Friday, March 16, 2018

Finding the Best "Triggering Event" for Your Book--How to Launch Your Story

In two weeks, on Friday, March 30, I'll be teaching an all-day workshop at the Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis.  We'll examine book structure:  what makes a book successful, in terms of its structure, and how can you choose the pivotal moments in your story wisely?  Many books are beautifully written but poorly structured, and many writers haven't a clue as to how to fix that. 

In the workshop, we build storyboards.  These might be very developed or very rough--idea stage--depending on where you are with your book.  Some writers have an entire manuscript drafted but can't tell if it's hanging together well.  Others want to get started, they have a good idea and some writing or no writing, and a storyboard can be the perfect activity to help them "brainstorm" their book's flow.  It's very exciting, by the end of the day-long workshop, to see how many "books" are in place now.  Storyboards make a writer realize how real the book is--sometimes for the first time.

One of our most important conversations in the workshop is about triggering events.  I thought I'd share a post from my current online book-structuring class, to give you a preview of the workshop and an exercise to try, if you'd like to make sure you have the best possible launching moment for your story.

Robert Frost famously said, "Poems begin with a lump in the throat."  He went on to describe the beginnings of the best poems as always about something lost, homesickness or lovesickness, a longing.  This is, of course, the inner-story motivation for whatever happens in your book.  It triggers movement by the
main character (novel), the narrator (memoir), or your reader (nonfiction). 

The outer aspect of this "lump in the throat" is called a
triggering event.  Because literature must show us, not just tell us about, story, the inner motivation must be demonstrated in outer event.

So the triggering event, which launches your book, will be born of inner movement, but it will always be demonstrated through an outer event.

Outer events can be dramatic, or they can be everyday, but they must be delivered to the reader via outward action, dialogue, and a specific moment in time and space.

Check out the opening of favorite books to see how other authors do this, especially ones published within the past few years.  Check out what you might be thinking for your opening and see if it follows these criteria.

Of course--there are exceptions!  Some well-loved authors begin slowly, and the triggering event comes within the first few chapters.  But you'd be surprised how many manuscripts are rejected by agents and publishers because "nothing happens" right off.  Readers nowadays are geared to events, action, and seeing stuff happen--before they know the background or meaning. 

And--it's a balancing act.  We have to care about your story, your characters, and their dilemmas, so there has to be some meaning embedded.  Triggering events are both outer story and inner story for that reason.  You have to choose well.

So what kind of outer event makes the best triggering event?

Something happening now, in the present-time story, onstage before us readers. 

We need to witness it ourselves, not be told about it secondhand.  It's not summarized, usually--"ten years passed" or "it was a week before we . . . ."  They are immediate, now, right in front of us, onstage.  That's the ideal to shoot for.
Some writers wonder if their best triggering events can be in the past.  This is less ideal, but possible.  Most really great books launch with an  event happening now, not a memory or backstory (events in the past) or an internal decision. 

Sometimes, if a backstory event precedes the story and is vital to the story, the author creates a prologue. 

But, bottom line:  a triggering event must be demonstrated outwardly, so readers can see and feel its effect on the character.  Best option is to choose an event in the current time of your story, where the story begins. 

I like to think of the triggering event as the launch-pad for a book.  Without it, none of the book can happen.

Some examples of triggering events:
Novel or memoir--A fire, an accident, a discovery of letters, a phone call that changes everything, a birth or death, something lost that will need to be found, a mundane everyday happening that changes everything, a wedding that has a hint of something not right, an impulsive action that is embedded with regret, a move, a starting over.

Nonfiction (how to, or informational) book
--An anecdote about someone who needs the material in your book, such as a disaster or problem that occurs in a business, a person’s “lowest moment,” a loss of something valuable, a dilemma that is puzzling.

Your weekly writing exercise
Brainstorm three possible triggering events for your book.  You may already have one in mind, even written.  Make sure it follows the criteria above, tweak if it doesn't, consult your brainstorming list if your chosen triggering event is way off base or too internal. 

Think over the guidelines above:  is it outer story, is it happening now, is it dramatic enough to launch the rest of your story?

  1. Choose one of your triggering event possibilities.  Set your phone alarm or kitchen timer for 20 minutes. 
  2. Freewrite about the cause and effect of this opening--what might come of it.  List ten things that happen as a result. 
  3. Then check to see how many of these are embedded in subsequent chapters
If you'd like to join me at the storyboarding workshop on Friday, March 30, and get feedback on your triggering event ideas, here's a link to the Loft Literary Center's website to find out more.  I'm also teaching this workshop in Boston at Grub Street on April 21 (link is here). 

