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JunoApollo

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Reply with quote  #1 
I know that this is a completely random question, because the answer in itself is random, and indeed as unique as each person writing the story, but may I please ask......

How do you decide WHERE to begin your book? As in... Chapter One. First sentence.

Ok, there's The Start. Of the story, that is. Then there's The Disaster(s). The Mystery(ies). The Conflict(s). The Solution(s). The End. The Heads. The Tails. (In no particular order, obviously...) Literally.... the book could begin with any of these, and could flick backwards and forwards between each and every one of these, but how do we decide where to open Chapter One? And when and why do we flip between past and present?

I've just finished reading a best selling debut novel that switched between the past and the present all along, and yes it kept my interest, and yes it was enthralling, but if it had have been written chronologically, then it wouldn't have been in the least bit gripping.

So how do we decide? Actually, what I'm asking is how do YOU decide? 

I'd really appreciate any and all input here [smile][smile][smile]
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KellBrigan

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Reply with quote  #2 
My two cents: I haven't written anything out of chronology yet, but, if I did, I suspect I would write the rough draft stories in chronological sequence first (i.e. bang 'em out), and then edit for sequence in the first draft. That way it would be easier to keep track of reveals and plot points.

Great question. I'll be watching for people's input on this.
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Ghostly

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Reply with quote  #3 
Another way is to think like a cartographer - start at the end. Then you will always know where you are going. You have a map to guide you.

Think like an architect - start with a structure - the interior and the garden will always change and be different as the light and the seasons and the occupants change - in other words you start with structure and iterate like crazy as you go. You can never get lost because you have a blueprint.

Perhaps you could think like a caveman - you rush into the cave and tell the first person you see, "Holy s*%t! You  have no idea what happened to me today."
"Yeah? What"
"Well it was like this.. There I was creeping up on this delicious overfed marsupial, had my spear raised and I was about to throw it when all of a sudden... ."
You can never get lost because you have an experience to relate - and it can be completely or partially made up because the human brain can't tell the difference between a real and a vicarious experience.

Think like a writer - start anywhere because you will rewrite everything anyway and all writing is rewriting.

But seriously - start with a hook somewhere in the first paragraph and when you meet your protagonist give him or her a real internal journey that will unfold, unravel and resolve during your story. 

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KellBrigan

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Reply with quote  #4 
I think the question wasn't about writing in general, but about non-linear novels, i.e. Slaughterhouse-Five or even Frankenstein (past events told as an epistle, framed by "current" action in the ice-locked ship.)
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krnstv

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Reply with quote  #5 
Quote:
Originally Posted by JunoApollo

How do you decide WHERE to begin your book? As in... Chapter One. First sentence.

Ok, there's The Start. Of the story, that is. Then there's The Disaster(s). The Mystery(ies). The Conflict(s). The Solution(s). The End. The Heads. The Tails. (In no particular order, obviously...) Literally.... the book could begin with any of these, and could flick backwards and forwards between each and every one of these, but how do we decide where to open Chapter One? And when and why do we flip between past and present?

So how do we decide? Actually, what I'm asking is how do YOU decide? 



There's a reason the three act structure has withstood the test of time - it works. Structure IS important, regardless of whether you write using outlines or from the seat of your pants.

The opening scene has three to five pages to hook the reader. Pick one integral to the story, one which will:
  • Introduce the lead character
  • Establish the setting, the story world
  • Set the tone
  • And above all, HOOK THE READER
In the afterword to A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving says he never writes the opening until he's first completed the last two scenes. Other writers outline Acts II and III before outlining Act I.

Once I understand the story from beginning to end, I can create an opening scene. Sometimes this is a ways from my first notion of the story. From the story threads floating around on a page or in my head, I pick one which I think will really set the hook in the reader. Then I decide what kind of opening - a mystery? a shocker? a dangerous or violent opening? a bizarre circumstance or intriguing setting?

That helps me write the first line.

Hope this helps...

Steve


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KellBrigan

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Reply with quote  #6 
I'm going to be a cheeky monkey and post a related question, here. What're [edited from "what's" because I truly do know better] your favorite non-linear novel or novels? Here's my list:

Frankenstein (Wollstonecraft)
I found this book when I was thirteen and nearly memorized it. I love the different voices and perspectives playing a sort of Roshoman game. (Roshoman's great, too.)

