Tag Archives: Gone with the Wind

Developing Your Novel’s Story World

J. R. R. Tolkien referred to the world of the faery-tale as the author’s sub-creation. The truth is, all fiction has a sub-created world, or ought to. Tolkien’s point is key, but before taking a closer look at the principle, we need to be clear about the term “story world.”

Writing instructor John Truby explains it this way:

Story world is one of the main structural elements in a good story, consisting of the society, the minor characters, the natural settings, the social settings and the technology of the time. (from “Downton Abbey: John Truby Analyzes the Writing Behind the TV Hit”)

Clearly, every story has a story world to one extent or another. Then are we simply talking about “setting,” the place and time during which the story occurs? Tolkien had something more in mind, and I think Truby would agree.

First, story world is more than lots of period furniture and clothing or time-appropriate architecture. Telling details are certainly important, but not in and of themselves. Rather, they are like dabs of paint on a canvas that eventually forms a picture. The dabs themselves are meaningless apart from how they interact with the other dabs and strokes. The absence or addition of a dab here or a dab there ought to change the picture.

For Tolkien the necessary element was “the inner consistency of reality.” Anyone could conceive of a green sun, for example, but to do so and to do nothing else with it was gimmicky. A world with strangeness and no inner consistency was underdeveloped. Instead, the writer as sub-creator needed to draw upon the ramifications of a green sun to the fiction world he was creating. The same is true for an engagement party, though, or missing car keys.

That inner consistency is evident in the story world of Downton Abbey. This British TV hit takes place in early twentieth century England, before, during, and after World War I.

The war itself is a perfect example of the show’s inner consistency of reality. Rather than existing as a surface element to move characters in and out of the main action (I read one book that used war in just that way), the war, as depicted by the writers in this show, changed relationships and affected society. Loved ones died or came back changed; some stepped up to meet the challenges and others exploited them. In other words, the war was an integral part of the story because it shaped the characters and influenced the action.

The Civil War serves the exact same purpose in Gone With The Wind. But not every story needs a war. The same kind of inner consistency of reality is evident in the Harry Potter stories. Myrtle the ghost was not mere window-dressing, for instance, but a key player in several of the books. So too the house elves, the portkey, the quiddich championship, and Hermione’s ability to go back in time. Each of those elements added texture to the world, but in turn they affected the way the story unfolded. In other words, they didn’t exist in a vacuum. Their existence affected the characters and the action.

Besides this inner consistency of reality, there are two other story world techniques available to authors. First, setting a story during a time of great social change naturally brings conflict to the story. These changes must naturally (if the story has consistency) affect the characters, thus creating an additional level of tension.

A good example of a story set in changing times is The Hope of Shridula by Kay Marshall Strom. The story takes place before, during, and after India’s struggle for independence from the British empire. The forces of change add another dimension to the struggles the characters already experience with economic hardship, caste struggles, religious struggles, and relational issues.

Another story world technique is to position the story in a closed system. Examples of such systems include the English class system of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (when Downton Abbey took place), the pre-Civil War South, a military base during any time period, a boarding school, the Mafia, a religious convent. The system itself affords levels of conflict, whether individuals are fighting to maintain the system, to break free from it, or to bring it down. The Hope of Shridula also employs this advanced story world technique.

In summary, consistency is a must regardless of genre, if the story is to be a good one. In addition, an author may choose to situate the story during a time of social upheaval or to place it in a closed system. Both these techniques will add layers of conflict, provided the story has the inner consistency of reality.

Reblogged from an article first posted here in March 2012.

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The Character Arc

Leonard_Nimoy_William_Shatner_Star_Trek_1968A number of writing instructors refer to the character arc, or the path a protagonist takes from the beginning of the story to the end, as a tool for the novelist. In many respects it is an artificial construct best recognized after the fact. Except, what happens to the main character really is the story.

