Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Finding the Story Opening, Part 1, Action vs. Character

On Twitter I found a screenwriter to follow - new to twitter, veteran screenwriter:

This tweet was retweeted by @JustinWHedges
@fieldink 12:35pm via Web
Action or Char to open ur scpt? No 1 answer. Depends on genre. Either character drives the action or action drives the character #writers

Ooops!  A long time ago someone asked me to do a blog entry on OPENINGS and I forgot until I saw that tweet.

Here's the twitter bio of @fieldink that made me follow him:

Screenwriter, Teacher, Lecturer, Author of Screenplay, The Screenwriter's Workbook, on faculty at USC's Prof Writing Program, Hall of Frame Inductee

He is on the sydfield.com website -- that's why he could explain "opening" in such a succinct way.  You have to admire that, but I wonder how many of you understand what he's talking about well enough to go, "Aha!" and then just change the way you find how to open your stories?

I've written about crafting the opening of an Action Romance in this blog entry:

But we need to examine this "find the opening scene" process more carefully because it is mostly done subconsciously.  It's just that it usually takes years and lots of failures before the new writer trains the subconscious to formulate the opening correctly.

Take for example my novels MOLT BROTHER and its direct sequel CITY OF A MILLION LEGENDS.  Here are the links to refresh memory:



Paper, ebook and audiobook versions of both books are available, but Amazon isn't linking them very well for City of a Million Legends.

The idea for those novels came to me (while waking up) as a SCENE, and at the time I thought it was the opening scene.

It's a powerful scene -- but what appeared in the final published book was very different.

What was the scene?  The one where Arshel is in molt and Zref is standing outside the closed space ship cabin door where she is in anguished distress understanding what she's going through, what he should do, and what he should not do -- and then doing what he should not do because he must do it.

That's no opening scene, and it's not an ending scene either.  To me there were layers of emotional and alien-emotional conflict criss-crossing the scene, and reams of esoteric karmic drama driving Zref's decision, but it was all there in one flash of a visual scene -- the door or air-lock portal, Zref's hand raised to the door, and a telepathic vibrancy shimmering in the air. 

Notice the opening of MOLT BROTHER is a scene between Arshel and her parents -- and the parents never appear again.

Or do they?

Aren't her parents "there" inherently in every event that happens because of how the parents handle this scene where she declares herself bonded to a human -- and a male at that!  The parents aren't entirely clear on which is worse, his gender or his species! 

Scarred by that moment, trapped with no way to go home, no way out, no way back, Arshel plunges forward into life with Dennis Lakely and sticks it out longer than any of us would, until that moment when she's utterly bereft, trapped in that space ship cabin and all alone.

The second chapter opens on Zref and his bonded companion trying to lay plans for their future together, hustling tourists for cash to go to college together offworld. 

Because of things that Dennis Lakely's parents do, Zref is left without that bond. 

The reason he opens that door into Arshel's life is the same as the reason Arshel got trapped in that plight -- no way back, no way around, no way but forward.

The walls of the trap are largely emotional, but that emotion closes in from all sides because of (unrevealed until the second book) karmic connections, decisions and actions and results of long-ago lifetimes. 

But when I "had the idea" all those emotions were tangled up and layered.  Though the moment was vivid in my mind, and the drama apparent, it wasn't the story opening.

CITY OF A MILLION LEGENDS is the story I wanted to tell, and though it opens with a Kren baby hatching, it's real beginning is in that moment when Zref opens the door to Arshel's life and makes vows he isn't allowed to make. 

If you've read the book, you understand how much "worldbuilding" went into creating that moment of choice for Zref. 

How do you do that?  How do you untangle a vivid, single-scene IDEA into a linear story-line that allows you to explain worldbuilding, whole cultures, interstellar civilization, interstellar archeology, without much exposition? 

Many new writers would just start with Zref's hand on the door, then fill in 20 or more pages explaining (in exposition - years ago, this happened, then that tragedy, then he made this choice, and now he's committed to this course of action, but he wants to open this door because).  It would be so boring!  Yet it's high drama in the extreme.

That little tweet from an expert screenwriter tells you exactly how it's done.

