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Guest Post: The Burden of Your Novel’s Opening Scene

by Larry Brooks on April 23, 2014

A guest post by noted author and blogger C. S. Lakin.

Think of your novel as a gold mine, with a mother lode resting deep in the heart of a mountain. In order to get to that treasure, you have to build a sturdy framework as you dig into all that dirt and rock. You don’t want the mine to collapse on your head—that would spell disaster.

Now think about the entrance to the mine, which is particularly important to attend to. All the bracing and construction that follows will be built off that initial structure. So if it’s flawed or built with flimsy materials . . . well, we’re back to disaster.

So how is all this like a novel? 

In order to get to the heart of your story, the “”entrance” must be set up clearly in the first pages of your novel. Most authors know that the beginning of a novel is the most crucial and carries the weightiest burden of any other scene or chapter in your entire book.

The opening scene must convey so many things that often the author will have to rewrite it numerous times to get it right, and sometimes the best time to rewrite the opening scene is when your novel is done. Why? Because at that point you have (one hopes) developed your rich themes and motifs, thoroughly explored your protagonist’s heart and character arc, and have brought your plot to a stunning and satisfying conclusion.

Your Opening Scenes Support the Entire Novel

Since the first one or two scenes carry the burden of the whole book, if they don’t have the correct structure to hold back the tons of dirt [read: the next 70,000 words or more] overhead from falling, you’re looking at a potential (or probable) collapse of the whole story. No way will the miners make it to the heart, where the big pocket of gold awaits. More than likely they will be choking on dust and crawling and clawing their way back out to a place they can lick their wounds, clean up a bit, and ponder how in the world they will find another way in. Whereas, they could have successfully journeyed to the heart had they but taken the time to reinforce the entrance.

Starting Is Better Than Finishing

There’s an ancient proverb that goes like this: “Finishing is better than starting.” And therein lies great wisdom, to be sure. I can start a whole lot of projects, but the real test of perseverance, success, and merit is in the finishing. However . . . when it comes to writing a great novel, starting is more important than finishing—at least when it comes to the importance of your major story elements. If you have every essential thing in place in your first scene, you will have set up the entire book in a way that will lead you wonderfully to the finish line.

The First-Page Checklist

I am often asked to do one-on-one critiques at writers’ workshops and events, and because those appointments are usually a scant fifteen minutes long, I came up with a way to dive into each writer’s story in that short time. They are instructed to bring page one of their novel, and in that short span of time I read it, then go over a number of important elements that need to be on the first page—using my handy “First-Page Checklist.”

Granted, not everything on the list must be on page one, but the idea is to be aware of all the elements needed to appear early in a novel—in order to set up that strong entrance to the mine. I believe that the closer to page one you can get all these components, the better. I have heard other writing instructors say similar things in their workshops as well.

Without sending you into cardiac arrest by listing nearly twenty important items you need in that first scene, I’m going to concentrate on some important ones—the ones that really need to be considered.

So here for easy reference (and also here, as a pdf you can download) , is the First-Page Checklist.

First Page Checklist

____ Opening Hook: Clever writing and image that grabs the reader

____ Introduction of main character in first few lines

____ Starting the story in the middle of something that’s happened (or happening)

____ A nod to setting; avoid excessive exposition or narrative

____ A catalyst, inciting incident, or complication introduced for your character

____ A hint at character’s immediate intentions

____ A hint at character’s hidden need, desire, goal, dream, fear

____ Unique voice/writing style

____Setting the tone for the entire book

____ A glimpse at character’s personal history, personality—shed light on motivation

____ Introduction of plot goal

____ A course of action/decision implied: introduction of high stakes/dramatic tension

____ Pacing: jump right into present action. No back story

Think of:

·        One characteristic to reveal that makes your character heroic and vulnerable

·        One element of mystery, something hinted at that raises curiosity

·        One element out of the ordinary, unusual, that makes your book different/stand out

·        Concise, catchy dialogue (if in the first scene) that is not boring or predictable

·        A way to hint at your theme, if you have one

You don’t want to be that miner who is left scratching his head at the collapse of his mine shaft after an earthquake, wondering what he did wrong. Just as with anything you build, it’s all about the foundations—the materials and design used to ensure that structure you have delineated on those blueprints will stand the test of time.

