What’s the best way to start? For many writers this choice can be daunting. But using other novels as a guide, you can find a way that will suit your story. It may even garner you some attention, if from beginning to end the fictive dream is maintained. Now, consider the following openings by a few authors whose work I greatly admire. They are used here only for reference:
I was born on the night of Samhain, when the barrier between the worlds is whisper thin and when magic, old magic, sings its heady and sweet song to anyone who cares to hear it. (Once a Witch)
Rei Ellis whispers to me as the light goes dark.
“Anna, don’t go.” (Auracle)
Tana woke up lying in a bathtub. (The Coldest Girl in Coldtown)
According to Nancy Kress, in Beginnings, Middles and Ends, “Every story makes two promises to the reader.” One is emotional and the other intellectual, “since the function of stories is to make us both feel and think.” To do this however, the writer has to engage the reader. Grab them. Hook them into the story so that nothing else matters.
Can you do the same? The three openings above highlight ways in which three separate authors have tried to do just that. Sometimes a writer can open the story with a prologue and at other times, at chapter one. Whichever method you choose, remember that every story is different, so if you opt for a prologue, use it wisely, to dispense information that is pertinent to the tale; without which the story might not make sense. Or be weighty.
Truth be told, the first opening from Once a Witch is taken from a prologue which does a lot to enhance the story, which in and of itself is quite compact. In fact, you can think of it as a story that has two parts. The first part being somewhat like Harry Potter going off to Hogwarts. But unlike JK Rowling, this author (Carolyn MacCullough) has only a few pages to catch you up on her protagonist’s past before the spinning of the tale. How she does it? You’ll have to read the tale and find out for yourself, but the first few sentences give you a glimpse of the protagonist and lets you know what sort of story you are about to encounter. I believe without it, the story would not seem complete or fully fleshed out.
Nevertheless do remember that every story is different. And the decision to use or not use a prologue, should be taken with care, because the information introduced in a prologue should be something pertinent, that will further the reader’s understanding of the story. Something without which the reader may be confused or hesitant about undertaking the journey. For some this might even be the why of the story. Clues that will only come to life after you have accepted the challenge and agreed to delve further in for example in Shaunta Grimes’ novel, Viral Nation.
So, using a prologue can help you to create a better story, if you give the reader vital information. Do the same with your story. But make sure that whatever it is that you are telling them is just enough for where they are in the story, and that it is not a sensory overload, of too much information being introduced into the story all at once.
For other writers though the first few words of chapter one heralds a new beginning. Think of Auracle (Gina Rosati), the two lines quoted above and the first line of Taken (Erin Bowman) given below. Both of them present you with the main character (and hint at the people that they hold dear).
Today is the last day I will see my brother. (Taken)
Whenever possible, start your story either with your main character or the opposing force. And if you cannot begin with the opposition, then use some other minor link to it, that shows the reader what’s at stake. If you can help it, don’t wait.
Because part of what will make you a good writer, is your ability to convey emotion to your reader. To get them interested in what is going to happen to your protagonist. But to do that you will have to make them care about who your protagonist is and then eventually what he is up against. Think of Guy Montag in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451.
It was a pleasure to burn.
It was a special pleasure to see things eaten, to see things blackened and changed. With the brass nozzle in his fists, with this great python spitting its venomous kerosene upon the world, the blood pounded in his head, and his hands were the hands of some amazing conductor playing all the symphonies of blazing and burning to bring down the tatters and charcoal ruins of history. With his symbolic helmet numbered 451 on his stolid head, and his eyes all orange flame with the thought of what came next, he flickered the igniter and the house jumped up in a gorging fire that burned the evening sky red and yellow and black. He strode in a swarm of fireflies. He wanted above all, like the old joke, to shove a marshmallow on a stick in the furnace, while the flapping pigeon-winged books died on the porch and lawn of the house. While the books went up in sparkling whirls and blew away on a wind turned dark with burning.
