14 December, 2009

Getting there: Lesson 2 - Starting your story

So you have an idea, but how do you present it so it reads as wonderful as it sounds in your head? It takes planning and plotting to get to that first draft.

Right now, let's forget about the editors and publishers and think about the most important thing--the story. You need a story in order to get published, no so?

Let's get started.

Plotting is a tool all authors use, but all use it in very different ways. Plotting, in this context, means planning the pieces of your story and how they all fit together. There are authors who approach a novel as one would an essay or some sort of technical drawing. They work out the plot, develop their characters, and even write a synopsis or outline before they sit down to write their first word. On the other extreme (I fall under this category) are authors who start with just the theme/idea and develop their plots and characters as the story goes along. This second method works well for me, since, in my opinion, I get to know my characters more as I spend time with them.

Either way, there has to be a beginning, a middle and an end, whether you're writing a short story or a novel.

Let’s start with the Beginning. What do you want to write about? Why does that story need to be told? What makes you the best person to tell that story? The first question, to me, is the most important, since the second two will manifest themselves in the story, based on the author's personal experiences and motivation.

When I set out to write my first novel, Forest Girl (FG), my basic idea was to do an arranged marriage story. The common plot in most Ghanaian stories/movies/plays is of a young girl forced into marriage to a much older man for the financial benefits it would bring her family. Usually the girl would have a love interest—a young man her age who has little or no money to his name. It means that usually, the girl is against the marriage while the rich man calls the shots and the poor boy ends up a casualty of love. Most of these stories advocate love marriages while depicting the evils of arranged marriages.

I asked myself, what if the girl was all for the marriage and the man wasn’t? How do you force a man into an arranged marriage in a culture where the man has a say and the woman doesn’t? That was the seed that grew to become FG.

Once you've decided what you want to write about, how do you start the story? Now more than ever, it has become important to hook the reader as early as your first line, since the industry has become very competitive, and potential readers have a vast number of alternatives for entertainment.

Think of a story that starts with: Jesus was not born on Christmas day. Both religious and non-religious people are likely to be drawn to this line simply because it sounds so audacious. The author has the reader’s attention now. If you have a good story, the reader will continue reading. Suspense is probably the easiest genre to do a first-line hook, since the genre naturally lends itself to drama. Here’s a good example:

The Secret is how to die.
From the beginning of time, the secret has always been how to die.
[The Lost Symbol, by Dan Brown]

Of course, best-selling books don’t always start with such dramatic lines. In fact, an article I once read said that many stories get rejected by editors, because the first line is so great, but the story goes south from there. You would serve yourself better to avoid starting with a bang if the rest of the story doesn't support it. Grabbing attention is only the first step; you need to be able to hold the readers attention.

To buttress this point, take a look at the following starting lines for the top 5 Paperback Mass-Market Fiction on New York Times Best Seller list as of 13th December, 2009. (For some I chose to include more than the first line):

1. To her complete stupefaction, he slid his blaster out of its holster faster than she could blink and opened fire on Rits. [Born of Ice, by Sherrilyn Kenyon]

2. My name is John Tyree. I was born in 1977, and I grew up in Wilmington, North Carolina, a city that proudly boasts the largest port in the state as well as a long and vibrant history but now strikes me more as a city that came about by accident. [Dear John, by Nicholas Sparks]

3. The rules of the New Haven Youth League required that each kid play at least ten minutes in each game. Exceptions were allowed for players who had upset their coaches by skipping practice or violating other rules. [The Associate, by John Grisham]

4. The sixty-foot steel-hulled trawler was what all commercial fishing boats ought to look like but seldom did. [Arctic Drift, by Clive Cussler and Dirk Cussler]

5. Tiny lights winked on the Douglas fir standing tall and full in front of the picture window. Swags of Christmas greenery and dozens of cards decked the well-appointed living room, and apple logs cackled in the fireplace, scenting the air as they burned. [7th Heaven, by James Patterson and Maxine Paetro]

As you can see, some start with a bang, while others lead you in. A hook comes in many forms as exhibited but these authors; element of danger, humour, imagery etc. Each of these sets very different expectations in the reader’s mind.

What do you think of the examples above? Which is your favourite and why? How does your first line(s) compare?

The next few of posts will talk about the middle—developing the meat of the story.

I hope you stop by to check those out.


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