Some novels or visual stories, to be sure, have heroes who change little. Captain Kirk of the USS Enterprise in the original Star Trek TV show exhibited little change week after week. The Lone Ranger, first as radio drama, then as a 50s black and white TV favorite, centered on a similar unchanging hero.

Some might consider those types of stories to be plot driven. Except, characters around the iconic protagonists often changed. Each episode, then, was about the growth or character arc of a secondary figure: the woman trying to make a go of a stage line, the creature who lured passing star ships into his prison, the sheriff accused of murder.

Nevertheless, the eye of the reader or the viewer is on the protagonist who does not change. Generally he has a set of values or a code of conduct which guides him from start to finish. He may have flaws, but he is true to his own standards which neither improve nor deteriorate. They are who the character is. Other such characters include Indiana Jones, Sherlock Holmes, and James Bond.

One writing instructor identifies these types of characters as having a flat arc. (And I’m wondering about the geometric possibility of such a shape! 😉 )

By far the greatest number of stories depict characters who exhibit growth throughout their story. At the beginning the protagonist has a problem or story question that drives her actions forward. But she also has an inner life that dovetails with these outer circumstances. By the end of the story, the character has learned what she needs, made what changes her circumstances require, commits to a new course of action, and thus answers the story problem which confronted her at the beginning.

This is obviously a simplistic sketch of the character arc, but it shows an important aspect—the inner life of the character and the outer events of the plot are integrally entwined.

The need for character growth can sometimes be caused by the inaccuracies a character believes about himself or the world or both. These beliefs drive him to make decisions and to act as he acts.

Sometimes his actions bring success, but not permanent change, and he is forced to come up with a better plan. More often, however, his actions fail because they were built on those erroneous views.

Poster_-_Gone_With_the_Wind_02For example, in Gone With The Wind, Scarlett O’Hara believes she’ll be happy if she can win Ashley Wilkes’ affections. She makes great plans only to hear his announcement that he will marry someone else. She believes she must get him alone and declare her feelings for him, but when she follows through with her plot, he spurns her advances.

Other problems intervene—the Civil War, his marriage, his wife’s devotion to Scarlett—and yet she persists in believing that she would be happy if only she could be with Ashley.

As events unfold, the reader begins to understand that Ashley is not the answer to Scarlett’s happiness. At long last, Scarlett herself comes to realize the truth. She is, in fact, in love with Rhett Butler, and has been for some time. However, when she makes this discovery and declares her love, he tells her she’s realized the truth too late. His love for her has died.

More common are stories in which the protagonist realizes the truth, takes the necessary steps in the right direction, and is rewarded in the end with what he actually needed. However, as with Scarlett, he may not accomplish his goal in the end, though he may find what he needed.

Not every character arc is built upon the character believing a lie. Some show a character’s struggle to overcome a flaw. Initially he may not realize how devastating his character weakness is, but as the story progresses, he has a moment of self-revelation that either pushes him to change or to despair.

Still other characters might believe something true though no one else in his circle does. His story arc, then, might show how his beliefs are tested, how he himself is tempted to doubt in the face of failure after failure. At some point, however, after facing his greatest fears, he chooses to cling to his belief, no matter what.

For example, a boy just out of his teens wants to be a writer. He completes a novel and sends it out to publishers but receives rejection after rejection. As years go by, his friends laugh at his “silly hobby,” his wife encourages him to find “a real job.” He takes odd jobs to make ends meet, but every spare moment he works on another story and another and another. His rejections pile up, but he believes he has the talent, he knows he has the love, and he keeps trying. Eventually his hope wanes.

At last, he experiences the turning point. His wife is threatening divorce. His friends no longer come around. He’s out of money. Again. And he’s no longer a kid. He must get a better job to keep his house and show his wife he cares about the family, or he must publish. Here is his dark night of the soul. What will he do—cling to what he knows is true, that he was born to write; or cave and abandon his life’s work.

What he decides and how the events of the plot resolve in the face of that decision, complete his character arc. He will have either ditched his long held beliefs or held to them more tightly than ever.

