Okay, you have the idea, but where do you begin? We are told over and over that the opening page is the most important page in the entire book. You hook the editor, agent, and your reader. No pressure :)
Timothy continues his series on how to finish your novel:
1. Act One
“Never open a book with weather.” — Elmore Leonard
“Well, okay, it’s not quite as cut-and-dried as that. Leonard goes on to say you can get away with opening with weather if you’re really good at it, or if you’re actually focusing on a character’s reaction to the weather. If you absolutely must talk about the weather, he says, keep it short. And for good reason.
Your first scene is enormously important. It invites the reader into the world of the characters and the world of the book. Ideally, it should set into motion something that will be important later. It should almost certainly introduce us to a main character, if not actually the primary character.
And it should make us eager to read (and you eager to write) the second scene.
When you think about it, you realize that you can actually begin a story anywhere. Listen to what a wonderful writer, Margaret Visser, says in a dazzling book, The Geometry of Love: Space, Time, Mystery and Meaning in an Ordinary Church:
Often the “line” of connection in stories is pictured as a thread. (The word “line” itself comes from the Latin linea, a flaxen thread for making linen.) We speak of “spinning a yarn” and, if we become distracted, of “losing the thread” of the tale . . . . The word “text” has the same root as “textile” because a narrative is thought of as woven, out of threads.
And like a textile, like a piece of cloth, a story can be cut and assembled – or “woven,” to use her word – in an almost infinite number of ways.
So where will you begin to weave your story?
For your opening scene, I’d suggest you consider the following:
* Give us something to look at. Let the reader use his or her imagination to see something that captures attention.
* Get it moving. There’s no reason a book’s momentum shouldn’t begin on the first page, or even in the first paragraph or the first sentence. Let the reader ride that momentum right into the story.
* Populate it. Get your characters on the page as soon as possible. Of course, there are always exceptions. James Michener started Hawaii with God only knows how many pages describing the geological events that created the chain of islands where his novel was set. Fissures opened in the seabed. Magma bubbled up and formed undersea volcanic mountains in microscopic increments. For thousands of years. Rain fell. Rain didn’t fall. The mountains grew from their own eruptions. Surface rocks slowly, and I mean slowly, fragmented to become sand. You get the point. And my description isn’t fair, because it worked. But he was James Michener, with dozens of novels and stories, literally millions of words, behind him. He had learned his craft to an extent that most of us only dream about. And, Elmore Leonard notwithstanding, there was a bunch of weather in there, too.
* Pick the right moment. Remember, you don’t have to start at the beginning. It’s your story – you can open it up anywhere you want. You can jump ahead to a point at which the action is beginning to rise and then, when the scene’s done, back it up to an earlier point. Or you can find a moment at the very beginning when things begin to develop – perhaps a moment at which a character’s world begins to change, whether he or she knows it or not.
* Establish the stakes. Whatever is at issue in the novel – or at least one of the things that’s at issue, if there are several – should be introduced in the first scene. Lots of other writers would argue with this, and have, on a face-to-face basis, but I take the point of view that the reader doesn’t have a decade to dedicate to your book. You owe the reader your best attempt to do several things at once, whenever possible: to move the story forward, deepen the characters, and focus on the stakes. You might as well begin with the first scene.
My Bangkok novel that’s being published in June, A Nail Through the Heart opens with two crooks digging up a safe outside a mysteriously run-down Bangkok beside the Chao Phraya river. One of these two men will later become an important character, and the theft of the safe’s contents sets into motion one of the primary threads in the fabric of the story. The book I’m writing now, The Million Dollar Minute, begins with a woman in line at a bank to make a substantial withdrawal from an extremely nervous teller who keeps looking past her to see if he’s being observed through the window that opens onto the street. Both the woman and the teller will figure in the story, with different degrees of prominence. The money itself becomes a key element in the stakes.
Missing from the first scene of both these books is the series’ main character, a Bangkok-based rough-travel writer named Poke Rafferty. But he’s only one chapter away from his first appearance, and in both instances he’s doing something that (I hope) is interesting. And in both books, the events of the two first chapters will give rise to the stakes that eventually threaten practically everything he lives for.
I could have chosen to begin either of these books at a dozen other places, but I chose these scenes after answering a series of questions about three or four possible starting points.
