Tag Archives: story

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.

Re Quest: Honoring Duty

I have a confession to make. Those yellow ribbons on cars irritate me. They make me angry. You know the ones—they say Support our Troops. I don’t know what that means. I always want to turn on a red light, pull them over, and ask exactly what they actually DO that supports troops. Okay, I have a little Vietnam Syndrome now called PTSD.

When I returned, I did have a positive experience. My friend and I came home together, and we flew from Seattle to Minneapolis on a red-eye. A group of good ol’ boys on a hunting trip bought us drinks the whole flight, and we drank for effect in those days, especially when someone else was buying. Still, we felt the collective angst and disapproval toward us by our society. We felt un-thanked and unsupported. I want to thank and support our troops. I just don’t believe a yellow ribbon can do that in any meaningful way. If you have one on your car, that’s okay. This is my problem, not yours. Maybe you can tell me how you go about supporting our troops. I want to know.

Opportunities for me to cross paths with active and retired military are abundant in Yuma, AZ. We have two major and famous facilities in our area: Yuma Marine Corp Air Station with one of the country’s largest runways; and Yuma Proving Ground, one of the largest geographical testing sites in the country. How can I support these troops and Veterans?

This has not been easy for me, but I have found some ways. There are meetings to help troops and Veterans recover from combat experiences and adjust to civilian life. Community groups sponsor workshops, forums, and celebrations that offer individual and family support. No matter where you live, you probably have something nearby in the form of a Veterans Affairs clinic or center, or maybe just a community office. If nothing else, you probably have a National Guard or Reserve unit. Make a connection.

I offer written and spoken words. It is something I can do. I am not an organizer, fund raiser, counselor, or leader, but I can write and speak as an advocate for our troops and Veterans. I can share my story. It isn’t much, but if it helps even one person, it improves several lives—the life of that one troop or Veteran, the lives of his/her family and friends, the lives of other troops and Veterans helped by that person passing it along, and one more: me. Being of service is important for my wellbeing. Helping others is a very meaningful way for me to help myself.

Many of our people returning from regions of conflict bear invisible wounds (including those who also have visible wounds). They have troubling symptoms. Most of these will persist and even get worse over time. Our troops will attempt to cope with these symptoms. Many of these ways of coping—alcohol and other drugs, anger/rage, work or hobby immersion, isolation, etc.—are destructive. This defines a disease process, and we can help.

What do we do about breast cancer? Diabetes? Depression?

Action starts with awareness. We can learn about symptoms, treatments, recovery, and support mechanisms. Yes, I always seem to get back to learning as a solution to real problems. That is not because I taught—it is why I teach. Learning matters.

On my website (www.ErvBarnes.com), I suggest Awareness, Acceptance, and Adaptation as the recovery process. It is meant to be suggestive only, my way of looking at things. You can start your investigation there. You will find links to @ervbarnes on Twitter and Erv Barnes Ink on Facebook where I retweet and share PTSD information. Any search for PTSD will get you started. Wherever you go for information, please start now. We can support our troops and Veterans IF, and only if, we know how.

Please share comments with readers here about how you support troops and Veterans. What you say and do matters.

Note: The next thread of Quest for Etymoken will be much more positive, the Science of Joy, and will posted on Wednesdays. The writing thread posts, Journey for Authority, will be made on Mondays. You are the reason for these changes since my data says you like reading on Mondays and Wednesdays.

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.

How do you turn an idea into a story?

Okay, you have this idea that you think might make a good story. Where do you start? What is the process? How do you give it life?

The simple academic answer is that there are two basic approaches. You can craft a story driven by plot or by character. You can imagine a few characters and plan out some trouble for them (your story idea), laying the trouble out in a sequence or plot line that outlines the story. The alternative is to imagine your characters so vividly that they interact in ways that make things happen in the story. In truth, that is about the extent of my academic knowledge on the subject; however, these terms will give you the search words to discover a whole world of literature academia.

What I do know amounts to two other things. First, different writers find very different ways to craft their stories. Second, my personal experience lies somewhere between the plot-driven and character-driven processes. I can share that with you.

I dreamed up this idea about an old soldier caught between two impulses while immersed in a milieu of violent chaos, partial amnesia, and personal confusion. That’s about all I had to start—well, that and an obsession with the story that kept me thinking about it for a couple of weeks. I thought of the letters, “LG”, until I made up some words to fit those including “Little Guerillas” and “Last Generation” soldiers.

I started writing a scene for the character, now called Kenny, and a rough description. I decided to set the story in the North Woods I love. (Write what you know.) I gave Kenny a biography, you know, family, past, profession, personality characteristics. I wish I could recall how that happened. I think I basically wrote some bits and pieces that I shared with our local writing group, Write on the Edge, for critique.

Sometimes an idea would literally pop into my head. I would get some image or concept and have to write it down. By the time I prepared to take our RV back to the North Woods for the summer, I had a few thousand words written for different scenes not really connected. I also had made a decision to write a novel and the commitment to come back to Yuma with a completed first draft.

I am blessed. I have 27 acres of open forest land with a stream and lake access,
a well, a septic system, and a fenced garden. I also have a beautiful Yellow Labrador Retriever who loves the woods almost as much as I do and a wife who
not only encourages my writing but approves of me going to the woods for a few weeks alone. I was sequestered. Except for weekend fishing excursions with my neighbor and an occasional trip into town, all I did was garden, walk in the
woods, and write—sometimes four, five, or even six thousand words in a day.

Somewhere in the process the miracle happened. The characters started telling the story. It’s true. I know, I never really believed that, either, but it happened. That was really cool, worth all the effort for the entire project. I believe in
muses, now.

By nature or experience, I am a bit of a control freak. So, I naturally planned
out my story. The characters changed it, took it in directions I hadn’t
really planned. I just wrote—sometimes starting sentences without knowing how
they would end, frequently getting into places I did not know how to escape.
Then I would take a walk, garden, go to bed on it, and/or work on something else. Sometimes my characters surprised me so much I would laugh out loud, but nobody was there to hear me but the dog.

I think I wrote a good story, but the experience was wonderful. Somewhere along
the way I came to understand that I was learning about myself. I was growing. I
was metamorphosing with my characters. I am healthier and happier for this
endeavor, but do you know what? When I started, I didn’t really know much
about how to turn an idea into a story.

Enjoy the journey.