Must those stories resolve happily? Clearly not. The character may make a decision to cling to his faith, but dies without seeing a positive result.

However, death should bear out that the character made the right choice. In the case of the writer, he may become famous and receive awards posthumously. Or in a different story, a young girl may end up dying so that others she has lived for go free.

If the character dies and his view of the world or himself are not validated, his character arc makes him out to be a fool. I’m not sure many readers would care to read a story about a character who held firmly to his beliefs only to be proved wrong in the end.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley came close to utilizing this character arc. Savage, the main character, dies and his beliefs are not validated in the story world, but they are validated in the hearts and minds of readers. At least they were validated in part in the heart of this reader.

To sum up, the change in the inner life of a character from beginning to end forms the character arc of a story. A handful of iconic characters don’t show change, though others around them will. Stories begin with a character believing a lie, struggling against a flaw, or clinging against all odds to a truth he believes.

Not all stories resolve happily with the character making positive change and finding success because of it. However, if the end resolves badly for the character, his character arc may still be positive if what he believed or learned is validated as the right course for him to take.

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Killing Off Characters

cemetery-755456-mIn real life, people die–friends, family, strangers we hear about on the news. Consequently, stories, if they are to reflect reality, should include characters who die. Great writers don’t back away from killing off characters.

Mystery writers, of course, don’t seem to hesitate to kill off characters. Readers expect it. These may be characters that are incidental to the reader, however. They are victims and give a reason for the crime solvers to do their work, but their deaths don’t generate an emotional impact on the reader.

But harder, and more shocking, is the death of a character when the readers were not expecting it. And harder still is the death of a character readers care about deeply. Margaret Mitchell heartlessly killed off Melanie Wilkes in Gone with the Wind, then trumped that move by having Rhett and Scarlett’s little girl, Bonnie, die as well.

Perhaps no one killed off her characters more aggressively than J. K. Rowling in the Harry Potter series. From Cedric to Sirius, Dobby, Dumbledore, and Fred, Rowling didn’t hesitate to bring an end to beloved characters.

Some writers have ventured to bring their characters back after they died. J. R. R. Tolkien successfully did so in The Lord of the Rings trilogy by bringing Gandalf back in The Two Towers after he felt to his death in the Mines of Moria during The Fellowship of the Ring. C. S. Lewis also meaningfully killed a character–Aslan–and brought him back in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, first in The Chronicles of Narnia.

There are dangers for writers, however, in killing off characters. For example, I read a book years ago in which the main character died at the end, and I have not since picked up another book by that author. More recently [spoiler alert] Veronica Roth, author of the popular Divergent series, has been in the eye of the storm of unhappy readers because she killed off her heroine.

I think there are some things writers can learn about killing off characters.

First, killing off characters creates realism. Regardless of the genre, dying ought to be a part of the world the author creates. Therefore he should at least consider adding this element to his story. Not all stories need to show the death of a character, but a good many could benefit from the report of one dying.

The_Paradise_(TV_series)_titlesIn a romance, for example, the death of a beloved grandparent might be an obstacle in the path of the heroine and her love interest. Contemporary or historical stories can use the death of a character and the resulting squabbles over the estate to divide a family or create heartbreak that needs to be overcome. A widower can pine for his dead spouse for years, as did the main character in Emile Zola’s Au Bonheur des Dames (Masterpiece Classic’s The Paradise).

Killing off characters, however, needs to be properly motivated. There needs to be a story reason for ending the life of a character. Doing so for shock value is not sufficient. Rather, a noble sacrifice, a diabolical plot, a horrible accident, an incurable disease can take a character’s life and move the plot forward.

In addition, when a character is taken from the story, relationships change. A child is orphaned, a friend is alone, a spouse is a widow, an employee becomes the boss, a neighbor becomes a suspect.

Therefore, when a character dies, the other characters need to have an emotional response, but also a re-examination of values, a reshuffling of rank, an alteration of position. In short, the death should matter.

