Saturday, May 28, 2011

GREAT OPENINGS FOR YOUR NOVEL, SHORT STORY, OR MEMOIR DEPEND ON...



…beginning in the right place. Once the writer understands this very basic concept, all of the “rules” begin to make sense.

And, what is the “right place?” To start with, it’s important to have an understanding of what stories are, either in fiction or in memoir. To wit: A contemporary story is about one thing and one thing only—trouble.

If that’s true… and it is… then that’s where the story must begin. With the trouble.

No place else.

What is “trouble” in a literary sense? Trouble is a story problem. While it can have many facets and permutations, it is a single, compelling problem. One that will occupy the protagonist from page one until the last page. It has to be compelling in that the audience will buy it as a problem significant enough that they will invest their time, energy, interest, and sympathy in. While the story problem is a single problem, it has two parts. The first part is what I choose to call the “surface problem.” That is the problem as the protagonist sees it in the beginning. However, the surface problem is only symptomatic of a deeper, more psychological and underlying problem that it reflects, which I’ve given the term “story-worthy problem” to. Perhaps an example is the best way to explain this.

In the movie Thelma & Louise, Thelma’s (the protagonist) surface problem is that she’s in an emotionally-abusive relationship with her husband Darryl and she suddenly realizes it’s gone beyond a bad situation into an intolerable one. Her goal becomes to escape his domination for a weekend vacation with her best friend, Louise. Her surface problem is that she’s forced to exist in a world dominated by Darryl. She doesn’t realize what her deeper problem is until she goes through the struggle to resolve her surface problem. At the end, and as a result of that struggle, she finally comes to the realization that her problem is much bigger than Darryl—it’s that she’s forced to live in a world dominated by men and that’s her story-worthy problem.

The “trouble” story-wise, is when she reaches her tipping point and finds herself at the place where she can no longer ignore or tolerate her situation with Darryl. That’s when the trouble begins, story-wise. Not before, even though she’s been in this situation with him for eight years. The story can only begin when the problem achieves the critical mass that she can no longer rest until she resolves it. Everything before that—the eight years of their relationship—is only backstory and doesn’t belong in the beginning.

Her story begins where it should—and where yours should—when the trouble starts and has reached the place where she can no longer put it on hold another minute.

And this is where your own story should begin. When the trouble begins. Not with backstory, description, unnecessary setup or anything other than when the trouble begins.

Blue skies,
Les

Want more stuff on beginnings? Check out HOOKED!

10 comments:

Sally Clements said...

Hooked is a great book. And your way of describing the difference between the surface problem and the story worthy problem really resonated with me! (but you know that already...)

Les Edgerton said...

Thanks, Sally! Can I hire you to be my publicist?

Sarah said...

Les, taking your class that first summer semester at Phoenix college changed the way I write. I'm so glad I got to hear you speak at Microburst and to learn from you! I don't think I ever said that, haha...

Hooked has become my go-to book about writing. I've underlined and annoted the heck out of it. Seems like whenever I'm stuck in my writing, it has something that gets me unstuck. If anyone is unsure about buying it, they should just go and do it ^^ It's not a purchase they would regret.

Les Edgerton said...

Okay, Sally, forget it--I'm hiring Sarah! Actually, can I hire both of you? Thanks to both of you so much for the good words--I really appreciate them!

Julie Musil said...

HOOKED is awesome! I love the way you boil down the beginnings to brass tacks. Time to retweet this post!

Writer Pat Newcombe said...

I love your writings and you always give such good advice! I read and re-read your book 'hooked' and I have tried hard to incorporate your wise words into my own works. I wholeheartedly recommend 'hooked'!

Les Edgerton said...

Thanks so much, Julie and Pat!

Brian Elsasser said...

Thelma & Louise, that's my fave flick, Les. Right up there with Local Hero. But you manage to make me, here in mind's eye, take a fresh look. Darryl's connected/an indication/a foresignal of Thelma's deeper problem. Structurally, I never had thought of him that way, more that he was just part of the problem. Thanks for the structural elucidation.
Cheers, Brian

Les Edgerton said...

Thanks very much, Brian. This is the heart of the writer's how-to my agent is currently marketing--A FICTION WRITER'S WORKSHOP AT THE BIJOU. In it, I use film to inform fiction techniques, and the primary film I use is T&L. It's a brand-new way of providing writing instruction, but one I feel is long overdue and one I think will be well-received. I've presented a program where I show the movie and stop if often to point out the fictive techniques and the response each time has been extremely heartening--very, very positive!

kennyGene said...

I never much thought about it, Les; but you are on target when you mention 'trouble' as the opening of a memoir. After looking over my material, I unexpectedly found that 'trouble' and moved it front and center and not near the end. Thanks for such a great blog. kennyGene