Where’s The Starting Line?

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TWWW finalAs you’ve probably heard by now, I (along with Emily Leverett and Margaret McGraw) am editing The Weird Wild West, an anthology of speculative fiction from a frontier point-of-view.  Lately we’ve been reading all the submissions and choosing the best ones for inclusion in the book.  It’s been a real learning experience for me, and I’m going to spend the next few Mondays talking about things I’ve learned (and in many cases, relearned) from doing this job.  Today we’re going to start with starting.

Many years ago, I submitted a short story to Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Fantasy Magazine.  At the time, it was a highly-regarded publication which paid actual money for accepted work, and I wanted in.  I crafted a story I thought would fit perfectly with what she usually published, slapped the stamp on my SASE (those were the day!) and sent it off.  A few weeks later, my SASE showed back up in my mailbox with a rejection letter tucked inside.  The letter said that my story took too long getting started, and that in future I should always remember to start my story “at the moment things begin to go wrong for the main character.”

Those words have remained in my head ever since.  If conflict is what drives a story and makes us care, then why waste time and energy at the beginning on information that doesn’t serve the conflict?  Yet many, many, MANY writers spend page after page on set-up instead of diving right into the story.  For example, there’s the writer who needs his reader to be able to envision every physical aspect of where the story takes place.  So we have a page and a half at the beginning that does nothing but describe the terrain.

“It was hot out in the canyons, so hot that even the mirages were seeing mirages of their own.  The sky was a painful blue, as clear and empty as if it had forgotten what clouds were at all, and high above one lone eagle cried its piercing cry as it searched in vain for prey.  Jake wished he could stop riding through the dust that threatened to clog his throat and choke him to death, but he had to deliver the cattle he’d been hired to drive.  He just reminded himself that there was cold beer in town and he’d be there soon.
At last, just past nightfall, having delivered the herd safely to Mr Brown the rancher, Jake walked into town.  Marcilla welcomed him with open arms and a mug of beer.  As soon as he had finished every drop, he collapsed on her bed and didn’t leave it for two days.”

See the problem?  Nothing actually happened.  Jake was working, Jake finished his job, Jake rested.  No real conflict.  The story doesn’t actually begin until he gets out of Marcilla’s bed two days later and discovers that the whole town has been zombified or abducted by aliens or something.

Another problem writers have is with info dumping right from the start.  We all do research so we can make our stories as real and believable as possible, but most of that information doesn’t need to be shared on the page, and none of it needs to be dumped on the reader.  If your opening sounds less like a story and more like a Wikipedia entry, you have a problem.

“Jake shaded his eyes against the heat shimmer rising from the parched ground.  He’d looked it up once, what that shimmer meant.  The variation between hot air at the surface of the ground and denser cool air above it created a variation in the refractiveness of the air, which produced a blurred shimmering effect, making it appear as if the sky was reflected by the road’s surface. The mind interpreted this as a pool of water on the road, since water also reflects the sky. The illusion would fade as he got closer, he knew, but it still made him wish for a cold beer in town.

It’s nice that you know why the heat shimmers the way it does, but it doesn’t really matter to your story, and it certainly doesn’t make any sense that Jake, a lowly cattle driver, would have bothered to research any of that.  If you intend to have Jake fall prey to some evil mirage, that’s great – get on with that instead of explaining the science.

Moving on…we have the “introduce every character” beginning.  This is when the writer feels that all the players should have their moment on stage prior to the action starting.

“Jake Flanagan had been a cattle-driving cowboy since leaving home at the tender age of thirteen.  He shoved his hat back and ran his fingers through his dust-coated hair, watching Mr Brown, the rancher, approach.  Mr Brown was in his fifties, a former New Yorker who’d make a killing on the stock market and had come out west to be a rancher, and was doing a fine job of it.  Mr Brown shook his hand.  “Well done, Jake, as always.  Head on up to the house and see Marcilla for your pay packet.”
Jake thanked him and did as he said.  Marcilla was waiting.  She was a beautiful dark-haired woman, daughter of the white town sheriff and his Mexican wife, and she worked for Mr Brown as his bookkeeper, an odd job for a woman.  She smiled when he entered the office.  “Oh Jake, you’re back!” she cried, flinging herself into his arms.  “Want a beer?”

Again, nothing’s really happening.  A guy worked, got paid, saw his girlfriend.  That’s not a story, that’s every day.  There’s no conflict.  We know who everyone is, but that doesn’t matter much.

So let’s play with one that would work.  Remember, what we want is to begin where things are going wrong.  Ready?

“Jake shaded his eyes against the brutal sun, trying to ignore Marcilla off in the distance.  “It’s a mirage”, he muttered, as if to convince himself that it was only the heat.  Every morning for the last week, he’d waked to find another cow dead, its body drained of blood, and the shimmering image of Marcilla beckoning him to come to her.  He still had one more night on this godforsaken trail, and he wondered if this would be the night that her tastes turned to something more than cow’s blood.”

Right away we know he’s a cattle driver, he has a girlfriend, the weather’s really hot and there’s something awful happening.  As a reader, I want to stick around and see if Jake survives the night.

Here’s your homework, then.  Take a look at whatever you’re working on right now.  Read the first couple of pages.  What’s happening?  Nothing?  Keep going.  When you reach the point that things are going wrong for your main character, stop.  That’s where your story really begins.  All the stuff before it can be broken up and scattered into the story in other places (or maybe even removed entirely, if it’s an info dump situation.)

Good luck!

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5 comments to Where’s The Starting Line?

  • sagablessed

    Actually doing this very thing right now. But this reminds why I am doing it. I’ve already lost most of the first chpater, but in the end it will be worth it.

  • Ken

    Good stuff to remember…and I learned what causes a mirage 🙂

  • Love this post Misty! 🙂 I hacked and slashed the beginning of a bunch of stuff. It feels sometimes like the unimportant part needs to get written for the writer’s sake (the background, the setting, the other characters), but then needs to be cut for the reader’s sake.

    I’d add to this that some stories start out really well, but then, within a few paragraphs, drop away into backstory (the same stuff you were pointing out as a problem). If I (the reader) don’t need to know something right now, don’t tell me right now. It’s great if Jake (as the example she used) had a wonderful childhood on a ranch in Arizona, but unless that’s immediately relevant to the dead cows and mirage girlfriend, I don’t need to know it right now. And if I do need to know it, I probably don’t need to know a page of it. Just a line or two, a glimpse. We’ll learn about Jake as we go, as we see him behave in situations, with other characters, etc.

  • Razziecat

    “At the moment things begin to go wrong for the main character.”
    Love it! Now I want to go back to every short story I’ve written and see if I’ve done that. 🙂

  • I actually had the problem of wanting to get all the characters, all the background right there. It caused me to start over twice on my current WIP. I think I’m pretty satisfied about where I’ve started now. It shows her mental state, the town’s reaction to her, her reaction to the town and the 2nd major plotline of the story without dragging the story out.