Friday, February 6, 2015

How Do You Start Your Chapters for the Most Punch? Some Simple--and Surprising--Structure Tips for All Genres

Michelle from New Zealand watched my video on story structure and sent some questions about how to begin a story.  

Although Michelle writes short stories, this question is important for book writers too. 

"Some stories begin with a problem," she wrote, "and it is solved through several small events.  I can't find how the other stories might begin. "

There are essentially three ways to begin a story (or book).   
1.  Through characters
2.  Through a location (usually a location that is vital to the story and ends up being as strong as a character)
3.  Through what's called a "triggering" event

In most schools, newbie writers are taught to read the classics.  These are stories or books that have lasted as favorites through generations.  Maybe they were radical in their day (Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird).  Maybe they're just solidly written with characters we can't forget.   

Twenty years ago and back through our literary history, classic stories often began with characters or location.  The writer might hint at an event, something that happened or will be happening, that will change everything.  But we read quite a few chapters before we actually get involved in event.  Mostly, we're learning about the community, the history of the village, the people.  (Tolstoy is a great example--War and Peace only introduces character and place for the first seven chapters.)

A big shift has happened in story structure in the past years.  We readers have gotten impatient.  Or publishers are gearing toward a new generation of readers, the movie-goers?  Our brains have changed, certainly, and we may not be able to hang in there for seven chapters before something happens.

So most stories start with event now.  From what I've been reading lately, I'd say 90 percent of fiction and creative nonfiction books and short stories, even short essays, published in the past year have a triggering event on the first page.   If not the first page, the first chapter at least.

One editor told me they only read two pages of submitted manuscripts at her publishing house now.  "If nothing happens within two pages, it goes in the round file," she said.  How common is this?  If recently published books are any example, I'd say, "Very."

In my workshops on book structuring, I give writers a way to test this for themselves.  They are asked to bring two recently published books to class--hopefully books in the same genre as their book-to-be.  I ask them to find the first moment that something big happens.  They look for a dramatic event that causes conflict for someone and has the potential to make big changes in the storyline.

Usually, it's on the first page or two.  They're often astonished by this.  You can try it too (do try this at home, or a bookstore!) and see for yourself.  It's the trend now in publishing, good to know, right?   

Your exercise this week is to scan your first chapter-in-progress.  Does anything happen?  If you're relying on character or location to provide momentum, you may want to rethink your plan.