We’ll pick up where we left off yesterday on how to launch a story. However, first we’ll deal with Donna’s question:
My next question would have to be, since my WIP is a historical piece, how do I not add too much in the beginning but give a good sense as to the time period or even a specific year? This point is pretty well stopping me on my first draft.
Randy sez: You can always put a dateline at the beginning of the first chapter (or the beginning of each chapter). For example, “June 6, 1066”. Or whatever. That tells a lot in little space.
Barbara emailed me privately to tell her method for handling backstory. She first writes a “prologue” (which if I understand correctly, she does NOT include as part of the story). Then as she writes the first few chapters, she works in bits and pieces of that “prologue” into the story.
Randy sez: This should work just fine. The key thing is to ask every single piece of the backstory why it deserves to take up space in the story. If it has no good answer, then nuke it.
I liked ML Equatin’s comment that every person starts life as a newborn, knowing none of his or her own backstory. And yet somehow, we all manage to get along for quite some time, and none of us ever knows the whole backstory.
That really ties in nicely with what I wanted to say next, which is what to put in those first few chapters. The problem is that often it takes a while for the story to get up to speed. The protagonist generally DOESN’T know on page 1 what this story is about. Generally, the story interrupts the life of the protagonist by replacing his normal everyday problems with some MUCH BIGGER problem.
And that’s a key point. What you want to do is start your story with your character facing some ordinary, everyday problem. Then interrupt that as soon as possible with the new BIG problem.
Let’s look at some examples:
1) LORD OF THE RINGS. In the first chapter, our hero, Bilbo Baggins, is facing the happy problem of how best to celebrate his birthday. We’re treated to a longish account of the party and Bilbo’s mysterious disappearance from the party, which leads to hints about the evil dwelling in that pesky Ring. And that leads in succeeding chapters into the main problem of the story, which is that the Ring must be destroyed.
2) PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. In the first chapter, Mr. Bingley moves into Netherfield Park, and the initial problem is that the man simply must be met by the Bennett girls, but that can’t happen until their Papa first meets him. This happens in due course, and Bingley is charming, if shallow. And that leads, ultimately, to us meeting his friend, Mr. Darcy, who is the real love interest of the story for our heroine Lizzie.
3) PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN. Skipping the prologue, the first scene shows us Elizabeth facing the immediate problem of putting on a new dress from England with a corset. This leads into the fact that her daddy is setting her up for a marriage proposal from the commodore and her fainting and falling into the sea, where she’s saved by Captain Jack Sparrow. And soon enough, the real story gets rolling because Elizabeth’s pirate gold brings the Black Pearl to her.
4) OXYGEN. (Written by me and John Olson.) In the first chapter, our heroine Valkerie Jansen wakes up in the middle of the night at a remote site in Alaska where she’s doing biology fieldwork, and the nearby volcano is venting and she can’t breathe. She takes action to solve her problem, and next morning is visited on site by a couple of gents from NASA who want to make her an offer she really ought to refuse. And ultimately that leads to the main story, about a disaster on the first human mission to Mars. Note that the first chapter ties in neatly, because the main story is about not being able to breathe.
Note that in all four examples, the initial scene is about facing a problem in the ordinary world. But it ties in nicely to the full story. That’s a key principle. Make the initial problem tie in to the main story problem.
Then maybe my novel is off to a good start? It gives us a minor problem at the start, leading to a bigger problem = painful inner conflict. I wonder if it needs a bigger Problem, or maybe this is enough for now, considering it’s a relational drama. Most of the conflicts and disasters are inner. And there are two protags, so two storylines run parallel and intersect at times.
It begins with the hero/protag and his minor problem of trying to avoid a conversation with his sister. Not only does he get cornered by her and have to answer her questions, but the conversation leads to a bigger problem for him; he’s forced to face an inner conflict he’d rather try to keep dealing with by denial.
It’s not disastrous, not yet. He will soon find a surprise solution to this conflict, which will actually propel him into a worse position than he was in at the start, before the story is over.
Chapter One of this rough draft is posted on my blog. Comments welcome. I can take it. (I hope it’s okay to mention it!)
Thank you Randy. This could work in for the first part, adding in the date, as the prologue, which is written already, starts it out as a journal-type entry for the hero.
The first chapter, or first few, will be an event five years earlier that leads him to meeting the heroine. His home is northern England in the mid-1700’s. The heroines home is going to be a fictional place that she takes him to but he can’t stay, leading him to spend five years trying to find it again. Then I’m thinking of going out of the journal to write events up to his losing the journal, which could put her home in danger. Not yet sure how I’ll advance to out of first person.
This is where it’s hard not to fill in too much backstory, as he finds out that the people that raised him aren’t his biological parents, which leads him to traveling in the first place. As I really think it out, I realize how hard it is to not put more than is really needed. I’m envious of those that can pull this off.
