Thursday, August 18, 2011

In a Story…(Part Two)

In a story, things happen. And they don’t happen in a nice, predictable pattern. Telling a story isn’t like playing a game of chess. The writer doesn’t have to have the board all set up and the pieces all arranged just so before starting the story. In fact, messiness is desirable at the start. “In media res” is a piece of writing advice I like. It means, begin in the middle of the action. Another piece of advice I like about writing is, never tell the reader more than they need to know at that precise moment in time. In the perfect book, the reader always wants to know a little more than they do know. That’s why they turn the page.

Of course a book doesn’t have to start with a battle or an alien invasion. As long as something is happening, there’ll be readers who will follow you. What do you think of the following scenarios, for example.

1. “I’m pregnant, Don. And it’s not yours.”

2. I heard the car coming and looked up from weeding my flower garden. We didn’t get many visitors out here in the country. I never expected this one. The daughter I hadn’t seen in ten years got out of the car. She wasn’t alone.

3. I recognized the ring tone as I answered my cell.
“Hi, Granny,” I said, smiling.
“I’ve shot your grandfather,” she said. “I just thought you should know.”

I’m not saying these are beautifully written opening lines but at least something is going on in them. My thinking is that all three of these are essentially literary openings. The stories that developed from these would most likely be primarily about human relationships, either their development of their destruction. I might not actually want to read any of these stories, although #3 sounds the most interesting to me. I’m a genre junky. I don’t often read stories that are solely about relationships. For me, a writer needs something like:

1. She looked like she was about twelve years old until she pulled the gun on me.

2. The howling began around dark. I should have left the cabin then. But the sound was far away and I told myself it was only wolves. Besides, I was expecting friends to join me for a weekend in the woods.

By midnight my friends hadn’t arrived and the howling was closer. It was closer and all around the cabin. And it didn’t sound like wolves anymore.

3. The ship plunged through the atmosphere, burning as it went. Only a fragment hit the earth. But that fragment was alive.


Ron Scheer said...

Good post. This is true of nonfiction writing as well. A writer makes a claim in the first few sentences in a way that gets a reader wondering, How's he/she gonna prove that? Like "Someone few people have heard of is going to win the next election"; "Dinosaurs are making a comeback"; or "Pigs can be taught to fly."

laughingwolf said...

great advice, as always...

while good, the second examples are much better, really grab the 'what's next?' buttons....

nephite blood spartan heart said...

Right on Charles-good stuff.
There's something about genre fiction that captures me a whole lot more too. I like all of those starts.

Anonymous said...

Absolutely Charles, nothing is more stifling to the atmosphere a character needs to live and breathe in than overplannning, a story is not a budget. Your brilliant Swords Of Talera unfolds orgnically. Much stems from the unconscious. I like Joseph Conrad's advice: always know something about your character you never reveal.

Deka Black said...

treally good stuff. I like the very last opning. Makes me wonder many things. First: Alive after surviving a falling from the orbit. that must hurt a humongous lot.

And yes. is important to hook the reader with something.

Another way maybe is to begin with a description of the place in a way that make sthe reader think: I think something will happen here. Something awesome!

BernardL said...

Yep, I'd turn the page on all of those.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I don't put a lot of stock in a first sentence. Now a first page, that tells me something. I don't require a lot of action-just some good characters.

Charles Gramlich said...

Ron, yes, I think those first paragraphs and pages are a kind of contract with the reader, in both fiction and nonfic. The writer is promising something and definitely needs to deliver.

Laughingwolf, those are my preferences too. Maybe that's why I'm not a literary writer.

David J., thanks. I agree. Genre fiction is less pretentious for one. Not all literary fiction is but some of it is deliberately obtuse it seems to me.

Richard Godwin, that's definitely part of the hitting the ground running thing, knowing more about the character, and the story too, than you reveal.

Deka, yes, mood writing, or setting a mood with description is a pretty good way to start. I like it a lot at least, although not all readers do.

Bernardl, thanks. I appreciate that. Two of these are actually likely to go somewhere for me. I've got ideas at least.

Pattinase, The action doesn't have to be physical, like an explosion. But the characters still have to do something for me to get involved. I can't separate interesting characters from what the characters do it seems.

Cloudia said...

