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Posts Tagged ‘Beguiling beginnings’

At my age, a title like this makes me take notice. I sit up straighter, pull my shoulders back and suck in my middle.

That’s what we want to do with the middles of our stories: be aware of their presentation and do what’s required to improve them.

We’ve talked about Beguiling Beginnings with more than enough zip to catch the readers’ attention and pull them into the story. We may have a good idea where the story is going and how it ends, and often the ending is intense enough that we can hardly wait to get there. Perhaps we write it early on, to be adapted later. But now we must focus on what comes between an exciting beginning and an intense ending.

If you look back at Fiction 101 — Part 8, the one about outlining or structuring a novel, you’ll see that we talked about various methods of structuring. One idea was the Plot Skeleton (from Angela Hunt). When we use the Plot Skeleton method, we start with the head (the protagonist), then the neck (the incident that starts things rolling) and then the ribs (the complications).

Let’s talk about the ribs. They run up and down both sides of the chest. Convert that image to a two-column page and put + on one column and – on the other. Something good happens, then something bad, back and forth, balanced but with ever increasing importance and tension as we go along, until we reach the crisis.

If we use the rib scenario / two-column page, we can fill in any number of events that will sustain interest and increase tension as we move forward with our stories.

Another way to hold up the middle is with subplots. Wikipedia defines a subplot as: a secondary strand of the plot that is a supporting side story for any story or the main plot. These subplots connect with the main plot in some way through one of the characters, either a major or, more often, a supporting character. Subplots are less important than the main plot, so they get less time in the scheme of the story, but they add interest and tension, as well as helping to fill out characters.

So, instead of getting bogged down with our main plot, trying to keep up the interest, we can employ subplots to switch up the focus to include other events, journeys and characters.

It’s also absolutely necessary to remember that character development must happen throughout the novel. Every scene should either move the plot along or show character development. Every scene should be based on a goal and include conflict and tension. It only all works out in the end!

The plot thickens, as they say, getting more involved. The characters meet more obstacles, face more discouragements. The goal of the main character as set out at the beginning of our story seems consistently more unattainable . . . right until the end.

All these elements make the reader sit up and take notice. What’s happening here? How are the characters ever going to come out of this in one piece? We must make the reader guess, frantically turn the pages, forget about dinner and bedtime. Let’s exercise our writing expertise, work out with subplots and character development, and make that middle firm.

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writerPlato said, “The beginning is the most important part of the work.”

Kimberly Yuhl suggests you have eight words to capture your reader’s attention.

Rob Weatherhead states in the article, Say it Quick, Say it Well (please excuse the grammar), that the attention span of a modern internet consumer is short. “Studies have shown that 32% of consumers will start abandoning slow sites between one and five seconds.”

Marcia Hoeck, in her article How to Capture Your Reader’s Attention, writes: “You only have a few seconds to capture someone’s attention, so don’t take chances with clever, cute, or insider language or visuals, which are often lost on people.”

Whether or not these statistics apply specifically to fiction writing is immaterial. They apply to today’s readers. Knowing these facts should motivate us to put extra effort into creating captivating openings for our stories.

I find that examples aid my understanding, so let’s take a look at some classic examples of beguiling beginnings:

* (my favorite) “There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” This from C.S. Lewis’ Voyage of the Dawn Treader.

* “On November the 21st, the day of her forty-seventh birthday, and three weeks and two days before she was murdered, Rhoda Gradwyn went…” The Private Patient, by P.D. James.

* “When the coppers talk about Marsha Morgan, they start with her death—how she fell off the Chesapeake Belle and drowned in the Miles River.” From Ron and Janet Benrey’s Little White Lies.

* Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner begins this way: “I became what I am today at the age of twelve, on a frigid overcast day in the winter of 1975.”

* Caroline Way’s Confessions from a Farmer’s Wife: “I am the last one. Of those whose lives I will speak of here, I alone remain.”

* Alan Bradley’s The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie: “It was as black in the closet as old blood. They had shoved me in and locked the door.”

What do these examples have in common?questions

– they are concise

– they raise questions for which we want answers

– they create a mood

– they suggest the kind of story that’s coming (plot driven / character driven)

– they draw us into the story

How can we create a similar effect?

– we must decide what we want to convey; what is the most important aspect of the story?

– we must ask the right questions

– we must decide what the mood of our story will be

– we must know the style of story we are writing

– we must revise and polish until the beginning is irresistible

fascinated reader

Having said all this, remember that you can tweak your beginning many times, especially after the ending has been written. After all, “What we call the beginning is often the end. And to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from” T.S. Eliot.

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