Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Michele Torrey on story beginnings

Looking over the first pages of your story? Michele Torrey has great advice on where to start:
We’ve all read them: books that stupify the senses for the first few pages or — ack! — the first few chapters. Like the literary troopers we are, we wade through those mind-dulling pages, meanwhile muttering incantations, It will get better . . . Any minute now something wonderful will happen . . .

If even the pros fall prey to such yawningly slow beginnings, how much more susceptible is the novice writer? Very, as it turns out. Often novice writers begin their stories thinking that they have to tell us everything up front in order for us to understand what’s going on. I’ve read middle grade manuscripts in which twenty or more characters are introduced in the first chapter alone, not because those characters were necessary to the chapter, mind you, but because the writer was under a “can’t-leave-anything-out” evil spell. The irony is, these tell-all openings are less intelligible than if the writer used a “need-to-know” approach.
So where should you begin your story? The general rule of thumb is to begin your story at the moment your character experiences a dramatic life change:
  • On the day the girl’s father mysteriously disappears.
  • On the day the high school valedictorian opens the letter from Harvard, declining him admittance.
  • On the morning of the fire.
You would be surprised at how little information is really needed before the story is off and running.
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