Last week (before my anti-virus software went rogue and hijacked my laptop), I wrote about chopping the boring parts out of a story to make it better. I meant your own story! The managers at Barnes and Noble are very cross that you smuggled in a pair of scissors and attempted to edit their inventory manually. If you do that again, I shan’t post anymore! Got it?
Writers are known post the beginnings of their manuscripts on online writing forums for critique and feedback. I’ve seen ‘em do it! Many times the opening goes something like, “There were five of us living in the little ranch house on Maple Street. It was my Mom and dad, my brother Jimmy, who was a year older than me, my twin sister Mary, and me, Lisa. Even though the house was small and we didn’t have a lot of room, we were pretty happy. Then, in the summer of ’92, when we went to Mexico for vacation, everything changed forever.”
Writers have many intriguing options for starting a story. What I just wrote is not one of them, but developing writers do it all the time. They begin by explaining. Just as movie making is so much more than pointing a camera toward pretty people and saying action, writing a good story is so much more than explaining what happened to the characters. For starters, writers have to decide what parts are worth telling.
In the example above, we have five family members, not wealthy, who go to Mexico for vacation, where something happens that changes their lives. With only that information to go on, each of us would take the tale in a different direction. Some of you would write a poignant tale of love and loss. Others would build a mystery. At least a couple of you would turn out an epic saga, and still more would unnerve readers with biological or psychological horror.
I haven’t figured out what type of fiction I’m good at yet, but I’m not a poet who composes lyrical prose or a worldbuilder gifted at setting up a 10-volume series. I try to skip the exposition and reveal my characters and their lives through action and dialog. I’d start my version of this story with Lisa and clan already on their way to Mexico, flying into a sudden storm, and about to experience a hair-raising landing.
Why? One, because nobody cares about Lisa’s ranch house or how long she’s lived there or what shoes she packed or what brand of dental floss she prefers. We’ll find about her life as we go, through little details and bits of dialog that give clues. Two, because “Lisa’s fingernails clawed helplessly across the stainless steel armrest as the jet bumped and plunged its way through the giant black cloud that came from nowhere” is a much better opening line than the bland drivel I wrote 5 paragraphs ago. And, three, because her frightening descent foreshadows the fact that she will later get sucked into a sandpit in the Yucatan and discover an underground kingdom of mole people who intend to sacrifice her twin sister in honor of their giant black insect god, Garfoobel, at midnight.
Hey, this is my story and I want mole people in it. You gotta pro’lem widdat?
Not everyone writes action-packed commercial fiction, so I’m not suggesting all novels have to begin with a thrill ride. I am suggesting they start with something other than banality. What is your strength as a writer? Emotion? Imagery? Elegant prose? Start there.