Finally, killing characters needs to be properly set up so that it is believable (and so that readers won’t want to throw your book across the room). The death may come as a surprise, but it should not be implausible.

tombstone-844609-mPeople who are young and healthy do die suddenly of some undiagnosed condition, however rarely, but in fiction such an event would read as author manipulation. Rather, a young person who was diagnosed with leukemia might experience a return of cancer, however unexpected. The fact of the earlier condition prepares readers for the eventuality of the character’s death. A character might be engaging in a dangerous hobby like rock climbing or bungee jumping. She might work with toxic material or high voltage electricity. These elements can add tension to a story but also prepare the reader for the possibility of that character dying.

One last point. Characters can be taken from a story without dying. A teen might run away. A parent might walk away from his family. An employee might get fired. A best friend might move across country. These losses can have the same impact as a death and can change the dynamics of a story. They are also part of the real world which needs to be reflected in the story world.

Have you considered killing off one of your characters? What effect would that death have on the other characters? On the direction of your plot?

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Creating Minor Characters That Matter

Gone_With_The_WindAll parts of a story should contribute to the whole, and supporting characters are no different. Yet too often we writers brush past them in a hurry, not realizing the positive impact they could have if we paid them a little more attention.

Think about the cast of characters that surround the protagonist in some well-known stories. Scarlett O’Hara in Gone With The Wind had Melanie, Ashley, and of course Rhett. Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous detective Sherlock Homes had Watson and Inspector LeStrade. In the TV program Monk, Adrian, the obsessive/compulsive protagonist, has a collection of people important to him: his nurse/assistant, Captain Stottlemeyer, Lieutenant Randy Disher, and of course his therapist.

Minor characters play important roles in stories, but they also magnify the main character often by contrast. While Scarlett is selfish and self-absorbed, Melanie is giving and kind. While Adrian is serious and detail-oriented in his investigation, Randy is silly and outlandish in his theories. These contrasting traits of the minor characters magnify those of the protagonist.

Protagonists also need adversaries–not the antagonist of the story, but someone on his team that can be a source of irritation, a foil, a roadblock.

In the 80s TV show Magnum, P.I., the title character Thomas Magnum lives at the behest of millionaire Robin Masters in the guest cottage of his estate in Hawaii. The overseer, Jonathan Higgins–who, with his strict gentleman’s code, is also a perfect balance to Magnum’s easy-going temperament–is often an antagonist, throwing difficulties in Magnum’s path. The two aren’t enemies and in fact become trusted friends over time, but Higgins keeps the viewer guessing whether he will do something that will put Thomas in further danger or help him out of a jam.

An adversary may have different values from the protagonist or might have a different worldview that makes him see things differently. He might be jealous and act out of spite or be foolish and bumble along so that things become more difficult.

The key is, this adversary offers an added layer of conflict to your story. To achieve his goal, the protagonist has someone within his camp he must convince, cajole, dupe, or in some other way struggle against.

Minor characters add texture to the protagonist–they validate that she has a life and has not been dropped on the page for the sole amusement of the author and readers. These characters can be co-workers, next door neighbors, brothers or sisters, the girl working in the fast food place the protagonist frequents, the guy who takes tickets in the movie theater–anyone the protagonist runs into frequently.

Some writing instructors suggest combining roles for minor characters–the guy who witnessed the accident the sleuth is investigating is also the guy who does her yard work, for example. Taking this approach insures that each character adds more than window dressing. They actually contribute to the story and advance the plot.

A couple things will help minor characters have the impact you as the writer want them to have. First, give them names that readers can remember and can associate with them. Nothing is more frustrating to me as a reader than encountering a character in a new scene who hasn’t made a big enough impression that I remember who he or she is. The protagonist might seem relieved or worried or irritated to see this person, but I don’t know why. Instead of entering into the protagonist’s emotions, I have to stop reading and flip back to remind myself who this person is.