House of Leaves (Danielewski)
A game-changer. This is one of the books people will still be talking about in a hundred years. True story: I read this back when I commuted to work on a light rail train. When I bought it (in paperback), I had leafed through. The book has a very unusual structure, and loops around on itself. I made my way through it, ultimately, using three bookmarks simultaneously. Reading it feels a lot like a scavenger hunt. I was at The Climactic Point of the book when I turned a page and saw a crucial page of great significance. I gasped out loud in the middle of the commute. Got some eye rolls, but the bookish folks were slying looking at the cover of the book. What's she reading? I had actually seen the crucial page before, but entirely out of context. In the right sequence, at the right moment, it was literally breathtaking. 

We Need to Talk About Kevin
(Shriver)
Not truly a non-linear book, I suppose, but the flashbacks -- the meat of the story -- are dealt out of order like cards from a poker hand. It's a puzzle you're not sure you want to solve but feel compelled to. The book says important things about mothers, the assumptions continually made about them, and how the role of mother is powerful and powerless at the same time.
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krnstv

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Reply with quote  #7 
Quote:
Originally Posted by KellBrigan
I'm going to be a cheeky monkey and post a related question, here. What's your favorite non-linear novel or novels?


One which comes to mind is a recent novel by Mark Edwards, Follow You Home. Brilliantly executed, you don't really know the whole story until the very end of the book.

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KellBrigan

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Reply with quote  #8 
Quote:
Mark Edwards, Follow You Home


On the TBR!
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JunoApollo

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Reply with quote  #9 
I have to be a wuss and admit that I began to read this book several months ago and just couldn't go on. I love thrillers, suspense, but I just couldn't take this book. It was just too unnerving for me. I watched Hostel etc and thought it was in the same vein and I had to give it up. Watching that movie was one thing, but reading a book was not going to happen. Is it the same kind of thing? If so, I'm sure that even if it could help me with the timeline thing, I will never know.....
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thenovelfactory

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Reply with quote  #10 
Okay, well now I have to go and buy that book...
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Ghostly

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Reply with quote  #11 

I was asked how I go about starting a story. Thought I'd share my response. It might be of some help to others. It is assumed that this material would go into Scrivener - mostly in scenes set up within chapters.

Make of it what you will.

How do you set up this monster, this story that you want to wrestle - its character, setting, problem and plot?

Enter late and leave early
You can begin 'in media res', or in the ordinary world of the protagonist, or in the backstory (a good place to plant an unresolved mystery from the past). 

In each case it is important to have figured out beforehand what your 'theme' is and leak it into that opening scene. Why? Because that is how you will end your story. You will conclude with a resolution of the theme. It is your promise to the reader. Starting 'in media res' is a hell of a way to 'enter late and leave early'. You should enter every scene late and leave early.

Failure and Success
Then it is just a case of setting up an Intention - something that really matters to the protagonist, including what is at stake if the protagonist fails - followed by an Obstacle, which is followed by success or failure.

This will set up a new Intention, but naturally an Obstacle pops up and the protagonist either succeeds or fails at overcoming the obstacle. 

Failure is good because it deepens the 'nure that the Protagonist is in and it helps to make the reader care about the main character. 

Success is also good because it shows the protagonist is capable of seeing this story through and can grow and change. Either success or failure helps to keep the reader's focus on the main character/s.

You could use and any terms that signify a mental goal - or physical goal and an obstacle or conflict or block or whatever. 
It is a very common notion that if you give your protagonist a purpose and someone or something (antagonist) has the same goal or even an intention to stop the protagonist achieving her goal - or his goal - or even if the antagonist has a different goal that precludes the protagonist’s then you have the start of a story. ‘Intention' and ‘Obstacle' are really shorthand for that Irish stew. Intention and Obstacle are well-used and well-loved shortcuts to the ideas. 

The brilliant Kecia Bal says that she, “keeps a heart-racing pace with high stakes, swift twists, compelling questions, and, eventually, satisfying answers. I want readers to feel bound to the characters, and I want to surprise them – or scare them or charm them – on every page and keep them guessing until the last page.”