It might be interesting for you to go through the same exercise. This is pretty much what I did:
First, as I said, I chose several possible openings. Then I answered in writing, these questions:
1. What’s the first thing the reader sees or hears?
2. Who are the first people the reader meets?
3. Where are we physically? Is it an interesting place?
4. How does the scene set up the story?
5. How does it advance the story?
6. What do we learn about the characters?
7. Is the scene interesting in itself – is it strong enough to bring the reader into the book?
8. Does it lead to an interesting second scene?
And one more thing – if your main character isn’t introduced in an interesting fashion in the first chapter, make sure he or she is doing something interesting when he or she finally does claim space on the page.
2. What’s a Scene? (And What’s a Chapter?)
“Most persons would succeed in small things if they were not troubled with great ambitions.”
— Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
In the long run, I write novels. In the short run, I write scenes.
One of the things that ties people up when they sit down to write a novel is that they sit down to write a novel. For heaven’s sake, lighten up,
You’re not going to write a novel today. Or even this week, or probably this month. All you’re going to do on a given day is move one or more characters from point A to point B, or halfway to point B, or make him or her realize that point B is someplace he or she wants to go. Or find an interesting way to describe an apartment house, or the sound that’s made by stiff, sun-dried clothes hanging on a line when the wind stirs them. And that’s a good day. If you can do that, day after day, you’re eventually going to have a book.
Or, if you’re really rolling, you might write an entire scene.
If the fundamental units of writing are words and sentences, the fundamental unit of the novel is the scene. I’m sure there’s a formal literary definition for the word “scene,” but I have no idea what it is. For me, a scene is a unit of story in which something changes. It has a beginning, a middle, and an end, and at the end something is different than it was at the beginning. It may be a character or a situation, or just our understanding of a character or a situation, but whatever it is, it’s changed when the scene is over.
A scene can be one person working something out. It can be two people talking something through. It can be three people throwing eggs at each other. It can be expositional, meaning that one character tells another something that he or she needs to know. It can be internal, meaning that it happens entirely inside a character. It can be action, which I assume doesn’t need to be explained. Two people deciding to take a train is a scene. That bunch of villagers with torches storming Frankenstein’s castle is a scene. Juliet’s realization that Romeo is dead is a scene.
Something has changed when it’s over.
The primary question I ask myself when I start to write a scene is whether it’s the right scene. Is this really where I want to go next? Is there someplace else that might be better? How does the scene move the story along? What does it tell the reader about the characters or the central situation? How does it reflect what’s at stake? Is it interesting and/or entertaining? If it isn’t, do I need it? If I do need it, how can I make it interesting and/or entertaining?
Much of the time, when I fall apart in a scene and can’t push it through to conclusion, it’s because of one (or more) of the following:
* I’m making a character do something he or she wouldn’t. I may have a predetermined idea of where the story should go next, and to get there I need to make a character do something that’s inconsistent with who he or she is. This happens most frequently, as luck would have it, in the “big scenes” I’ve been looking forward to writing, scenes I had in mind when I began to write the book. In one case, in fact, the breakdown came in the scene that persuaded me to write the book in the first place. The problem was simple: when I first thought of the scenes, I hadn’t written the characters yet – I didn’t know them. When it came time to write the scene, I knew the characters inside out, and the scene didn’t work. It was literally out of character. There’s only one way to handle this – find a different way to write the scene. When it’s a choice between character and story, character wins every time.
* I don’t know enough about the other characters in the scene. This can hurt me two ways. First, the scene can be dull, especially if it’s exposition. When there’s a chunk of information to deliver, it’s tempting to concentrate on the information instead of on the character who’s delivering it. This is a big mistake. The more important the information is (I think), the more interesting the character should be. After all, I want the reader to remember this stuff. I don’t want an essential nugget of information to read like the directions to assembling a barbecue.
Second, if I don’t know the other characters in the scene, I’m cheating the reader and depriving myself of some potentially good material. It’s easy, when I’m focused on my main character, to see the world exclusively from his or her point of view. When I do that, I tend to forget that everyone in the scene has a point of view. As far as the other characters are personally concerned, they haven’t been stacked horizontally on some shelf somewhere waiting to be trotted out to reflect my central character’s heat and light. They have lives. They’ve come from somewhere. They’re going somewhere. They’re not furniture. If I don’t work on who they are, and allow them to be that on the page, I’m going to have a dead scene. And understanding their perspectives better will give me interesting new material – different ways to write the scene.
