Monday, March 30, 2009

Where To Start A Story?

I often started my book at the wrong place... but I also often found the right place after I'd done revising it a few times....

The things to look for are:

What is your MAIN story?

A lot of writers, me included, build a whole lot of stuff around their stories -- backgrounds, character sketches, etc. that they think is also part of the story. Maybe so, but background stuff can be worked into the main story. Ask yourself, what is your MAIN story? Did you start the book three days before the MAIN story start? Did you start the book when the character was born? When is your start in relation to your MAIN story? The closer it is, the better.

Now we know the main story...

What moves the main story forward?

A lot of writers, me included, don't quite know. The back stories sound important... oh, we must show the ordinary life of the character before he makes the jump... don't we need to introduce our major characters? What about world building? All that stuff needs to be front-loaded, right? It takes some practice and objective eyes (and comparing your own work with other published novels) to realize, no, these are just background stuff... stuff that tells the readers: "Um, the writer is not ready yet; he's still finding his stride..." The literary equivalence of "clearing one's throat."

There are two important terms to understand: a) Inciting Incident, and b) The Point of No Return.

An inciting incident is an event that triggers the main story/plot. It's the ignition that turns the engine. It's the sparks that start the fire.

The point of no return is the door that slams shut behind the character(s). No exit. No re-entry. The tornado that takes Dorothy to Oz.

The PoNR and II can be the same thing, but they don't have to be.

I usually find my start when I focus on the "point of no return" -- that's when the character takes a leap and cannot go back to where he was -- either physically or psychologically, preferably both. I usually start the story just before that (some people would say -- plunge your readers in the first conflict, head first! In media res. That certainly is another approach... but the idea is to start the story as close as the point of no return, or at least the inciting incident that says, "Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore.")

Personally, I'm rather fond of the II that shortly precedes the PoNR.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

A good night's sleep

Have you ever had a good night's sleep, then awakened to a new understanding of your story and how certain things should move or how certain characters should act? Like, suddenly it's clear as day, after a few months of struggling with everything?

Yeah, it's really cool. Yesterday I woke up from a dream which I don't remember now, but I had a clear mental picture of how to "fix" my story. Something I couldn't see for months, but is now so obvious. And not just one plot element, but multiple. I'm not sure if they are epiphanies, but they sure unclog the drain. :)

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Why All the Rules?

Someone asked:
I also think sticking by rules limits the imagination if writing, for example sci fi of fantasy and to say either of these needs to be realistic doesn't make sense. Surely if it's a world I have created, I decide what way the story developes? I have been told it's lazy to not stick by these rules where as I think it the twists and unexpected incidents, even the unrealistic ones that make a story interesting.

You're forgetting the other part of the equation: the readers. And that's one mistake many writers make -- you're the writer, right, so you can do whatever you want, right? Well, that is fine if you never want to be published.

Unfortunately, these rules and guidelines and best practices, etc. are there because there are readers on the other side of the fence. If you just make up anything as you go that defies logic or are totally unrealistic, you risk not able to communicate and convince your readers and keep them involved in your story. All it takes is for one reader to say, "yeah, right! I don't believe it" to take her out of the story and make her close the book (or worse, throw it across the room, against the wall).

It's not to say you can't come up with your own thing and still manage to create and tell a compelling story. But the more you deviate from the "rules" and still make it work, the more brilliant you have to be. Hemingway defied many rules of his time but we all know he was, indeed, brilliant...

There are books out there (JK Rowling, anyone?) that are so imaginative and compelling and fascinating and yet they follow the "rules" to great extents. Did Rowling say, "oh, the rules stifle my creativity and imagination"? Did her readers?


To me, that's an excuse for not learning and reading and learning and improving your craft and learning... that's not understanding and respecting the craft of a writer. To that I say, suck it up.

And here's the thing: we have to learn and know the rules before we could break them. Otherwise, we'd just be like little children running around thinking we could really make something appear in a box. That's cute, if we're six.

See if I understand it: My characters can do some fantastic things as long as I explain the why and how and don't bore the reader.

Yes, it's called world building and you're setting up rules of your world. You can have flying pigs but your world should support that phenomenon.

Can I also ask why no back story in first three chapters? Is it accepted to add if it's is kept short, so say a few lines as long as the story is moving along?

I never heard of this "no back stories" rule. The advice is that your story should grab and hold the readers from the get-go instead of bogging them down with pages and pages of back stories... it's not really a rule, but a "best practice" because that's what readers like... that's what agents and editors look for, particularly if you're talking about the first three chapters. But sprinkling of background information, tiny flashbacks, etc. is perfectly fine as long as the story moves along and you continue to grab and hold your readers.

Did you read the graphic novel Watchmen or see the movie -- it's full of back stories and flashbacks, but they're always integrated with the on-going plot (and it starts with the inciting incident, not 30 minutes of back stories).

I think your questions illustrate a basic misconception. Many writers believe these are hard and fast rules: no prologues, you must hook the readers in the first sentence, start with a major conflict, no back stories... blah blah blah.

What they're missing is that all of these rules are just ideas and practices to support the underlying concepts and philosophy of great storytelling. So instead of being hung up on these specific guidelines and rules, focus on the concepts and philosophy, such as: hook your readers and keep them entranced in your story and help them suspend their disbelief. If you can do that, then you can make pigs fly.

How do I plot?

Some writers are perpetual outliners. Some write by the seats of their pants. Some are meticulous in their planning. And some just wing it.

I'm kind of somewhere in the middle. I hate planning every move but I also hate shooting in the dark.

To me, the process of plotting is like a road trip. Some people have every details planned out. Some people just take off and drive. I'm kind of in the middle of the road, so to speak:

I usually have a general idea of the plot and story arc. (It's a cross-country trip, starting from New York to Los Angeles, following a southern route instead of northern)

I then set up the the "set pieces" (or major plot points) and write them down -- sort of an outline but really rough and only the set pieces, which are more like guideposts or destination stops. (I want to make at least four different stops: St. Louis, Santa Fe, Phoenix, and Las Vegas)

Then I just write and see where it takes me. Sometimes the whole thing deviates from my original idea and takes on a life of its own, which is always exciting but also nerve-racking: where the heck it's taking me? But I never lose sight of the story and where it is going so I'm not completely lost or running in circles. (Just drive... if I make a detour and end up in Denver, cool. See what happens. But I always make sure I'm going in the right direction so I won't end up in Vancouver or running in circles near Miami)

My best plot comes when I put my characters in situations where they have to make tough choices. When they make the "unpopular" or "unexpected" choices, that's when the plot takes on a whole different direction and it becomes exhilarating to write and read. (the best experiences are always the unexpected side trips or detours... off the beaten paths).