Mini Character Essays
It is also a good idea to write - as each character - a 300 to 500 word essay in their own voice. It can be about anything - the story world - parents - friends - where your character is at in his or her life right now. Anything! But it must be in their own voice. This will help you get into the heads of your characters and also to keep their way of speaking clear in your mind. 

Remember, you do not ever have to write dialect if you can write the speaking rhythms of each character and this is much clearer if they write something in their own voice. This keeps the intention/obstacle cycle much more real. These character essays would go into your research folder. You might add pictures and trivia to them.

Enter the unresolved question
An unresolved question about the future (suspense) is also a good idea - plant one early and let it run to the very end of the novel. Ask or imply a central question and delay the answer.

If it is appropriate also set up a puzzle at the beginning.

The main character intends to do something but is stymied by an obstacle of some sort and then does something about it (act) and either fails or succeeds.

Paradox - Antagonists are heroes too - in their own minds
Of course this pattern of INTENTION>OBSTACLE>SUCCESS/FAILURE also applies to the antagonist - the character who has other ideas about how the story will turn out and has perfectly cogent reasons why it will turn out as the Antagonist intends.

Often the SUCCESS/FAILURE outcome of dealing with an obstacle is the exact opposite for the Antagonist.

So the scene with the:
Protagonist may be – INTENTION > OBSTACLE>SUCCESS
Antagonist would then be – INTENTION > OBSTACLE>FAILURE
And so on - swapping over as the story unfolds. (Win for Protagonist - then maybe another one and anoth,mer one then a fail - as the Antagonist does a fail and succeed cycle.)

The Intention > Obstacle sequence 
The sequence of INTENTION > OBSTACLE can be broken down into:

AN INTENTION > DILEMMA > DECISION > ACTION > HOOK or CLIFFHANGER > 

AN OBSTACLE > HOOK > NEW INTENTION (GOAL) > CONFLICT = FAILURE - OR - SUCCESS

Which leads to a new INTENTION.

And this cycle is repeated - sometimes with several fails before a succeed.

The sequence of INTENTION>OBSTACLE is best thought of as a repeated sequence of events - not iron clad. It is the shape that matters not the precision:
AN INTENTION - something that really matters to the protagonist - what is at stake if the protagonist fails - and it had better matter.
results in a
DILEMMA - 'Will I? Won't I, Can I? Should I?' 'If I do what is at stake for me (and the object of the dilemma - loved one, golden wattle bloom, McGuffin)? 'If I don't what is at stake?'
DECISION - 'I know deep down this is what I should do - but I'm not up to a task that big. Oh hell, I'll do it anyway.' (There is no story if the protagonist wimps out.)
ACTION - 'Pick up the tools and get on with it - DO something - Go somewhere - Deceive someone - Make a cup of coffee' - SOMETHING HAPPENS directly as a result of the earlier decision.
HOOK or CLIFFHANGER - 'Oh, Oh!' Now I'm really in deep 'nure. Should not have done that. Hanging here in space is not what I planned. What am I going to do now?' Die?
 
AN OBSTACLE - results in a
HOOK - 'Who is this evil so and so who is trying to kill me?' What does she /he want? Why? Why pick on me? What is special about me?
NEW INTENTION (GOAL) - 'I know, I'll try (something else - a little more unexpected and risky this time - I'll....'
CONFLICT - 'My mum wouldn't have approved that. Now this guy/gal wants to stop me again. What can I conjure up now? Getting bopped on the noggin' was not such a good idea after all.' I'll try THIS! 
then
FAILURE - OR - SUCCESS - 'Crumbs! Back to the drawing board.' OR 'YES! That worked. Now let's see what else this naughty person has up their sleeves.' 'Now I think I can DO this...'

Rising tension
It’s important that the jeopardy in the obstacles has to progressively increase.

Why? To make sure that things keep moving. Increasing jeopardy is an antidote for stasis in a story. It is critical to keep a story moving and increasing jeopardy is a great way to weave forward momentum into the fabric of the whole thing.

