Monday, August 27, 2012

The Quest for Story: #4 -- In the Beginning...

(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:  

The Beginning

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? 

Some genre fiction often starts with the plot very quickly  -- or at least much more obviously. Think of how many mysteries begin with the BOPO opening ("Body On Page One").  That's a pretty clear inciting incident.  On the other hand, many fantasy stories spend a lot of time world-building before establishing the plot.  In my opinion, sometimes too long.  I love to know the details of the world I'm entering, but I also like to have at least a few clues that suggest why I'm there.

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.

* * *

As always, your thoughts and comments are more than welcome!  Be sure to check back on Thursday for the next stop on our quest...


Martin Willoughby said...

Sometimes you can start with the end, though I'm not sure about a prologue.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Beginnings can be difficult. That first line is killer.

Suze said...

'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.'

This makes me feel two things at once (at this slightly weary point in my attempts at publication.)

No. 1. -- to hell with it. I'm just going to get a part-time job somewhere like all other stay-at-home moms and

No. 2 -- must SUCCEED, DAMMIT!

Great stop on the quest, good sir.

LTM said...

Such an important element of the story, and the one I struggle with most! I can typically get that inciting incident, but the introductions always scare me. Are they taking too long? Is this boring? It's the trickiest part to me--that first fourth. :D

Good stuff, Chris!

Misha Gericke said...

I used to struggle with beginnings, but now I'm starting to get a feel for them. :-)

I actually prefer more of a set-up in my beginnings, because I want to care about the character before being thrown into the roller-coaster.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

I've heard we often need to jump ahead from where we've actually started the story to find the real beginning.

Mine rarely start out with an action scene.

Liesel K Hill said...

Great post! I think you hit the nail on the head! :D

Tonja said...

I love writing first chapters.

Chris Fries said...

@Martin: That's true! But then your end is really the beginning. ;^) And I'm much of a prologue guy at all.

@Alex: Sometimes, the first line is actually the easiest one for me. It's the next 10,000 that are the hard ones...

@Suze: Thanks! And hang in there -- I've read your words, and I know you WILL succeed. You have a gift - just let it flow naturally.

@LTM: Thanks, Leigh! Yeah, beginnings can be tricky. Heck, so can middles and endings, and all the parts in between, lol!

@Misha: Excellent! The roller-coaster beginning is usually not the best opening, although it's so prevalent these days. I think it is much more important to reveal tension and emotional drama, not to whip out whiz-bang action just for its own sake. Action can be compelling, but it needs to be serving the real purpose of introducing the plot, characters, and voice of the story.

@Diane: That can be true. In some of my pieces, I've ended up cutting beginning scenes to get to the real core of the 'beginning'.

@Liesel: Thank you very much!

@Tonja: That's great! They can be hard for a lot of writers.

Thanks to all of you for your comments -- they are greatly appreciated!!!

Ciara said...

The firsts line, paragraph and chapter I'll usually edit more than the rest. I just want it to be powerful and snag someone. What I've learned is don't sacrifice the first paragraph to get that ultimate first line.

Chris Fries said...

@Ciara: That's very true! My beginnings get a LOT of editing. Thanks for the comment!

Elise Fallson said...

I'm in the editing phase right now and married to my beginning but I fear it may have to be completely rewritten... At first I wanted to wow people from the get go, but the more I read it now, the more I find myself saying, "what?" Only one way through this, get more feedback from beta readers.

Chris Fries said...

@Elise: Well, only you know the way your story should go, but sometimes the best beginnings can only be written after you've written everything else. Good luck!