Names can help to alleviate this problem. Choose names–or perhaps nicknames–that reflect a character’s personality such as Sparky, Poetry (The Sugar Creek Gang books), or Aunt Pittypat (Gone With The Wind). If not the character’s personality, then the name can perhaps reflect his physical appearance or some physical ability: Circus, Little Jim, Bits, or Tiny.

Names should also be distinct so that the reader doesn’t easily confuse one with the other. Ted and Tad have obvious similarities–beginning and ending with the same consonants and also consisting of only one syllable. Variety in these areas will help your reader distinguish between minor characters.

In crafting minor characters, avoid stereotypes. Not every mother-in-law needs to be the protagonist’s adversary. Not every teenager needs to be sullen or rebellious. Not every cop needs to be a bully. Minor characters, while not as complex as the star of the story, still have their own stories, their own goals, their own flaws. Make them unique in your own mind, at least, and chances are, they will pop off the page in a memorable way for your readers.

Minor characters should also be memorable for what they do. Rarely will a lengthy description of a minor character stick with a reader. Instead it will stop the action and slow the pace. Rather, a character who does something in a memorable way will be one that readers will later recall.

Finally, don’t forget to people your world with extras–characters who have no lines but by appearing, bring life to the scene. A couple seated at the next table, an elderly man pushing a grocery cart down the aisle, a group of tourists snapping pictures at the beach–whatever your locale, extras make the world believable.

See for example these lines from the fantasy short story “Swallow And Beyond”:

As the egg-shaped ship drifted toward Swallow’s shore, Rhei jostled to get a better view–past a mother with her baby nestled in a sling, past four or five tradesmen clustered in front of the tinker’s stand, past a mason repairing the rocky wharf.

Whether your minor characters are as important as the protagonist’s sidekick or as insignificant as an extra, they add value to any story. The more attention we writers give them, the better they’ll do their job.

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Developing The Story World

J. R. R. Tolkien referred to the world of the faery-tale as the author’s sub-creation. The truth is, all fiction has a sub-created world, or ought to. Tolkien’s point is key, but before taking a closer look at the principle, we need to be clear about the term “story world.”

Writing instructor John Truby explains it this way:

Story world is one of the main structural elements in a good story, consisting of the society, the minor characters, the natural settings, the social settings and the technology of the time. (from “Downton Abbey: John Truby Analyzes the Writing Behind the TV Hit”)

Clearly, every story has a story world to one extent or another. Then are we simply talking about “setting,” the place and time during which the story occurs? Tolkien had something more in mind, and I think Truby would agree.

First, story world is more than lots of period furniture and clothing or time-appropriate architecture. Telling details are certainly important, but not in and of themselves. Rather, they are like dabs of paint on a canvas that eventually forms a picture. The dabs themselves are meaningless apart from how they interact with the other dabs and strokes. The absence or addition of a dab here or a dab there ought to change the picture.

For Tolkien the necessary element was “the inner consistency of reality.” Anyone could conceive of a green sun, for example, but to do so and to do nothing else with it was gimmicky. A world with strangeness and no inner consistency was underdeveloped. Instead, the writer as sub-creator needed to draw upon the ramifications of a green sun to the fiction world he was creating. The same is true for an engagement party, though, or missing car keys.

That inner consistency is evident in the story world of Downton Abbey. This British TV hit takes place in early twentieth century England, before, during, and after World War I.

The war itself is a perfect example of the show’s inner consistency of reality. Rather than existing as a surface element to move characters in and out of the main action (I read one book that used war in just that way), the war, as depicted by the writers in this show, changed relationships and affected society. Loved ones died or came back changed; some stepped up to meet the challenges and others exploited them. In other words, the war was an integral part of the story because it shaped the characters and influenced the action.