Second Paradox - Tell don't Show
Yes, that's right. Think on this - your job is Story-Telling, not Story-Showing.
Show:
Of course you will reveal much of the story through 'showing' in action (what the character does) and reflection (the character and other characters reflecting on the character). This is most true for first person stories. (I caught site of my reflection in a shop window and readjusted the wig I always wore to these silly meetings.)
Tell:
However, there are many many times you will use your authorial voice to tell the reader about the character. (Alice knelt down to fit her six foot amazon frame to more easily meet the eyes of the child she had borne far too early.) Most true in third person stories.

In summary
And there you have the sweep of your story.

Obviously you remain flexible and malleable about just how rigorously you follow this sequence. But at the end of the day you have your set of initial scenes - that you can develop framed by the theme.

So how do you start planning a story?
With the climax. Consider the point where the jeopardy has increased to the point that the goal appears impossible.  

Then your characters can work towards that end, going through many steps where they intend to do something but are stymied by obstacles and must act and either fail or succeed. 

The opening or start of a story is usually the last thing you write.

Three Questions
If that is too complicated, just remember David Mamet’s three questions:

1.) Who wants what from who? (consequences)

2.) What are they willing to do to get it? (stakes)

3.) Why now? (urgency)


Now, there is nothing new here - just a very solid way to go about getting traction for a story and never having to face 'writer's block'. (Aaron Sorkin has a slightly different take on Intention and Obstacle and he is smarter than me, so look for his material on this approach - he also does a Masterclass where this is his main focus. It's a future Christmas present for me!).

I've used this for years and Scrivener has made it so much easier to manage.

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thenovelfactory

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Reply with quote  #12 
I think there is tons of great info here - I especially like the 'enter late and leave early' rule of thumb.

The Intention > Obstacle cycle sounds very similar to the Goal > Decision cycle we use in the Novel Facctory, but I got a little lost with the more detailed breakdown that includes dilemma, decision, hook, obstacle, new intention.

Could you explain that in a little more detail?

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thenovelfactory

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Reply with quote  #13 
Have just found that Aaron Sorkin Masterclass and am now salivating...
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JunoApollo

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Reply with quote  #14 
Thanks for this Ghostly - it's really detailed and it's given me plenty of info to go on, I appreciate you taking the time, and I know that I will use this new knowledge (I too like the 'enter late and leave early' mindset).
 
My problem was really figuring out where in the 1.2.3.4.5.6... etc. of the story bullet points to actually start Chapter One of my book. Of course, since all the characters are already alive and kicking, they have several years of history behind each of them, so I knew I couldn't start with (for example) the birth of the protagonist or any other character. And they all experienced past events that are mentioned in the book (school years, university, relationships etc) and are relevant to the book as a whole, so choosing which event to start on was difficult.... I knew it had to be a hard hitting event to draw in the reader.

What actually happens in my book is that my protagonist has an established life, everything in its place and a place for everything kind of existence, but then a huge event changes all that, and continues to do so for several years. The protagonist has accepted this and (to cut a long story short) simply gets on with it... blah blah blah... same old, same old kind of thing. Then something happens to make the protagonist completely reevaluate everything. The book is about how they go about either embracing or rejecting this situation. {Author's Note: This makes it sound really bad, but it's actually quite a gritty story, I promise.} [thumb]

At this point in time I have actually decided (since starting this post in August) to begin Chapter One with The Life Changing Event rather than The Life Reevaluating Event, although to be honest knowing me that could change later tonight [biggrin] The main reason I was asking the question is because I was finding that how I write was dictated by whether or not the reader knew certain info at that time, and I really needed to know 'where' or should I say 'when' my book started so I could happily write on without confusing myself or the reader. 

Since making my decision, I have found it easier to write the story, but I still doubt whether 'starting at the beginning' was really the best thing for the book. I have read both chronological books and also those with the beginning as something that happened 20 years ago, or 10 years after all the main events have happened. Some books keep to the calendar, some jump backwards and forwards, both asking and answering the readers questions. My book isn't a mystery kind of story, but I still wouldn't want to be boring by sticking to the events 'as they happen' if that makes sense...?

So really what I'm asking is, is it ok to start a book (Chapter One) with the start of a story, and work your way through to the end, detailing the events as they happen, with the odd reminiscing of the characters in between, or is that boring.......?
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JunoApollo

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Reply with quote  #15 
I also just want to reiterate that the info you have given is eye opening... I'm definitely going to be adding an unresolved question element for a start [smile] 
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