Tag Archives: Plots

Where To Start?

7 Nov

“Where do I start my story?” must be the question writers most frequently ask, whether of others or themselves, yet it is impossible to answer, except with the vague suggestion to start with action. Not, of course, that you cannot start with a description or witty observation, but they will need to be very arresting to seize the readers’ attention.

Action, though, is a little misleading. People tend to assume action must be spectacular, a murder or an explosion, but even in a thriller, that isn’t necessarily so. Action can be low-key, too. Even in the case of an explosion, it isn’t necessary to start with the bang – you could begin with the bomb being planted or even a couple arguing only to be interrupted by this sudden blast: All that matters is that the reader is hooked. You could even cheat a little – rather than the main murder, you could begin with the killer offing an accomplice whose death will remain unknown to the investigators for some or all of the story.

Short stories and, especially flash fiction, are easier than novels as they usually consist of a single scene or a few closely-linked scenes: Begin at the beginning and continue till the end. In a novel, not only do you have multiple scenes to choose from, with the complication of flashbacks, flashforwards and subplots, but you need to maintain and build tension over a much longer span. A really powerful piece of action might make a great opening, but could leave the reader underwhelmed by what follows if you’re not careful.

Let’s imagine a murder mystery: Two friends have an argument, which leads to one being murdered; after the funeral, at the reading of the will, a discovery is made that reveals they were murdered and prompts an investigation. Now, ignoring other tricks, like starting with the ending or the murder of an accomplice, where do we begin?

We could ‘begin at the beginning’ – but, where does the story begin? The start of the investigation, or perhaps more effectively, the revelation at the will-reading, would work. Or, how about at the funeral, as a lead-in to the discovery, perhaps with some foreshadowing of the revelation? Or, we could start with some real action: the murder itself. Or, we could begin with the argument that sets events in motion.

But, those aren’t the only options. The story could begin with the aftermath of the murder or some way into the investigation. Equally, the story could begin between the argument and the murder. Or, we could start well before the argument by inventing some other event, probably a piece of fairly low-key action, for the opening paragraph, and then developing the characters and the reasons why they argue. That’s nine alternatives before we even consider anything sneakier.

But, which one do you pick? That’s up to you – you decide which one appeals the most.

HP Lovecraft made a point of creating timelines of events in his stories so that, no matter where he began the narrative and regardless of the order in which events unfolded on the page, he knew the actual order they occurred in, who was where, etc. Even if you’re not much of a planner, a loose outline of the early parts of your story can be a good way of identifying potential starting points.

Indeed, you could take this a step further and write your story in chronological order from the earliest relevant event, before going back and deciding where to begin the finished story. This might involve cutting some text, perhaps recycling some as backstory, or it could be relocated to serve as flashbacks; or you could move something back to serve as a flashforward. You will probably need to do some rewriting to cover excised details that are important to the plot and to make the new opening work properly as an introduction (you may, for example, find the descriptions of key characters are in earlier, deleted sections), but this is likely to be far easier than staring at a blank page, trying to envisage how to start.

Remember, once you reach the end, you can always rewrite your beginning. So, don’t worry too much. Get started, get writing and you’ll get there eventually.

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All Just A Dream

20 May

The other day, I read a comment on Facebook about the annoyance of discovering that a significant chunk of a novel was nothing but a dream. Now, I quite like dream sequences, but I also agree with this assessment because, when we learn that “It was all just a dream,” it very often is nothing but a cop-out, a means of avoiding the fall-out from events.

Of course, handled well, such a discovery in a comedic story can be amusing, but done clumsily or used in more serious works, it is frequently a letdown, effectively either invalidating a storyline you’ve enjoyed or forcing you to wade through rubbish for nothing.

But, I don’t think that “It was all just a dream,” which is usually a sign of lazy writing, should be confused with dream sequences generally or narratives that call into doubt what is real.

A dream sequence, even if it misleads by not initially appearing to be a dream, isn’t a copout: it should further the plot, rather than merely seeing the ‘reset button’ being hit at the end. Of course, events may be ‘reset’ at the end of the dream if it seemingly altered things, but, unlike saying “It was all just a dream” (although the character, in the story, may echo just that sentiment), the dream should have an impact, such as containing a prophecy (or what they believe is a prophecy) or the dreamer gaining new insight or being forced to confront something as a result. A well-written dream sequence should have an effect on the story or, at least, tell us something new.