The Civil War serves the exact same purpose in Gone With The Wind. But not every story needs a war. The same kind of inner consistency of reality is evident in the Harry Potter stories. Myrtle the ghost was not mere window-dressing, for instance, but a key player in several of the books. So too the house elves, the portkey, the quiddich championship, and Hermione’s ability to go back in time. Each of those elements added texture to the world, but in turn they affected the way the story unfolded. In other words, they didn’t exist in a vacuum. Their existence affected the characters and the action.

Besides this inner consistency of reality, there are two other story world techniques available to authors. First, setting a story during a time of great social change naturally brings conflict to the story. These changes must naturally (if the story has consistency) affect the characters, thus creating an additional level of tension.

A good example of a story set in changing times is The Hope of Shridula by Kay Marshall Strom. The story takes place before, during, and after India’s struggle for independence from the British empire. The forces of change add another dimension to the struggles the characters already experience with economic hardship, caste struggles, religious struggles, and relational issues.

Another story world technique is to position the story in a closed system. Examples of such systems include the English class system of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (when Downton Abbey took place), the pre-Civil War South, a military base during any time period, a boarding school, the Mafia, a religious convent. The system itself affords levels of conflict, whether individuals are fighting to maintain the system, to break free from it, or to bring it down. The Hope of Shridula also employs this advanced story world technique.

In summary, consistency is a must regardless of genre, if the story is to be a good one. In addition, an author may choose to situate the story during a time of social upheaval or to place it in a closed system. Both these techniques will add layers of conflict, provided the story has the inner consistency of reality.

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Endings Matter Most

When I finished the last page, I wanted to toss the book as far as I could, as hard as I could. The protagonist who I had followed for the last four hundred pages died without accomplishing his goal. No momentous lesson learned along the way, no great change to complete his character arc. Why, I wondered, had I wasted my days and hours reading about this failed adventure that led nowhere?

Do you think I picked up the next book in that series? (Rhetorical question! 🙄 )

Endings are important, whether they are the ends of sentences, paragraphs, chapters, or books, as author and former Writer’s Digest columnist Nancy Kress reminded her blog readers earlier this year.

Endings are in the position to leave the greatest impression. Consequently they should be the strongest part of each story element. Today I want to concentrate on the ending of the novel.

Recently I read a book that ended with the completion of a character arc — just not the protagonist’s, but of one of the secondary characters. Though I had no murderous thoughts about that book when I finished, the ending certainly was not compelling and I had no intention of seeking out another title by that author.

Earlier this year I read a story that included a host of characters in the denouement — all except the antagonist. Another ending that fell flat.

Here are a few other elements I believe weaken endings:

* Repeated action. Something happened earlier in the story — a chase, romantic tension, confrontation with the antagonist — and the end is little more than a reprise of that earlier scene.

* Predictability. The protagonist has only one logical choice, there are no red herrings, the set-up points to only one outcome. These kinds of slips enable the reader to see the end coming long before the final chapter. Such predictability drains the power out of the end which does not create a thirst for more.

* Unearned endings. The character isn’t properly motivated, a necessary object to victory makes its first appearance right when the protagonist needs it, the cavalry charges in at the last minute to save the day. These endings might have worked if they’d been properly developed, but they’re rushed or incomplete.

So what makes an ending work?

First, a good ending is fully fleshed out. Often the action slows down, the necessary details are painted into the scene, every moment is made to count.

Then too the best story endings bring the protagonist’s internal and external conflicts to a climax at the same time. Perhaps the conditions of the external struggle lead to the key for dealing with the internal issues. Perhaps the reverse is true. In either case, when the two bleed into one another, the ending is more than satisfying. It is memorable.

Are good endings always tied up neatly, with all the bows facing the same way? I suppose the answer to this question depends on what the author wants to accomplish.

The book with the most memorable ending I’ve read is Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell, for the very reason that I didn’t really know how the story ended. Yes, when the book ended, Rhett had left. But Scarlet, our protagonist, was a tenacious woman who found strength in the land and who went after what she wanted. Consequently, I wanted to believe her when she delivered her final hopeful line. In fact, for days I mentally added my own ending or rewrote Ms. Mitchell’s because the ending as it stood disturbed me so.