If it's one genre - start with character. Romance, for example, is emotionally plotted but the emotion is driven by character.

If it's another genre - start with action.  Science Fiction and most Fantasy is action driven plot, so you have to leap into the ACTION with an opening scene where people do things, and then later you find out who they are and why they did this crazy things.

But what genre is MOLT BROTHER?

On the back cover of the Berkeley mass market paperback of MOLT BROTHER there's a quote from C. J. Cherryh (whose Foreigner universe novels I rave about!) 

"Jacqueline Lichtenberg has taken a new and interesting direction with this book, partly technological, partly alien cultures, in a very intriguing interrelation." 

I had forgotten that quote was there. 

It's quite clear -- this is one of the earliest Mixed Genre novels, more mixed than my later award winner, Dushau. 

There's also a quote from Andre Norton on Molt Brother:

"Imaginative and outstanding.  It captures the reader and won't let go."

THAT is what openings are supposed to do! 

But how do you do that?  What do you do with "an idea" that turns it into a "captures and won't let go" novel?

Ever seen a movie run backwards?  Ever done a rewind on a recorder - harder to understand with a DVR that skips frames on backwards, but visualize it.

That's what you do.

You take your "idea" separate it into "layers" (his story; her story) and run it backwards in your head until you get to the "right" moment.

How do you identify or recognize the "right" moment that is a "beginning" moment?

Aha, that's easy and I've talked about it here before in posts on structure and theme.


The general formula for beginning a story is to find the moment in time when the two elements, forces, or characters who will "conflict" to generate the plot first come together.

Last week we mentioned Marion Zimmer Bradely's novel CATCH TRAP -- which opens with the first memory of one of the main characters -- the circus tent being burned.  But that's not happening in current time.  Nevertheless it works, because the novel not only starts with an emotion-laden action denoting the setting (tent-circus), but one of the themes, (an industry changing as a result of the impact of technology - a science fiction theme guaranteed to captivate any SF reader). 

That moment then unravels into the life story of the artistic vocation of this character as a circus performer.

Her first novel, SWORD OF ALDONES (later rewritten and retitled, but I love the first version best) starts with a thought, "We were outstripping the night."  I think that's the best opening line of any novel I've ever read -- ever!!! 

By comparing the opening line of each of Bradley's novels to the end-line, you can learn everything there is to know about structure. 

Sometimes an idea comes to you from the ending, or any random place -- sometimes the idea appears as a scene which does not and can not belong in the novel at all! 

Every character's life consists of a variety of intertwined conflicts that don't all run to resolution during their lifetime.  Any set of characters probably deals with a set of conflicts that are maybe the factorial of the number of characters in the set -- multiply a lot to get the number. 

As you know from my posts on Astrology just for writers, every life has cyclical affairs running like the planets -- a very complicated clock.  Every character has a conflict denoted by such a planetary cycle.

The highest drama events are denoted by Pluto -- Sexuality rather than love, car wrecks, being wounded in war, a transition Event that establishes a New Normal. 

Pluto, however, does not denote "sudden" events (that's Uranus).  You can always see a Pluto event coming -- but you never (almost never-ever) do!  You can see it in retrospect, but never in prospect.

An example would be drunk driving.  Watching a character who chronically drives drunk, you can easily expect they will get into a wreck at some point.  The character, though, even if they've wrecked a car or two, can never - ever - see that they are going to be an amputee or paralyzed or on trial for manslaughter and become a three-month wonder to the media.

Heart attacks are another kind of Pluto-event -- any onlooker can see this character's eating and exercising habits are leading to no good, but the character is shocked-surprised-offended by the event of a heart attack -- "Why me?" 

So, if your story is about a person whose chronic habits are going to produce a dramatic, life-changing Event -- you have to decide if your story lies before or after the Event.

Is this a story about misbehavior (such as bullying?) that eventually produces a comeuppance (such as losing a job and ending up in jail framed for embezzlement?).

Is this story designed to deliver a whopping sense of justification to the reader?

Or is this a story about rehabilitation, having learned a hard lesson by the Event, now a life is being rebuilt, and maybe teaching others who are making that mistake to pull back from it?  Such as a drug addict or alcoholic teaching 12-step? 

