Thursday, August 1, 2013

Knowing Where To Start And How To Build

I am sure we have all heard this happen, or it has happened to one of us. It's time to sing the Star Spangled Banner. The singer launches into "Oh say can you see..." and you know from those first 5 notes, there will be a huge train wreck several bars down the line. Why? The singer has started too high. When they hit those darn red-glaring rockets, dogs are howling and windows are shattering due to the pitch the singer is trying to reach. In simple terms, it is not pretty.

Unfortunately, for many authors, the same thing happens when they start their stories.

All writers have probably been told the same thing. You need to start your story with action. This is so true! Stories need to get rolling and do so fast. Those first three chapters are really going to set the tone for the story and be the deciding factor for many readers as to whether or not they plan on continuing. But here is the problem. If a writer starts with too much in the beginning, when the time comes to amp it up even more, there will be nothing left in the tank.

This is one more example why authors need to be more of plotters than pantsters when it comes to their craft. You have to be able to see where you are going to so you know when to accelerate and pick up the pace. The goal is to keep things moving and heading toward that ultimate goal and climax in the story.

So where do you start?

A lot of manuscripts I see launch us directly into the central conflict of the story. I am sure the thought is the author doesn't want to bog the reader down with too much exposition and backstory in the beginning. Again, this is true. The problem, however, is by starting in the middle of the conflict, the reader has no context to work with to understand what is going on. We have characters we haven't gotten used to. We have characters that we don't even care about, so if something does go wrong, we lack the emotional connection. We probably don't even know what the whole issue is about. We simply see something is happening.

The reverse of this is what the prior authors are trying to avoid. These authors have it in their heads that we need to know EVERYTHING about the characters (both the main and secondary), the setting and the history. In this case, the pacing of the story is ruined. This is, as texters would say TMI (too much information).

So, where do you start?

That first comment I made is still true. Start with some action. In other words, have the characters doing something, anything! Launching into straight up narration is not action.

But this issue extends throughout your story. Adding depth to a story doesn't involve showing us everything and letting us know everything about the characters and their life. Depth comes from giving us just the information we need to truly "understand" the characters and their situations. Knowing the reasoning behind why they don't like a particular fruit might be too much. Slow us down with narration and longer dialogue when we need to get to know characters and their situation. Pick it up with that action, shorter paragraphs and shorter dialogue when we have to get things moving.

My bet is that for many authors, if you look at your story, the real starting point is probably chapter 2 or 3. That earlier stuff? If there is useful information, it can be spread throughout the story on a "need to know" basis.

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