Back To Basics: Writers’ Boot Camp

by Miko Johnston

Have you been writing? No? I hear you. We can’t seem to find the energy, or the creativity, to write. Even though we have a file full of ideas to play around with, or a started piece, or a half-finished manuscript. Even though we have plenty of time to write with no excuse other than the million other things we can be doing. Cleaning out the hall closet. Again. Thinking of a new way to use canned tuna.  Researching unfamiliar candidates on my primary ballot – maybe I would want the next governor of Washington to be Goodspaceguy* : )

I sympathize. It took me a few months to get inspired enough to write again (see my last post).  If you’re still stuck in neutral, I’m here to help get you in gear. And what better way than to get back to basics – how to write a story.

WHAT IS A STORY?

A story is a fully formed concept that has a beginning, middle, and end, plotted with characters, goals, conflict, and stakes. This applies whether you write short stories, screenplays, novellas or novels.

HOW TO BEGIN:    

When you consider buying a new book, you generally open it and read a few pages before you decide to take it or leave it – you can even do that online with Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature. If the book’s middle sags, or the ending isn’t satisfying, you won’t know that until after you’ve purchased it. However, if the beginning doesn’t grab you, it’s not going home with you. That’s how readers will react to your book. This is why the most important part of a story is the beginning.

A beginning has to serve many purposes. It must introduce us to the ‘who’ of the story, also some of the what, when, and why. The tone and genre should be apparent. It should also give us enough to pique our interest; too much bogs down the story and too little leaves us scratching our heads.

As authors, we really begin by sitting down and writing. Thinking, mulling, researching – all important, but they won’t get the words on the page. Once you’ve committed to writing, you need a way to begin. The possibilities might seem endless, but there are basically three ways to launch a story.

I           Mid-action

This is when you begin at the last possible minute to give the reader a sense that the story has already started and they’re joining it already in progress. This may seem counterintuitive, like walking into a movie after it’s begun, but it tends to get the reader curious about what’s going on, so they keep reading to find out.

A good example of this would be a murder mystery that opens with the detective arriving pre-dawn at the crime scene; a beat cop hands her a take-out coffee and reads his notes: “The vic is….”, which gives readers information simultaneously with the detective. We don’t need to be in her bedroom when she’s awakened by the precinct’s call, or watch her get dressed, fix breakfast and head out to her car. That would be like arriving at the movie theater before the commercials. With mid-action, you get the reader engaged right away and weave in the details as you go.

II         Setting a scene that’s about to change

This is when you open with a scene of normal everyday life. It could focus on a character, like a young woman celebrating her promotion with her office mates, then walking home alone. Or a place, like a military base in the Middle East, where soldiers are relaxing. Often the genre hints that the placid opening will be disrupted with a bang – maybe literally. If the book’s a mystery or a thriller, you know something is going to happen – that young woman will be murdered; the soldiers playing cards or tossing a football around will suddenly come under attack. If the genre doesn’t imply something will happen, hint at it in your opening paragraph or page.

The key to this method is to hold off the revelation long enough to generate tension. Change it too soon and it will be like shouting BOO; startling but not satisfying. Wait too long and the reader will lose patience as well as interest. It also must depend on the length of the manuscript. You can take more time with a novel than with a short story.

III        A statement or explanation

Common in many great classics, this type of beginning employs a form of narration:

            A nostalgic “I remember…” musing

            A “Let me introduce myself” statement

            A narrator’s observation

            An implied ‘bookend’

            An omniscient point of view.

Mysteries that open with the murderer observing his deed, such as Paula Hawkins’ Girl On A Train, is one example, since the murderer is not the protagonist. Using an implied bookend, Lawrence Hill begins his engrossing novel,  Someone Knows My Name, with his elderly heroine ready to tell a packed audience her life story. The rest of the novel is told in flashback up to the climax, which brings us back to her about to go on stage.

Using this method addresses the reader in a direct way, which builds a bond. However, it introduces the plot slowly, in a cerebral rather than a dynamic manner, so it must intrigue us enough to keep reading. You can accomplish this with an opening sentence in a short story, but longer form fiction allows for more time.

Confused yet? Think of beginning a story like getting into a pool. Some just jump right in – method one. Others will dangle their feet in the water awhile, then slip in – method two. Others (me) will dip a toe in, complain about how cold it is, then slowly inch deeper into the pool until the water’s shoulder-high before gliding under – method three.