You can “build” you novel so it, too, stands the scrutiny of critics and has lasting power as it speaks to untold people regardless of time or place. With careful planning, you can make it to the heart of your mine and load up your sack with gold. Take the time to shore up the framework of your novel’s “entrance.” In doing so, you’ll learn how to construct a firm entrance for your mining operation that it will serve you time and again with each novel you write—leading the reader to the heart of your story.

C. S. Lakin is a multi-published novelist and writing coach. She works full-time as a copy editor and critiques about two hundred manuscripts a year. She teaches writing workshops and gives instruction on her award-winning blog,Live Write Thrive. Her latest book—Say What? The Fiction Writer’s Handy Guide to Grammar, Punctuation, and Word Usage—is designed to help writers get a painless grasp on grammar. You can buy it in print here or as an ebook here.

Connect with her on Twitter and Facebook.

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Is Your Story Worth Saving?

by Larry Brooks on April 20, 2014

Of course it is.  It’s yours.  Nobody can nor should they tell you it’s not worth the time to try to save it.

But when it isn’t ready to come out into the light, when it doesn’t really have a shot as is — because on this website and in my story evaluations, this is about PROFESSIONAL-level storytelling — someone absolutely should tell you it needs… whatever it needs.

Really, though, sometimes that assessment in the harshest degree — even when it’s fair and accurate — is more an issue of semantics than it is a pronouncement of death.  Even when it is.

Because anything can be revised.  Sometimes, to the point where absolutely everything in the proposed story has been rethought and rebooted.  Because someone on the other side pointed out why it wouldn’t work otherwise.

Like people with a pulse, stories require certain minimum elements, essences and chemistry to work.  Only here it’s a matter of opinion — someone’s opinion — that makes that call.  The idea, the goal, is to arm yourself with the ability to make that call.

Even doctors in the ER have to make that call on patients… the point at which they “call it” and put away the paddles.

Which poses a rhetorical question:

In the case of a story that has been completely rebooted, have you just “saved” the story, or have you used the experience of the former story to lead you to a better story?

It doesn’t matter what label — first aid, polish, or resurrection from the dead — you put on the resultant reboot process and product.  What matters is understanding when and why this discussion applies to you, and then, what you need to do about it.

Sometimes the news that your story isn’t good enough is the best news of all.  Because you probably thought it was good enough.  The dispenser of that verdict has just, in some combination, given you new hope, a plan, and the saving of several months of pain and/or work.

Even when the thing is dead on arrival.

Whether you listen, or not, is your call.  It, and what you do about it, is a call that makes or breaks your writing dream.

My Job Sucks Sometimes

As a story coach I get up every day to stare down the throat of stories that need help.  It’s the nature of the story coaching beast… if it didn’t require coaching it wouldn’t be on my screen.  That’s why I charge money for this (in addition to the result being invaluable to the writer), because sometimes it’s like trying to turn a 98-pound weakling into its proud parent’s vision of it becoming a first round draft choice… like, soon, after a few more pushups.

And yet, the only way to take that kid/project to that level is to whip up a Captain America level resurrection (you’ll recall he was, literally, a 98-pound weakling who died, then was rebuilt in a lab and zapped back to life, complete with a new body, a new brain and a new mission in life).  That kid wasn’t “saved,” he was essentially replaced.

Make the leap from that analogy to a story that isn’t working at it’s most basic defining level… and you’ve just joined the conversation here.  Save it?  Try to breath life into it by medicating the symptoms instead of the cause?

Or do you reinvent it?  That’s the author’s opportunity.

Here’s what I believe to be true: at the end of the story coaching day… no, every story cannot be saved.

