Wednesday, August 12, 2009

SHOOT FIRST- ASK QUESTIONS LATER: Starting Your Story at the Right Place

You've got a great story idea. You've figured out the plot and the hero and heroine are growing magically in your mind. You know all about who they are and how they got to be the way they are. The story is just begging to be written. It assaults you eager mind every minute of the day.

But where does it start?

Or maybe you've already written the story. You know it inside and out now, even to the parts you didn't put in it. But there's one thing wrong, and you've gone over that again and again.
The opening.

You're not alone. Most authors, published or unpublished, have trouble with the beginning, sometimes on every one of their books. As authors, we know our story, but we also know all that led up to it, all that surrounds it and all that follows, so it's confusing to separate out exactly where the book should open. It's not uncommon at all for an author to try four, five, even a dozen different ways to open, and still not grasp why it isn't working.

A common problem authors face with openings is STARTING TOO EARLY. I see this so often in contests, I think it must be the most common problem unpublished authors face. Now and then I've seen an author open TOO LATE, but that's rare. We seem to want to get in and explain the past, so the reader will feel grounded when the story opens.

But how much explanation does the reader need? The answer is, not much. That's what the story is for, to show her this new world where she has not walked before. Your opening is there to open her eyes, make her ears hear. Let her discover for herself.

One of my early books, The Mudlark, had one of the most marvelous descriptions I've ever written, all about the heroine and her life an how she had taken over managing her family home in the long absences of her irresponsible father, and. . .

Get it? Heard it before? So had my contest judges. "Cut to the chase!" one of them said.

But I loved my wonderful prose! It told the reader all about who Izzy was! How else could I get that across? Well, the answer was clearly to show who she was by what she did. And one contest judge even helpfully pointed to a paragraph and said, "Your story starts here."

It didn't sound like an opening to me, and I diligently tried to re-work it so it would. But that took me right back to where it was, with twelve pages of explanation. Finally I gave up and just whacked. This is what I found:
When the sun came out from beneath dense clouds, Izzy Daventry threw her
shawl over her shoulders and set off from the manor across meadows that were
still slick from the last downpour. Within moments, the collection of children
commonly known as Izzy's Urchins gathered around her, warbling like the first
larks of spring, eager to see what adventure she had prepared for the day.

What does it do? It sets the scene. It introduces Izzy by showing her doing something she loves. And within the next page it takes what she loves and gives it all a bizarre twist that forces the story into action. I'm even tighter at getting to the point now, but this is the place I learned how to do it.

My favorite opening is probably from His Majesty, the Prince of Toads:
Tucked in amongst the odors of wax and smoking wicks, lavender and musk, lurked the aura of anticipation. Faint, yet distinct, it hung like a scent itself in the heavy air of the Carstairs drawing room.
It became more than a smell. Sophie heard it in the sudden hushing of voices, saw it in the slight raising of eyebrows. Previously attentive gentlemen stiffened, and with polite nods faded away as if they had not been fluttering about her just moments before. Her nape prickled, and Sophie felt like she was a goat staked out in a tiger trap.
This one is better because it makes heavy use of sensual details to present the setting, and to characterize the heroine, not by telling who she is, but by showing her poised at the point of action. And because she is poised, tension builds in the reader immediately. And action does begin immediately, with the confrontation with her husband she has been dreading for years. The reader only needs to know at this point that something is going to happen. And she knows she wants to find out what it is.

Here's an example from J. D. Robb from
Rapture in Death:
Three weeks hadn't changed Cop Central. The coffee was still poisonous, the noise abominable, and the view out her stingy window was still miserable.
She was thrilled to be back.

Nora at her best. She entices the reader with a concise lure that is almost impossible to resist. A lesser author might have started the story where "she" is getting exiled from "her" beloved/hated environment. Not Nora. In one densely, tensely packed paragraph, she has set the scene, established a vital character, painted the mood, and let you know trouble is already as thick as the bad coffee. What trouble? Can't wait to find out, can you?

I've heard so many new writers say, "But I like to ease in to my story." Yes, and it's a great way to get the writer launched into writing it. But it's not a great a way to sell a book. If you tell everything the reader knows in the first chapter, why should she bother to read the rest? She has nothing left niggling at her brain to make her turn the page.

