I went to a really great writer’s conference in the Mythical Lands of Canada (the MLC) last week, the Surrey International Writers’ Conference. And, while there, I did these so-called “blue pencil” sessions, where I read the first few pages of a writer’s manuscript and they sit across from me, watching my face and trembling as I sharpen my knives on their shoddy craftsmanship. Except, a couple of things happened: first, I had no blue pencil, so I had to instead try to mark-up their manuscript with the blood of the innocent but of course blood isn’t blue but red so that’s disappointing; second, I did not encounter any shoddy craftsmanship. The attendees of this particular conference were operating at a higher level than I had reckoned — which is great!
That said, I found one common thread — a singular critique — that I was able to apply to each and every manuscript I encountered. That common critique is about beginning your story. Given that this month is the vaunted-slash-dreaded NaNoWriMo, a post on beginning your tale thus seemed to be appropriately fortuitous.
So, here’s the truth:
You’re probably fucking up the beginning of your story.
And the beginning of your story is the most vital part. The start of a story carries an undue burden. Imagine that your story is a pack mule, except that it is the animal’s forehead — or even it’s dopey muzzle — that is expected to carry the load. All that burden is shoved to the front of the beast, and so it is with your story.
Sure, sure, Patience is a virtue. Blah blah blah.
It is also not a virtue many readers — including myself — possess anymore.
Reason? We have scads upon plethoras upon cornucopias of entertainment choices available to us. Games, movies, television, cupcakes, religion, politics, porn whatever. Even inside the realm of books (how wonderful does that sound? A WHOLE REALM OF BOOKS) it’s not like our choices are thin on the ground. One book sucks? Ten more will gladly fill its space, barfed up by the giant book-regurgitating monster known as The Publishing Industry.
I am brutal when I read the first page of a new story.
My patience is literally that long — as long as one page. This is not a bomb with a trailing fuse, folks. This fuse is about the length of a human thumb — a short fizzle and a fast detonation. That detonation sounds less like an explosion and more like me going, NOPE, then pitching the book over my shoulder into the dumpster I always keep immediately behind me. (This is awkward when I realize that yet again I have thrown my iPad away because I was reading an e-book.)
So, by this point, I have probably exhausted your own patience by putting such a long lead on this post, but hey, screw it, this blog is free. HAPPY TO REFUND YOUR MONEY, MISTER COMPLAINYPANTS. *makes it rain with Monopoly money thrown at your head*
What I mean is, you’re probably asking:
So, how exactly am I fucking up the beginning of my story?
I will not count the ways.
But rather, I will offer you a metaphor that hopefully will clarify the work that the beginning of your book must do, and further will hopefully obviate the sins you have committed. You monster.
It’s like this:
You, the writer, are leaving a trail of breadcrumbs.
You are walking backward from the reader, trying to get the reader to creep toward you.
You never quite want them to catch you.
Instead, you want them to follow you through the dark forest — this tangled labyrinth — that is your novel, your story, the architecture of the tale you’re trying to tell.
If you leave too many breadcrumbs — meaning, you just dump a cup of them on the ground — the reader will stop right there. They’ll hover over the spot like a starving duck and they’ll just peck at the ground. Which sounds fine (hey, the reader is fed and fat and happy, quack quack), but it means the reader isn’t progressing. A fat belly means a bored duck.
If you leave too few breadcrumbs — meaning, you space them out too far apart, you’re too spare with these little crusty boulders of secret delight — then the reader will follow along but suddenly get lost. In the dark forest they will not be able to see the next breadcrumb. They will then spin around in the shadows, looking for a way forward, and they will not find one. Confused and lonely, they will most likely be eaten by a grue.
In both instances, the reader will put down the book.
(Always assume that the reader is looking for a reason to go do something else. They want to put down your book and go read another one. Or go eat some Cheezits or play a video game or go fuck a houseplant — whatever leisure time activity one prefers when nobody else is watching.)
It is your job to entice the reader forward. To tease and tantalize — story is, in this way, a kind of seduction. (And here I note that breadcrumbs are about the least tantalizing thing in the world, and if someone were to try to seduce me with breadcrumbs I’d probably grumpily urinate on the ground like an offended bear and go trundling off in the other direction. So perhaps this metaphor is better if we imagine Elliott trying to urge E.T. forward with a trail of Reese’s Pieces. Me, I’d probably follow a trail of little bourbon bottles, but I’d get too drunk by the middle of the forest and would probably end up sleeping in the woods, soiled in my own tears and whiskey-sweat. This digression has gone on long enough, I suspect, so we’ll just stick with “breadcrumbs.”)
You’re trying to ensure that the reader is interested in taking the next step, but never precisely satisfied when she gets there. You want the reader to want more. To need more. To continue following you into the maze, driven by the hunger you have stoked.
Now, later on in the book, you can start changing your pace. You can move more quickly, or more slowly, expecting the reader to keep up. You can leave more breadcrumbs here, and fewer there — because by then, the reader is already in the maze. They’re invested in the untangling of the narrative. With a good, balanced opening, you are literally buying story credit that you can spend later on riskier, bolder maneuvers inside the tale. (Though even there, you can overspend — but that is a conversation for another day.)
So, practically speaking, what are these breadcrumbs?
What are their narrative equivalent?
Assume that they’re shaped like little question marks and exclamation points.
Question marks are, as noted, questions — who is this person? What is wrong? Is this a conspiracy? Who are those strange creatures? What is that robot doing to that chicken? As I am wont to say: the question mark is shaped like a hook for a reason. Set the hook right and it embeds in the cheek of the reader and pulls her along.
But a story — particularly the opening — can’t just be questions. It’s not a fucking interview or an essay test. You also have to balance it out with answers, because answers lend us context. Except here, the answers cannot be wishy-washy. The context given cannot be soft-hearted. Answers must be bold, compelling, interesting. This is why they are exclamation points rather than question marks — you’re excitedly declaring things! This is sturm and drang — truth and consequence. Someone dies! An explosion! Doom! Event! Not mere happenstance or coincidence but holy shitcookies, look at this thing and this other thing and that robot and that chicken!
Exposition is too talky. It gives away too much. It’s why we cannot begin a story with backstory, or with explanation — it’s all answers, and it’s all milquetoast.
But we also cannot begin with a void of context, either, because then we’re lost.
Too many breadcrumbs.
Or too few.
We entice with mystery, conflict, drama. Every compelling character is a breadcrumb. So are the actions of those characters. Great writing is a breadcrumb all its own (though not nearly enough of one). On page one I should be seeing the willingness to have things happen and to ask questions. Set the hook with mystery. Reel it in with great event driven by strong characters.
What’s your seduction? How will you compel readers forward? What will seduce them on page one to read to page ten, and then to 20, and then to 50, 100, and all the way to the end?
How will you get readers lost in the maze of your fiction?