More often than I care to say (and you really don’t want to know), the degree of help required to make a story viable leans into the aforementioned analogy, a story so lacking in weight (while burdened with the misguided hubris of its creator) it’s like a newborn brought into the world without bones or muscle or — again, much too often — a brain.

But dang, that thing was so cute back at square one.

The problem is this: writer has what they believe to be a cool notion for a story… but it’s challenging, complicated, even out there, so writer makes some leaps, asks the reader to suspend logic and belief, then faces more stretches and concoctions just to connect the dots… and before you know it you have the CIA coming to a shy 14-year math whiz  (the hero of this story) with an alcoholic parent to save the world because, gosh darn it, there just aren’t enough really smart and capable people sitting in windowless rooms in a CIA facility that can actually save the world after all.

If your wimpy teenage hero has to hack into National Security servers to get the information required to save the world, when all the police and secret agents and military might on the planet haven’t been able to do just that… then odds are your story is Dead on Arrival.  It’s been stretched and bent and contrived to death.

It’s like lying.  You tell one, it’s a whopper, and then you have to keep heaping lie after lie after lie on top of it to justify the pieces of the original whopper just to seemingly hold the whole teetering facade together.  But oh, that first lie… it was so beautiful.  If only it were true… and so, you bend all logic and reason to make it true in your story world.

But here’s the deal: you really can’t turn a really bad story idea into a really good story, or a really non-heroic protagonist (you wouldn’t believe how many unpublished “heroes” there are out there with backstories in which they are insecure, unloved, timid, frightened and disconnected… newsflash: Superman came out of the womb with powers beyond what any human could imagine)… without replacing that idea and that backstory with a better one.

Bend all you want… but it is that bending and stretching of logic that kills your story as much as the eye-rolling nature of the premise in the first place.

The trouble with this whole business — the business of writing publishable fiction, fiction that sells — is that this is a moving, imprecise, often invisible bar we’re reaching for here.  This is why everybody who tries doesn’t get there.

It’s why professional storytellers — those who have earned the nametag not because of track record, but because of the craft at their command – do.

The sweet spot for all of this resides at the intersection of concept and premise. 

Which leads to a dramatic question.  Which connects to a hero called up to answer and resolve that question.  Which, when perceived as compelling without the need to bend it into something else entirely, becomes the DNA of a story with a shot.

Somewhere in that simple equation writers are deluding themselves into believing they’ve broken the code.  When in fact, their ship is taking on water and won’t make it out of the harbor into the open ocean of an unspooling story.

When you write a story, you are owning the conceit that you know what others will find compelling.  Think about that for a moment… and then look in a mirror and ask if that’s you.

Revision is common. 

It’s expected.  A part of the deal.  A fulfilling phase of the storytelling journey.

Unless it’s an attempt to breath life into the stillborn by bending and stretching the capacity of a reader to believe.  Into an equation that doesn’t add up, and won’t mean anything if and when it does as a result of all the bending of the math required.

Unless the thing is just plain dead already.  If it is, you need to hear it from the perspective of a professional, someone who knows the difference between a player that belongs on the field and one who needs to stay in the concession stand.

What’s frustrating about my job — I think this just turned into a bit of a rant — is that I keep getting stories sent to me that are in, or have both feet already dangling toward — that abyss from which there is no return.

The Fix

The ONLY THING that can prevent that — for you, for me, and in general — is a heightened awareness of what makes a story work.  Which is a story sensibility that arises from, is built upon, the mechanics of how a good story is assembled, and how it is fueled by a concept and a premise (they are different… recognizing that alone is half the battle) that has enough energy and potential and fresh air in its DNA to give the story a shot at a future.

It is, pure and simple,  story physics.  Dramatic tension arising from a compelling (key word, right there) dramatic question, leading to a hero who must DO something in pursuit of a worthy goal, with something blocking the straight line toward the goal.  That’s it, in the proverbial nutshell.

When the goal is to render those narrative physics onto the page, it happens only from a solid foundation of storytelling craft (what I call the six core competencies of storytelling) that seizes that concept/premise promise and molds it into narrative gold.

