Tuesday, September 30, 2014

In The Beginning

Homer should not write books
One of the questions that pops up every so often among new writers is where to start.  Indeed, I suspect there are more books unwritten over this question than any other.  Essentially, writers are unsure where to begin telling their tale, and don't get started at all as a result.

The first story you write can be a bit of a challenge, because there are many skills which can only be learned through practice.  National Novel Writing Month is a useful tool for this, by encouraging writers to simply write and complete a work no matter how awful or amateur.  Through the process, you learn, and grow as a writer.

But how should that story begin?  Once upon a time?  He was a dark and stormy knight? Call me Ishmaelf?  Where in the story should it start?

Some books begin with a prologue, which is typically a teaser for the full book or a history, setting up the story.  The Fellowship of the Ring movie started with just such a device, telling the background of the One Ring as it came into Bilbo's possession.  This sort of prologue sets up your book and while some people dislike them (such as myself) they are an honorable and long-established device.

The problem is, once your prologue is over, where do you go from there?  A prologue is meant to be such a separate device that it doesn't really solve your starting problems at all.  You still have to begin the main story.

This just begs for a story
Many of the old epics and grand stories of the past begin in media res, or in the middle of the action.  Instead of starting with the proper beginning, they drop you right into the middle of events and then go back to show how you got there.  The advantage of this is that it immediately gets your reader something exciting and energetic to read, plus it creates some sense of mystery: how did we get here?

I did that with my first two books, and I personally prefer to start a book with a high energy scene, but it has drawbacks.  Giving away too much too soon can make it difficult to build suspense.  If the reader knows your hero will be fighting the Kzinti right away, you can't make the enemy a mystery that is eventually revealed.  Also, this method can turn away some readers who prefer a more thoughtful paced book to read.

Another way to start is to begin at the very beginning.  Your hero's birth, the start of a kingdom, the creation of the world, and so on can be used to start with.  This should be used sparingly because readers tend to flip past this kind of thing, and as Elmore Leonard put it: try to leave out the parts that readers skip.  You have to work very hard to make it interesting reading.

A useful tool is to decide what your book is really about to decide on the beginning.  I don't mean the basic plot, but the story, the reason you wrote the book.  For example, the Aubrey-Maturin sea novels, for all the exciting ship combat, spycraft, and history are ultimately about friendship between the two main characters.  So Master and Commander begins with the two friends meeting.

The Lord of the Rings has a plot of destroying the ring and defeating the great evil, but the story is about the meek and simple Hobbit being used to do greater things than the mighty heroes could attempt.  So it starts out by introducing Hobbits.

The Harry Potter books are about a prophecied hero defeating a great evil, but the real story is about a young boy who grows into a good man, so it starts with Harry Potter. Deciding what your story truly is can give you a good starting point, to establish in the minds of the readers what the book is meant to be.  It sets up the story so that through all the events, the story is there from the very beginning.

Another device you can use is what is done with James Bond.  The creators of James Bond films knew that these films were going to be a lot of talky spy stuff and wanted viewers to get a good feel for what this guy was like and was capable of right away.  

You should have pulled the trigger
So they put a little vignette at the beginning of each film, a short short story of James Bond doing his thing, sometimes related to the main story, but not always.  You can start your book the same way: here's our hero doing something really cool and heroic.  After that, you get to the setup and the slower part of the book that develops the character and story.

One device I don't recommend, but that can be used well if done carefully, is the narrator talking directly to the reader.  I'm gonna tell you a story of heroism and greatness, so sit right back and you'll hear a tale, a tale of a fateful trip that started from this tropic port aboard this tiny ship...

The problem with this kind of tale is that a lot of agents and editors don't like it.  They don't like it a lot.  I've read time and time again how they just junk stories that start out that way.  Why exactly isn't perfectly clear, but I presume that a lot of bad stories begin that way and its one of those red flags.  Certainly doing so seems to distance the reader from the book.  You lose some immersion by having the story told third hand, from a narrator, telling a story, about a book.  

But if it is done well it can give the feel of an old storyteller around a campfire, and can even be worked into the book, with the storyteller's tale being overtaken by events around him.  "and that's how we got to this lakeshore, chased by the hordes of hell...."

Ultimately, how you begin a book is determined by your story and what appeals most to you as a writer.  Your book will be best told by what you enjoy and most displays your joy and passion in the story.  If you are having fun and love what you're doing, chances are so will your readers.  If you are too fixated on devices, tools, techniques, and careful step-by-step progression, your book will probably read like a technical manual.  It is possible to hit all the right "by the book" rules of writing fiction and write something terrible.  Its also possible to get it all wrong but write something full of joy and wonder and end up with something terrific.

However you begin, do it where you like to write, and write with all your soul and passion.  Do it the best you can, and it will work out.