You always give useful and insightful advice about this thing called "writing."

Thanks Professor

Aloha from Waikiki;

Comfort Spiral
> < } } ( ° >


Drizel said...

I am sorry but "I shot your grandfather" That is so funny to me.....hihhihihih....don't know why...

It is very true though....if you don't keep your reader interested enough to turn the page you might as well not write the book:)

Greg said...

Nice beginnings. They all sound like they could be interesting stories. Especially the granny one.

Charles Gramlich said...

Cloudia, thanks. And thanks for your steady visits.

Drizel, I suppose it could be a funny story. Hadn't considered that way of going about it. Different things hit different people in strange ways of course.

Greg, that's one I'm actually thinking of continuing. I've got a basic idea for it if I can get time to write it up.

Richard Prosch said...

Very nice! I especially like the succinct "She looked like she was 12..." opener. Closing lines too are important, the final word that either leaves the reader wanting more...or maybe lets you down, or perhaps isn't ever read because the reader bailed.

Greg said...

Awesome, I'd definitely read that!

Charles Gramlich said...

Richard Prosch, I've always heard that the beginning of a story sells that story, and the end sells the next story.

Greg, I'll let you know when I get something done on it.

Travis Cody said...

Well, you never can tell about an opening. That third one...the granny who shot the grandpa. Maybe he turned into a zombie and Granny is calling to get the word out that the zombie apocalypse has come.

Charles Gramlich said...

Travis Cody, I agree. It's got a lot of different possibilities. The idea I might run with would be a bit more literary but we'll see. I have a hard time keeping things realistic. I like a little gore and weirdness,

Steve Malley said...

Actually, I rather enjoyed your first examples as well. I will, however, take exception, a very *tiny* exception, at calling them 'literary':

Now, if you open in a decaying, post-industrial town (preferably in winter) where a middle-aged alcoholic grimly struggles to hang onto the tattered threads of his/her life, natter on for three or four hundred pages of beautifully written, go-nowhere prose, THEN drop in one of those revelations (that yes, really should have started the story), THEN have the protagonist do ABSOLUTELY NOTHING about it, well now, *that's* literary!


Charles Gramlich said...

Steve Malley, Hey, how'd you know my exact plot? :)

X. Dell said...

In screenwriting, something major has to happen by page three, with subsequent beats on pages nine and twelve.

As anti-establishment as I am, I would agree that I don't want to read something for thirty-five pages while nothing is really going on. I'll put up with some delayed action if I know (because of my familiarity with the author) that the payoff is huge (e.g., John LaCarre). Otherwise, I usually put down the book and go on to something else.

I tried to comment on your interview, but for some reason, the page kept spitting it out. In case it really didn't take, I mentioned that what you said about characters being a part of you reminded me of something I heard Tennessee Williams say about the characters in his play. The interviewer asked which character (from one of his plays) was him, and he replied, "all of them."

One has a lot of facets, if he or she has the guts to explore himself/herself.

ivan said...

Well, yes.

All of what you say and then considerable serendip.

For example, while in the Air Force, I used certain tricks to jog my memory for a controller's exam.

There were important things to consider while maintaining an airport tower. It was largely info and access to it.

For example, the current status of an airport:

Helium baloon
Retro information.

I decided to prompt my memory by parroting:

Rapes repeatedly.

It was at that point that I decided that I would be a writer and use plot to write a novel. :)

Charles Gramlich said...

X-Dell, I think several people had problems commenting on the interview. At one point I had some difficulty myself. When I was younger I gave books longer to get going. But I've lost a certain amount of patience as my time has grown shorter.

Ivan, I enjoyed making up those kinds of mnemonics myself when in school. Maybe it's an occupational hazard of writers.

Unknown said...

Both In a Story (Part one and two), there is incredibly good advice for writers.

When I go to a book store. I always read the first two paragraphs. If I am not interested the book stays on the shelf. If it grabs me, it goes with my pocketbook up to the counter.

The only time I break this rule is when I absolutely love the author and know what I am getting. And some authors get me to read their first four books because the first one is great and then they try all this goofy stuff and I am done.

Great posts.

Charles Gramlich said...

Carole, thanks. It's amazing how many writers published with the big presses don't seem clear on the issue.