Friday, March 9, 2018

Can First Chapters Ever Be TOO Dramatic?

Writing teachers and writing classes-- if you've worked with either, if you've shared your writing for feedback, you've probably heard the golden rule of first chapters.  They need to have something happen.  Preferably something outwardly dramatic.

It's called a triggering event, and it literally triggers your story.  Here are some classic examples:

All the Light We Cannot See (Anthony Doerr):  war begins
The Glass Castle (Jeannette Walls): homeless mother is spotted rooting through dumpster
The Passenger (Lisa Lutz):  husband dies falling down stairs
Everything I Never Told You (Celeste Ng): daughter is missing
Cruel Beautiful World (Caroline Leavitt): high school girl runs off with teacher

Each of these has an event that readers can logically, outwardly follow.  Usually one event.  And the event must have meaning in the character's life.  It must be life-changing in a way.  It must cause readers to know the character in a new way, as we see their reaction to the event.

If you don't have a triggering event in that first (or second) chapter, how will you show us the character in a way that we can grab hold of?  Engage with?  Want to follow?

I think of Americanah, by the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.  The first chapter, or triggering event, has the narrator going to get her hair braided at a salon.  It's an event that tells us about her, her culture, her background, and her tenuous hold on life in the U.S.  It's not war, death, murder, loss. But it says so much about this narrator, we understand why Adichie chose it to launch the story.

One of my long-time students is finishing her novel and asked the question:  Can the opening chapter be too dramatic?  Can the triggering event just keep your pulses racing but not really engage you in the story? I think, yes. 

If the triggering (dramatic, outer) event reveals the character's dilemma, shows where the character gets their false agreement or misunderstanding about this dilemma, and presents a possibility of overcoming it, then it's character-engaged drama and we want to read more.  If it doesn't relate to the character, it's just drama for its own sake.  We can listen to the news for that.

Your weekly writing exercise:  Ask yourself if your triggering event reveals the character who's involved in it.  Ask if it reveals the dilemma that character is going to face during the book, and if it presents some basic misunderstanding or false agreement the character has that fosters this dilemma--a misunderstanding that will need to be faced and dealt with during the book.  If yes, your opening event is golden.  If not quite, what can you change?

Friday, March 2, 2018

Creating Pause in Your Action--When and How to Let the Reader Linger without Losing Momentum

A blog reader sent in this fascinating question:

How can "event writers" develop stationary moments in their narrative and sections in their books where the main characters reflect on the meaning of what happens?  What's the purpose of this, and what's is benefit to the story?

This is a question about pacing, but it also hints at our natural preferences as writers, to write certain kinds of scenes. 

Some writers enter their writing via reflection--the meaning of a situation or memory.  Reflective writers write meaning first, then translate it into action. Some writers enter via image or setting.  If you're one, you think first about where the story is happening and you love the details of place.  The third group, event writers, prefer to have things moving forward.  They think action first, and they may get impatient with too much (to them) description.
None of these is stronger or better or worse; all are needed.  It's just where we naturally like to start.

Back to my reader's question.  Stationary moments are the domain of reflection or image writers, and they would almost scoff at the question:  what is the benefit to the story.  The benefit is that the reader gets to absorb meaning.  What is a story without meaning?  It's all momentum.  It leaves you breathless, charged up, but possibly without a clue as to the purpose of what you just read.

It also creates a dense feel to the writing, which I addressed in a earlier blog this year (scroll down).  Counter intuitive to say that too many events create dense writing, I know--but that's how readers perceive it.  So meaning, or pauses, are the places we catch our breath and think about the purpose or meaning of what we just read.

How does an event writer, who prefers not to pause, put in pauses?  First, it requires an awareness of the benefit of pauses, so the best first step is to find a book you love, preferably in a genre similar to the one you're writing, and comb through a chapter for pauses.  If it's a skilled writer, it'll take some work to see the pauses.  Look for something called "beats" in screenwriting, or breaks in the action or dialogue--gestures, movements, a glance out the window, a brief flashback, a bit of setting.  They don't have to be long but they allow just that moment to regroup and absorb that a reader needed.  Notice how often these appear, how long they are, where they are placed.

Then go to a chapter of your own and model the writer you just read--their structure of pauses.  You would use your own words, your own story, but mimic the placement of each beat and what is included.  For instance, if the writer uses two lines of backstory just there, you do the same.  If they use a gesture or movement in another place, do it too.  Use your words, their structure. 

This modeling exercise is a great way to get muscle memory of pacing, as well as the benefit of pauses or stationary moments.  Try it this week, as your weekly writing exercise.