wordy nutshell, are the key elements to a really good beginning. In the future we’ll talk more about this because it’s just so damn important, but for now I want ya’ll to boogie on down to the comments and tell me what some of your favorite opening lines/chapters are, and why.

Go on, butt-scoot on out of here.

Dog Reference Quota: Exceeded

Dog Reference Quota: Exceeded

Writing Workshop: Pacing Your Story!

A lot goes into writing a good story, unless somehow you’ve made BFF’s with a Muse. If that’s the case you don’t need me, and you should go frolicking through fields of daisies, jerk. For the rest of us, there are a lot of aspects of good storytelling that require conscious attention.

These range from having good mechanics (ie: knowing how to put together a sentence that sounds good, or atleast intelligible), to a strong plot (ie: interesting shit keeps happening!), to correct pacing (ie: your character doesn’t spend the first three quarters of the book splayed out on his back whilst sexy servants feed him grapes, and the last quarter of the book blowing up the moon.)

anchorman

Today, we’re gonna chat about pacing, because it’s one of those elements of storytelling that is a slippery bastard to nail down. As the writer, pacing can be one of the hardest things to keep track of. Which makes sense when you consider how much time you spend inside the story world. After awhile things inevitably resemble an unintelligible gaggle of words.

Are these moving too quickly? Are they moving too slowly? Is it moving at all?

Beta-readers are a great resource in this department. They come at the story with fresh eyes and can tell you when things are dragging and when they are moving too quickly. But maybe you don’t have a stable of virulent beta-readers on hand?

Well, bummer. You’re screwed. Sorry, Holmes.

No, I’m just kidding. There’s plenty you can do on your own. In particular I’m gonna share a little exercise I go through with my stories to make sure they are moving at a reasonable pace.

Here’s what you do:

First, get a piece of paper and write down every scene in chronological order. We aren’t talking about chapters, because oftentimes you’ll have multiple scenes in a single chapter. So go through and pinpoint all the different interactions your characters have whether they be big or small, climactic or anticlimactic.

In Time Heist I tended towards shorter chapters so while there are 39 chapters, there were only 45 different scenes. That’s a stylistic choice I made because shorter chapters, especially within the context of a thriller, make the book feel like it’s moving along at a quicker pace. By comparison, Mind Breach, the sequel to Time Heist (which has 4 point of view characters) has closer to 50 chapters and well over 100 different scenes. So your mileage is going to vary on this one.

Now, once you have your scene list, you’re gonna go through and assign an excitement rating somewhere between 1 and 10. 1 being very boring, as in your character is waking up from a nap. 10 being “holy balls my cat is on fire!” exciting.

batmanfunny

“I just woke up from a nap and my cat is on fire!”

Excitement in this context could mean a whole bunch of things. Your main character finding out his parents are getting a divorce will rate differently on the scale based on the kid. The kids growing up in an uber-religious household where he’s been raised to view divorce as a sin is going to react slightly differently from the hippy love child who’s parents only got married for the tax breaks.

It all depends. Conversely, not all physical peril is equal. Your average soccer-dad is going to respond to a bad automobile accident differently than your hardened black-ops assassin woman with a machine-gun leg.

badass woman

I literally can’t believe I found a woman with a machine gun leg. Go home internet, you’re drunk!

So go through your tale and figure out where each scene ranks. Once you have this all figured out, you’re gonna get a different sheet of paper and graph it out.

graph paper

Wait…. did he say, graph it out? That sounds an awful lot like math. I don’t like math. Can we make glittery unicorns instead?

Yes. Yes, we can. But later. For now, we’re graphing, baby!

On the left side of your paper create a vertical line and then break it up into 10 equally spaced lines. Then go through your scene list and plot those points out on the graph in chronological order. When you’re done, it should look something like this.

20150305_114941

If you did it right, you should see a series of peaks and valleys. If you’re story is one continuous line from left to right, then that means nothing is happening in your story. It’s flatlined. It’s dead. Sorry, bro. We did everything we could to resuscitate it, but some things you just have to let go.

But that’s not you. Your story goes places and therefore it bobs and weaves like a mongoose on Adderall.

Well, that’s not so much bobbing and weaving as it is just going in circles…which you don’t necessarily want your story to do….but…

*look a distraction!*

Back on topic. Boom. Okay, so up above I outlined three of my books in the Firstborn Saga: Time Heist, Infinity Lost, and Mind Breach. Each story is designed to do something different and so each graph is gonna look slightly differently, but what you should, ideally, see are consistent peaks following by consistent valleys. The peaks represent the climactic moments followed by a period of “calm” where less exciting things happen.

These undulations are important for a number of reasons. Think of it like a rollercoaster ride at Disney World.There is the slow build at the beginning which gives you plenty of time to contemplate how poor a decision you’ve made and how you’re likely to die clutching the hairy arm of the Armenian man wedged in beside you. Then there’s the exciting plunge, a few hair pin turns, a loopdeloop if you’re doing things correctly, and then there’s usually a boring section where you can gather your breath for one final push of embarrassing pre-teen screaming.

