Tag Archives: plot

How Shall I Start My Story?

Your story must begin with a hook and a promise, but we’ll get to that later. In fact, I advise you to get to the beginning of your story after it has been written. Seriously.

Recently, a friend told me he was having trouble with the beginning of a chapter in his nonfiction work. I told him to start somewhere else. It sounds too simple, doesn’t it? There is no such thing as too simple. That’s like a woman too pretty, a motorcycle too fast, or a vacation too much fun. What does that even mean?

My first lesson in beginnings came my freshman year at UW-Madison. I would watch my roommate sit for what seemed like hours moving everything except his writing hand. He could not begin his English 101 assignment for the week. The paper remained blank. I became rather famous in that little dorm because my mandatory English class was going well while everybody else seemed to struggle (Thank you, Ms. Marshall, my high school senior English teacher).

The beginning is the toughest part. Many years later, while I was teaching Science to high school freshmen, I required them to write. I taught them what Ms. Marshall had taught me: Say what you are going to say, say it, and say what you said. How can you begin telling me what you are going to say if you don’t know? I told them to write the introduction last.

Here’s how I did that. Suppose my daughter came to the classroom door. (I look at one student, then another.) Would you please introduce her to the class? Inevitably, I would get the answer, “I don’t know her.” Good. Now, how are you going to introduce your essay if you don’t know it, yet?

True, for expository writing I always emphasized outlining. If you have a detailed outline with a thesis and conclusion, you might be able to write the introduction—because you already know what you are going to say. Well, if that is how you want to write fiction (a plot-driven story) then work the outline first. Still, I don’t understand how I can know the characters well enough to introduce them in the beginning of the story.

The answer is, write some of the exciting stuff, first. Write the scenes that come to mind, the ones that stoke the fire in your imagination. Get to know your characters at their best and worst. Allow yourself to wonder how they got here or there—and where they might go from here. At this point, I can make a decision about writing a character-driven or plot-driven (or, milieu-based) story. If it is character driven, I need some detailed biographies. If it is plot driven, I must write a detailed plot outline. If it is milieu based, I must flesh out the rules and other details of the context and setting.

Then, I write the story. I finish it. The end is the second most difficult thing to write (unless you are writing something with bedroom scenes of your parents, as historical fiction or creative nonfiction). Now, when I know how the story goes all the way to climax and resolution, I can write the beginning. I can make a promise that I know I will keep because I already have.

The beginning, hopefully the first page if not the first line, includes a hook. Maybe it is a baited hook, something that entices the reader to go on to the next line, paragraph, page, and chapter. I don’t know how to explain this (another blog?). The bait depends upon your audience (and genre). I know enough about fishing to respect the dual importance of presenting the bait and setting the hook.

Here comes the promise. The beginning of your story must be an honest offer of the kind of story you are going to deliver. Language, style, tone, setting, and characters all matter, but the reader must know before the end of the first chapter, and maybe by page three, just what kind of story is offered.

One little confession, here: I don’t look at the beginning first when I evaluate any piece of writing. For a novel, I open a random page to get a feel for the language, characterization, and movement. If I accept these, then I go to page one. I know, I’m eccentric, but it is a habit developed by reading a ton of research papers, professional and amateur. If it is slutty, I put it down. If it is trite or cliché, I put it down. If it is beyond belief, I put it down.

So, write your beginning only when you are proud of your completed story and you will be better equipped to write an honest promise that hooks the reader. If you do that, you just might hook an agent and an editor.

Keep writing, and enjoy the journey.

What Is a Story?

By definition, a story is an account of real or fictitious events (as history) usually narrated (told) as by spoken or written words, pictures, symbols, and/or artifacts. History is the root word from which story is derived. Narrate is a term grounded in a word meaning knowledge or knowing (as Gnostic). So, a story is some account of events told by someone having specific knowledge and point of view. Yeah, well…

A story is trouble for somebody about whom we have some care and concern. At least in the American Novel, there is some expectation of conflict escalating to climax and resolution. We might say there is a kind of recipe or format. A specific pattern of format for story expectations might characterize a literary genre. Readers look for very different plots in Romances, Mysteries, and Erotic Novels.

A story is a promise (Bill Johnson, www.storyispromise.com). The author presents a situation in which one or more characters face personal conflict which escalates to seemingly impossible conditions. Action and tension increase. Trouble abounds. Defects in personal and/or group character traits complicate the troubles. Outcome is not certain; however, the audience demands satisfactory conclusion.

Oh, one more thing. The story must stretch the audience’s belief without breaking it. Genres differ, here. I cannot become a fan of Horror or Science Fiction because it is very difficult to maintain the suspension of my disbelief (I am a skeptic). Erotica and Romance escape my naïveté. Military and Nature milieu stories must be accurate or true to my experience else I stop reading.

