Saturday, May 30, 2009

One More On Beginnings

So, continuing on the topic of beginnings, if a writer really wants to fix a weak start there are three ways it can be done.

We’ve already said a weak start is one that lacks drama. Drama always involves tension, or conflict, and usually also involves action. So some combination of tension/conflict and action is necessary, right up front.

One way to put it up front is to begin the novel farther along in the story. How? Just read from the beginning of the manuscript and look for the first real drama, then begin the story there. Any important information in the skipped section can be tucked into other scenes later on. Braveheart has written a great action scene but it doesn’t come until well into his story. If he wanted a greater impact with his beginning, he could choose to begin his story with this action scene and introduce his protagonist as he’s running from the bullets.

A word of caution if you choose this solution: It’s generally not a good idea to begin a novel-length piece of writing at an exciting point and then go back in time to begin the actual plotline. It can be done, but you risk a couple of potholes.

First, doing this will technically make your whole novel a backstory. We’ve already touched on why backstory is dangerous. Backstory destroys forward action, and forward action is something you have to maintain in order to keep your reader chugging happily down the reading road. Readers don’t want interruptions to their train of thought. They don't want to have to stop to fix a flat tire.

Second, if not done skilfully, an action-packed opening followed by backstory can look suspiciously like a writing device. You don’t want your reader to feel you’ve tricked him into reading the story. So, if Braveheart chooses to spice up his beginning this way, he’ll have to convince the reader there’s a good reason for doing so, and the real story, when it picks up again, will have to be exciting too. The travel brochure can't be more beautiful than the actual road trek.

I really think Braveheart’s action scene is in the right place in his manuscript, however. He’s right in thinking that much needs to be said, and could be said dramatically, before his protagonist begins dodging bullets. So, for Braveheart, I would recommend a different solution.

He could choose to begin at the same place and time, but recreate the scene with more drama.

As it stands now, his opening scene is primarily inner dialogue by the protagonist as he sits at breakfast and occasionally talks with the waitress about his meal. BH does a great job of introducing his subject matter through the interior dialogue, but neither the dialogue, nor the conversation with the waitress, nor the action of eating, contributes drama to the situation. The waitress is too pleasant. The meal is too ordinary. The information is pretty academic. Even the weather is too placid to stir up any hint of suspense.

If BH introduced an antagonist here, or gave us some sense of foreboding in the setting, as in "It was a dark and stormy night,” or even just gave his protagonist some kind of inner turmoil, the scene would immediately become more gripping.

A third way to deal with weak beginnings is to begin the story earlier. This might also be a good option for Braveheart. His story begins with the protagonist already started on his quest. That’s okay, but I think there are opportunities for great drama in the planning of the quest, or even in his choosing to begin the quest.

What obstacles does his protagonist have to overcome to begin this journey? Human, or psychological, or even physical? Could he have a broken leg?

Or what, about the quest, captures his interest in the first place? Perhaps an offhand remark he makes to someone that causes an extreme reaction? Maybe even an action that threatens the protagonist’s life? Or the life of the person he loves most?

And what is it about this character that makes him vulnerable to this kind of a quest? Does he have the kind of curiosity that kills cats?

If this looks like brainstorming, it is. Brainstorming is an important activity for writers. It’s especially helpful when first developing characters and story ideas, but it’s amazing how useful it can be at any point later on when characters or their plotlines need some added zip. The wonderful thing about a book manuscript is that it can always be changed at any time in the pre-publishing process. And change is good.

No matter how Braveheart chooses to deal with this problem, it definitely needs to be done if he’s interested in publishing.

That’s a pretty firm statement. Reminds me of the time I gave a fellow writer my critique on a draft of his manuscript that I thought was pretty rough. I suggested major re-writes to put more action and drama in his beginning. He thanked me politely. A few days later he e-mailed saying that Zondervan had seen his manuscript (in the form I thought was rough, and without his making any of the corrections I’d suggested) and loved it. He’s got a contract and the book will come out in 2011.

Dang. That’s not a very good thing to say. I’m trying to develop credibility here.

Oh well. Enough with beginnings. Next post will give us some fun and easy things to do to make our writing better using a great Microsoft Word function.

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