Once you know what the story is about -- by analyzing what kind of pay-load the story delivers at "the end" (how you want the reader to feel about herself and the characters at the end) -- then you can "frame" the story by nailing the beginning.

Remember the structural beats of a novel -- usually 4-act rather than the powerful 3-act structure of a screenplay. 

The usual length novel (75,000 to 100,000 words) is divided by climaxes into 4 parts or "acts." 

A) Beginning
B) 1/4 point
C) Middle
D) 3/4 point
END and/or denoument.

The quarter-points have their own specific formulas.  "Pacing" is just another term for putting the quarter point Events at the quarter-point page-number. 

When checking a book for reviewability, (as an editor checks a manuscript for publishability) the first thing I look at is the Beginning, Middle, and End by page-count. 

If the Events delineated at those points are connected in a developmental Arc that makes sense, I'll read the book.  If not, not.  If I get hooked on the Beginning and when I get to the middle, the Event on that page is not a "Middle" Event -- I might check the End event, page a little to find what goes in the Middle and if it's not anywhere near where it should be, I won't bother finishing.

Most writers think of that as a flaw.  It isn't because a book that has its pacing "off" by too much will not deliver to the readers the emotional payload they paid good money for. 

This is why finding the right beginning Event is so crucial.  Once the Beginning is determined, the Middle and End are absolutely known.  You can't fudge it.  It is what it is.  Readers who read a lot of books (the very people most likely to pay for your book) are used to finding what they pay for right where it should be. 

You wouldn't sell them a dress with the seams only basted, would you?

So don't sell them a novel with the Events in the wrong places.

You avoid that by choosing the opening point.

But the thing is, when you start writing a story, you really don't actually know the ending!  Or if you do, you probably don't know the Middle or Beginning precisely.

Just because the end-product has to be paced "just-so" does not mean the process of producing the first draft will be that clean or orderly.

Nevertheless, outlining --- writing down the beginning, quarter, middle, 3/4, end Events -- is necessary.  You have to take a guess, and try for it.

Sometimes characters insist on finding their own karmic solutions - however temporary - and you just have to go along for the ride.

In that case, you change the outline to match and test it to make sure the Events conform to reader's expectations (with surprises, of course).  If you don't keep that outline updated, you very likely will have to rewrite and you may need to junk everything you've written and start over.

To avoid putting more hours in than you can get money out, you keep the outline updated, and make sure the Events fall at the right story-points. 

Events are on the plot line, emotional peaks and valleys delineate the story going on inside the character, the internal conflict. 

You want to get the story and the plot to END in the same Event, as discussed last week.

Where the peaks and valleys occur (by page count) and where the plot Events happen (by page count) depends, as @fieldink said, depends on genre. 

If you're heading for a happy ending (an up ending) then the Middle is a DISASTER (a valley, a Pluto-driven Event) such as a maiming car wreck, so the End becomes asking the physical therapist to marry and getting a yes. 

That car-wreck scenario tells you that your opening scene is in a bar or at a party where the character who will wreck the car first gets hooked on booze or drugs or whatever behavior will impair judgement.  Most likely the Opening would involve an association with an inappropriate character -- maybe someone who then gets killed doing whatever they introduced the main character to. 

It doesn't have to be booze or drugs -- it might be the first encounter with car racing, and just plain enjoying speed and winning until the adrenalin of it becomes the drug. 

If it's a Romance, of course you start with character, displaying in show-don't-tell the character trait that makes that character the perfect mate for the Physical Therapist who enters later.

Or your character might be headed for a car-wreck that ends him up in court where he meets the Lawyer (prosecutor?) he falls in love with -- and eventually proposes to. 

You find the opening of your story by plucking apart the threads of the character's life until you can see one whole cycle of Ups and Downs leading to the ending that delivers the punch the genre readers are looking for. 

In my case, it's always the Relationships (not always sexual!).  I always look for a character whose life is malfunctioning in some regard (sometimes several regards).  My personal life-philosophy shows me how the real world functions on Relationships, and how human psychological health (and thus sane life-choices) depends on functional Relationships.

