Tag Archives: story structure

Your Opening Image and Page One

small-camera As in the movies, the ideal opening image for novels and short fiction will be resonant and unique.  Or, as a perspicacious agent once said to me, “Why the bleep are you opening your story with a bunch of characters drinking beer in a pub?”

Take a look, for example, at the opening image of the 2007 film Once. The first scene nails time (night) place (empty city street — thus, an opposition, Dublin) the promise of genre (musical) and a hint at the central conflict, (a kind, talented man playing music in pain to an empty street, who clearly needs to get together with somebody).  The title letters come together, and we have the advent of the girl who likes his music.

There are plenty of books out there that nail time, place, tone, promise of genre, and a hint at the central conflict.  Of course, rules are meant to be broken — I’ve seen award-winners that begin with a two-page inner-voice rant. However, it’s a real pleasure to see instances where the five are nailed in the opening sentence, as in George Orwell’s 1984:  “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”

I suggest brainstorming 15-20 ways a story might begin.  And, because it’s a great help to us all, I must mention the biggest aid to writing an opening scene:  the closing scene. Whether the first seeds the second, or we’ve got a circular tale on our hands, the fabulous end to a tale is our best help to writing a brilliant and engaging beginning.

I hope you’ll have another brilliant writing day.

Cheers, Mel

muse smallThis week from @yourwritingmuseThere are no unimportant characters in your tale. Brilliant storytelling. From your Writing Muse

Gifted Storytellers and the Small Screen

smallqueentvWhenever I ask myself, “How did the Duke of Marlborough personally lead all those winning battles and then handle the whole country’s international relations across Europe?  How did Benjamin Franklin have the time to invent bifocals, write Poor Richard adages, and have French mistresses while being a premier politician?  How could Jane Austen ignore all the evening’s family and social doings while she wrote her iconic novels by hand in the evenings?”  I always answer, “Because they didn’t have TV.”

 Limiting TV and computer time will give many writers all the time they need to write a couple of books a year. That’s a vital consideration when you’re fitting a full-time writing career into your full-time life.

But television gives us a broad access to storytelling, much of it told by gifted storytellers. If you’re trying to integrate a full-time writing career with your full-time life, here are 3 ways to use television watching to strengthen storytelling skills, as you take just 5-10 minutes as you’re watching a show — reality, sitcom, drama — and jot down what these genius writers are doing to keep us coming back week after week, decade after decade to see football players learn to tango, boys lose girls, earthlings resist aliens, mothers misunderstand daughters, and fathers underestimate sons.

  1. The opening images:  What elements establish time, place and especially herald the conflict for this particular story? or
  1. Write down The big problem, linking by the word “but” to the major obstacles and “so” to the choice he’ll have to make.  Jack must save the world from terrorists but his daughter has been kidnapped to keep him out of the action – so can he take on both at once?  or
  1. Write down the big reveal.  It didn’t come out of nowhere, so how did the writer(s) set it up?

Luckily for writers, people love and desire story.  Across the centuries we’ve gathered round storytellers, bards, and gossips to suck up story in whatever amounts we can squeeze out of them.  And, if we care to take the time, to learn from them.

Transitions in Storytelling: Milestones and Memories

hand and pencilI’m reading a social history of the UK in the 1950s, Family Britain, which in the hands of a lesser writer might read like a list.  First rationing loosened, then Churchill was re-elected, and then television began its overtake of radio in the UK.  Author David Kynaston works with a rich and detailed treasure chest of journal entries, memoirs, and interviews.  But even these would not be enough to deserve the Spectator’s review: “Kynaston is the most entertaining historian alive.”  And that’s a great reason for us storytellers to look with care at this non-fiction writer’s craft.

One of Kynaston’s many strengths is the expert and inspired use of transitions between milestones, memories, and public and private reactions. He connects these with his readership through emotional resonance, so that although we read his book to learn facts, we find instead we’ve learned to care about the many small transformations that add up to that particular era’s journey. His craft is well worth studying for fiction writers.

I note with admiration the way he sets us deeply into the moment through transition and a feel for the weather following a journal entry on a Coronation day memory, when the diarist and her sister happened by Buckingham Palace late Coronation night and witnessed the new Queen’s unscheduled balcony appearance. “And then by Jove they came out, the Queen and the Duke, and they didn’t hurry back in either. We were transported… marvelling at our luck.”

Kynaston writes, “Whether on that Tuesday itself, or the dryer days after, Coronation celebrations took many forms … but the most emblematic celebration, the one closest to most people’s sense of what was fit and proper, was the street party, primarily but not exclusively for the children.”

With that transition from grownup joy, through the weather troubles that resonate with us all, and into the celebrations afterwards – wow, lovely, for the children, of course I’d get involved – Kynaston makes connections that at 60 years distance still involve us deeply.  When I read that East London dads gave up their Friday pints for a few extra shillings for this party, I want to clap them on the back.  Now, when Kynaston says that trestle tables were set up, we see the cost for some.  Was it worth it, for those children?  Did the young ones appreciate it?

His transition from the tables to a young girl looking down at them, up past her bedtime, makes it personal.  Her dad, her memoir tells us, “who was more than a little drunk, spied me at the window. ‘Gi’us a song, Marie, hen,” he called out. I started singing In a Golden Coach…There’s a heart of gold, That belongs to you and me…

“That,” added Lulu, “was my first public appearance.”

For those of us who remember Lulu, Kynaston has again connected our past to this past, and since we really care, he can go on, certain of our attention, to explain exactly how the street parties were organized.

Family Britain is thick as a brick, not a word out of place, a superb work from which to study transitions, and anyway I can’t put it down.

Family Britain 1951-57 David Kynaston. Bloomsbury, London. 2009.

Writer’s Block Could Just Be Lassie at the Cliff Edge

From time to time writers may face blank pages and find their minds are blank, too.poorthingnogrey poorthingnogrey

Some give up. That’s it, I’m at 30,000 words and there’s nothing more to say. But what if the imperative stop our minds raise for us is beneficial to our craft?

What if our trained instincts are telling us that it’s time to take a look, not at the next 1,000 words, but at the story structure as a whole?  If you accept that our inner writers, in partnership with our inner readers, know quite a lot, and that it’s our strong talent that keeps us longing to write, then when our mind refuses to take another step, we perhaps ought, like Lassie’s owner at cliffside, to stop and listen.

This extended pause may well be a gift to story structure.  We can use ten minutes here and there to outline the story as a whole, character development arcs, individual turning points, Hero’s Journey structure, individual scene structure.  Write blurbs, reviews, and taglines.  It may take days, or weeks, or whatever, to pass, but the more we think positively and professionally about using this blank white time, the less fear we feel facing it.