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Where does your story begin?

16 May Posted by in How-To Articles | 10 comments
Where does your story begin?
 

For the last few weeks, I’ve been looking at blogs, websites, and reading a lot of information from books on writing “the beginning chapter.” One book that I found helpful is Nancy Kress’s, Beginnings, Middles & Ends. It is from that book that I write this post.

Do you know why we find ourselves writing a lot of back story for our beginning? There are two good reasons for it. (1) Back story is the reason and motive for our characters behavior, and (2) We are trying to work out the details of our story.

Another bit of information I learned about writing the beginning chapter is that a reader doesn’t want to know all the details of your character, especially not at the beginning. Your main goal for your first scene is to keep your reader interested. According to Ms. Kress there are four elements that make a scene compelling.

Character—Conflict—Specificity—Credibility

•    Character: Your opening should give the reader a person to focus on. Or if not the main character then someone very interesting. He/she must be integral to the plot and very much an individual. Caveat—it can be something with enough force to be a substitute for a genuine character. Kress’s example: John Steinbeck’s, The Grapes of Wrath—being the Oklahoma Dust Bowl.

•    Conflict: Conflict arrives because something is not going as expected. Your reader should know this as early as the first few paragraphs. Note: Doesn’t have to be car or train wreck with your character involved. The conflict can be on a smaller scale: family strife, romantic misunderstandings, personal financial gains or losses. Other conflicts could be anxiety or stress that exists in the character’s head and the people in involved aren’t even aware of it.

•    Specificity: This deals with specific details. If you have the right details, Kress says that you gain three advantages.
a.    Details anchor your story in concrete reality
b.    Details set your opening apart from the hundreds of others similar to it.
c.    Details convince the editor you know what you’re talking about.

•    Credibility: This has to do with your prose. Kress says if your prose is dull, confusing, or clichéd, or implausible, it can be fatal. She says there are six ways you can show your credibility. Through Diction, Economy (use only as many words as needed), Sentence construction, Sentence variety, Parts of speech, and Tone (comedic, serious, scary, realistic, romantic, or any other feeling you want your reader to experience).
There are many other elements to consider as you write your beginning, but your main goal is to hook the reader and get them involved. So, when considering where to start your opening or the beginning part of your story, think of events from your own life. When you get home at night, do you tell your spouse or roommate about the ordinary moments of your day or do you share those stand-out incidents? It’s probably the latter. And you may even embellish the events or emotions to make them more interesting. Do you see how these types of “incidents” are what your beginning should be comprised of? The moment of action. That’s your beginning.

  1. Pamela Stephens05-17-11

    Great information, Sheila! Enjoyed thinking about this! It reminds me of “famous first lines.” Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

  2. Pamela Stephens05-17-11

    You’ve gotten me started! Here’s a description of a character that still makes me sit at the edge of my seat: “He was tall, about fifty, with darkly handsome, almost sinister features; a neatly trimmed mustache, hair turning silver at the temples, and eyes so black they were like the tinted windows of a sleek limousine—he could see out, but you couldn’t see in…” Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt.

  3. Sheila Covey05-17-11

    Pamela, you are one Profound Thinker! I had to do a double take on your pic to make sure the Rodin’s statue “the Thinker” wasn’t there in your place. *LOL* I do love all those lines and they are ageless.

  4. Sheila Covey05-17-11

    You are on a roll!

  5. Jenny Carlisle05-17-11

    Great advice, Sheila. When starting a new story, I usually write the first chapter, then delete the first few pages. The back story can be filled in, but starting with the real action hooks the reader!

  6. Debbie Archer05-17-11

    I learned so much from this and from your program Saturday. Great information and SO helpful. Thanks, Sheila! Also – yay you for getting registered for the conference. Gonna be wondermous!!

  7. Sheila Covey05-17-11

    Jenny, I like that idea too! I know starting with back story is really not a good way to capture your reader. 🙂

  8. Sheila Covey05-17-11

    Thanks Debbie! And I’m glad I finally got the conference stuff done. I’m thinking next time I’m NOT going to do it on a Full Moon. *LOL* And Rosie’s cake was pretty awesome–wish I had some now!

  9. Debbie Archer05-21-11

    Have you ever read the book by Avi? I think it’s titled Beginning, Muddle and End.

  10. Sheila Covey05-21-11

    No–Debbie, but I looked it up on Amazon. It’s official title is A Beginning, a Muddle, and an End: the write way to write writing. It got a 5 star rating. Looks like a really cute story. Might need to read it–sometimes children’s books put information in an easy to understand format.

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