Writing Excuses 10.17: Q&A on Beginnings
Questions and Answers:
Q: Are there differences in beginnings between forms, novels versus short stories, genres?
A: YA: get into the character and plot faster. Engage the reader within the first page. List the events, identify the inciting incident, and decide what back story is needed. Start with an exciting sequence that makes promises that are fulfilled later.
Q: How do you do in media res in something that is not an action story?
A: Show us the main character actively engaged in doing something, showing competence. What are they good at, what are they not so good at?
Q: What’s the biggest mistake that can be made in plotting the beginning?
A: Boring me. Too much back story. Forgetting the page 1 hook because it gets really good on page 200.
Q: Big name authors have published beginnings that are just meh, why are we expected to have fantastic beginnings?
A: Because you’re a Writing Excuses listener, and Howard expects more of us! Challenge yourself to do better! Because different audiences like different things. A big name author has established their audience’s trust, you haven’t.
Q: How do you balance the need to have something going on right away with the need to have your readers know enough about the people involved to care about them?
A: Make sure the reader relates to some aspect of the action scene. Make the character likable. Make sure your scene does more than one thing, so we learn about the person and enjoy the action. Sometimes something really intriguing works, too.
Q: In creating a character, where do you start to develop that character, and how do you start showing them? What are the most important traits to show off when introducing them?
A: Why we like the character. Why is this character in the story? What do they want, what are they trying to fix in their life?
[Mary] Season 10, Episode 17.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Q&A on Beginnings.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Brandon] We are taking your questions about beginnings. So. “Are there differences in beginnings between forms, novels versus short stories?”
[Dan] It changes how long your beginning is. How much of your story is beginning. Maybe not percentile-wise, but… You can’t have three prologues to begin a short story.
[Brandon] Oh, is that a challenge?
[Dan] Yes it is.
[Howard] It’s a straight… It’s actually a very straight relation…
[Dan] With a gauntlet.
[Howard] A very straight ratio. Depending on the length of the work, the first word in the book will be of a different length. Novels typically begin with four syllable words.
[Brandon] Ignore him. He’s on medication.
[Dan] Epic fantasies…
[Dan] Begin with compound words exclusively.
[Mary] You do need to make sure that you include the extra apostrophes when you’re writing it.
[Dan] Flash fiction, of course, begins with expletives.
[Brandon] Okay. For seriousness. This is Kevin [inaudible] question. He also asks different… Difference between genres. While the podcasters are thinking, I’m going to say, yes, in genres, there are some general guidelines. Now, once again, you need to understand, any rule exists to be broken. When I say, “Is that a challenge?” to Dan, I say it laughingly, but you write the story you want to write. You understand when you’re betraying conventions that that might make it more difficult for your story to get into. Even in an epic fantasy, using multiple prologues with different viewpoints like I did is a bad idea. It’s a bad idea for a story I really wanted to write, and if I took it out, it would mean I didn’t get to write the story I wanted to write. So I wrote it anyway. But, YA tends to as a rule [thumbs?] say you need to get into the character faster and into the plot faster. Just as a general rule. Almost every YA panel full of editors and agents I’ve seen has said that, hands down, be faster.
[Mary] Yeah. With… I would say that… Well, actually, I’m like, frequently I just want that in general. But there are examples of stories that you are supposed to ease into. I think that the… Although we were getting silly about the percentage, it is really a question of percentage. What you’re looking at, I feel, is… If you have not engaged the reader within the first page, you’re going to have problems. They just… Regardless of percentage, they are not going to turn the page to the next page.
[Howard] At risk of assigning an exercise when I know we’re already planning on assigning an exercise, to really answer this question, I would need to sit down with a magazine full of short stories and a shelf full of novels and read the first thousand words and make marks telling myself where I thought the beginning really started to transition into the flow of the thing.
[Brandon] Yeah. That’s a great…
[Howard] Because what we’re talking about right now is so full of confirmation bias and so full of our own limited experiences.
[Mary] Yeah. The… Because I’ve actually done that. So the thing… I mean, we talk a lot about in late, out early. One of the exercises that I do is when I’m coming up with my story idea, I list the events that happen and I decide what part of that is back story. So what I’m doing then is I’m going through and I’m looking for what Dan calls the inciting incident. I look at what is the bare minimum of information my reader needs to have before we hit the inciting incident for them to care about the character and to care about what is at stake when the inciting incident occurs. Everything before that becomes back story. So that’s… I mean, that’s the way I handle it, but the amount of information they need before the inciting incident is going to vary depending on the complexity of the plot.
