Thursday, November 26, 2009

Technical Topics -- Beginnings and Tipping Points

I was thinking about story openings, since I will have to do one soon. I was trying to decide what makes a good opening, and how I start my own stories. These two are not necessarily linked by bands of steel.

Thinking about process ...
The story opening is determined by the big crisis that lies at the heart of the story. The Climax. The Big Kahuna.

Now, of course, there's lotsa stuff that leads up to that Crisis. Various characters did this and that and weather happened and a declaration of war and Susie came down with the pox.
But when I go seeking for a good opening, I'm looking at what the female protagonist does -- Her thoughts, actions and decisions. Because, for me, the book is about the female protagonist. She's going to determine where the story begins.

So ... I look at the protagonist's actions as far as I have them figured out.

Of course, I don't look at every bloody thing she does.
There are those actions that are absolutely necessary for The Crisis to occur and the story to take the path it does. This is 'story action'.
Then there's a whole bunch of to-ing and fro-ing that could be changed without affecting the story much. That is not 'story action' and I can kind of ignore it.

Entering the vampire cave is necessary. It is 'story action'.
Buying eggs at the market -- not so much.
It's like that.

When I wander through the protagonist's story action, what I'm looking for is 'tipping points'.
One of these tipping points is going to be the first scene in the story. I just have to find the right one.

"'Tipping points'?" you say.
And "?"
Yeah. Ok.

Every story has many places where a different decision would lead to a different Crisis and a different story. These are 'tipping points'. These are moments where the protagonist has an opportunity to change everything. Her decision could go either way. What she decides matters.

Going aside here to natter about generalities ...
Tipping points make the protagonist strong and interesting. Story is not about what happens to the protagonist. Story is what the protagonist decides to do with what happens to her.
And the tipping points are her decisions.
This is where she grabs hold of the story by the throat and wrestles it down and makes it do what she wants.

Writers -- giving my opinion here and knowing it is not necessarily true -- want to show these tipping points, because they are so important and so revealing and just so generally cool. Even if everybody who's slogged their way to page 134 knows the protagonist will not run from the upcoming battle, the reader still wants to see that decision to stay and be brave. She wants to see the 'tipping point' where the protagonist has a choice and makes it.

All of which is just generally to speak in praise of tipping points.

Anyway. Getting back to where the beginning of the story is going to be.
I look at my protagonist's actions. I look at her decisions.
I want to start the story with a tipping point.

Why do I pick one tipping point and not another?
What is characteristic of the scene and the tipping point that starts the story?

*-- The tipping-point decision in the scene that starts the story is necessary for the action of the story. It directly leads to the Crisis at the end.

*-- The start scene is early in the long sequence of protagonist actions related to the Crisis.
(Right. The beginning scene is early. yeah. duh ...)
But not too early.

What it is ...
There's a long line of protagonist actions, stretching way into the past and extending far into the future. Maybe like, y'know, beads.
Only a little section of this action can happen 'on stage' in the book.
We know the last on-stage actions are going to be when The Crisis is resolved.
The first on-stage actions ...
Well, we're working on the beginning right now.

We want to scoop as much important story action into the book as we can. We want all the good stuff to happen 'on stage'. Essential story action that happens before the beginning of the book has to be shoved into some flashback or backstory or some kind or prologue. This is a weakness in the story structure.

Note how I'm talking only about 'story action'. We want to scoop in story action. The important stuff. We want to write it out as scenes and put it on stage.
We don't want to write scenes that have no story action and only convey information. We especially do not want to start with a scene like that.

*-- Ideally, we want to start with a scene that is chronologically tight with the rest of the story. That is, we do not want an outlier in time. This avoids a hiatus in the action.
If we can manage it, we don't go all prologue-y with a, 'Two years before' . . .

Prologues are necessary in some stories, but I feel it may not be the tightest of all structures. There are folks who disagree with me.
Full disclosure time here -- I have to keep knocking my hand off the keyboard to keep myself from writing prologues.

*-- A tipping point means the protagonist makes an active choice. She has the capacity for some sort of action.

Sometimes there doesn't seem to be much the character can do. The protag is a victim trapped in the dungeon. A Cinderella bound to her stepmother's will.

What the writer does is shake the story around to give the protagonist choice. Even a limited choice can be the tipping point.

In the dungeon, the protagonist makes a decision not to reveal her secrets whatever happens. Her silence keeps her alive long enough for the partisans to rescue her. She gives half her bread to the other inmate -- the man who will later be the key to getting her out of the fortress. She palms a spoon to scrape through the rocks and thus has a weapon the next time the cell door is opened.

Cinderella decides to approach each daily, demeaning, unfair household task with a stalwart heart and a generous spirit. It is her light-hearted singing --rather than sullen acceptance -- that leads the Prince to her.

The tipping point is a decision that changes the story.
It can be made even when the character is under fierce constraints.

