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Guidelines
The Very Beginning by Lea Schizas

The Beginning

What is your story about? No clue?  It’s very important to have an answer for any completed story. Why? You have in total about 30 seconds to impress and grab an editor’s attention when he asks you ‘What’s your story all about?’ Stutter, look all around and you will lose his confidence in you.

But we’ve jumped the gun a bit here. We don’t have a story yet, do we? Let’s get one then.

As with all stories, we need to start from the beginning. For a compelling pull to your story, the following should be included in the story structure:

1-the overall hook

2-a few scattered complications/obstacles

3-climax

4-the final resolution

There is no book without a story idea. A story needs a plot, or a hook to captivate your target audience. But more than that, it needs to pass the acceptance test of a publishing house. A writer needs to sit down and contemplate more than an idea for a story. There are several aspects to a book that need tending:.

*Who will be your protagonist and antagonist

*What will be their storyline and plot

*Where will the setting be placed

*What genre will it be written in

Let’s take a quick overview first of the various fiction genres out there:

Romance: romance has gained a steady readership over the years and accounts for about 50% of the mass-market paperbacks sold. Romance can be found in historical fiction, western, fantasy, futuristic sci-fi, and even in horror.

Mystery: following in the footsteps of romance, mystery garners the next corner in book sales.

Thrillers/Suspense: these novels have an aura of danger in them. The protagonist will most certainly be chased by someone or something and will need to find it before he/she is found.

Horror: these books need not have only knife-wielding maniacs on the loose. Read some of Stephen King’s or Anne Rice’s books to get a feel of how they demonstrate capturing an audience and keeping them clued to the page until the end.

Science Fiction/Fantasy: Such movies/books as The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, Star Wars, The Wizard of Oz gives you an idea of the varied themes you can have in this genre.

Westerns: oh yes, these tales of the Western frontier are still alive and kicking.

Children’s Market: and this very popular market has various age levels to write for: from early Concept Books to the Young Adult market.

So we have an idea of the various genres for you to consider writing in. Although this course will have you complete a short story by its finale, I am using the basic concepts needed for longer works, which can easily be applied to shorter works, as well. Your short story has the potential to become a larger work at some point.

A writer has the first few pages to captivate and capture his/her reader’s attention. More importantly, these are the first few pages to endear an editor to write you back, asking to see more of the manuscript. Otherwise, your story ends up in the slush pile, that little dungeon-hole in the bottom of the garbage bin with the letters in bold capital letters: R E J E C T I O N   P I L E.

Oh, you may have a fantastic story midway into the book. Guess what? The reader or editor won’t know this because they’ve stopped reading.

A good beginning not only entices the reader to continue the story but it shows the writer’s sense of storytelling. You set the emotional roller coaster ride of your plot and your character’s conflict to come. In several cases, the beginning sets up a scene, an introduction of characters to be involved in the plot without necessarily giving a hint to the reader what the conflict will be, leaving this for a surprise intro in the coming few chapters. As long as you carry the story forward with a compelling force, the reader will be hooked. And this is what our aim will be in this lesson; to sustain our reader’s interest.

Let me give you an example to define our three important stages of a story. Let’s say the story is based on a bank robbery. The beginning will give us a glimpse of characters involved and a general idea of the robbery to be. The middle- the actual happening of the robbery and any mishaps/obstacles/interventions in its way. The ending will entail the final result, the capture and final conclusions of any obstacles brought up in the middle.

Your beginning cannot have any obstacles before the characters involved are introduced. Just as the final conclusion cannot be had until a robbery has been committed. This is a natural process of collecting and transmitting information to the reader. This also follows the train of thought that some sort of obstacle or obstacles must be introduced; without an obstacle, a clean getaway just wouldn’t be interesting to a reader. Where would the enticement to continue reading be? A reader needs to bond with a character’s plight: every obstacle sprinkled along the way should capture the reader’s inner emotion to continue reading, to find out the outcome and final resolution to the character. Without any obstacles, there is no bonding. Imagine a story where all the reader was presented with was a story about poor Charlie, how poor Charlie didn’t have any friends, how poor Charlie lived on his own, how poor Charlie…you get my drift-BORING. There is nothing there to heighten the read. Now if ‘poor Charlie’ has psychotic tendencies revealed with inner thoughts, perhaps the reader would be interested to find out if he will carry them out. Here you have a hook and here you have peeked their interest to continue the read.

Let’s take a minute and look over some book first paragraph beginnings to get an idea of how various authors have opened up their storylines:

“A cold October rain slanted down on Knightsbridge where Brompton Road intersected Sloan Street. The steady stream of honking cars, taxis, and red double-decker buses turned south and made their halting way toward Sloan Square and Chelsea. Neither the rain nor the fact that business and government offices were closed for the weekend lessened the crush. The world economy was good, the shops were full, and New Labor was rocking no one’s boat. Now the tourists came to London at all times of the year, and the traffic this Sunday afternoon continued to move at a snail’s pace.”
– Robert Ludlum’s The Hades Factor - although no character introduction here, Ludlum has managed to give us a clear impression of this section of the setting within this short paragraph – clear and precise with a hint of its importance for a follow-up to come, otherwise why describe it?

“They’re out there.
Black boys in white suits up before me to commit se? acts in the hall and get it mopped up before I can catch them.”
– Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest – by just that first line, “they’re out there”, a reader wonders ‘who?’ thus capturing their interest to continue reading. The next line makes a reader wonder who these men in the white suits are and why are they allowed to commit such acts.

“I’m not sure, Chris. All of a sudden, it doesn’t seem like such a good idea.”
– Martyn Godfrey’s YA book Can You Teach Me To Pick My Nose? –Just one sentence is all it took to prod a reader to find out what is this idea and how bad can it be for him to be so jittery.

“ For the second time in a week, Marc felt he had to escape from home. Maybe it was the rain, the rain that had kept him prisoner in the house. School had let out, promising freedom. Then a week of rain had followed. It didn’t seem fair. But then nothing in his life seemed fair lately.”
– Barbara Steiner’s YA book
Ghost Cave –This gives you Marc’s emotional being about his home, and how he felt life has treated him right off the bat. But the clinger is that very last sentence “But then nothing in his life seemed fair lately.” Which stipulates to the reader’s mind something has happened to Marc, but what?


Let’s Begin

Remember the game ‘Broken Phone’ or even a gossip told by a friend? These, in a sense, were exercises in story telling. At the end of each related ‘gossip’ a new and embellished tale was had. One word changed altered the whole story. New ways of telling a story is what we writers need to master to get our readers attention. They need to bond with our characters as if they themselves are within our books/stories. There is no greater satisfaction than to know someone out there has recommended your book/story to another potential reader.

We’ll begin first by placing our 3 sections on 3 separate index cards or within a notebook:

1-BEGINNING

2-MIDDLE

3-END

These three sections we’ll refer to as our three scenes. Figure out what you want to achieve in the three scenes. As for finding a storyline: it’s everywhere. A newspaper headline may stir a story in you; past recollections of your youth; fears you experience.

Do this exercise: Look straight ahead and write down the first thing you see. A couch? The stove? Your patio doors? Take that image and embellish it.

For example: A couch—what if the couch has the ability to transport you to past lives?

The stove-what if a gas line was ruptured?

The patio doors-what if you were standing by your patio doors when out of nowhere a bullet shattered one of its windows?

Using the ‘what if’ exercise has helped me many a times out of writer’s block. Now, using the ‘what if’ exercise, see how many questions you can come up with to answer for the object you spotted straight ahead.

For example, The patio doors-what if you were standing by your patio doors when out of nowhere a bullet shattered one of its windows? Who was shooting at you? Who are your neighbours? What is your secret? Who are you hiding from? These are just some questions you can pose to place in one of your three scene index cards above to further answer and continue your story at a later point.

Once you have a few questions placed in your BEGINNING scenario, separate the questions that need to be answered and written in story form for a later point in your story, either in the MIDDLE or the ENDING.

Now let’s take a minute and look over your BEGINNING index card. From the questions and answers you have completed for this card, how do you want to start your story? My suggestion would be to jump right in with some action. Hook that reader from the start like I keep stressing.