And then, another part of what it takes to be a good writer is to be a good reader. Use emotion but make sure that what you present is believable. Take your readers on an emotional journey and remember to make your opening words count, like Mr. Bradbury. Or even with the two pieces below:
An icy wind seeped through the floorboards and I shivered, pulling my gray wool sweater tighter around myself. (Blackberry Winter – Sarah Jio)
I felt it coming this time. I shoved my drawings into the hidden slit I’d made in the back of my mattress, then grabbed the metal bed frame to steady myself as my brain suddenly jolted back into connection with the Link. (Glitch – Heather Anastasiu)
Although I have focused mostly on first person point-of-view stories, such openings can work no matter which person or perspective you choose. Reel your reader in. Start strong and make every word count. A strong beginning sentence, paragraph, chapter or prologue if well done can be enough to entice your reader and get them to dive in. How? Let them see your main character doing something. Or familiarize them with the story world and your opponent. Take it one step at a time, if you are a beginner or still learning some of the techniques. But make sure every word counts and whatever is said, is meant.
And until next time, keep reading, writing and blogging!
In the process of getting things done all that’s necessary is a focus on action, dialogue and description or A.D.D. With this technique any writer can add substance to their work and engage their readers. But don’t just take my word for it, read widely and learn from other writers, how it is done. (In this article, I’ve highlighted a few novels and added an excerpt of a scene from They Walk the Night.)
Take for example the novel, The Silent Wife, which took me about three or four days to complete. Of course going over it again at a slower pace, I can see how the actions of the various characters appear genuine and unique for each of them, because this author draws her readers in from the get go. In it’s most simplistic terms the novel is about a woman who doesn’t ask for anything from the guy she’s with, only to lose it because he has developed an interest in someone else.
True to life, these characters seem to step off the page, begging for recognition because their actions are as truthful and real as that of any other ordinary individuals. (Spoiler Alert) Take for instance Natasha, the young woman who gets involved with a married man and has the audacity to ask him to leave his wife. A woman who we can almost feel sorry for as the story progresses, because what she wants doesn’t seem to be much of anything, and yet it is denied her, which of course is what makes the novel a good piece of fiction and a great read. Because we are presented with the whole picture, actions, motivations, choices. Don’t believe me, take the time and read the novel for yourself.
So let’s break it all down. A stands for ACTION. Remember, something must happen in your novel or story. Every writer knows this because we are attuned to conflict. Or like one of my friend’s used to say,that she was always attracting other people’s drama. Well whatever you call it, it is the key ingredient in any story. Take Brandi and Teresa for example, if you’re following my updates of The Way of the Seer. These two friends (Brandi and Teresa) fall out with each other because one of them (Brandi) believes wholeheartedly in having special powers, so much so in fact that she desires them. Her friend, Teresa on the other hand, who may be wiser and more conscious of the way of the world, tries to talk her out of it. Thus conflict ensues and the story begins with Brandi’s journey to find herself and hopefully learn more about her absent father.
So, how about you? What’s your short story, poem, novel or article about? How can you gain the reader’s interest and get them to follow what you have to say? Are there vampires, werewolves or goblins? Or is there something else that will excite them as they read your tale?
D is for DIALOGUE. Remember that everybody has something to say. Or at least everybody must say something meaningful and that dialogue has different uses. (So we can be learning about the characters, advancing the story forward, adding mood/music to the scene etc. For more info, check out This Year You Write Your Novel by Walter Mosley. These are three of the five things he points out in his novel.) Who are your main characters and what do they say? Can you make their dialogue unique, so that the reader can tell who is talking what, if their names were omitted? Say your words out loud. Do they seem plausible? If so keep them, if not attempt a re-write or get a second opinion.
Or take some of the text that is spoken in your favorite tv dramas or novels and play with them. Ask yourself if your character(/s) was in such and such a predicament what would they say. One show that I enjoy listening to or watching because of their banter is The Good Wife. In some small way, their play on words often makes things interesting. Besides this, there are many great novels where the text is both relevant and useful. I think short stories have this down pact, because whatever is offered is necessary. Of course film and poetry are different mediums that use language or diction to their advantage. So that dialogue is there for many reasons, one of which is to move the story along.