And if the protagonist's actions and decisions keep not affecting the outcome of events . . . why not?

*-- It is especially exciting if the tipping point is a decision that rests on a knife edge. Where it could go either way.

*-- All else being equal, I like a tipping point that involves 'big screen action'. That is -- the protagonist makes a decision that results in big bodily motion. Getting-into-a-car-and-racing-down-the-mountain decisions, rather than stern conversation or hiding the jewels in the sofa cushions.

This is just me. Personal preference. Ignore it.

*-- For the first scene, you want a tipping point that reveals one of the most basic aspects of your protagonist. It's not just an important decision. It's the decision this character, idiosyncratically, would make.

*-- A tipping point is always encased within 'story action'. Every scene is built around 'story action, of course, (did you notice I don't use initials for tipping point?) but the first scene is especially built around story action. And the tipping point is embedded in this action. It is not just wandering off in the mist somewhere admiring the action over its shoulder.

The tipping point can never be description of an average morning or talking heads informing us about the lost gold mine.

*-- While the tipping point has to occur somewhere in the first scene, it need not be laid out right in the opening lines. It doesn't have to be the major action shaping the scene.

It can be quite a small thing. Not obvious.

*-- In genre Romance, one or more tipping points are likely to arise in the hero/heroine meeting.

These are neat tipping point to start the story with because the H&H meeting all by itself ties up a bunch of plotting thingums the writer has to get out of the way in the first couple chapters.

So, in genre Romance, a good beginning might be the tipping point where the female protagonist decides how to deal with the hero . . .

'Will she rescue the hero or leave him in prison?'

'Will she approach this dangerous man on the street, or back off and find some more cautious way to accomplish her ends?'

'Will she stay to spy on the approaching stranger on the chance he is the messenger she's waiting for, or will she run to safety?'

Three small decisions. (Three books.) The decisions pass almost unnoticed in the scene. But these tipping points define the protagonist. If she had acted differently -- no story.


  1. Jo,

    This is one of the best explanations of openings I've read. Thank you for posting it.


  2. Thank you so much.

    The post is all long and involved. I wasn't sure I'd got the idea across. It's kinda complicated ....

  3. Anonymous8:16 AM

    Dear Joanna,

    It's so strange, I've been wrestling with this idea all week. I have the first half of a ms done and broke it apart like you had mentioned in one of your previous posts. Now I'm working on the bits and inserting other bits as I go. However, my tipping point, my introduction is in the eyes of my hero. I wondered if I had ever read any romance which did so and I am finding myself coming up zip. So I am trying to find a scene which would work for heroine. Not so much right at the moment. Do you think it's a flaw to start with the hero in romantic suspense?
    Thank you!

  4. Anonymous8:17 AM

    Oops! I also meant to say I loved your post on tipping point introductions!

  5. @Anon

    Oh thank you. I have been prolix. I hope I have at least been comprehensible.

    As to whose head to start in .... I looked at my most recent reads.

    In Female POV:

    SEP, 'Gitter Baby'
    Eloisa James, 'When the Duke Returns'
    Eloisa James, 'Duchess By Night'
    Pam Rosenthal, 'Almost a Gentleman'
    Sabrina Jeffries, 'Dance of Seduction'
    Sabrina Jeffries, 'A Notorious Love'
    Judith Ivory, 'Angel in a Red Dress'
    Shana Abe, 'The Dream Thief'
    Mary Jo Putney, 'Loving a Lost Lord'

    In Male POV:

    Sabrina Jeffries, 'Only a Duke Will Do'
    Sabrina Jeffries, 'In the Prince's Bed'
    Linda Winstead Jones, 'Bride By Command'
    Samantha James, 'A Perfect Bride'
    Loretta Chase, 'Mr. Impossible'

    In Omniscient Narrator:

    Pam Rosenthal, 'The Edge of Impropriety'

    Admittedly, these are just about all Historical Romances ... but I'd call this an indication you can open your story in any ol' POV you fancy.

    As to 'tipping points' --
    ISTM a story is going to have a lot of them. There will be many places where the story could go in one direction or another, depending on the choices a character makes. You'll probably find a tipping point somewhere at the logical story beginning.

    Now me, I start with the female protagonist's choice because I am very much writing the female protagonist's story. Her journey, her growth and realization, her attainment of a vital goal, shape the story.

    Most Romance genre books are more balanced. *g*

    If you feel that your story belongs to one protagonist or the other, that would be a reason to start in that character's POV. If you're balanced, though ... you likely have free rein,

    So ISTM you can go with what feels right, what's exciting, what shows the deepest values of your character, what is going to hook the reader...

    You'll probably find a tipping point somewhere in there. *g*

  6. Anonymous2:26 PM

    As usual, you have been ever so helpful with your writing tutorials. Many thanks!

  7. @Anon ...

    I am utterly delighted to think this may strike a few sparks for someone.

  8. Hi LL -

    Thank you so much.