Monday, April 21, 2008

Where to start a story

On one of the group websites I belong to, there is a current discussion about where to start a story. I spent some time trying to analyze my intuitive answer by looking at the solutions of the writers of the books I am currently reading, and the answer seems to be start at the place where the character makes the move that puts his/her feet on the path that leads to the action in the plot. As close to the action as possible.

This answer is both very simple and very complex. The simple answer is to start a story when the situation is such that the character or characters have to act. They must. Or else dire things will happen.

For example, I am rereading To Ride Hell’s Chasm by Janny Wursts. The opening sentence tells the reader that the Princess has disappeared on the day of her betrothal to a Prince of a neighboring company. Our entire cultural history plus every trope we know about fantasy tells us, the reader, that somebody better do something – quick!

The characters are compelled to act to save the honor of the kingdom, the girl’s life and their own skins. Now!

In the opening sentence of another book I just finished, The Outback Stars, by Sandra MacDonald, the main character says something like if she has to spend another day “flying a desk” rather than serving on a starship she will attempt suicide. Maybe that is rhetoric and maybe not, but it impels her to finagle her way on to an “unhappy” starship. She feels that she has to do something. Maybe she felt that way yesterday or last week or whenever, we don’t know and we don’t care. Now, today is the day she takes the action that puts her on the spaceship and everything else follows (quickly) from the situation on the ship and her character.

In both of the above books, there is a lot of backstory. One of the hallmarks of the amateur is feeling the need to tell it all. One amateur I know insists that the reader has to know all the backstory to understand her tale. Six people sat there and told her we didn’t need all that, but did she listen? No. As the above two books went along, the writers of the above did feed us that backstory – to satisfy our curiosity about how these people got into this mess, but by the time our curiosity was satisfied, we were pretty wrapped up in the characters and how they were going to make it all come out right. The backstory can wait until then.

That is the simple answer. The complex answer for a writer is much more difficult. Where exactly does the story start? What is the point at which the characters have to act? I recently mentioned The Outstretched Shadow by Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory. In this opening, the main character doesn’t know that he has to save the world (before his eighteenth birthday, no less) or even that the world has to be saved. He only knows that he is unhappy.

That unhappiness propels him to a place he shouldn’t be to find the books of magic that will save him --and the world. The writers could have started the story much earlier, when his sister was banished or his mother deserted him, for instance. The argument can be made that at the point of his sister’s taking up the magic, she was compelled to act. But then we would have had to wait through a lot of down time for Kellen to grow up. The story would have had a slower start. Even though Kellen’s unhappiness with his situation is not a result of the impending doom of the people he has to save, it does provide him a motive to act. And get the story moving. And the causes of his unhappiness provide additional complications to the plot – in book three. Which wraps everything up nicely.

In To Ride Hell’s Chasm there may have been a number of places where the main character had to act before the Princess disappeared. For instance, he had to enter a tournament to become Captain of the Guard because he hadn’t saved up enough as a mercenary to support himself before he was injured too badly to get more mercenary jobs. Some writers would have started there and showed us how he developed the relationships that are crucial to the story. They wouldn’t have been wrong, and if they were skillful enough they wouldn’t have lost us along the way. Wursts throws us right into the maelstrom and never lets up. We are swept along into the story. We learn about his background as we go. She chooses to start her story there; other writers choose to start just before the situation gets interesting. That is an equally valid choice. That is why it is difficult to say exactly where to start a story.

Too many amateurs start too far before the interesting events. They don’t give the readers enough credit. Wursts assumes her readers will catch up and keep up. Her readers appreciate it.

So where should a writer start a story? The best way to learn is to read lots and lots of fiction. Particularly fiction that the writer likes in the genre he/she wants to write in. Then think: where did the writer start the story and why? Why there? Then make an informed choice.

That’s the complex answer – and the simple one.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008


Saturday night, I had an epiphany. Last February, I attended ConDFW. During one of the panels, some remarks were made about Romeo and Juliet. The comment was that it wouldn't have worked if Romeo and Juliet hadn't died at the end. I said: "Once the story was written, it may have seemed to the reader that there was only one way to conclude, but that "inevitability" is a function of the writer's premise."


Saturday night, I attended a writer's group. Most of the writers in this group are talented. They write lovely descriptions, create interesting characters, and devise workable plots. Mostly they don't get published. Why? They ain't got that zing.

Saturday night, I got a glimmer of "that zing." By Sunday Morning, I was pretty sure I had the whole thing, but my roommate wanted to finish mowing the backyard in the morning, and I had a meeting to go to in the afternoon. Writing got tabled. Again. Sigh.