If you think you might have done that, go back with a highlighter and mark every place that has an important piece of information the reader needs. With each one of those in mind, imagine the rest of your story and ask WHY the reader needs to know. This will point you to the place in the story where that item becomes relevant. All you have to do next is to figure out a place to stick it in- a place that is not in your opening pages.

The idea is to sprinkle these little clues throughout your manuscript, using just a word or two, showing each one instead of telling about it. Get sneaky. Very sneaky. If you're in a hurry to spruce up your beginning, just make yourself a list containing each clue and where you'd like to hide it. Get to it later.

Then go back and whack out everything before the point where the action begins. Ah, another difficult task. How do you know where that is? You may know more than you think.

Go back and look at my first example. Why was this point chosen? Because everything before it was description. It had motion but no action. Izzy fooled around in her garden. She checked the furniture for proper polish. She stared out the window and watched the rain, thinking about her recalcitrant parent. What she was going to do in the future, what she had done in the past. The point chosen was the point where the action began, leading straight to the adventure that left her looking like the Mudlark as the hero imagines her moments later when they meet.

It's likely, if you're having this kind of problem, that you have a lot of narrative full of b
eautiful, descriptive prose, possibly with a character musing over the past or planing the future, and doing a lot of gardening. Motion, not action. Where does the action begin?

Action requires conflict. The old way of defining plot structures says it well. All plots follow certain basic patterns: Man vs. man. Man vs. God. Man vs. the elements, or nature. Man vs. himself. Where does the conflict in your story begin? That's where your story begins. Everything before it is just backstory. Get rid of it. Hide it. Start with the story.

All right, then, what DO you need in your opening if you can't have backstory? Here's the formula I use: In the first two pages, I need to (1) establish the setting, both time and place; (2) set the mood; (3) introduce at least one main character; (4) establish his character; (5) give him a problem; and then (6) give it a twist. And if I can do it in one page, so much the better.

Don't think you can do it? Sure, you can. If you can't figure out the point, then try removing your first three chapters. Yes, three. That's what most writers have in backstory when they first start out. Look at chapter four. Read it as if it's the very opening of your story. As you read it, make a note of anything in the first three chapters that absolutely must be said. Is there any possibility you can work it in as a thought in a main character's mind?

Here's the small segment I inserted in Fire Dance that took care of the entire seven-page prologue:
"Sorcerer." Alain tensed, recalling his last meeting with Rufus, a strange scene with much left unexplained.
"There is unfathomable evil in the man, de Crency. I do not want him to live." Had Rufus meant sorcery, then?
"And you will take his daughter Melisande to wed, no questions asked." Alain had laughed and asked if the lady had two heads. Mayhap she did.
In his mind, Alain saw Rufus, watching in fascination as he held a crumpled parchment to the brazier's coals. The King's perpetually stuffy nose wrinkled at the acrid smell as flames jumped forth to consume it. Then Rufus dropped the parchment and watched its remains dance a graceful pattern, like a flower opening, then shriveling in the devouring flames.
See? You can do it. Just stick to the story. Stick to the conflict. Stick to the action. Leave all the explanation for another time.

Shoot first. Ask questions later.


  1. Great post Delle! Guess it is an issue of balance right? Enough background but get to the story too! You have some beautiful covers!! And I am putting MudLark on my "to get" list just from your comments here! :)

  2. Hi Martha! Good to hear from you! I love your new site, by the way.

    First- sorry, Mudlark isn't available at the moment, but it will be a re-issue soon. I can't give details yet, but of course I'll let everyone in the world know, because I love that story. Fire Dance will also be re-issued, probably much sooner.

    Second- yes, I think balance is a very good word for it. Some very famous authors have advised authors never to tell the reader anything until it's abslutely necessary. But at the same time, confusing the reader is not good. And it's not good any time a reader has to go back to what she's already read to check facts or clarify something. Nothing should be allowed to break the reader's initial concentation on the story, or it will be broken. And readers as a rule aren't very lenient about this.

    If I still had it, I might post the original opening of Mudlark so you could see what I mean. It took me 30 pages to get to where the story opens now. But on the other hand, you might never pick up another of my books again.

  3. Love the new covers, Delle!!!!!!!!!

  4. Same thing happened to me with my 1st book. I cut 14 pages off the beginning when a contest judge told me the same thing.


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I write write write. Sometimes I travel. Then I write some more. And I have a great family who understand that I write write write.