On this blog every Tuesday and Friday I write about story techniques, structure, and/or publishing. Comments and questions are welcome. I also have a personal blog, Amy Deardon, on which I write about a variety of topics purely as they catch my fancy.

I've written one novel, A Lever Long Enough, that I'm honored to say has won two awards. In my life BC (before children) I was a scientist who did bench research.

My book, The Story Template: Conquer Writer's Block Using the Universal Structure of Story, is now available in both hard-copy and e-book formats. I also coach would-be novelists and screenwriters to develop their story. YOU CAN CONTACT ME at amydeardon at yahoo dot com.

Friday, September 28, 2012

How To Start A Story

Randy Ingermanson is my hero. This article discusses something I often find people wrestle with in the critiques I do: balancing the characters' having a life before starting the story, versus spending too much time describing this life before the action begins. Randy, as usual, is articulate as he goes through one important aspect of HOW TO START A STORY. See what you think.


Creating: Life Interrupted

Reading a novel is fun. But what's it like to BE INSIDE a novel?

Generally, it isn't nearly so much fun. Characters in novels get pushed way outside their comfort zones.

Being a character in a novel is a major inconvenience. It disrupts your life, and in many novels, one or more of the characters never really get back to the way things were.

I've been reminded of this recently because I'm editing my novel DOUBLE VISION for rerelease as an e-book.

In the first scene of this novel, mystery novelist Keryn Wills is brainstorming the method of killing the victim in her next novel. Keryn's book is due in only a couple of months and she's horribly behind on her writing schedule.

Keryn desperately wants to have a productive Saturday writing. Her entire life right now is focused on meeting her deadline.

Then life interrupts. First, her mother calls and interrogates her about her date last night. Keryn really doesn't want to talk about it. The date went well, but it was a first date and she's had plenty of first dates that never went anywhere. She's not holding her breath that Dillon will be better.

Then life REALLY interrupts. Keryn's boss calls and he sounds worried. Keryn has a day job with a small startup technology company and things have been rocky lately, but predictably rocky. Now Keryn's boss asks her to come in for an emergency meeting. And he tells her, "Don't panic."

He's wrong. Keryn should be panicking. The financial wheels have just come off the company. But there's a chance to save the company with an amazing new secret technology that's been under development for months and is almost ready to announce.

Very soon, Keryn is going to realize that this technology is so valuable that it's a hazard to whoever owns it. Within days, Keryn and her coworkers realize that Somebody Bad knows about this technology and is willing to do anything to get it.

And the story's launched.

But what about Keryn's novel? That was the big thing in her life before the story started.

Keryn's novel goes on hold. She's too busy trying to stay alive. There's no time to meet her daily word count quota.

Her novel doesn't go away. Her deadline is still looming, getting worse every day. But in the grand scheme of things, it's irrelevant.

If and when Keryn solves her life-and-death issues with Somebody Bad, that novel is going to come roaring back as an issue, worse than ever because she's neglected it for days and days.

This is a general principle for writing fiction. When the story starts, your characters have no idea that the stakes are about to be raised. They're living their lives, dealing with things that seem important.

Then the inciting incident for the story breaks in on the characters, and now there's a whole new game to be played. What seemed important yesterday suddenly isn't so much today.

I see two common problems with the work of beginning novelists:

* Not giving their characters any life at all before the story starts. This makes the story feel like it happens in a vacuum.

* Spending too much time explaining the ordinary life of their characters before launching the inciting incident. This bores the reader and risks losing her completely.

You need to strike a balance between showing too little and showing too much of that ordinary life. Let's look at some examples of how it's done well.

In the recent self-published e-book hit ON THE ISLAND by Tracey Garvis-Graves, the two lead characters are on their way to a remote island in the Indian Ocean.

Anna is a 30-year-old high school teacher who's been hired by a wealthy American family to tutor their son for the summer.

T.J. is a 16-year-old boy who's recently survived cancer but now is way behind in his schooling.

The plan is for Anna to spend the summer tutoring T.J. so that by the fall, he'll be caught up to his high school classmates. Anna is at the tail end of a bad romance with a boyfriend whom she's expecting to dump at the end of the summer. T.J. is just starting a crush on Anna -- he thinks she's smoking hot, even if she's fourteen years older than him.