The trick resides in recognizing what that winning concept/premise DNA consists of (hint: I just told you what it consists of), then summoning the requisite craft to bring it to fruition over the arc of a story that is artfully assembled and rendered.

You can get all six of the core competencies right… and the story can still sink like a stone tied to the foot of a protagonist who never stood a chance.  Just as you can put makeup and clothes on a store mannequin or a corpse that looks like a person, that is in fact beautiful and mesmerizing… but it still can’t walk across a room.

That’s the thing about a good concept.  Many stories can arise from it.  Only one of them is your premise.

Our job is to pick the right one, the best one.  The one that stands a chance in hell in a business in which there really isn’t one, if the statistics are to be believed.

*****

Click HERE to read more about Story Physics, and HERE to read more about the Six Core Competencies of successful storytelling.

Click HERE or HERE (for a shorter, less expensive level that focuses on concept and premise) to learn more about holding your story plan up to the harsh but liberating light of analysis from a story coach who won’t judge your story, just the DNA it’s built upon.

Prices for story coaching will increase on May 1, 2014.  Those who opt in now will lock in the current fee, regardless of when the submit the materials involved.

 

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Case Study: Heroes and Villains and Readers Who Can’t Tell the Difference

April 10, 2014

Let’s call him Joe. Joe is another of those courageous writers who consented to running their coaching Questionnaire answers (the Kick-Start concept/premise evaluation), with my feedback, here on Storyfix .  He turned me down at first, uncomfortable with the notion that someone out there might want to “borrow” from his concept. I assured him this [...]

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The Road to Publication: One Novel’s Bumpy Ride

April 5, 2014

Today’s post is the story of a novel’s journey from inception to publication.  This is an excerpt from my new ebook, “The Inner Life of Deadly Faux,” which I introduced (and offered… for FREE) in the post just prior to this one.  (You can get it here: PDF DF Inner Life.) If you’ve published a [...]

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Free Ebook, a Unique Learning Opportunity

April 3, 2014

Sometimes writers write books about writing.  Stephen King comes to mind, among many others. Sometimes — much rarer — writers write books about a specific book they’ve written, or someone else comes forward to write about that book (John Steinbeck, for example, as well as biographies of iconic authors that discuss specific works). But I’m [...]

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Case Study: Staying in the Conceptual “Lane”

March 27, 2014

Here’s a good little case study, taken from my supposedly short (this turned out to be over 8 pages of feedback) $50 Conceptual Kick-Start analysis service. As usual, props to the courageous writer who consented to share this.  Actually, she was delighted and enthusiastic when she found out there was a clear direction to take [...]

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ARCHETYPES: Empowering Source-Driven Characters and Plots

March 17, 2014

  A guest post by Robert Jones. You are invited to comment and engage, you’ll find Robert to be responsive, supportive and a wealth of clarifying mental modeling across the vast universe of fiction writing. Archetypes have a universal power that, when tapped effectively, is proven to generate best-selling novels and films. The right combination [...]

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Case Study: The Square-One Death of a Story

March 5, 2014

Premise makes or breaks you.   Often before you write a single word of the story that your premise promises. Only rarely can you make chicken salad out of a sow’s ear (to combine two apropos bon-mots).  Trying to do so is one whopper of a low percentage wager. You think writing is art?  So [...]

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The Bermuda Triangle of Storytelling

February 23, 2014

Don’t Let It Sink Your Story Before It Leaves the Harbor “Idea” is one of the most dangerous words in storytelling.  Every story begins with one, in some form… so what’s so dangerous about that, you ask?  Ideas are wonderful things, right? In the most obvious conversational context, “idea” is a generic term for a [...]

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Two Short (but killer) Guest Posts from Art Holcomb

February 14, 2014

Sic Transit Gloria Mundi Legends say that when a victorious Roman general returned to Rome, he was allowed to march his armies, his captives and his spoils through the sacred streets of the city. He would ride in a great gilded chariot in all his finery – and at his feet would sit the slave [...]

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