*          *          *

Are you are having trouble starting your story? Consider writing three different versions using each of these methods, then see which best accomplishes the goal of an opening. Which will lead you in the direction you want to go? Even though you’ll reject two of the openings, you may keep a nugget from them to use elsewhere. Or, if you decide to use a bookend opening, you can convert one of your other versions into chapter two.

Have you begun your story but aren’t satisfied with it? Does it feel bloated with backstory? Does it convey enough to grab the reader’s interest? Which type of beginning did you use? Does it satisfy the goals of that method? If so, perhaps trying another method would be more effective, or it might suggest a fix for your original beginning.

Your opening should not only prod your readers to keep going, but you as well. Again, even outlining an opening using another method of beginning may prompt some questions or ideas that will move you forward. If you’re writing a sequel, try rereading your previous book, or go back to the beginning and reread them all. It may give you momentum, or you may find some detail that triggers an idea to follow up on.

*          *          *

Have you gotten stuck after writing the opening and can’t seem to progress? Does your plot feel bogged down and going nowhere? In the next installment, we’ll look at ways to keep the middle from sagging or lagging.

*Spacemanguy` was an actual gubernatorial candidate in Washington state’s primary election. He lost.

Miko Johnston is the author of three novels in The Petal In The Wind series, available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington (the big one). Contact her at mikojohnstonauthor@gmail.com 

19 thoughts on “Back To Basics: Writers’ Boot Camp”

  1. Miko, an inspiring blog! thank you. I will try to put your words into my action. BTW, when I ghostwrite a book – usually a memoir/autobiog – I begin the book, Chapter 1, with the most dramatic moment in their lives, then Chapter 2 begins the client’s chronological life story. Some mysteries begin this way although mine do not probably because they are cozies, rather than thrillers. Christie, though, began some of her books thus.

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  2. Certain genres lend themselves to a particular beginning, mysteries for example. Some open with the murder about to occur, some with the murder taking place. Others begin with a crime scene (dead body) or a suspected crime (missing person). As you point out, Jill, the tone of the story should be apparent in the opening pages.

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  3. Great advice and some things for all writers to think about. They do say the beginning of a story sells it; the closing sells the next book. I also like your idea of writing three different openings and see which one works for the story you are writing. It might send you off into great, uncharted territory or solidify the point you are trying to convey in the story. But it will get writers to think about the direction they are going and it might inspire some of us to get back to writing. Thanks for the encouragement.

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  4. Don’t we all need a bit of encouragement nowadays, Gayle. Many writers get stuck in a rut, partly because they’ve developed a kind of tunnel vision to their manuscripts. Looking at our work from a different angle can help.

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    1. Thanks, Madeline. You raise a good point about how the end of a story should relate to the beginning. More on that when we get to endings : )

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  5. When I’m stuck and can’t make progress, I often go back to these basic strategies. If my post helps other writers resuscitate their manuscripts, then I’ve accomplished my goal.

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  6. Great advice indeed, Miko. I will try to follow it if I ever write a mystery again. My problem is of having no plot ideas at the moment. I published a new book this month which I wrote before the onset of the pandemic, but my creative brain has been on hold for several months and may never function again.

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    1. Alice, I think a lot of us are that way. Brains on Hold. The question is…for how long? I think when we can start planning things again in the world (lunches, events, trips) that that will free up minds…at least mine.

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      1. Try baby steps. Word games stimulate the mind and the vocabulary. Write letters to friends and family, even if they don’t write back. Post book reviews. As we like to say, writing is writing.

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  7. Don’t despair, Alice. I understand how hard it is to think about writing fiction at this time. It almost seems frivolous compared to what’s going on in the world right now, but it also may be just what we need. I urge you and anyone who feels the same way to watch the great Preston Sturges movie, Sullivan’s Travels https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0034240/. You will be inspired to write again.

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      1. The movie, which takes place during the teeth of the Depression, reminds us that we don’t always know the best way to deal with hard times. Regardless, if you like old classic movies, you’ll really enjoy this one. A host of great character actors, snappy dialogue and an uplifting message.

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  8. Miko, you’re certainly right about not completing all of the amazing writing promises we had ourselves made, during this enforced shut-down.
    So, to drag ourselves out of the inertia, this is a great reminder of where we start – and how to progress through the murky novel-writing waters. Thank you for the jolt – and inspiration – some of us need!

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  9. I’m right there beside you, Rosemary. It took months before I could park my you-know-what in a chair and start writing again. I finally realized it was a good way to bring a semblance of normalcy back into my life.

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