Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Where Do You Start Your Story?

The blank screen of your computer is staring back at you, taunting, laughing, and giggling at you and your lack of activity. "Come on! You call yourself a writer! So Write!" And yet the words don't come.

I know I face that daily when I get ready to write this blog. There are days when I know there are some of you out there wanting to see what I come up with that day (yes that is my ego talking, but it keeps me moving like my cups of coffee). But it is that tension, that moment of panic that makes getting the words onto the screen ever more difficult. And yes, we know that how you start that story is often the toughest.

Most authors probably approach stories the same way. They have these great ideas for the conflict that is going to happen in the book. They have great scenes playing out in their head. Heck, I had one a couple of days ago for a story that I thought I would try my hand at. The paper is covered with all of these great scenes, fantastic one liners and so forth. However, I can't get to those great scenes for the simple fact that I haven't written the first word of the first chapter.

The difficulty for so many writers is simply not knowing how to start their story. At what point in your book do you need to begin with the "Once Upon A Time?" Yet, it is that opening, it is the opening pages of your book that have to be, as one of my authors describes her great writing as simply being "GOLDEN!" The pressure is that if you start your story at the wrong spot. If your opening chapters are not golden, then the book is probably dead before we even get to those great scenes.

Remember that those opening scenes are the things that sell the reader, editors and agents. In this day and age, people don't have the time and the luxury to fight through those opening pages and chapters that really aren't rocking our world just to hopefully get to the good stuff. We quit reading. Readers immediately give up and toss that book to the lunchroom "used book shelf" for some other poor soul to stumble over. They know they can because, like so many authors, they have a pile of other books on their TO BE READ pile. Editors and agents do the same thing. We have proposals to write, revisions to do and people to call.

So where do you start that story? For me, I always say that writing is like a Ouiji Board. Your hand just moves over that board and the answers mysteriously pop up. The same goes for writing. The right place to start is where it feels right. There is no perfect way to start a story. Each project you work on will be completely different depending on the goal and the purpose of the story.

To answer this, however, it is often easier to describe what you probably shouldn't be doing.

  • Giving us all of that back story to get us to where we need to me. - Keep this information on a "need to know basis."
  • Dropping us fully into the main conflict of the story - Yes we want action, but if we don't have a context to understand that conflict, we will be lost.
  • Starting with no movement - Look, I get conversations and dialogue are great, but if you have two characters just sitting around having tea and chatting about something not necessary, we will leave the room and find a better party
And yes, there is a bit of subjectivity here. Even if it works great for you, your approach might not fit the needs of the editor or agent you want to send the story to. Hey, we can't please everyone. For me, I hate stories that:

  • start with the unknown villain contemplating something dastardly to someone we haven't met.
  • start with a dream (I think I was messed up with that whole 80's Dallas thing and Bobby's Dream that ruined that whole season.
  • begin with a prologue that is really doing nothing more that dumping back story on my in an information dump.
  • have pages and pages of narration from only one person or pages and pages of dialogue with people I don't know.
I am not going to say there is one right way to start your story, but, there are certainly wrong ways. Take the time to really look at those opening pages. I am going to once again reference my favorite slogan - "You don't get a second chance to make a first impression." What impression are you making?

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