[Brandon] Now, see, when I’m… We’re talking about, by the way, beginning… How long does it take to do your beginning and things? Really, what we’re talking about is how long it takes to get to the main inciting incident, like you’re saying. But you’ll notice that a lot these days… For instance, epic fantasy. The ones that are doing this right, they still have a really exciting thing going on at the beginning. It’s a really great interesting sequence, it’s just not the main plot yet. You can take longer to get to the main plot in a longer book, but you still have to be just as engaging.
[Dan] That’s not just epic fantasy, that’s becoming super common in YA. Let’s stick you into this scene and give you a strong sense of who the character is and a strong sense of where the story takes place, and then maybe the real plot starts in chapters two or three.
[Mary] I’ve seen this a lot, but I want to point at James Bond as an example of how to do this just right. Which is that… What happens with James Bond films is that you start off and you are in media res in the middle of some big dramatic thing. And he… Basically he’s pulling off a heist, but he’s…
[Howard] I call that the romp. It’s the part of the beginning or the character is having an adventure, and is successful, and we are engaged. With Bond… He’s successful, typically.
[Mary] What they’re doing there though is that they are showing you in many ways the same movie that you’re about to see but in miniature. So they are making the promise this is the kind of film you’re going to see. We’re going to show you this, we’re going to wrap this up, and then were going to continue on. They usually plant stuff in that that they will refer back to later. Sometimes it’s thematic elements, sometimes…
[Brandon] Sometimes introducing the villain.
[Brandon] If we look at some of the Indiana Jones, that’s what they do. We are going to see a glimpse of someone who’s going to be our villain for the rest of the movie.
[Mary] But what they are not doing, and this is the thing that I see people do when they try to do an in media res hooky beginning, is that they do something that has really nothing to do with the rest of the book, that makes promises that the book does not fulfill.
[Brandon] Now, let me ask a question. Since… We have all these other questions, but I really want to ask… We talked a lot in the previous weeks, we’ve talked a lot about this sort of in media res beginning. How do you do this in not an action piece? How do you do this in a romance? Or how can you have an intro that doesn’t involve James Bond fighting his way through?
[Dan] Okay. So, Cinder by Marissa Meyer I think has a fantastic beginning because it is the story of Cinderella transposed into science fiction. She’s a cyborg. The opening scene is her sitting in what is essentially a marketplace trying to fix her own cybernetic foot. Which gives you a great sense of who she is, it puts you in media res in a sense because she’s in the middle of doing something. She’s actively engaged, she’s showing her competence. You see all of this stuff happening. There’s the wonderful call forward where we all went and go, “I can’t wait until she runs down the stairs of the palace and leaves her foot behind.”
[Dan] Seeding all of this great stuff in there. But we don’t know… The plot hasn’t started and won’t start until the next chapter.
[Brandon] So what we’re saying is think of an introduction that can introduce your character. Specifically, what are they good at, what are they not so good at. Doing that alone is a good way to start your book. It’s not the only way, but it is a good way. In James Bond’s case, the way you show it is, what is he good at? Everything. What’s he not good at? Nothing. He’s James Bond. But…
[Howard] Making deep, personal, meaningful connections.
[Mary] I was going to say…
[Brandon] Yeah, that’s true.
[Mary] Temper control. Anger management. Just for people who are not familiar, in media res means in the middle of the action. So the action does not have to be…
[Dan] It doesn’t have to be action action. It just has to be something the character’s good at.
[Brandon] We’ve just used a lot of action examples, so I want to push us.
[Brandon] Okay. Here’s another question. What’s the biggest mistake that can be made in plotting the beginning? Mike Mahoya… Majolla… Sorry, Mike. Mike asks.
[Dan] The biggest mistake that can be made in plotting the beginning?
[Howard] Boring me.
[Mary] I would say too much back story. Trying to fit too much into the beginning. We don’t need to know everything right up front.
[Dan] Another, first… Early authors, and I still sometimes do this… We know what the cool parts are, so in our heads, we don’t think I have to hook you right now on page 1, because of course, you’re going to hang on for page 200 because that’s when it gets good. No. Your readers don’t know when it gets good, so it has to get good right off the bat.