Remember, your characters must be conveying something and it shouldn’t all be just exposition. Try reading a first person novel like Now is Good or Wrecked and a third person novel like The Coldest Girl in Coldtown or Viral Nation. See how different authors use dialogue in their stories and how the type of narrator affects what is being said. Think for example the distance the narrator is from the reader and how that voice or distance shapes the story. Taking for example Viral Nation, which could be more of a novel where a cast of characters sort of tell the story versus Now is Good, where the main character, Tessa is looking at her life. Seeing both sides can help you decide on what’s best for your story.
And last, but not least, we have DESCRIPTION. How good are you at describing what happens to your characters or setting the scene? Read, read. Write, write. A lot of what we do, can be improved by habitual practice (something hinted at by Octavia Butler in her discussion of talent versus the practice of craft. Sitting down and writing she insists can happen if you agree to sit and write, day after day. Like a well-oiled machine, you can train yourself to get better). Natalie Goldberg calls it “continual practice” in her novel, Writing down the Bones. I think as writers, we need to be more observant. And sometimes if we are lucky our brain is busy storing stuff away for future use, something that we are not always aware of. Description can come to mean setting, the layout of our scenes and the care with which we describe what is going on. Or even something as minuscule as paying attention to our characters and making sure that the things we say about them in the beginning of the story, doesn’t conflict with something that appears later on. So read widely and learn from what you read, on how to improve your work and become better, because you never can tell where that mark of inspiration will come from.
And just in case you need a little hint of how all this can be achieved: here is an excerpt from the novel, They Walk The Night (which ended up becoming Rebecca Trainer: Mind Reader. It inspired this site). Maybe it can help inspire you to read more and learn how to use A.D.D to your advantage.
Here is the beginning scene of chapter four, where Special Agent Jody Watkins – a city cop who is chasing after children with special powers, who can read minds – is being interrogated after she narrowly escaped a scuffle Rebecca Trainer, that almost ended her life.
Jody looked around the sparse room that she had paced countless times before. Her eyes focused on the dark screen. It was strange, because she was seated in the suspect’s chair, as two of her colleagues paced the interrogation room, that seemed smaller than she remembered it. She pulled at her collar and rubbed sweaty palms into jeans, thankful that they had chosen against handcuffs. All-the while she wondered about the identity of the person behind the bullet-proof glass.
Maybe she would only receive a minor reprimand, she thought. If they believed her story.
“I need you to go over what happened again?” the taller male cop said. He looked down at her as if she was a rookie; his eyes moving from her to the statement.
Agent Watkins sighed. Balling her hands into fists. “That’s what I’ve been doing for the last two hours,” she said, without looking up. “Why don’t you just tell me what you’d like to hear. And I’ll say it.” She closed her eyes, thinking that the day couldn’t get any worse. Everybody made mistakes.
She pulled back and sank deeper into her chair, the sound of the bullet leaving the chamber echoing around her. Why had she opened fire? she wondered, pulling at a stray braid that had come loose. She could still see the look of determination etched on the girl’s face.
“Agent Watkins, this isn’t play school,” the shorter female cop said, laying a hand on her shoulder. “You said that she came in to report an assault. What we would like to know is what changed? And why? Why would this girl, Rebecca Trainer decide to turn the gun on you if you were only trying to help?” The woman looked at the statement, sheepishly. “Was she provoked?”
Sure, Agent Watkins thought, before shaking her head. “I didn’t provoke her.” She shook her head. “The girl just insisted that the landlord had threatened her and I told her that her accusations were unsubstantial.” She indicated to the orange form and straightened her skirt. “No one knows where she got that scar. Or busted her nose.”
The other female cop lifted her hands and looked at her partner who frowned. “So you didn’t believe her?” She pulled out a seat. Sat down. “Others have said that there was something there. What did you know that was different?” she asked, shoving the files over to Jody.
“I can’t tell another cop how to do their job,” Agent Watkins said. The woman wasn’t a friend or someone she could trust.
The two cops eyed the mirror. They were at a standstill because Agent Watkins refused to budge.
What could she tell them? Jody wondered. She barely knew the girl. “Talk to Tron,” she said. “He gave her to me.”
The two city cops eyed her and the male one said, “He’s being dealt with.”