That’s what you want from your story. Now, it doesn’t always work like that. Let’s take a look at Time Heist which, right out of the gate, I’ll tell you packs an almost unhealthy amount of action between its pages.

20150305_115840

Now, one of the problems with the pacing of Time Heist is that it spends alot of time up there near 10 for climactic moments. Tom Mandel is constantly faced with near death experiences that frequently kill him. That’s the nature of the story I was trying to tell and the world I was building, so I rightly accept the critiques that suggest there is too much action. But that was unavoidable, and I knew it from the beginning. Time Heist is a story with a particular market that will love it, others will be put off by it. That’s okay, you can’t please everybody and it helps to know that at the onset of any artistic endeavor.

cant please

A couple things I would have done differently? I would have added a few scenes between the climactic moments. This would have stretched the story, giving the reader more breathing room between climactic happenings, and given them an opportunity to reflect on the impending doom.

Also, here’s an important take-away from the Time Heist graph: a scene that stays up at 10 for too long will become tiring, overwhelming, and the reader will eventually lose interest. You can only throw so much at your main character at once. Whoops. I broke that one in spades.

Let’s move on to the next story of the lot, Infinity Lost, which serves as a pseudo-prequel to Time Heist. It’s meant to be read after Time Heist, but it takes place hundreds of years before, so that’ll give you a bit of framework.

20150305_115854

Infinity Lost is a very different sort of story than Time Heist. There is very little action and the climactic moments don’t revolve so much around physical peril as they do emotional turmoil. In a lot of ways Infinity Lost is a character study.

Looking at these graphs is interesting because with a little practice you can see where your story needs a healthy dose of stimulants, or where you need to apply a judicious amount of horse tranquilizer. Time Heist could have used a little tranq’ing. Infinity Lost could use a little perking up, maybe a pot of coffee or something.

coffee

For instance, right at the beginning of the story there is a big spike (which delineates the stories inciting event, this is the moment that puts our main character into motion (since this is a novella, it comes really early on. We don’t have time for fooling around, ya know?)), but immediately following that spike there is a lull. That scene needs to be perked up a bit, the stakes need to be raised. Not a ton but a drop off that large is jarring.

The transition between Act 1 and Act 2 is a bit peculiar because the climactic moment at the end of Act 1 is less climactic than the moment at the beginning of Act 2. This might need some adjusting, or it might be alright. Won’t know til I get back in there and do some rooting around, but it’s something to be mindful of.

What definitely needs some overhauling is that fat, sagging gut in the middle of Act 2. The second Act is a notorious slaggard. It’s the longest of all the Acts and by extension tends to get a bit sluggish. From the looks of it, this is precisely what happens in Infinity Lost. So, easiest fix is to go find those scenes right in the middle of Act 2 and spruce them up.

Raise the stakes, so to speak. This will keep the reader engaged through the long, boring, death valley drive that is the second Act of most stories.

bored cat

A quick comment on that big dip you see in Act 3. That’s what’s called the denouement. It’s the break that comes after the climax, the moment where everything returns to normal, and we conclude on a happy note. I don’t end on a happy note, because this is part of a series, so at the end it starts building again to urge the reader forward into the next book, Mind Breach.

20150305_115909

As Infinity Lost is different from Time Heist, Mind Breach is different from the previous two. It follows from the POV of 4 characters, whereas Time Heist has 1, and Infinity Lost as 2. Mind Breach, in terms of action, is closer related to Time Heist, but it’s not the non-stop thrill ride that is Time Heist. That’s because the middle book in a series sort of fills the role of a second Act. This is where a lot of the world building takes place, and the finagling of characters and scenes to get everybody poised and ready for a climactic finish in the finale.

Mind Breach, of the three stories, is probably the best paced so far. It needs only a little bit of work at the end of Act 2 to give a more climactic thrust into the conclusion of the tale. But for the most part there is a good build in Act 1, continuous engagement through Act 2, and a nice thick climax in Act 3.

The reason Mind Breach appears to have better pacing is on account of the multiple POV’s. I’m able to break up climactic scenes for one character by hopping to a different character in the next chapter. Flip flopping like this is nice because it gives the reader a nice little mental break and it lets me, as the author, do some interesting things from a storytelling mechanics point of view. This wasn’t possible in Time Heist where there was only a single first person POV. Did the story suffer on account of that? Meh, perhaps. But what can ya do?

Alright, so your homework is to plot out your work in progress and put it down in the comments section so that we can all see it and brainstorm it together.

This was a lot of words. If you made it this far, you deserve a treat, so here’s a picture of Gilgamesh, the cat who thought he could fly, but couldn’t.

20150305_115648

Don’t worry, he’s not dead…just lazy.