[Brandon] Right. Another question leads into this. Melissa asks, “I’ve been working a lot on my beginning…” I’m paraphrasing her. Yet I see all these published beginnings by big-name authors that are really not that great, they’re kind of meh. Why is it that I’m expected to have this fantastic beginning, whereas the published author can have whatever? We… Yeah. Howard.
[Howard] Because… What was the name again? Melissa?
[Howard] Melissa, you’re a Writing Excuses listener, and we expect more of you.
[Brandon] There you go. Good answer. Good answer.
[Howard] I’m paraphrasing. I expect more of me. I read published works and I look at it, and I’ve done this ever since… Ever since reading an interview with Billy Joel when he said the secret to his success was listening to something on the radio and saying, “I bet I can do better than that.”
[Mary] Yeah. It’s basically why aspire to be meh?
[Dan] Maybe a more direct answer to this question is… Because I have had this exact conversation with my editor. Why are all these other books selling better than mine when mine is demonstrably better than theirs? It’s because different audiences like different things.
[Brandon] Well, here’s another caveat I’d put on this. Remember that every book is going to break some of the rules. So if you are kind of, using confirmation bias, looking and saying, “Wow, here’s one with a boring beginning, here’s one with a boring beginning, here’s one with a boring beginning.” Those are the ones that are highlighting to you right now, Melissa, because those are breaking that rule. Not saying that it’s good to break rules, but every book will break some rules.
[Dan] I want to reiterate it wasn’t boring to whatever editor picked it up. There is an audience that is not bored by that beginning.
[Brandon] Occasionally, you’re getting away with what I believe Howard said in a previous podcast, where he said the actual beginning of that book is reading the author’s name. If the author has an established track record, that’s… As has been said, not a good thing to lean on, but it is a reason that something can get published that you’re like, “Oh. Why can they have this clunky beginning?”
[Mary] It’s not because they aren’t being edited, it’s because they know that the reader will trust them. Whereas with a brand-new author, you have to build reader trust from the very first word.
[Howard] You know what, the same thing actually holds true… We’ve used James Bond as an example. If you start your story with a super competent action romp, often my reaction upon reading it will be, “That character hasn’t earned that level of competence from me yet. I don’t believe that yet.” But if the character’s name is James Bond, he came with that out of the gate.
[Brandon] So it is unfair.
[Howard] That’s tricky.
[Brandon] It’s unfair, Melissa.
[Howard] It’s unfair and it’s tricky.
[Brandon] You just remember that you ha… You are competing for the reader’s attention with people who’ve been doing this for 30 years.
[Brandon] So you, in some ways, need to stand out even more.
[Dan] Wow. Is that the most depressing thing we’ve ever said on this show?
[Howard] Every year, somebody… Lots of somebodies beat those odds and…
[Mary] Publish something amazing out of their…
[Brandon] We’re going to stop for our book of the week.
[Mary] All right. So the book of the week is a book that I narrated. It’s called the Shepherd of Siena. I really liked this book. It’s by Linda Lafferty. It is based on a real historical character from Renaissance Florence. This is a young woman, a shepherdess, who wanted to race in the Palio which is the… Palio, excuse me, which is horse races through the streets of Siena. This is not something girls did. And she’s a peasant girl. Actual historical figure. So we’re dealing with the Medicis and all of these other wonderful political intrigues and this girl who is making every effort to do that and succeeds in riding and becomes a national symbol of Florence… A symbol of Florence. It’s wonderful, it’s got all kinds of interesting things about class and gender which you can tell that I like. But it’s really also just a sweet story and there are horses.
[Howard] Riding through the streets?
[Mary] Horses riding through the streets. And like wonderful family dynamics and art and there’s magic. The magic… I don’t want to spoil, because when I hit it, I was like, “Oh, that’s really good.” Because it’s completely plausible. I’m like, “Yeah, no, I see that. That’s completely…”
[Mary] So. I would say, go over to audiblepodcast.com/excuse to start your 30-day free trial membership and pick up The Shepherdess of Siena narrated by me and written by Linda Lafferty.
