Saturday, April 9, 2011

Thinking About Story Beginnings

Kay Kenyon is not only a terrific writer, but she has a wonderful gift for explaining story construction. If you're a writer, even an experienced writer, I urge you to follow her blog, Writing the World. Lately, she's been talking about where stories begin and how to engage the reader's interest. Since I'm definitely in the camp of Wrong Point Of Entry Writers, I always appreciate new and helpful ways of looking at the issue.

My usual strategy is to start writing somewhere because otherwise I'll just dither and fuss and glare at that blank screen. I need to get some traction, some momentum. Half the time, I don't know what I'm doing until I get the words down. I used to think there was something horribly wrong with me as a writer because this would happen even when I had a detailed outline. The outline would tell me where I was going, but not where I was starting. As the years and stories rolled by, that didn't change. What did change was my ability to cut and slash and clear away the deadwood and add the stuff I didn't know I needed when I set out. In other words, the words of one of my workshop buddies, I learned to revise "like a @#$%^&*("

After some time, I got better at revising by using "diagnostics," that is, tools and strategies to help me pinpoint the weaknesses and just plain errors of my story. I don't do well with checklists, so they were "right out," as the Brits say. However, I'm strongly visual, so flow charts...and diagramming a Three Act Structure, complete with Plot Points, turned out to be really useful.

Kay adds another layer, which is to ask what the "job" of the opening is. Not what happens to plot/characters, etc., but what function does this play in the overall story. She says:

The first part of your novel, therefore, is devoted to making the upcoming conflict meaningful. To make the stakes matter to the reader, not just to the character. To make us care. So that at PP1 [Plot Point 1] we feel a turn in the gut, a hope, perhaps even a desperate one, that things will work out.

That’s why grabber scenes as openers often fall flat. They may be loaded with conflict and violence, but frankly, we don’t give a damn. We don’t know the characters. Death and betrayal are all very well, but they are common. They aren’t meaningful to us unless we know a bit about who it happens to.

I like this way of thinking about it: what am I trying to accomplish? Why should I -- and my readers -- care about this character, this situation, this world?

The opening should be something that piques our interest, like a literary appetizer. Is this a salad of spring greens with tangy goat cheese and hazelnuts? A crab cake? Deep fried jalapenos? Creamy butternut soup with freshly grated nutmeg? Roasted garlic and rounds of crusty bread? Bruschetta or buffalo wings?
Does it make you hungry for more? Are you eager to dive into the Entree section of the menu? Then it’s done the job. On the other hand, if it sits in your stomach like a rock (indigestible exposition) or leaves you queasy (confused, disoriented by too many unexplained and frenzied events), you might want to re-think your presentation.


  1. Thanks Deborah! This post, and the one you quoted, gave me some insight into what makes me keep reading a book I have just started - or put it down after a page or two.
    - Gretta

  2. Thanks, Deborah! This is a great way to explain to my lit. students what makes a story or play work or not work for them. I'm teaching Othello right now, and each time I'm newly amazed at how tightly Shakespeare sets up play's conflicts in the first act. No one dies, no one is betrayed, but the cracks are evident, and the damage is inevitable. And yet we hope against hope (my students and I) that just this once it will work out. Shakespeare makes us believe in these conflicts the way we believe in the ones we observe in our lives, and so we care--sometimes passionately--what happens to the characters in the play.


  3. Hi Gretta! Glad the insights were useful. I'm frequently frustrated by the academic approach that ignores WHY stories work. We end up being skillful at analysis, but ignorant of what it is that happens to us while reading a great story (or putting down a mediocre one!)

    Lara, that's wonderful! I love the way you describe how Shakespeare comes alive for you and your students, like how art creates community through shared experience. Please invite your students to check out my blog here; I'd love to hear what they have to say, as well!

  4. That's a wonderful website. It even makes me want to go back to those unfinished Xena Warrior Princess fanfics I tried my hand at last year... I've read a lot of them, some not so good, and thought: "I could do that! You know, just for fun!"

    -- Andre

  5. Andre, that's a great idea! Go for it!