* I haven’t defined the stakes in the scene well enough. Something, even if it’s minor, should be at stake in every scene. Maybe it’s whether to use butter or margarine when the in-laws come to dinner. Maybe it’s whether to trust someone or shoot him through the head. I need to be clear on what it is, and I need to know how all my other characters feel about it. If I have one character lift a torch skyward and shout, “Together, men! To the castle!”, it’s not much of a scene if everyone else stands around and nods. But if another guy in a jerkin says, “You’re crazy, Ladislaw. There’s a monster in there,” and then someone else (Verminous Peasant #3) says he’d really love to go along but his matches are wet, then I’ve got the beginning of a scene. At least there’s something at stake and someone on various sides of the issue. Otherwise, it’s like a tug-of-war with only one team; it’s just a bunch of guys dragging a rope around. Not likely to keep the reader flipping the pages.
* It’s just the wrong damn scene. When this happens, I usually try to write it three or four different ways. I begin it in a different place – usually a little later in the scene – and I try to analyze what the other characters should be doing, I re-examine the scene’s importance to the story. I might try a different setting. I might try to set some sort of clock running to increase the urgency, or try to make it funny instead of serious, or plant a stick of dynamite under the dining-room table, but most of this kind of rewriting is like putting frosting on a fire hydrant – what’s under there isn’t cake, and anyone who takes a bite is going to find out, fast. Ultimately, it may be that there’s only one thing to do: Tear it up and come up with a different scene. One of the nicest things about writing is that no one but you gets to go through your wastebasket.
And a Chapter Is . . .
Damned if I know.
Some writers don’t use chapters at all. Their narratives unspool seamlessly, unblemished by page breaks and clever titles or unclever numbers. I personally like chapters. They reassure me. They tell me there are times when it’s okay to close the book for a while, to go to the bathroom or talk to my wife. They remind me that I have a life, and it’s okay to stop reading and do the necessary maintenance.
And when I’m writing, I find that scenes naturally arrange themselves into chapters. I don’t know why, they just do. I always know when I’ve reached the end of a chapter. I usually know when a chapter is going on too long. Just don’t ask me how I know.
But since I got myself into this, here’s what a chapter is to me: It’s a series of scenes that combine to move the story to a new point. It might trace an arc in the development of a character. It might be a sequence of events that makes it clear to a character (or to the reader) that there’s no exit from the situation. It might literally take a character from one location to another. It might put another crocodile in the water. It might do any relatively important thing, but – as with a scene – something is different at the end of a chapter.
And, like a scene, a chapter should end with something that makes the reader want to keep going. I mean, if you’re going to put that big expanse of nice clean white paper there, you need to throw the reader a line to make him or her want to cross it. And preferably, the line should have a hook at the end of it.
Since I realize this hasn’t been very helpful, here’s a suggestion. Take a book you like, and choose a chapter that contains several scenes. Do a synopsis – one or two sentences – of each scene, and note what changes occur in each. Then put them all together and ask yourself what the chapter as a whole accomplished. Ask yourself why the writer chose to end the chapter where he or she did. Ask yourself what’s at the end of the chapter that will push the reader to go on to the next chapter.
One of the ways Raymond Chandler taught himself to write was by taking a novel by someone else – usually Erle Stanley Gardner, who created “Perry Mason” — and changing the characters, the setting, and what was at stake, but keeping the structure, scene by scene. Gradually he began to develop a feel for the flow of a story, how to keep things moving, what to do about compressing or expanding time, how to keep the stakes in sight at all times – a whole backpack full of skills that a novelist needs to be able to grab whenever necessary. Then he went on to write some of the best American novels ever, books that – in retrospect – are much better than Erle Stanley Gardner’s.
If it was good enough for Raymond Chandler . . .
3. To Outline or Not to Outline?
“Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
— E.L. Doctorow
(Quoted by Anne Lamott)
Should you know your whole story when you begin your book?
Or should you simply have a good idea of what the book is about, who the main characters are, and what’s at stake?