[Brandon] Okay. We have a really great question here because it’s kind of one of these astute, higher-level questions. Where Eric says, “How do you balance the need to have something going on right away with the need to have your readers know enough about the people involved to care about them?” Which is an excellent question. It’s actually one that I balance quite a bit. I know, as a reader, I’ll pick up a book and be like, “Oh. They started with an action scene, because they know you’re supposed to start with something exciting, and yet I don’t care who lives and who dies, so this action sequence is not connecting with me.” Yet I want to start my books often with a nice action sequence to indicate this is going to be a very action oriented book. How do you do that? How do you balance that?
[Mary] I find that a lot of it is about making sure that there is some aspect of it that is relatable to the reader. So if I start out with an action scene and it’s just lots of people running around, I don’t know who’s a good guy, I don’t know who’s a bad guy. If I start out with an action scene and it’s starting with my hero dangling from a window ledge and having to… I understand what falling is.
[Brandon] Right. It goes back to that… Use the sliding scale to make someone likable. It can be something as simple as making them funny. If someone’s dangling from a ledge and cracking a joke, we like them. We’re like, “I don’t want that person to fall off the ledge. They’re funny.”
[Dan] What you’re trying to do here is the old idea that a scene needs to do more than one thing. If your action scene is just will he escape in the car chase or not, that’s not a good reason to have an action scene at the beginning of your book. Whereas if the action scene’s purpose is to show how this character responds under pressure or to show what is important to this character because he or she is chasing a specific object or person, then we learn about the person at the same time we’re being thrilled by the action.
[Howard] I think that the distillation of that is that those first 13 lines… Not just the car chase, but our first glimpse of that car chase needs to be tickling more than one sense, needs to be showing us character, needs to be showing us what’s going on. It’s hard to get the words to do that much that early. But it can be done.
[Brandon] I would also say that something really intriguing can solve this as well. I’m thinking of a beginning of a Firefly episode where Mal is sitting in the desert naked…
[Dan] Naked and says, “That was a good day.” Or whatever the line was.
[Brandon] Makes some wisecrack, and you’re like…
[Mary] I just like the beginning of that episode so much.
[Brandon] You’ve got a wisecrack, why is he naked in the middle of the desert? If that were the first episode of that show you’d seen, you would still, I think, be hooked by it. Because of the intriguing question.
[Dan] The one I was going to point out is one that we used as the book of the week a while ago, The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu, which starts with a battle in the Chinese Revolution. It doesn’t have any of our main characters in it. Yet it is written in a really compelling way, and hooks you in. It says this is going to be a specific kind of book.
[Mary] I’m going to jump off of something you said about intriguing and makes you wonder why this happened. Again, one of the things that you can do that we’ve talked about is building reader trust. So if you raise the question and then you answer it, then you’re going to build their trust. You don’t want to have to answer all of the questions, but if you raise one and you answer it by raising another, that can often lead them forward into it.
[Howard] Question, answer, question, answer, question, hook!
[Brandon] All right. We’re going to end up with one last question, but I want… That one was from Eric, if I didn’t mention your name. Very good question. One from Paul, who says, “In creating a character, where do you start… To like begin to develop that character and then how do you start showing them?” He says, “What are the most important traits to show off in first introducing them?”
[Dan] The reasons that we like them. I think more so than anything else, that’s the first thing you need to tell us about a character. Because then, once we like them, everything else is going to fall into place.
[Howard] For me, the beginning is, why am I interested in having this character in the story? Sometimes the answer to that is because I need somebody to do X. I know that that answer is not good enough for the reader. Okay? But I have stated that this is my original purpose. Now there needs to be more than that. Once I start building out from that, sometimes I go all the way back and flesh out for myself the character’s back story, and sometimes all I need is… I need them to do this. They want this, and they are emotionally connected to it because of this, and that’s what the reader needs.
[Brandon] I start with what do they want, what’s wrong that they want to fix in their life.
[Mary] That’s usually where I start, too. Which for me, often relates to how likable a character is as well.
[Brandon] All right. Howard has some homework for you guys. We are moving out of beginnings. We’re going to start talking about painting a scene. Howard has a piece of advice for you.
[Howard] Well, advice? You’re going to need some help with this one. Take the world building that you’ve done, take the geewhiz that is part of your story, your setting, and write your beginning. Identify secretly on a piece of paper what your geewhiz is. Now hand this, without telling or saying anything about it, hand this to some alpha readers. Have them read it and have them tell you what they think the geewhiz is. This will help you identify whether you are communicating to your reader what you… The story that you have been telling yourself.
[Brandon] Excellent. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses, now go write.