Thanks for all the great tips, Randy.
You said “written by me and John Olson”. Shouldn’t your name come last when you say it? I don’t say “me and my wife”. I’m just nit-picking you to be a troublemaker!
Sure would love a forum so all of us could discuss stuff with each other (hint hint nag nag whine whine).
My comment is for Camille:
I went to your blog and read the first chapter.
Your dialog felt as competent and compelling as many of the Christian romance novels on the shelves today. Good work.
My only criticism is that the location and the characters’ Scottishness seem forced and unnatural to me. Is that location important to the story? Or could you plunk it down in Oregon, instead?
Your writing about the places where you grew up is much more alive and natural.
Of course, this is just a personal opinion and my novel has yet to be published, so take it with a grain of salt.
Good luck on your writing career.
Sorry, I should have said to post your comments on my blog, not here. Sorry! (Thanks, Jonna)
Is it best to write up character bios and plot first before beginning writing? I know with the Snowflake lecture you say they can be added to and changed as you go along, but I’m not sure yet how many characters I’ll be bringing in. Seems to be a lot that keeps me wondering if it’s enough, or too much.
PS: I should say writing thorough bios and plot.
Christophe Desmecht says
So many sources tell me that your protagonist must always want something badly. He (or she) must have a goal, otherwise he’s not interesting enough.
Usually, this goal ties in spot-on with the plot of your novel. Basically, the protagonist’s goal is the basics for the novel.
On the other hand, you have to grip your reader early and fast, making them so interested in your story or characters that they will keep reading. If you don’t start your novel with the main story line and add a ‘smaller’ problem that leads to the ‘bigger’ problem later on, how do you grip your reader then?
Is it a case of switching priorities in your protagonist? First he thinks this smaller problem is what deserves his attention, then the bigger problem?
I’m asking this because this is usually the hardest thing in starting a novel (at least for me). How do you take the story that’s in your mind and that’s interesting to you, and turn it into something that’s interesting for your potential readers?
In the case of Lord of the Rings for example, Bilbo desperately wants to go traveling again. But then, he’s not the main character. Frodo just wants to have a normal (boring) life, which makes him an average uninteresting character, not a protagonist. His real transformation into a protagonist comes later. How do we know when is the right time for this switch? How do we know it’s not too late or too early?
Pam Halter says
I’ve found that a prolouge is often used in fantasy writing more than a contemporary story, although Tess Gerritsen uses a prolouge brillantly.
(I am not published–grains of salt needed)
One of the ways that I have achieved this “switch” somewhat late is to introduce the main character to the villain almost right away in chapter 1 with a very menacing foreshadowing. After that, the two plots separate and run parallel, and so even though the protagonist has not switched his goals, you see the plans of the villain building and building and the reader sees the hero’s plotline about to collide with the villain’s, so it heightens the suspense.
The trick, though, was to still keep the hero’s temporary goal plot appealing, entertaining, informative, and emotive so that they care about him. But MOST OF ALL suspenseful enough so they want to keep turning the pages. Each chapter (on average 10 pages each) ends on a cliff-hanger.
bonne friesen says
I have recently been enjoying the online comic “Girl Genius” (read it from the beginning). It’s a comic, not a novel, but there may be something to be learned here.
The action and the back story are intermixed from the beginning, but you don’t know that until you get to a certain point and then look back. Even years into the development of this plot, unexpected backstory elements are introduced very effectively.
My point is that if we got all that information up front, it would take away from the story. As it is, each new little detail is delightfully pounced on and just makes the whole thing cooler as it progresses.
As a writer like ML who wants to communicate in depth, it seemed really relevant to experience how much fun it is to find out, rather than know too much too soon.
HTH someone else too.
I’ve an unfinished novella that stalled out because my structure was wrong (bad storytelling). I know how to fix it now and should get back to it.
Anyway, the first scene is told from the villain’s POV and opens with him fleeing through some steam tunnels from the scene of a crime. He meets the heroine about half-way through the scene and doesn’t recognize her as his enemy so he takes her with him.
My original (stupid) idea was to stay in the villain’s POV for the first 3/4 of the story then switch to the heroine’s POV to finish. The problem is I had to pack waaaay too much into the heroine’s first POV scene to bring the reader up to speed. My first draft of that scene was so bad I wasn’t able to complete it.
To fix the story the heroine will have her own brief scene right after the first scene where she’s at the villain’s hide out and thinking just before she drifts off to sleep. She’s undercover and scared to death if the villain finds out he’ll kill her. I’ll keep this new pattern of alternating villain and heroine’s scenes.
The heroine has plenty of backstory and in my original structure I revealed very little of it. Kind of left a void. I can reveal bits of her story during her scenes.