From Beginning to End

When writing a novel, some people have trouble with how to begin.  Where should the story start?  How much action?  How much dialogue?  Should I include backstory?  Sound familiar?

If this is you, there’s help in the form of a book by Nancy Kress called Beginnings, Middles, and Ends.

I personally struggle with beginnings, so I thought I would take a look and try to learn a thing or two.

Some obvious points:  You want to make sure you have an engaging character.  You also want to make sure your story has conflict.

But if you’ve gotten that far, what could possibly be missing?

  • It’s all in the details.  And not just any details.  Very specific details.  “Details set your opening apart from the hundreds of others similar to it,” says Kress.  Here’s her example.  Don’t just say Mary loves dogs.  Show how she feeds her eighty-pound Lab all the best leftovers every night.
  • Create credible prose.  Meaning, learn how to use the English language in a way that is accurate, interesting, and easily understood.  For example, consider varied sentence structure.  Short sentences pick up the pace and add drama, while longer sentences slow things down and add tension.
  • A note on character: make sure he or she is unique enough to be picked out of a crowd.  Ask yourself, “Would nine out of ten people behave and think like this?”  The answer should be no, otherwise you haven’t conveyed your character to readers in a compelling enough way.  You need to share more and perhaps dig a little deeper into what makes your character unique.

Add these elements with others and you’ll be on your way to having a successful opening scene!  But what next?  Kress suggests toning down the level of conflict in scene two.  You can do this with backstory or flashbacks, but be careful they don’t slow the story down too much.  The key is balance.  You can certainly continue on with more action, but if you’re going to do that, the challenge is to reduce the level of conflict in relation to the opening scene.  Or you could consider introducing conflict in the form of a subplot, but again, make sure it’s not quite as intense as the opening.  It’s all about pacing.

There’s also advice for trouble with murky middles and how to wrap up the ending of your story in a satisfying way.  But we’ll save those tips for another day…  Or better yet, go check out this book!

In the meantime, get started on your story.  Will it be Once upon a time…or perhaps something more unique?  I think you know the answer! 😉

 

 

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The Journey from the Outside In

For all of you writers out there,

Today I’m tackling part 3 of story structure.  Here’s part 1 and part 2.  Just to review.  You start with a complex character and you give them a goal.  The goal should drive the plot.

But don’t confuse the inner journey with the outer journey.  You need both, but the inner journey should be more subtle.  Nobody likes an “issue story,” but you do want to see your character change in some profound way at the end as well as get (or not get) what they originally wanted.  In fact, you might try giving them something else that they never knew they needed.  The happy surprise, just like in real life 🙂

For example: Character X can have a stuttering problem, but the goal should not simply be to overcome that problem.  There should be an external goal, (i.e. the character wants to be class president) which forces the character to face that issue.  As Character X battles his opponent, he must also tackle the childhood wound that caused the stuttering to take place.  The character not only stops stuttering and wins the election, but also comes out with greater self-esteem which is the real prize.

Bottom line:  Your job as a writer might be to show character growth, but  readers are here for story.  If you can deliver that first, they won’t mind the lesson they learned along the way.  In fact, they just might be grateful for it 😉

 

Stick to the Mission

I recently talked about the importance of giving your story structure.  See my post here.  Today I’m going to share part 2 of that concept.

To maintain the structure you worked so hard to create, you must continue to keep the tension going and build suspense.  But how do you do that?

Remind your readers of what’s at stake.  What is the mission?  This should always be present in some way or another.

The easiest way to do this is through action.  

Ex: The hunter clung to the rock ledge, reaching for the rare flower that would heal her brother’s fatal wound.

But you can also do this while building your character.

Ex: Rubbing her face clean of dirt, she tried to remember what it was like to be a woman in love.  Then she carefully  added the war paint.  A smile played upon her face.  She had a new role now.

Or through setting.

Ex: The rolling hills reflected the setting sun like a shiny new penny.  The road looked rough, but she didn’t mind.  These hills would save her, if they didn’t kill her first.

No matter what you’re trying to do with character or plot, don’t ever let your readers forget what they came for.  THE MISSION.  That’s what drives the story.

Just remember.  As the writer, you’re at the wheel.  So take your readers where you want them to go.

Give Your Story a Backbone

What’s missing in your story?  Try a story structure.  Focus your story more.  Give it a backbone.  If you’re a plotter, you may have already done that.  But if you’re a pantser, like I used to be, you probably didn’t.  You just went along with the story following it wherever it went.  This is fine.  Some great stories were created that way.  But I guarantee those same stories went through a rigorous round of revisions as well.  The best part is that once you’ve found your focus, it will be so much easier to cut away the excess material.

How DO you find your focus?  Start with a story question.  Figure out what your character wants.  Figure out your character’s wound, which is shaping his world and holding him back.  What or who is physically standing in his way?  And what is he afraid to lose?  Don’t forget to add a ticking clock to add tension.

Now get going.  Grab an eraser and get to work.  Kill your darlings, as they say.  Underneath the rubble of words you just might find your masterpiece.

Mind Worm

When I attended the Midwest SCBWI conference last spring, I had the chance to hear author Franny Billingsley speak.  She talked about the power of fear and how important it is to understand what scares your main character the most and then exploit it.

To explain this, she started out by introducing the term “Mind Worm.”  Yes, it really exists (at least metaphorically speaking)!  The Mind Worm burrows into the brain and in so doing discovers an individual’s dreams and fears.  The Mind Worm then has the power to create an event that forces the person to go on a unique adventure designed to help the person learn something deeper about him or herself.

Now I’m going to let you in on a little secret.  The writer is a Mind Worm!

How can you be a Mind Worm for your main character?  Start by pushing your character out of his or her comfort zone.  Push your character to her limits.  Make him squirm.  Make her jump right out of her skin!  A powerful antagonist can help with this.  So can an unforeseen event or tragedy.

Then see what happens.  Guaranteed the character will be forced to grow and change.  Which is what we want, isn’t it?  That’s how we create someone to root for and maybe even identify with.  Someone to believe in.  And once your readers are invested in your main character, they’re ten times more likely to follow him or her until the end.

So my advice to you today is:  Be a Mind Worm.  See where it takes you.  More importantly, see where it takes your character.

Famous Frog Doodle

 I drew this frog as a signature on the back of my original business card.  He’s looking quite formal for the occasion, don’t you think? 😉

My Trademark Green Frog

Watercolor and Ink
on Illustration Paper

Here is my signature character, which can be found on my current business card.  I’ve been drawing this frog for about 15 years starting out with simple doodles and leading to finished illustrations.  As you can see, he’s usually a happy-go-lucky frog, sometimes even sporting a top hat with a flower in it and a bow tie.