This week I’m going to take a break from my cover design series. It’s a time-consuming series to write and sometimes I need to give each post more careful thought than only a week allows time for.
If you ask reviewers and workshop instructors what the biggest mistake they see from new writers (grammar issues aside), I’m pretty sure most of them would agree that it’s starting the story in the wrong place.
What do we mean by that? One of the topics we’ve harped on in this blog is the need to create a strong opening that sucks your reader in. A key element—actually the key element—of good fiction is CONFLICT.
In every good story a problem or goal exists for the main character or characters that must be solved or resolved or achieved. The conflict is what stands in the way of resolving the problem or goal. This conflict can be external (e.g. solving a murder, retrieving something that has been stolen, prevent something from happening, find a mate) or internal (e.g. making a decision, overcoming a personal obstacle, keeping a relationship together, coping with a situation). Some stories contain both and more than one of each.
Take a novel or story you’ve read recently and think of the conflict in it. If you’re familiar with the Harry Potter novels or movies, look at the many different kinds of conflict in those. The presence of conflict is what separates a story from an anecdote or an essay. In plain terms: no conflict, no story. Conflict is what pulls a story forward.
In its simplest definition, PLOT is the events that make up a story. More specifically, plot can be seen as the events that happen between the appearance of the conflict and the resolution of that conflict. Conversely, anything that does not consist of story events is not part of the plot. This is where many writers go wrong. They don’t start with plot. Instead, they start with the background of the story and the characters and make the reader wait until X number of pages into the story before they reveal what the story is really about (that is, the actual conflict).
Let’s take an example. The story begins with a baseball pitcher winding up and preparing to pitch the ball. The writer then tells us all about the pitcher, who he is, all about his early life and wanting to play major league ball, and how he got to be a pitcher. In the meantime, the reader is wondering why this is relevant to whatever the problem (conflict) the story has. He hopes the story is about more than a simply one about this pitcher making it to the major league. The writer finally has the pitcher release the ball, which ends up being a strike. And the pitcher prepares his next pitch. Again, what’s the point? Why should we care? There is no evident conflict.
Maybe twenty pages later we learn that he’s being blackmailed or threatened, and if he doesn’t lose the game, his family will be killed. Now that’s conflict. But revealing this fact twenty pages in is far too late. The reader put this boring book down after ten pages.
I can’t tell you how often I see beginning writers making the fatal mistake of starting in the wrong place. Readers don’t want to watch the pitcher wind up. They want to see him pitch, and they want to see what happens when he does (and they expect more than a strike or a ball or an out or a homerun). The reader doesn’t want to start off with background. The reader wants to see a story. Therefore, the story needs to begin at the point of conflict. In this example, the conflict existed in the character, but the reader didn’t see or feel it or know about it. In this case, the story has begun too early.
However, there are two sides of this coin. On the one side, the most common one, the writer slowly works us into the story—not what most readers want. The other side is that the writer drops us into the action without sufficient grounding. Consider a story that opens with two armies fighting on a field and the writer describing the action is great detail. It’s a great action scene, and the details are stunning. But the problem is that we don’t know who the players are, why they’re fighting, and who we should root for. Here’s a case of the story starting too late.
In this case, the writer assumes that opening with action is sufficient to grab the reader’s interest. After all, he, the writer, knows what’s going on. The problem is that he fails to clue the reader, and this leaves the reader confused. So there’s always a balance: don’t bore the reader and don’t confuse the reader.
I’m going to let you read the following article, which goes into more detail about the problem of starting in the right place and offers some solutions. And the article sums itself up with the following words: “Your story starts at the moment we begin to care, but it’s hard to care if we don’t have any idea what’s going on. Get the meaning and context on the page, and you’ll have a fighting chance of holding your reader’s attention.”
If you’re currently working on a novel (or a short story), take a close look at your opening. Have you started it at that critical moment where the reader both knows what’s going on AND cares? If not, go back and fix it so it does, even if it means cutting out those first nineteen pages. Alternatively, maybe those nineteen pages can be moved to a later place in the novel or (even better) the information sprinkled in here and there so it adds mystery instead of being dumped on the reader in one large, boring chunk.