I know writers who believe they need to know everything and who create a detailed outline before they begin to write. Every scene, every plot twist, every revelation, is planned in advance. (Many of these writers came to the novel from film or television, where structure is God.)
And then I know writers (more of them, actually) who start with an interesting problem, a few characters they can learn to care about, a setting, and a sense of what the stakes are. They let the story unfold as they write it. They listen to their characters. They hold themselves open to new ideas. They don’t actually know where they’re going. If they have an ending in mind, they try repeatedly to top it as they write their way toward it.
I’m in the second camp. I personally can’t stand to outline. My main problem is that I don’t know my characters well enough until I’ve written about them at some length, and it doesn’t work for me to try to force them into a story they might outgrow. I want them to grow as I write them, and then I want the story to grow out of them.
Someone once said, “We learn what we’re writing about by writing about it.” For me, and for most of the other novelists I know, writing a novel is (to use an inelegant simile) like circling a drain. We start out by working around the edges of our story, and then the spiral narrows as the story, and our characters, become clearer to us. We center in on the things that really matter.
I also have to say that – for me – writing from an outline is no fun. I want to be surprised by what happens. I want my characters to develop in ways I didn’t expect. I don’t want to know how the story will end until it does. As Raymond Chandler believed, “the best way to stop the reader from guessing the end of a story was not to know how it ended yourself.” (Quoted from Raymond Chandler: A Biography, by Tom Hiney.)
So if you want to write from an outline, if you’re not comfortable starting out until you have the entire road map in front of you, go ahead. But I can’t be very helpful to you because I don’t (and probably can’t) work that way.
But that doesn’t mean I start with nothing. Getting ready to write a book is, for me, as important a process as actually writing it. If I don’t do this groundwork thoroughly, the odds are the book will sooner or later rear up and bite me, and if it does that often enough, I won’t finish it.
Long before I begin to write a book, I begin to write about the book. I just open up and let it flow – no censorship, no self-criticism, no pressure. I write about the problem, the setting, the characters. I write biographies of the characters. I let them write about themselves, in the first person. I do a lot of work on what’s at stake – what it is, why it matters, how each of the major characters stands on it. (I may even diagram that.) What’s the worst that can happen, and to whom? What’s the best possible outcome?
I make notes for possible scenes and, just for the hell of it, drop my major characters into those scenes and let them begin to talk to each other. (Quite a bit of this material later gets cut and pasted into the book, and then revised as necessary.) I give myself permission to make mistakes. Sometimes I make mistakes on purpose, trying out wildly improbable turns of events, writing scenes that have almost no chance of ever seeing the light of day. Why not? I’m the only person who’ll ever read them.
Once in a while, one of these side-trips yields something extremely interesting, something I never would have thought of otherwise. (One of the main characters in A Nail Through the Heart, a street kid who calls himself Superman, came into existence as a result of this kind of intentional blundering around.)
This process goes on for quite a while, at least a few months. Eventually there will come a time when I have anywhere from 100 to 200 pages of noodling and I realize that I’m looking very hard at a possible opening scene. Then I open a new file, give it the title of the book, and write the scene.
There. I’m writing a book.
Granted, I don’t know exactly where I’m going. I don’t know (yet) exactly who my characters are. I don’t know who will live and who will die, since I write those kinds of books. If I really allowed myself to think about it, it would probably scare me senseless.
There’s a wonderful quotation from a Japanese director named Yoji Yamada, who wrote and directed an endless series of films about a decent, somewhat melancholy traveling salesman named Tora-San. Yamada says this:
“Sometimes it’s necessary to make the leap and grow your wings on the way down.”
The amazing thing, for me and for many other writers, is that those wings do grow. What’s more, they find the updrafts in the developing story and ride them, like hawks wheeling on the wind. They allow us to dive to the depths of the story, almost touch bottom, and soar up again. They keep us afloat until we reach the end, and we can fold them and rest.
So I put my trust in the process. I write a sentence and then another sentence, a paragraph and then another paragraph, a scene and then another scene. Sometimes it’s just awful. The words weigh ten pounds each. The scenes refuse to develop. The characters say things that are supposed to be deeply meaningful – often a hundred words’ worth or more – that boil down, essentially, into, “Duh.” I come to hate the entire book. I come to hate myself. I decide to buy a new computer. I decide to eat fourteen donuts. I scour the bathtub.
