The story is … off. There is something wrong with it, and you don't know exactly what it is. How do you fix it? Something went wrong somewhere. Not sure where. Or what is wrong. You’re stuck. It’s a huge tangle. How do you even start to fix it?
You start at the beginning.
Oh, wait. You tried that. That is where you’re stuck. The attempts to rewrite it, cut out parts, add parts, none of it worked. You made it leaner. Made it juicier. Tried this, tried that, and so many other things. And then you started to doubt the whole story. The whole thing is just one muddy mess.
Go back to the basics. And go to the beginning. Unmuddy the waters.
Sharon Mignerey reminded us of this at her Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers event “Sucked in from Page One - Beginnings.”
Where does your beginning begin?
You, the author have the story in your head, all jumbled in there, parts of it on paper, parts of it still floating around in the universe waiting for the ink. The backstory is done. We know her goal, motivation, conflicts, the obstacles she has to encounter and overcome, both external and deep within her. We know all these things about our story.
Here we are at Chapter One. We need to set the scene up, show the ordinary world so the reader can see the change. Start with the main character dreaming about apple pie, and the hidden meaning of home and safety? Do we add all the back story of her loving, yet somewhat dysfunctional family? It’s all going to change in a moment. Show her everyday life with all the things she has woken up to on past mornings, or all the things she wished she had woken up to, because what wakes her up today is a huge moment of change. The reader has to be aware of her stressful job, and why it is so stressful that she usually sleeps in on the weekends to recharge. That explains why being awake so early is odd today. And, of course, we want the reader to care about her. Show that she feels guilty about arguing with her best friend, how she is unsure of her relationship with her boyfriend; so when she has to team up with her coworker, it’s ok that the sparks fly.
This is where we start, right?
Jump to the problem with their day - the change. Why start there? Because that is where the trouble starts. It’s the inciting incident. That inciting incident is the moment that her life is different from what it normally is, or different from her expectations. It doesn't start with her dreaming, and then being woken up by a frog. You start with the frog dressed in a cowboy outfit sitting on her pillow aiming his shotgun at her forehead informing her in a slow drawl that she has to get up to save her coworker, George. Because if she doesn’t, George will come back as a werewolf, and eat everyone under the age of four on the next full moon.
That’s great you say, but why does the reader care about this character? Where is her character arc? The reader gets to know this character by how she reacts to the frog. Then the reader keeps caring about her as she changes due to the decisions she makes, the actions she takes, and the external and interior struggles as she strives to reach her story goal.
The beginning needs to get to the point. On the first page you need to let the reader know who is telling the story, where they are, what’s going on, and why it is important. And it should give the reader a hint at the story problem - both the external and the internal, and how that can alter the characters life. Don’t dally around with the past. Get on with it.
Begin with the frog. That is the change. The call to action. The moment the character steps onto the road that changes her life. That change gives her a goal, motivation and conflict. It clarifies your story. For the reader, and for you.
Now you are both sucked in.
Samantha Ross is a ghostwriter, freelance writer and editor. She lives on the Western Slope in Montrose, Colorado. For years she taught adults, organized lesson plans, developed curriculum, and encouraged everyone to be a success. One day she stumbled into her high school librarian who pointed her toward the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers. Now Samantha’s days are spent writing fiction and non fiction that covers a wide range of topics. If she’s not standing in front of her desk working, she’s spending time with her family and friends.
Learn more about Samantha and her writing at her website/blog.
For more information about Sharon Mignerey's workshops, please visit the workshop description page on her website.