Why did such an ending work? It wasn’t happy-ever-after and it was maddeningly open-ended. Yet after 1100 pages, I didn’t feel cheated. I felt desperately sad for the protagonist I had cheered for so long. I wanted things to be different for her.

Clearly, the ending was earned. The relationship between Rhett and Scarlet had been deteriorating for pages. Hence, his leaving was not without ample warning. Neither of them had been willing to risk offering love to the other for fear of rejection. And Scarlet was so blinded by what she thought she wanted that she didn’t know what she actually needed … until it was too late. Or was it?

The ambiguous ending can be strong and satisfying in a thought-provoking way if it suggests more and leaves the reader wondering.

Whether tightly wrapped up or somewhat open-ended, stories need to bring their character arcs and plot events to powerful conclusions. Those are the books that stay on shelves and get re-read from time to time. Those are the books that make readers want to buy that author’s next novel.

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The First Five Pages

Some time ago, I addressed the subject of starting a novel in a post by the extraordinarily original title “How To Start A Novel.” 😉 In that piece, I made the case for beginning a story with an engaging character who wants something and with a clearly defined antagonist who will be the chief cause of things that thwart the character from reaching his desired end.

Scarlet wants Ashley, who becomes engaged to Melanie (Gone With The Wind by Margaret Mitchell). Captain Ahab wants revenge on the whale that took his leg, but Moby Dick continues to elude him (Moby Dick by Herman Melville). Grady wants to be loved, but Floyd, his father figure, ignores him, uses him, and betrays him (The Charlatan’s Boy by Jonathan Rogers).

With those key components, a story is about to happen. But how to start?

I’ve wrestled with this topic in my own writing. One piece of advice I embraced is that the opening of a novel should be the bridge between the story and the backstory.

To clarify: backstory is what happened before the point in time when this story starts — often called the inciting incident. But before the story can actually start, readers need some sort of introduction to the main character. Otherwise, whatever starts the story will lose importance because readers don’t care about the character.

The first five pages (or so) give the reader a look at what life was like before the inciting incident disrupts the story world. At the same time, the opening should give some picture of what the character wants.

Of course, the character should have both internal and external desires that are story-long. However, the author doesn’t have to rush those forward. Rather, the character’s opening-scene want may be a faint echo of what will become the deeper need.

The first five pages should also anchor the reader in the story in several ways. One is by creating a mood — humorous, stoic, lighthearted, dramatic, ironic, angst-filled, and so on.

Setting may contribute to mood and is another element that anchors the story. Even though settings change as characters move about, readers need to “see” where they are. Especially at the beginning of a novel, it is critical that readers are not confused.

In contrast, an author wants readers to be curious which gives them ample reason to continue reading beyond the first five pages. Curiosity and confusion have nothing to do with each other except that some writers mix up the two.

To create curiosity, a writer poses a question, inviting the reader to turn the page and find the answer. In the process of discovery, however, a new question will present itself, one with added weight, and the process continues.

On the other hand, if readers don’t understand who the players are or what is happening, they most likely won’t care to search for the answers to any questions that might suggest themselves. Their confusion stifles their curiosity.

Besides creating mood, providing setting, and fanning curiosity in the first five pages, the author should establish expectations, accomplished by his choice of point of view (first person, omniscient third person, close third person) and verb tense, by his creation of style (sentence structure, description patterns, the amount of narrative versus scenes, and so forth) and voice (the author and/or character’s personality infused into the story by word choice and “speech” patterns).

If you’re thinking that’s a lot of responsibility for the first few pages of a novel to bear, you’re absolutely right. Readers form opinions from those opening pages. They make decision — do I like this character? do I want to read more? do I care what happens next? should I buy this book?

Experienced writers have learned to put considerable effort into getting opening scene right. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be right on the first draft, or there might not a novel at all. 😀

For further study, The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman is helpful for beginning writers.

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