As I’ve been writing scenes and posting wordcounts, I’ve gotten away from something important: How did I come up with this stuff, anyway?
After all, wasn’t the whole point of this blog to share the creative writing process?
“Where is your story supposed to start, really?” is one of the toughest questions to answer. Some people try to oversimplify the answer.
Holly Lisle is one of those people. “Beginnings are endings,” she says. She believes that beginnings always present the protagonists with problems they are ill-equipped to handle. The ending should be just like the beginning, only the protagonists should’ve learned over the course of the story how to properly deal with those exact same problems. If that’s not the case, she suggests you might’ve started at the wrong place. Makes sense, right?
But I don’t buy it. My favorite stories usually raise the stakes until the protagonists are faced with much more difficult problems than they could’ve ever imagined at the beginning. Characters change. Emotionally, mentally, and physically.
While they’re travelling, the world around them shouldn’t stay static, either. It changes and grows.
Imagine a story where a boy, who gets kicked around by a bully, stumbles through a portal in his school locker to a magical land where he learns how to fight and stand up for himself. Then, when he returns back to his world all ready to kick some butt, it turns out the bully slipped on soap in the shower and died. lol.
I’ve also heard the best place to start is ‘where the action starts’. That sort of makes sense, too. Especially for a sequel where the readers already got to know the characters in the previous novel. But, come to think of it, most of my favorite high fantasy novels didn’t start with an action scene. They first spent time letting me get to know the characters. Tolkien and Jordan both started off slow, didn’t they? I don’t believe for a second the action in Fellowship started with Bilbo’s eleventy-first birthday.
The problem is, putting characters immediately at risk in an action scene is not usually a very good start. It kills the art of suspense and doesn’t give the reader a good reason to care about the characters who are put at risk.
One example that immediately comes to mind is a movie where the beginning shows the main character and his dad on a fishing boat having a heartfelt conversation. So when they get in a terrible car accident on the way home that costs the father his life, the impact is that much greater since we got to empathize with the father in the previous scene (cookie points if you know which movie I’m thinking of).
So how does a writer know if they have the ‘right’ beginning for their story? The only answer I’ve offered so far is to keep writing scenes and ‘composting’ until you ‘know where the starting point should be and adjust from there’.
But what kind of answer is that, anyway?
You can start from the ending and explain how things got that way, or even tell the story backwards (if it fits the theme). You can make the last chapter be an echo of the first, or start when the main character first met his or her love interest. You can start with a tragedy, or end with one.
The truth is, there’s a staggering number of factors to consider when deciding where and how to start your story.
My chapter one began with Cirellio riding his horse through the desert on his way to Shiira. It flashed back and forth between him approaching the city and a man recounting a story of his experience with Cirellio to their guild leader. It ended with Cirellio passing through the gates customs to finally enter Shiira.
So why a desert? Why a horse and not a camel? Why start with Cirellio’s point-of-view? Why’s he travelling to Shiira instead of already being in Shiira?
Why not begin when Cirellio was born and tell the story from there? Or an important moment in his childhood? The beginning of his journey when he left Aydomar? A heist? The moment he joins the thieves’ guild? All possibilities.
Will Greenway wrote of eight different rules beginnings should generally follow. I think they are right on target. Wherever you begin the story (and sometimes you won’t even know where to truly begin until you’ve written your entire story and began to edit), it should hopefully touch on some of these eight rules.
1. “Show the protagonist in focus. (…) Your focus should be on the character’s emotional and physical details and getting us into that person’s head. If you stop the story to give the reader a guided tour, you may lose them.”
Do I successfully show the protagonist in focus?
The focus is definitely on the main protagonist. Cirellio’s struggling in new surroundings and is not yet to the description-heavy city. It flashes back and forth between him approaching Shiira and Redmond recounting a story of his experiences with Cirellio. So we get to see other people’s perceptions of him as well as his own, plus get a feel for how far away from home (out of his element) he really is.
2. “Establish the protagonist in context. (…) provide opportunities to establish the characters in their primary social context. Are they outsiders? Insiders? Outcasts? Are they at odds with the world or in sync with it? (…) Simply put, show whether your protagonist is a round, square, or hexagonal peg — and the hole into which life is trying to fit him or her.”
Do I establish the protagonist in context?
Cirellio is established early-on as both an outsider and outcast. He is a thief and tries to avoid people. He generally dislikes the existing system that forces people through gates, favors nobles, and dislikes how society views thieves, nameless, and lost because of the northern views on keeping world order. He is clearly at odds with the world.
3. “Offer a scene that reflects the overall book or story conflict. The scene should mirror the overall conflict of the novel in some way. For instance, if the book is about the protagonist getting back a kidnapped child, a good way to start might be with the character seeing a child being taken from their parents, or two parents battling over custody of the child. There is even the blunt and obvious approach: the scene where the child gets kidnapped. Your first scene sets the tone for the rest of the book.”
Do I offer a scene that reflects the overall story conflict?
The opening scene is a journey through a harsh climate. Likewise, the protagonist’s journey through the novel is going to be difficult (an almost too obvious metaphor).
A bit later, Cirellio meets Cauinn. The scene reflects the internal conflicts they’ll have to overcome: issues with trusting and believing.