Hair on the edge of her arm perked up and she felt a sliver of regret. It was almost as if she had done something wrong. She could feel the guilt rising. But she pushed it down. Now wasn’t the time for the truth.
The female cop turned to look at her again. This time, though, her gaze was slow. More certain. “What we’re concerned about is you. Why did you move her?” She paused. “You could have used any of these rooms. But instead you chose to take her to your hovercraft. What are you trying to hide?”
Agent Watkins cleared her throat. “We’ve taken this charade far enough.” She stood. “If there’s anything else, contact my lawyer.” She dropped a business card onto the desk. “You’re three years my junior and you’re telling me, how to do my job.” She unclipped her badge. Let it clatter on the table.
“Sit down, detective,” another male voice boomed from the speakers. “Nobody is trying to tell you how to do anything,” he said. “If you’d show a little more tact we wouldn’t be wasting time and manpower behind an operation that should have required fewer officials.”
Special Agent Jody Watkins grabbed the edge of the table to keep herself from falling. That voice sounded familiar. She grimaced. Tried to reflect. Cases like these were in-house matters. Things that were outside his purview. Her husband had no reason to be here. She wiped her brow with the back of her hand and tried to count to ten.
The side door opened. Two men, the District Leader and the Captain, stepped inside. “You’re dismissed,” the captain said, motioning to the two city cops who had been assigned to the case.
They bowed at the district leader in his purple robe and then glanced quickly at Jody. They had heard that she was connected, now they knew the extent of it. Silently, they followed the captain back into the squad room.
“Must you be so harsh with everyone?” he asked, kissing her cheek. Chuckling as she pulled away. He raised his hands in the air and stepped back, knowing that she would be suspicious. “I am here merely as an observer of justice,” he said, looking at her; waiting for the lines on her forehead to soften.
“No, I know you,” she said, forcing a smile. “You follow your own instincts.” She examined his face. “What concessions have you agreed to?”
Let me know what you think. Or ideas for future posts…And thanks for reading.
Step one for good writing would be to aim for clarity. Make sure that whatever you write down on paper or type out is exactly what you want to say. The descriptions should not be confusing to your readers and can be followed by a high schooler, or whomever you envision your ideal reader to be.
Next, tap into the novels that speak to you. Ones that you admire. Works that have a sense of clarity and possess some of the elements that you are trying to achieve. What you are doing here is getting a model (or models) so that you can enlarge your vision, and see your work as a completed piece. By doing this, you may also get an insight into how to continue, if your work has halted.
One of the faults of beginning writers, myself included, is that we are not always able to see our work in its entirety, when we first begin. But plugging in and plunging on through the various drafts and detours, we may be able to get a better idea of our work. And seeing how someone else may have done it, can help us to see the novel as a whole and then as a thing with parts. Because being able to shift from one to the other, may help us to gain clarity and focus.
This is important because sometimes the idea of the novel itself may frighten us. But if we see it as a thing with parts- chapters. Scenes. Then little by little we can think about how to give it shape and structure. Yes, if we persist by writing and reading the works of other writer, we may be able to finish what we start.
To do this effectively, however, we may also need to consider adding some emotion to our characters. Especially the main character, the one person who the reader should be rooting for. They should be human. Real. So their emotions need to be appropriate for the scenes that they are in. Think of it like a movie, where you need to create believable characters to enhance the story. If they don’t appear genuine then your characters will not be seen as real. Or your story viewed as believable.
To do this more effectively, I have tried reading novels by authors who have rich characters. Some of which are listed here: Brandon Sanderson’s The Emperor’s Soul, Veronica Roth’s Divergent and David Levithan’s Every Day. Besides this I have also perused the Emotion Thesaurus and read a few novels more closely to get a better understanding of character development. You can experiment with the various mediums and use whichever ones are helpful.
Finally, remember to take your time and pace yourself. Break down the story into chapters; and the chapters into scenes. Make it more manageable to write. Because according to Steven Pressfield (in his novel The War of Art) one of the biggest things plaguing writers is resistance. It is something that we should all avoid. So, make sure that you are always working. Or moving forward.
Have a Happy and Prosperous New Year, and continue writing!