My mission as a writer is to bring that character's life up to a functional level that feels, at least to the character, as Happy. 

One very common mistake beginning writers make is to start their story too late -- when the character is already Happy, or when the character already knows that they are miserable.

The Happily Ever After ending works best  when the story starts with the character unaware of the real problem deep inside.  The story opens with the character making a decision and/or taking an action (accepting a date; accepting a particular college entry letter; quitting a job; getting fired and getting drunk over it), so that everything else that happens during the novel is a direct consequence of that opening action.

I call that plot technique "the because-line" -- because the main character did this, that happens, to which the main character responds by doing that, which causes this to happen, to which the main character responds etc, right to The End.

That's why, given impeccable story-logic, any beginning contains within it a very specific ending. 

After you've chosen the beginning, you don't get to choose just any old ending that you think would be neat.  The ending is determined by the beginning.

Or the beginning is determined by the ending you've chosen.

Beginning and Ending make the Middle obvious and irrevocable. 

There are many genres, and all kinds of Literary forms that don't use this structure.  If you don't like it, don't try to write it. 

Here's what to do.

Take a pile of your 10 most beloved novels, the ones you've read so often you can chant the lines in the shower.  Spread out ten sheets of paper, take a pen and at the top of each sheet write the TITLE and opening Event (in your own words; describe that Event that kicks off the story and plot). 

Look at the page number of the end of the last chapter or epilog, divide by two, and look at that page plus or minus 5 pages, and write down one sentence describing what happens at that point in the novel.

Look at the end Event - not the epilog, but the climax Event, and write that down. 

Study the set of sheets -- you may need to rephrase a few times to bring the elements buried in symbolism up to consciousness. 

If you can see a consistent beginning/middle/end pattern, that's the sort of book you should set out to write because it's what you most love to read.

It could be that your favorite literature doesn't have this structure.  Some very fine classics don't, but they are much harder to learn and to duplicate. 

There is a type called "stream of consciousness" - and many new writers think that means they can just write down what they are thinking and it'll be a story.  It doesn't work that way.  There is a very real, very precise skeletal structure behind these apparently formless writings.

The more formless a piece seems to be, the more heavily it relies on that internal structure for its effectiveness -- like poetry!  And its correspondingly hard to duplicate.

One way to learn "stream of consciousness" structure is to practice and internalize the Beginning/Middle/End structure.

The "formless" fictional genres are usually composed of several different structures intertwined, and the only way I know of to learn to do that is to master each of the structures separately -- learn to chew gum and walk by first walking, then chewing gum, then combining.

So again, you always find the Beginning by looking at the Ending -- and the Ending, as @fieldink said depends on the genre.

The best place to learn modern genre structure is in the screenwriting books by Blake Snyder, SAVE THE CAT! series.  These are now out in e-book, too, which is handy.

Here is Blake Snyder's Amazon page with all the formats of all the books, including 2016 releases

Here's the Book Description from STRIKES BACK:

Blake Snyder, author of Save the Cat!® and Save the Cat!® Goes to the Movies, is back with the book countless readers and students have clamored for. Inspired by questions from his workshops, lectures, and emails, Blake listened and provides new tips, tactics, and techniques to solve your writing problems and create stories that resonate:
The 7 warning signs you might have a great idea or not
2 sure-fire templates for can t-miss loglines
The difference between structure and formula
The Transformation Machine that allows you to track your hero s growth step-by-step
The 5 questions to keep your story s spine straight
The 5-Point Finale to finish any story
The Save the Cat!® Greenlight Checklist that gets to the heart of every development issue
The right way to hear notes, deal with problematic producers, and dive into the rewrite with the right attitude
Why and when an agent will appear
How to discover the potential for greatness in any story
How to avoid panic, doubt, and self-recrimination... and what it takes to succeed and dare to achieve your dreams
Get ready to face trouble like a pro... and strike back!

All of this is just another way of explaining what everyone who is selling fiction knows.  You just have to find the one explanation that hits you right.

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

1 comment:

  1. Wow. A lot of good information in this. I'm sure I'll be re-reading this post several times.