Thursday, September 11, 2014

1001 Ways to Wreck a Story - Part Four

Sherry here, with another installment in our story-fix series.

The “Starts-too-early” Story

What's that off in the distance?
You know how some stories seem to take forever to get going? You’ve read a few pages, and even though it might be somewhat interesting, there’s a little voice in the back of your mind saying “Okay, but when is something going to happen?” Maybe you get a few pages in, put the story down, and never pick it up again. Let’s look at what’s going on here.

The Problem
There are several ways this story problem manifests itself. Maybe there are too many pages at the beginning of the story where the characters are simply going about their normal lives. Maybe there’s a lot of explanation, setup, or historical backstory. Maybe the main character spends a lot of time thinking or talking about his or her problems but not doing anything about them. Whatever form it takes, the problem is that the story is taking too long to get moving. The reader might even put it down without ever “getting to the good stuff.” The writer has started the story too early.

The Fix
One way to fix a story with a slow beginning is to start the story in medias res—that is, in the middle of the action. Things are already happening here, and the reader jumps in with both feet and goes along for the ride. Writers tend to worry a little too much that the reader won’t understand what’s going on, or will be confused, but I think most readers are willing to catch a good wave and catch up as the story goes along. Note: this doesn't have to be car-chase-gunfight-explosion kind of action. But something out of the ordinary is happening.

If you don’t have a thrilling event or revelation that can start your story, consider this question: if the main character were looking back on the events of the story, where is the point where he or she would think, “that was the moment when everything changed”? If you can pinpoint that moment, you want to start your story as close to that moment as possible. A little setup to show the world of the story or the main character’s life in its “normal” state is fine, but don’t spend too long on this. Get to the moment of change as quickly as you can.

If neither of these tactics will work for your story and you still think all the front-end information is necessary for the reader, try rearranging things so that it comes later, and weaves into the story naturally through dialogue, character reflection, and interactions. You may find that not all of it is necessary for the story to work, after all. You want *just enough* information to keep your reader from feeling lost or confused, and no more than that. And you don't want to dump it on them all at once, at the start of the story.

I once cut the first ten pages from a short story—ten pages! And although I did add some of the information back in later, I found that most of it, I had written for me, so that I understood the characters and setting I was writing. This is a great exercise and vital for the writer to understand…but your readers probably don’t need that information. So keep that kind of writing in your notes and outlines, and start your readers off at the moment that will draw them into the story, grab them tight, and not let go until the end.

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