4. “Portray an evocative situation. Show the protagonist in a vivid uncluttered scene, preferably doing something that is signature to that character. If he or she is awesome with a sword, but hates swordplay for some reason, that ‘tag’ is important to reveal.”
Do I portray an evocative situation?
The setup and situation is what I’d call elaborate at the beginning of the story, building up to an unexpected conclusion. Cirellio happens to be pretty handy with a sword, too (cliché much?), which is shown through Redmond’s story, and again through Cirellio’s experience in Shiira. He never steals a thing, despite being a thief, and tries to avoid killing unless he is at imminent risk of being captured.
5. “Establish that the protagonist has something significant at stake. Conflict must be present in your start. (…) Make sure something that the protagonist feels an attachment to and cares for is on the line. (…) in trying to start with a bang, some people get lost in elaborate action scenes that fail miserably! Why? The characters are unfamiliar. We don’t care about them yet. Action does nothing for the reader with no time invested in your protagonists.
How the main characters are motivated to deal with the conflict and the establishment of a personal stake is essential to driving your story forward. These details will provide important characterization. (…)
In choosing a scene of conflict, we single out that person’s passion and show them grappling with it. Our demons reveal telling contrasts in our values and character. When gripped by powerful emotions, we sublimate our learned social behavior and act as our basic nature dictates. During these moments, potential is uncovered, hidden beauty can be revealed, or ugliness unmasked. Unveiling these aspects of the protagonist exposes flaws that make them more believable people, it also provides depth and shows that person’s potential for change.”
Do I establish that the protagonist has something significant at stake? Is there conflict from the start?
Without revealing too much, yes. Internal conflict is evident early, and the action doesn’t pick up until after the reader gets to know several protagonists.
At different points I show both the protagonists and antagonists being ‘human’, revealing the depth of their personalities through their flaws and misjudgments.
For example, one of the antagonists lusts after a woman simply because she is someone he cannot have.
6. “Show the rules of the world at work. Simply because your novel will be sitting on the fantasy rack doesn’t mean you can break rules on a whim. Yes, fantasy readers will suspend disbelief to an extent. However, a wise writer will start with the most plausible fantastic elements first.
Your best tools for getting a reader to buy into your fantasy are symmetries: something sacrificed for something gained, action versus reaction, cause and effect. If fantastic elements play a key role in the plot, whether derived from magic, fanciful creatures, or simply some skewed aspect of the world, then some hint or demonstration of the governing rules should play a role in the opening.
If the protagonist is in some way more confined by or less bound to those rules (or even an extension of them), you need to show or give evidence of this special relationship to the reader. Take special note of the word show. Do not explain. (…)”
Do I show the rules of the world at work?
While the world isn’t a magical place for Cirellio, foreshadowing to that effect occurs when he meets Cauinn.
Evidence of the way the world governs is built into the world and frequently experienced by the protagonists.
Symmetry comes into play a lot between the characters, especially in regards to their past. Furthermore, almost everything that happens at the beginning of the book is of a ’cause and effect’ nature.
Ex: Three characters left Aydomar without permission, bypassing the gates system, so their guild leader is upset, investigating why.
7. “Introduce the story question (needs and desires). Every protagonist worth his or her salt will have a question. This question may have nothing to do with the plot, but it does reflect their personal needs and motivations. Example questions: “Why me?”, “Will I ever be happy?”, “Why am I alone?”, “Why did she have to die?”, “Why go on living?”, etc., etc. The story creator should know this question, and by the end of the story, answer it. Make sure this is on your list of things to accomplish by the story’s denouement.
In every plot, there is a need line and a desire line. Characters follow their aspirations, but cannot be at peace until they’ve fulfilled their crucial life’s necessity. Sometimes these two lines coincide — sometimes not. Your opening question should be an introduction to the desire thread. As they struggle to get what they want, it should cross, or be at odds with, the thread of their need.
Good story structure dictates that the protagonist will at some point stand at the juncture between their needs and their desires. That decision is often a turning point in the story. A classic example is when the reluctant hero who has wanted to ‘just be a farmer’ his whole life decides to accept his fate as savior of the world (thus embracing what he really needs).”
Do I introduce a story question?
The main character struggles with many questions. In particular, one is born of the opening conflict: “What happens when we die?” And it does lead to a crossroads.
Is what Cirellio desires in conflict with what he needs? Without revealing too much, yes.
8. Establish tone and pace. Your opening scene sets the overall mood of your material, be it dark and gloomy, humorous, violent or whatever. (…) If your piece on a whole is bloody and violent, then initial scene should resonate with that feeling. (…)”
Do I successfully establish a tone and pace?
The opening scene is an unforgiving landscape, with a single man, alone, struggling to survive. The gloom contrasts with moments of happiness between people. The oppressive nature of the world has made communities grow together. Friendships are valuable. This is made clear in Shiira, and even the gatesman shows Cirellio some kindness and decency. There is also segregation between classes. It is rare for a nameless to associate with a commoner or a commoner with a lord. This is also made obvious and will set a tone throughout the book. When the world’s systems turn against Cirellio, he’ll discover he needs the help of others to survive.
Going by these rules, it appears I might be somewhat on track with where and how I chose to start. Hopefully these 8 questions will be helpful to you as well!
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