And then there are days when it’s so much fun that I doubt it’s legal. The material comes so fast that my fingers literally can’t keep up. My characters actually seem to be smarter than I am, which is widely supposed to be impossible. And my understanding of the story deepens and deepens, and I realize it’s reached my heart. And then I can really begin to write.
Odds are that, in the cold light of the next day I’ll tear up half of it and write something else. Over the course of writing a 350-page novel, I’ll probably write close to 2000 pages. Some of those pages will be pure gold, some will have a few good things, and some will be solid lead. But there’s always a chance that even the most leaden page will have one teensy particle on it somewhere, sparkling like a fleck of ore in a miner’s pan. If I take that little sparkler and work with it, it can take me someplace completely new.
Of course, “someplace completely new” can feel like a problem. Why am I suddenly spending so much time with this character? What is it about this house by the river that interests me so much? Why did my character do or say that, and what does it mean? Am I really going to drop this entire sub-plot? Where the hell am I going?
Here’s something that virtually all novelists learn relatively quickly, but which can turn new writers into quivering lumps of protoplasm. I’m going to center it on the page so it jumps out at you if you’re skimming this:
The novel you finish will not be the novel you started.
Here’s something else:
you don’t want it to be.
You want the writing process to be a journey of discovery. You want to listen to your characters. You want to be open to new ideas. You want to learn more about what you’re writing as you write it. And no matter how strong your original idea was, you want to be in a position to accept – and be grateful for – a better one. And better ideas will come, if you write regularly and often and if you’ve got the courage to take a chance when one makes itself available to you.
When something new and revolutionary occurs to you, entertain it. Say hi. Give it a seat at the table. Pour it some coffee. Think about it. Write about it. Where will it lead you? Is it good for your characters? For your story? For the stakes? What will you lose? What will you gain? Is this a wrong turn, a short cut, or a map to new and valuable territory?
Unless it seems to be a fundamental violation of your idea – in its purest and most basic form – go ahead. Write the hell out of it. It may be the discovery that powers the rest of your book into being. It may give you the fresh excitement you need to keep writing. It may be the thing that lets you finish your book.
And, by the way, these kinds of ideas often require a writer to go back and change things in the portion of the book that was written before the new inspiration materialized. This is not cheating. We all do it. It’s part of the creative process. But I’d strongly suggest that you go back and do it later. For now, follow the new vein of gold and mine it for all it’s worth.
“‘Some fifteen billion years ago . . . all the [universe’s] matter and energy were condensed to a point’ and then there was an almighty Big Bang.”— Simon Singh, Ph.D.The Big Bang
How far back do we have to go to begin our story? How far back should we go? And, on a practical level, how do we work into our story the necessary information and events that happened before the story began?
In her book on writing, Bird By Bird, Anne Lamott credits writer Alice Adams with the ABDCE plot breakdown: Action, Background, Development, Climax, Ending. Most of those are self-explanatory – begin with an Action that engages your reader’s attention; Develop the situation; take it to a Climax; and wrap it all up at the End.
The lug-nut in the beef stew, for me, at least, is background.
I mean, when do you supply it? And how?
If we were to begin every story at the actual beginning, we’d have pages and pages of uninteresting but vitally important background. All the things that explain why our characters react as they do. Geopolitical and socioeconomic info about what’s at stake. The geological history of the Hawaiian Islands. All the fascinating stories from the writer’s own childhood that have been loaned to his or her characters.
Male readers would probably have to shave before the action begins. And then they’d wander off and turn on the TV.
All this stuff, these gobs of information about the characters, the setting, and the issues, is called exposition. And the problem is that we need to know it, but we don’t particularly want to read it. Especially in bulky clots that stop the flow of the story.
In practice, very few novels begin with the Big Bang. Most writers start to tell their story around the time that the primary immediate action commences. One of the challenges is to keep things moving while making sure the vital background is available to the reader. Another is to make all that vital background interesting.