One example is a famous book that claimed the moon was visible in different phases at different places around the world simultaneously. I set up a sun-Earth-moon model in my living room and learned that the author was wrong. I discounted everything else in the story. It became unbelievable to me and the author not credible.

Similarly, characters must be believable. Fortunately, the range of normal and abnormal human psychology is so vast in my experience that little could be more extreme than historical accounts of real Wisconsin residents. Still, a character must stay in character unless that kind of abnormal psychology is part of the story.

Plot trajectory must also follow some generally predictable patterns with a few surprising specific twists. Random conflicts and resolutions (strangers appearing, magic events, unexplained coincidences) are believable only within limits of context. It breaks the story promise.

A story is a promise kept. The writer offers a promise of interesting characters with believable traits including defects, a milieu of setting and circumstance offering trouble, and a sequence of events with plenty of building conflict. The reader/audience has a right to expect all of this with some unpredictable events and a satisfactory outcome. And, the promise must be offered in the first few pages. That’s all.

In fairness, I remind you that my views come from on-the-job training. I have no formal education in narration or novel writing. You can get your own training by writing, reading, and searching views of successful writers you appreciate. You can find all sorts of discussions of story, narration, myth, and symbolism online. One topic I am interested in investigating is the range of emotional appetites of various audiences with regard to characterization and story structure (plot or conflict curve). We read to experience emotions.

One last thing: Feel free to teach something, to make a statement of observation regarding the meaning of the experience of life. You can tell a story that adds something to the great narrative of human history.

With all of this formulation, remember to be original. Keep writing, and enjoy the journey.

What is a story idea?

You can, again, thank my wife, Nancy, for this question. An avid fiction reader, she has some great questions for writers. I would really like to read your questions and comments. This blog is meant to be but a launching pad for discussion.

Reducing the question to the simplest terms conceivable to me, today, I will say a story idea is one of three things. 1. It is an interesting character who the author comes to know and the readers come to enjoy—even if they hate him/her. 2. It is an interesting problem, situation, or difficulty that challenges the author and
readers—someplace for the character(s) to go with no known way of getting
there. 3. It is an interesting milieu—a setting of time, place, and circumstance—that fascinates the author and readers, that challenges belief without breaking it.

As an example, let us scan some news stories on this day, November 9th, 2011. Here’s one: CAIN ACCUSER FILED COMPLAINT AT NEXT JOB, TOO. Just for fun, we could explore this as a story idea. Where is the story?

Well, we certainly have a couple of interesting characters, here. Now, we are writing fiction, so we don’t want to base our character directly upon real people; however, a little memory and imagination might allow us to create a character with some attributes of Herman Cain, perhaps Bill Clinton, and a few others. We imagine a character with narcissistic tendencies, maybe a past of sexual abuse, perhaps an inferiority complex. We write a detailed description and biography with family, friends, and personal character traits. Love him and/or hate him, our character must evoke feelings.

But, he cannot get into trouble alone, and without trouble, his story is not interesting. We look to another character in the news story. Great. In this case, we have a few other characters. We can recall some of our acquaintances and generate one or more colorful characters. After all, we can only really get to know our main character through interactions with others, in this case, because the story is about relationships. Now, what shall we call him (that is as interesting as
Herman Cain)? Is our story serious or humorous?  Both? Hmmm. Max Grover? Maybe too obvious. Will Hornaday? No. Pat Germain? Please.

Okay. Maybe about now we decide to flesh out a plot. If our character does not emerge in full flesh to write the story for us, we can outline a series of difficulties leading to a major conflict that demands resolution. Maybe we start with a few incidents in high school or college that were not all that politically incorrect at that time, but which reveal a character weakness. From that, we can outline a few scenes through life becoming bolder as our character finds himself in increasingly stressful situations of power. Get the idea?

Maybe that setting of power and stress IS the story. Maybe the rungs of the corporate ladder, or the journey of political flesh pressing, or a caldron of combined corporate stress and political intrigue become the milieu in which interesting things necessarily happen. We might want to tell the story of corruption of decent but flawed people in this world of competitive thirst for power and status.

Write what you know. Any one of these approaches can lead to a provocative and entertaining story. Choose the way that fits you—your world view and experience. Of course, research is one way to gain experience. Read, get a job, and join a political party.

Personally, I like all three. I would say that BEYOND THE BLOOD CHIT is driven by two main characters set in a milieu of combat PTSD recovery within political chaos similar to recent global news. These two factors of character and milieu make conflict of plot inevitable. I chose to write about one character’s thoughts because psychology interests me (and I have experience). You might choose a very different path. The point is, any story will work if it is vividly compelling in character, plot, and/or milieu.