Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Technical Topics -- Beginnings

Let's say you have finished a good rough draft of the manuscript,
and you come back to look at the beginning,
and you don't know whether it's any good.

How do you judge a beginning?

You can do something like this here below.
This is just a starting point for thinking about your plot, but it has the merit of being both specific and brief.

1) Pick up the first three pages only.

-- Do these first three pages put you in an interesting place?
-- Does something happen?
-- Does that action give rise to what is going to happen in at least one scene after page fifty?
-- Do we connect with at least one character and her problems?
-- Do we understand who she is and what she wants?

2) Set the first three chapters to one side,
(over there on the edge of your desk,)
and look at the beginning of Chapter Four.

-- What action takes place before this point that is wholly necessary to tell your story?
-- Could you just as easily start the story here?

No, really.
Could you start the story right here and it would all be understandable and the plot would work just fine?

3) Slip a paperclip onto page 10, page 23, page 37 and page 48.
Read the story quickly, from the beginning.
When you get to the bottom of a paperclipped page, set it down and ask yourself:
--What intriguing question fills your mind right now?
-- Is that question so enticing that you must pick that manuscript up and read on?

4) Take out two colors of highlighter.
Yellow and fuschia maybe.
You're going to go through the first four chapters.

Use yellow to mark a line along

-- dialog, (with the exception of someone explaining and telling stuff,)
-- dialog tags,
-- a character thinking about something or someone they can see right in front of them,
-- an action that is happening onstage right now,
-- the POV character smelling, touching, tasting or hearing something,
-- the description of something the POV character can see.

Use fuschia to mark a long line along

-- anything that happened in the past,
-- a character thinking about something that is not immediately in front of her,
-- the description of something the POV character cannot see,
-- anything related to a character who is not present,
-- one person explaining anything at all to the other person,
-- one person telling the other person what happened somewhere else.

Do you have lots and lots of yellow?
Maybe 80% yellow?

That is the here-and-now of your story.
If the reader is not in the midst of the here-and-now of your story . . .
where is she?

5) Finally, just read the first five chapters.
Do you care about these people?
Do you see them headed somewhere?

It is an interesting exercise to go through this with authors you enjoy.
Pick up one of Nora Roberts' books that you've somehow managed to acquire in duplicate. Limber up your yellow marker.
It is instructive to see a master at work.


  1. So, how can I do this with just under 6,000 words and no defined chapters...? (g) Homework for tonight!

  2. Hi Tara --

    Piece of cake. Really.