|(Photo by Chris J. Fries - 2012: Smokestack Sunrise)|
(This is post #4 in a quest to define what creates "a good story." The kickoff of this quest is HERE.)
In the last post, we completed the holy trinity of story: Character, Plot, and Voice. These three are like the body, mind, and soul of a good story, and so in a way, our quest is really complete. Almost any other element of a good story can be considered a subset or a combination of these three.
And yet there is still much we could add. Heck, if we wanted to, we could probably go on forever in an eternal quest, dissecting and detailing the minutia of each of these three core components and mapping out the multitude of ways they can interact.
Thus is the career of a writer -- each new piece written adds another step in an author's own personal quest to use each of these elements to make a better story. Not many writers reach a point where they say, "that's it -- the perfect story! Now I never need to write another thing!" (The closest example I can think of might be Harper Lee -- after her masterwork of "To Kill a Mockingbird," she never released another novel.)
But I think for this series, it feels incomplete to quit now, and yet I'm sure no-on wants me to drone on endlessly about this stuff, so I'll be content to add another six or seven stops on the quest -- hitting some of what I consider the more important elements. That seems to be about right...
So today, let's start at the logical place:
Every story needs one. Like the dawn of a new day brings boundless possibilities, the beginning of a story should also be filled with promise and potential. It is the opening of the plot, the introduction of the characters, and the first exposure of the writer's voice.
Writers, editors, and publishers all speak of how important the beginning of a story is -- with a novel, a writer usually has a page or less to snag a new reader. Every word has to shine, and by the end, the reader needs to be involved enough to wonder, "what happens next?" or they'll never turn that page.
Truthfully, the beginning of the story does not have to coincide with the beginning of the plot, and many times it's not. The story introduction can be used to establish setting and characters, but even then, I think there should be hints of the underlying plot. Story questions should be established that begin to intrigue the reader -- readers don't have endless patience, and even if you initially pull them in with voice and character, you soon need to establish the plot or you'll lose them.
Whether it happens at the start of the story, or after an introduction to character and setting, the beginning of the plot typically is the "Inciting Incident". What event happens to your character to incite them to action? What forces them to begin down the path of your plot? What is the 'call to action' that propels them forward, for good or ill?
It doesn't have to be as graphic as a murdered corpse sprawled out before the detective, and sometimes the best inciting incidents seem small and inconsequential until story events unfold that reveal them as the 'key moment' that initiated the plot.
But whatever it is, that beginning of plot needs to have at least enough force to spur the main character into motion. It arouses questions that must be answered, presents challenges that must be faced, hints at rewards that must be pursued, or reveals dangers that must be avoided. It should also be something that catches the reader's interest and pulls them into the story along with your character.
It begins the story. And the better the beginning, the better the story.
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As always, your thoughts and comments are more than welcome! Be sure to check back on Thursday for the next stop on our quest...