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Monday, 31 October 2016

Opening A Story

If there is one tip about writing I have tried to teach my students at school it is this: writing is about thinking. While some writers might drift along unconsciously, writing is very much a conscious art. Different writers have different methods of writing and the thinking that goes into that writing. 

Some authors write out all their plans of how their novel will run from beginning to end and then flesh that novel out. Other authors begin with a key character and follow the journey of that character. Still other authors simply have a simple concept or question and begin writing from that point - allowing the world of their story to write itself into existence.

In short, all writing begins with an idea. If we look to the Bible at the very beginning it says: Genesis 1:1-5 
1 In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. 2 Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.
3 And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 4 God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness.5 God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.
God himself started with a single word, a word that had the power of infinite concepts. He knew exactly what He wanted this 'light' to be and He spoke it forth into existence. J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote that as an author he was a 'sub-creator' under God. That is what writing is all about: creating.

One thing I have been considering recently is where you should begin writing. In my previous blog post, I indicated that I had been wanting to begin with a prologue. However, I removed that prologue because I realised that while it felt incredibly descriptive and powerful, the entire story did not benefit from that prologue. 

So how did I begin my story? I went back and I wrote in a new first chapter that begins with a simple statement about children. I used this as a slight hook to introduce my main character as a child and demonstrate an event that happened to her. This will form the frame for the subsequent events which take place when she is an adult.

However, opening a story is something which can be incredibly difficult for me. I have the ideas, but I do not ever want to.

The following is an opening paragraph for the first book in a young adult series I thoroughly enjoy, Throne of Glass
After a year of slavery in the Salt Mines of Endovier, Celaena Sardothien was accustomed to being escorted everywhere in shackles and at sword-point. Most of the thousands of slaves in Endovier received similar treatment—though an extra half-dozen guards always walked Celaena to and from the mines. That was expected by Adarlan’s most notorious assassin. What she did not usually expect, however, was a hooded man in black at her side—as there was now.
While this paragraph may have its issues (although the writing grows stronger as the series progresses), what appeals to me about this opening is that it begins with A) our main character, B) she is in chains and C) she has been in slavery for a year. This directly leads the reader to realise that the main character is not precisely ordinary.

One of my other favourite books in Mistborn: The Final Empire begins with a prologue. The prologue does, however, introduce a major character of the book and it begins with the sentence: "Ash fell from the sky." This again is drawing because it highlights that there is something unusual about the situation or scene in which the story will open.

The first paragraph of yet another book that I enjoy (Theft of Swords) opens as follows: 
"Hadrian could see little in the darkness, but he could hear them - the snapping of twigs, the crush of leaves, and the brush of grass. There were more than one, more than three, and they were closing in.
I enjoy this opening because of how it deliberately includes information as needed - you are provided with the main character's name, what his current activity is (listening) and the fact that some things or people are after him. Yet the writer does not reveal who the 'them' is.

Normally it is considered bad practice in writing to practise using large amounts of pronouns or adverbs. However, as seen here the use of a pronoun in 'them' is highly effective. Also, it is worth paying attention to the fact that J.K. Rowling uses plenty of pronouns, and Harry Potter is now one of the largest literary fiction series of all time.

So however you choose to begin writing, choose to write in a way which 1) draws the reader in, 2) includes interesting detail or ideas and 3) is relevant to the overall story you are trying to tell. 

Next time I'll write on characters over setting and the arguments for why characters are more important and the arguments I also hold for why setting might be more important.


P.S. - Two excellent sites on writing opening sentences are here as follows: