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Posts Tagged ‘P.D. James’

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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What is plot—besides a piece of ground used to bury dead people (that’s from James Scott Bell in Plot & Structure)? In my mind, plot is the story itself, with a beginning, middle and end. Of course there are literary works that don’t follow any of the rules, not even as guidelines, but I’m thinking of genre writing. Plot is the skeleton of the story, the bones on which the rest is built and fleshed out.

            THE HOOK

fish & hook

Stories must begin with an appealing element of some kind, an aspect of the piece that draws us in and makes us want more. In fiction writing, this is called the hook. Switch over to a fishing analogy: the fish sees the worm or lure and can’t resist a taste, but alas, once he grabs it, he’s hooked and committed. That’s the kind of draw we need in our stories, one that grabs the readers by the senses and holds them while we reel them in through the depths of the rest of the story. And the read should be worthwhile.

Here is an example of a hook that drew me in:

– P.D. James’ The Private Patient: “On November the 21st, the day of her forty-seventh birthday, and three weeks and two days before she was murdered, Rhoda Gradwyn went…” Well, that immediately raises a plethora of questions for which I want answers.

* A tip: you don’t have to have your hook intact right away, just have an idea of it. You can tweak it many times in the process of writing and editing.

CONFLICT

hands in conflict

Another element of plot is conflict. All the examples given above hint at clashes and tension, and that’s what makes a story. Each scene, each section of dialogue, must involve tension and lead us deeper into the tale.

OUTLINE

WORKING TITLE                                                             

I          Prologue

II        Part One

            A. Opening Disaster

                        1.  Introduce main character

                        2…

If you are an outline person, you will work through your main plot elements in point form first, filling them out as you develop the storyline. If you are not an outline person, you will organize in your head as you write. It’s a matter of what works best for you. There are many formulas and templates to help us create a workable plot, and we’ll discuss those next time.

SCENES & SEQUELSScene & Structure

plotWhen plotting a story, it helps to write in scenes instead of chapters, in my opinion. The book Scene & Structure by Jack M. Bickham is a great way to learn about the differences between action scenes and internal episodes and how they compliment each other. Another excellent resource for plotting is Plot by Ansen Dibell. These are both Writer’s Digest Books and are available online in print and digital formats.

In Plot, Dibell writes: “Plot is the things characters do, feel, think, or say, that make a difference to what comes afterward” p. 6. So it follows that as we plot our novels, we need to consider who the characters are, what they do, how they live and think and feel, how they communicate, and how this all works together to lead us to the desired ending.

* Note: sometimes the story takes a direction the author did not foresee, and the resulting ending differs from the original thought. Plotting must be a flexible endeavor.

You can follow your instincts in plotting a novel—it’s best to study up on it first, though—or you can use some of the resources and ideas suggested above, but get plotting. We’re waiting for your novel.

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