Both of these characters have a life. Not a great life. Plenty of struggles. But both of them hope this summer will give them a chance to move forward a bit.

Then the pilot on their tiny plane has a heart attack and crash-lands just off a remote uninhabited island in the Indian Ocean.

Now the story starts. The pilot is dead. Anna and T.J. have to survive until they're rescued. This trumps everything else in their life.

Until they solve the survival problem, nothing else matters. As they learn how to live on their own in tropical paradise, their old lives start to resurface, bit by bit.

The important point here is that they have old lives to resurface. It never feels like their lives began on the day of the crash.

In S.M. Stirling's dystopian apocalyptic novel DIES THE FIRE, one of the lead characters is Mike Havel, an Idaho back-country pilot. Mike's job is to fly people
places. Today, his customers are the Larsson family who have a ranch in Montana.

The story begins with Mike meeting the family. A dad. A mom. A pair of 18-year-old twins, boy and girl, both pretty full of themselves. A Tolkien-obsessed 14-year-old daughter with a bow and arrows. An obnoxious cat.

The goal is to fly a few hundred miles and land safely. Standard procedure. Nothing complicated. Mike's biggest problem is ignoring the undercurrent of bickering between the various family members who probably love each other but don't seem to like each other. And, oh yeah, ignoring that the older daughter is gorgeous.

Mike is a cautious man and he works through the pre-flight checklist with care. He packs in his usual survival gear and herds the family onto the plane. Then they're in the air and on the way.

This is Mike's life, pretty much the same every day, but with different faces. Then comes the massive interruption.

The radio picks up news of a giant storm back east. The news people have never seen anything like it. It escalates in intensity and then --

A white flash. A blinding bolt of pain. Silence.

Silence, because the engine has gone dead. The radio has gone dead. The lights in the plane have gone dead.

Mike Havel is six thousand feet in the air with the lives of five people and a cat in his hands. He tries three times to restart the engine. No luck.

Now he's got no choice but to glide the plane down to an emergency landing wherever he can. It's dusk on a chilly March day in the middle of nowhere. Mike now has plenty of problems.

It gets worse. After a difficult landing in a rocky snowmelt river, Mike and his clients learn that physics
and chemistry have somehow changed. Electricity doesn't work. Gasoline has lost its explosive power. Guns don't fire.

It's not just Mike's problem. He doesn't know it yet, but the change is global. And permanent.

Most of the technology developed in the last five hundred years is now useless. The seven billion people on the planet have to survive using skills most of them no longer have. Most of them won't.

Somebody or Something has interrupted life and nothing is ever going to be the same again.

Again, the important point is that we know what that ordinary life has been like. We've seen just enough of it to know that the new life is wildly more dangerous and infinitely more interesting.

Now look at the novel you're working on right now. There are two questions you need to ask.

First, what is the ordinary world for your characters? Do your characters have some sense of purpose in that ordinary world? Some direction? Do they think they know where they're heading in life? Do they have some sort of plan to get there?

If they don't, then you've got a problem. Then it feels like your characters have been concocted solely for the story, created out of thin air. They had no life for your story to interrupt.

Second, how long does it take for the story to interrupt that ordinary world?

If it takes more than a few pages, then you've got a different problem. You're running the risk of boring your readers.

Fiction is about interrupting the ordinary world. Your characters must have a Normal Life that the story is violating. A Normal Life they want to get back to, with its petty little plans and ambitions.

You must show enough of that ordinary world so that your readers know what Normal Life is.

But Normal Life is boring. As soon as you can, interrupt that dreadful Normal Life and get your story rolling.

Your readers don't want Normal Life. Your readers want story.

Your characters may think they don't want Normal Life, but they will as soon as it's been interrupted by the horribly inconvenient story that you've plunged them into.


This article is reprinted by permission of the author.

Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, "the Snowflake Guy," publishes the free monthly Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 32,000 readers. If you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, AND make your writing more valuable to editors, AND have FUN doing it, visit http://www.AdvancedFictionWriting.com.

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