Once you have an idea where you want to go with each stage, figure out what your character’s role is. What is he/she seeking?

LET’S BEGIN BUILDING A CHARACTER PROFILE:

Your characters are crucial to your book. Although the plot can sustain itself at times, it is through your characters the reader will be able to experience your story. Why? Because readers can relate to characters, whether human or animal, better than a circumstance, such as a high chasing, horn-tooting car chase thrill. It’s the driver’s adrenaline behind the wheel that allows readers to connect, not the event. The more a writer can connect a reader to his protagonist, the more interest in what happens to that character develops in the reader.

But how do you develop a character realistically enough to build a bond with a reader? Some writers allow their character to grow as the story develops and others make up a character profile before they begin writing. Some of the things on a character profile can be:

*Male or Female?

*Where was he born?

*Who were his parents?
Rich/Poor/Divorced/Abusive/Loving?

*What color are his eyes/hair? Wears glasses? Contact lenses? Bleaches his hair? Wears it military short/hippy long?

*Does he have any siblings? Hate relationship? Bickering? Close bond?

*Is he educated? Smart? Mr. Know-It-All? Athletic? Army specialist? A collector of a sort?

*Does he have a nervous twitch? Any visible scars/characteristics which separates him from the other characters?

*Is he mute or physically handicapped in any way? Short tempered? Gay? Sensitive? Mean spirited? Loves to live dangerously?

*Has he been married? Divorced? Have a girlfriend? Hates women? Is a bumbling fool in front of women? Vendetta against men who abuse women? Vendetta against women who are divorced? Prefers slots?

The more you know about your character, the better you will be able to pen ‘his/her’ story and thoughts into the story.

After you build a solid profile, you need to name your protagonist. Give him a name suitable for his/her character. A tough, macho man shouldn’t be named Sally unless your purpose is to show him bullied in youth and transformed into the Hulk later on in life.

Here’s a link to help you generate names for your characters:
http://www.seventhsanctum.com/index-name.php

Throughout your protagonist’s goals, you will need to place obstacles in order to add intrigue and climatic episodes for your reader. This acts like a cliffhanger, prodding them to continue reading in order to find out what happens in the end.

In order to place an obstacle in his way, you need to introduce your antagonist. Here’s a surprise for some of you: your antagonist need not be human.

*The Mummy: the curse could be seen as the antagonist in this story along with the actual being of the mummy to cause havoc.

*Alien: you got it; aliens can be your antagonists

*Towering Inferno: the fire was the obstacle and main focal point.

The television series ‘24’ is a perfect example of building tension within a storyline. Each week we are given an hour’s countdown with heart-thumping suspense as we see the clock ticking down. The plot or drama for that night’s episode is revealed, the characters are exploring means and methods to beat the ‘villain’, obstacles are thrust in their paths, and all along the reader can feel the countdown to disaster approaching. They are glued to their seat to find out if the timer will win or the heroes.

Creating the perfect character is not an easy task. One thing to remember is not to give all of his descriptive details in one shot. Use your imagination.

Although it is easier to say “John, with his black eyes and hair, stood amongst the rest in the group. His muscular arms flexed while his five foot ten inches height shook with anger.” In this example, I am doing a lot of telling and not enough showing. A reader needs to envision the surroundings as though he himself were standing in John’s shoes. One way of doing this is to use all five senses scattered throughout. Don’t forget, in real life we do smell our surroundings, we hear the birds chirping, we see the destruction before us, we taste the burnt food, and we can feel our lover’s embrace.

So instead of telling your reader John's height, you can describe a particular object within the setting around him--"John looked like a ballerina as he balanced on his toes, reaching the top of the refrigerator." No height was given but an average fridge is, what, five feet, so right there we know John is below average height.

Writers have the power to cast magical embraces and imagination in their readers. Storytelling has been around as far back as the cavemen. Yes, you read right. What do you think those symbols and hieroglyphics were all about? To tell the reader some sort of a tale, a tale of their time. Nowadays, writers use their imagination and build new worlds to tell their stories from.

Hope you enjoyed this month's column. If it's helped you in any way, please drop me a line with your comments and I'll post them next time.

Lea