That Zing

What I realized was a common flaw in all, or most anyway, of the amateur writing in this group is the lack of inevitability. There is simply no compelling reason for the character to act. This was very noticeable to me because I just reread The Obsidian Trilogy by Mercedes Lackey and James Mallory. The first book, The Outstretched Shadow, starts immediately with conflict. We meet Kellan, an adolescent who is escaping his sterile home and boring schoolwork by running the streets. He finds and buys a set of books on magic. Of course, this magic is forbidden. Of course, he can't resist trying a spell when he misplaces his key. Of course, since it works, he experiments further. Of course, he gets caught with the forbidden books. Here is the catch: his city is run by magic, but the magic in the books is anathema to the magic that runs the city. So of course, in spite of the fact his father is the highest mage of the city, he is convicted of treason. Of course, he is banished.

Three books later the conflict between Kellan and the city is resolved.

When he is banished, his father storms at him, "You are just like your sister." Kellan doesn't remember a sister. Where does he end up? With his sister. Of course.

All of this is highly predictable. The reader can guess as soon as the sister is mentioned that he will find her and that she will be important to the plot.

Everything that happens is inevitable.

But in reality, the writer makes everything seem inevitable. The writer chooses to make the plot, the choices, everything the character does inevitable. Or else the story is not compelling. The reader is not caught up in events. And if the reader is not caught up, he gets bored.
Have you ever been reading a book and said to the hero/ine, "Don't do that!"? Have you ever known that the heroine was going to investigate the noises in the basement of the creepy house and that nothing good was going to come of it, but the heroine was going to do it anyway? I have just wanted to take the hero/ine and shake him/her. "Don't do that, you idiot!" But of course, the character does it anyway. And I know, as sure as I am sitting here, that the character, given his/her personality and the circumstances, is not going to do anything different. It's inevitable.

Shakespeare's version of Romeo and Juliet was written to make the ending inevitable. Other versions of Romeo and Juliet are written to make a different ending inevitable. Same plot, same events, different ending. Entirely possible. But the Romeo and Juliet of that version would be entirely different people, making different choices based on their different characters from the ones that Shakespeare created. And if the writer is skillful enough, his ending would seem just as inevitable as Shakespeare's.

Come to think of it, there is a Romeo-and-Juliet subplot in The Obsidian Trilogy. But of course, it ends happily. It's inevitable.

There are many other characteristics that distinguish great writing. Inevitability is only one. A very important one, but only one. A writer needs to be able to write in the basics of acceptable grammar, create interesting characters, describe action, setting, and characters vividly, and keep the plot on course without wandering off into side issues. Unfortunately, I see a lot of writers who can do all these things, but their stories are not compelling. They don't hold my interest. They don't have that zing.

Monday, April 14, 2008


At a writer's group Saturday night, a nameless member said that the model paragraph structure works for non-fiction, but not for fiction. This discussion of a quote from Hemingway refutes that contention in the strongest possible terms. This is a fragment from a longer essay, but I hope you will be entertained and enlightened by it.

The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong in the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.
Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms, 1929

In this example, Hemingway uses a compound sentence, followed by a complex sentence, a simple sentence with a compound object, ending with a compound – complex sentence. Hemingway is supposedly famous for the simplicity of his prose, but as this example demonstrates, he actually used complex paragraph structure to make his writing interesting for the reader.

Hemingway does not use commas in places that modern usage would place them, i.e. after "everyone," "not break," "these," "you," and "too." This may be troubling to some people. Newspapers tried to eliminate as much punctuation as possible to save type, and Hemingway took much of his style from newspapers.

Notice that the shortest sentence is the complex sentence. The simple sentence is longer. It is tempting to consider short sentences simple. They aren't always the shortest, nor should they be.

Notice, too, the strong sentence: "But those that will not break it kills." The natural order of this sentence is "It kills those that will not break." Hemingway's sentence is much stronger than the natural one. By inverting the order of the sentence, Hemingway makes it strong. Usually when we talk about weak sentences we are referring to those that trail off into a mass of subordinate clauses. This one has only one subordinate clause. The brevity of the main clause placed at the end rather than the beginning brings the reader up short and forces him or her to pay attention.

Finally notice that the paragraph, short as it is, includes a topic sentence, "The world breaks everyone..." and a concluding sentence, "... you can be sure it will kill you too...." This is the model paragraph structure that generations of English teachers have tried to pound into the heads of adolescents. Or tell the reader what the writer is going to tell them, tell them, then tell them what they were told.