Then, there are those stories that, at first glance, seem no different to dreams, but which are actually calling into doubt what is and isn’t real. In a sense, they end with “It was all just a dream. Or, was it?” albeit, one hopes, more subtly than that! Although some readers may lump such narratives in with the former unsatisfying sort of story, most will come away questioning just what did and didn’t happen and, perhaps, will even ponder how we define reality. To offer an example, the movie Black Swan includes many scenes that may not have happened, or not as we see them occur on the screen, yet the doubtfulness of what we’ve just watched doesn’t invalidate the events of the movie as they convincingly demonstrate the mental breakdown of Natalie Portman’s character through her reactions to those, possibly nonexistent, events.

Thus, it should be summed up that it’s not the presence or absence of dreams that makes or breaks a story, but whether their presence actually effects the narrative or not, just as the inclusion of any element that doesn’t further the plot or develop its characters, no matter how brilliant, is ultimately a disappointment. What matters is that what is included matters…

Not So Common

17 Jul

I have just been reading a magazine’s list of ‘plots we see too often’ and, as with reading lists of SF  or fantasy cliches, I realise that a) I must have some knack for avoiding such things and b) for cliches, I seldom see them in the submissions I receive. Of course, what the magazine really meant (it was indicated obliquely at times) was that these were plots that they received a lot that were usually badly (ie obviously or simply) written, or where an interesting plot element became the basis of the entire plot. Essentially, it’s a variation of what I wrote in an earlier post on here – there’s no such thing as bad writing, only writing that is misaimed; in this case, the writers have either sent their story to the wrong publisher or they have taken what could have been a good idea and failed to develop it properly.

But, at the same time, I did find myself thinking that, if you are receiving a lot of stories of a certain sort, perhaps that is the sort of story people want to see? Of course, when it comes to small presses, publication decisions are usually driven far more by what the editor likes than commercial concerns – it doesn’t matter if the world has gone mad for vampire romances, if you hate them, you can ignore them. Still, it does make me wonder if there are any editors out there who have ever considered taking a look at such lists and basing anthologies around entries. They’d certainly be guaranteed submissions (although not necessarily good ones!) and, if lots of people want to write about a specific idea, you would assume that there will be plenty of readers. If anyone decides to make an attempt, let me know how it goes, I’d be fascinated to hear!

Randomise Your Fiction!

9 Apr

In roleplaying and war games, events never proceed as you expect them to. Whether it is the unexpected interaction of different plans or the random element that many rule systems supply, a game seldom turns out quite how you expected it to. This is something that I have found can work wonders for fiction.

Whether you plan your stories in detail before you begin or have a freewheeling, make-it-up-as-you-go approach, it is very easy to take the obvious approach to fiction writing. Those twists that do appear are frequently there specifically for the story and, too often, plots run along rather hackneyed rails. The simple reason is that, consciously or subconsciously, you are following a script in your head and it probably isn’t as original as you think it is. By inserting some degree of randomisation into your plan, you not only can avoid writing something stereotypical but can also find yourself coming up with ideas you would never otherwise have had.

(I must digress for a moment to point out that, for all its benefits, any sort of random element should not be followed slavishly if it will completely derail the story you want to tell or force you down extremely improbable paths. It should enhance your story, not ruin it.)

There are numerous ways you can include a random element in your story. The most obvious is the traditional means of breaking writers block by randomly picking elements such as characters, locations and plot elements and putting them together in a plot. You could even randomly build your characters by making elements of the appearance and personality subject to the roll of a die or draw of a card. To go a little further, rather than deciding just when certain things will happen, such as when a character will arrive, things that often tend to be conveniently timed to help or hinder the protagonist, why not make them random and see how they affect the story as a result (if you do not wish to be entirely at the whim of fate, you could look at each permutation – what if the character is early, what if they are late, what if they are right on time – what happens as a result? Which is most interesting?).

You can also tie your plot to reality – if it is set in the past or present, check to see what all the pertinent elements were like at the time. What was the weather like? You may have been envisaging a lovely sunny day, but it may have been an unexpected thunderstorm – how does that change things? If they are making a journey, what were travel conditions like? If your story is set ‘now’ base it on tomorrow’s travel news – decide the route they will take and see what conditions are actually late – will they be late as a result of delays? Would they have to take another route? What happens as a result? This can be especially useful in action adventures if you are planning an ambush or something – the victim may arrive early or late, or not at all, if they have gone another way. A fairly straightforward snatch narrative might suddenly become a great deal more convoluted and interesting as characters react to events beyond their control that you might not otherwise have considered inserting.

You can also involve other people. Different people see things in different ways and someone else might have a very different idea of how to react in a certain set of events than you would have thought of, offering you a new take on what you are writing. You might ask them how they think someone would react in a situation facing the protagonist or to plan a daring raid, or to even to make political decisions as you develop your fantasy setting. You might be surprised at the very different outcomes they can offer!

So, don’t just go down the obvious route, take the opportunity to see what variables you can insert into your plot and really make it stand out!