Sunday, January 15, 2012

Technical Topics -- Flying into the story. Or driving.

I was commenting on a snippet of a first chapter that had been posted for comment.  The hero was in a car, headed for a party:

So I said,

One of the standard openings for novice manuscripts, one that lands in the slushpiles of New York with great frequency, is the protagonist on a means of transportation.

What it is -- the writer has facets a, b, and c she wants to reveal about the protagonist's character. She has factoids d, e and f that are backstory she wants to fill in. So the writer puts her characters in a box and lets them talk about or think about items ' a' through 'f'.

Things could happen in the car, I guess
This seems a simple and straightforward way to tell the readers all this nifty stuff.  It's a relatively easy scene to write because there isn't any distraction.

Problem is, nothing much happens while the writer is telling the reader 'a' through 'f'.  Nothing can happen till everybody climbs out of the transportation.

Speaking generally, whether it's the opening scene of Chapter One or the closing of Chapter 22,  a good way to approach it is to ask ourselves what story action is taking place.

A 'story action' is something that must happen for later events to work.  It's something significant.  If the hero and heroine don't go to the old Gold Mine, they won't discover the miner's body.  If Marvin doesn't kidnap Cecelia, Horace can't ride to her rescue.  That kinda thing.
Driving around in a car is very rarely story action.

We don't put all story action on stage.  Some of it isn't suited to dramatic, real-time presentation.  But story action is the backbone of the manuscript.  Most of what we do put 'on-stage' should be story action.

What kind of story action might appear in Chapter One, Scene One?
Boy meets girl
We could walk in on a crime in progress, if the story is about solving that crime.  We could set someone to making a decision that sends her in one direction on her journey instead of another.

We're Romance writers here, so let's say we make our first scene to contain the story action of 'boy meets girl'.

We can compare a mode-of-transportation beginning with the 'story action' beginning of the 'boy meets girl' type.

We can put the new schoolmarm in the stagecoach for four or five pages and have her look out at the cactus on the way to Dry Gulch, wondering what her life will be like in the West. And when we've done that for five or six pages, we can start the story action.

Or we can plunge in and write the story action and let that information and character development catch up as it will.

According to her schedule, in one hour, Miss Ermyntrude Wells was supposed to arrive at the Dry Gultch Hotel with three trunks of school equipment and one trunk of sober, sensible clothing.

That wasn't going to happen, was it?

She leaned out the coach window. "You can just put that gun down right this minute, young man."

Our protagonist is a cook hired to prepare a spectacular dinner party for a millionaire. We can put her in an airplane, circling in to land at an exotic island paradise. She thinks about why she's taken this job so far from New York and what she'll serve at the party and how things will be different in Santa Rosalita. She wonders why the millionaire requested her in particular.

Or, y'know, peaches
"My peaches! You're bruising my peaches!"

Nobody stopped. Nobody paid any attention. The men kept heaving boxes around and ripping them open. Fruit bounced out of string bags and rolled across the tarmac. Drug-sniffing dogs picked their way through the carnage.

"Doesn't anybody here speak English? Damn it! If I wanted to get mugged I could have stayed in New York."

"I speak English." The chief of the uniformed thugs leaned against the hood of his patrol car, six feet of lean, dark, indifferent muscle, watching his men destroy good ingredients and watching her.

In the car, here's Mitzi and Donna are headed for the their job at the hospital. They talk about how the High School's bad boy, Tad Turner, has come back to town after 20 years. Mitzi remembers her own experiences with Tad, things she's never told anyone.


The road was dark. Equally dark in both directions. And very quiet. The tire was very flat. "It's beginning to rain," Mitzi said.

"So it is," Donna agreed.

"You know how to change a tire?"

"Not the least particle of an idea. I don't even know where the damn spare thing is."


Neither of them got in the car. That would be giving up. They both looked at the tire. In the distance, a low drone told of an approaching sucker.

"Sounds like a sports car," Mitzi said.

You see all the things we don't know when the action of the story starts rolling? When we start with story action, we don't know why Ermyntrude has come west or that Mitzi's a nurse who had a fling with Tad 20 years ago. We don't know our New Yorker is a cook or anything about the millionaire.

The reader doesn't need to know all the background to get involved.   She just needs something interesting going on.


  1. Elise Skidmore1:20 PM

    Excellent advice for writing any sort of fiction. Hook us into the action first, think about the implications later. Wonderful post, Jo. I'll be pointing others to check it out.

  2. Jeannie Lin said, "I have my first scene in a palaquin." So, there are exceptions to every rule. *g*

  3. But Ms. Lin's heroine is not the in palaquin for long, and then there is a sword fight.

  4. Well I know *I* always want to get out of palanquins at once, there being so much more happening outside than inside. I imagine they . . . jounce, also.

  5. Excellent post, Jo! Leaving all those backstory questions unanswered for a while is yet another way to keep the reader turning those pages, to discover why and how the characters are where they are, doing what they're doing, on the first page, in the first place.

  6. Hi Rachel --

    Exactly! Yes. You put it well. We don't turn the pages because we know stuff. We turn the pages because we have questions.

  7. And now I should very much like to know the rest of Miss Ermyntrude Wells' story!!!! I'm all hooked in with nowhere to go. Sigh.

    Thanks for an illuminating and fun post!

  8. Thanks, Jo, I made it into your blog at last - and am very glad I did. Loved the cactus and the sober clothing, but loved the gun more. I want the rest of those stories... And now must seriously think where to start my medieval heroine's tale - on horseback, approaching the craggy hill on which is perched her future husband's castle - or later, after the wedding and realising that his mistress-in-residence is going to make her life hell. hmmm.

  9. Hi Elizabeth --

    You know how it is. You start out with a few lines for an example and whooosh, there goes your mind writing the whole story. *g*

  10. Hi Beth --

    Yep. And the heck of it is, I lay down the, "Don't start out with an introduction. Start out with story." just as if it were some kind of 'rule' and had some special validity.

    Sometimes we need to begin in the palanquin.
    Sometimes we need to have our heroine take a deep breath and roll out of it to hit the ground running and slashing.
    Sometimes we start when she she's on the ground next to it and looks up at the man holding the knife at her throat and the book starts when she says, "Let me give you three reasons you shouldn't kill me."