The thing I try to keep in mind is that readers don’t need to know everything until well into the book. Background information can be reserved until it’s called for. I don’t need readers to know that my central character memorized the World Book at the age of twelve for them to follow a scene in which that character falls downstairs. If the first three chapters of your novel show Sally going about her work unaware that her co-workers are plotting against her, we probably don’t need to know that her childhood was scarred by her failure to win the Girl Scout Merit Badge for Post-Feminist Literary Deconstruction. We’ll need to know it later if it’s essential to understanding her character, but we readers probably don’t need to know it yet.
There will come a time when we do need to know it, and when we do, you can parcel it out, as you will all the other necessary material. The question is how.
One method is to take the reader back in time, to Sally’s childhood, and tell the story there. It’s probably best to set these snippets apart with what’s called a page break, an incredibly versatile device made up of a double double-space – just a snippet of blank page to tell the reader that something new is coming. (These are also essential between scenes.) When you start to tell a piece of the background story, you need to give it the same kind of attention you give to a scene. One approach is to start with an attention-getting detail: When Sally was twelve, she had a secret drawer in her bedroom. Her diary was in plain sight, where her mother could see it. The drawer was full to overflowing with the flashlight batteries she used every night to read in bed. (Please understand that I’m not trying to pass this off as good writing. It’s barely writing at all.)
If that approach works for you, you can treat this background information as a longer story and break it at a cliffhanger every time. That way, the next time an installment comes up, your reader won’t roll his or her eyes, or, worse, close them. It will become something to look forward to.
Or you can trigger a reminiscence prompted by something in the present. Sally’s eye was drawn by the badly darned hole in the sleeve of the girl’s blouse. She sometimes wondered if her chronic desire to achieve was a remnant of the fierceness with which she pursued the Girl Scout merit badges that covered the holes in her own blouses. Okay, that’s pretty awful, especially since Girl Scouts wear their merit badges on their uniforms. But you know what? Now I have something to rewrite. It can only get better. Repeat after me: The enemy is not the awful page, it’s the empty page.
One of the least painful ways to deal with exposition is to work it into scenes. You need to be careful here, though. There has to be a reason for people to explain things to each other. They need some good reason to unburden their souls. They’re under duress. There comes a time in your story when a lie can’t be allowed to survive a moment longer. What it absolutely cannot be is a bunch of stuff both characters already know and have no earthly need to say aloud. A writer friend of mine, Stan Cutler, sums up this kind of writing perfectly with a single line of dialog: “As you know, Ken, I’m your father.”
I just read a book by a writer whom I admire greatly – I’ve read every one of his many novels – in which a bunch of bad guys who are plotting something terrifically complicated bring into the room someone to whom they explain the entire scheme, in detail and at extraordinary length, practically all the way back to Noah’s flood. Then they kill him. Work for you? It didn’t for me, either.
Let’s say you’ve got some information about a major character that the major character would never reveal. Or can’t, because it was so traumatic she’s blocked it from her memory. Or wouldn’t because she doesn’t understand its importance. Or let’s say there’s a piece of your story that no major character knows, and you’ve got to bring it into the light. That’s when you might bring in a minor character – the shopkeeper on the corner, the eyewitness, the third-grade teacher of your now-adult heroine – and give him or her the scoop, and then dig it out.
These can be tricky scenes. You want to put some work into that character. She can’t just have a button that says PLAY on her chest that your questioner can push, and then sit back and listen. The more memorable that character is, the more memorable the information would be. You want that scene to have stakes of its own: the person with the information is reluctant to share it, feels like it’s a betrayal, is ashamed of it, distrusts the person who’s asking the questions, is afraid she’ll harm the character about whom the questions are being asked. Your questioner needs to work for the information, and that information should have some kind of urgent importance so the questioner has his or her own stakes.
In other words, it has to satisfy the requirements of any other good scene – and maybe a little more so, because its actual purpose is to stand aside from the action of the novel long enough to fill in some blanks.
In my novel A Nail Through the Heart, I did myself a great service (actually at the suggestion of my agent) by setting the story about twelve weeks after the huge tsunami that swept over so much of coastal Southeast Asia. That meant that virtually all the minor characters who supplied so much of the book’s background information were struggling with issues of their own – loss, bereavement, trying to figure out how (and why) to go on. I can’t tell you how much that contributed to the effectiveness and interest value of those expository scenes. It gave them heart.
Exposition is a necessary evil. It’s the writer’s goal to turn it into an asset.”
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