And Now We’ll Begin

time motion round clock
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New Year’s Eve is funny. Here we are on December 31st, and tonight at 11:59:59 PM it will be the absolute end of the entire year. And then one second later it will be the absolute beginning of another year. Clocks make endings and beginnings look so easy to craft. Any author that has sat down to begin their next great novel has no doubt found it a far trickier business to start putting the words onto an empty canvas.

The clocks are cheating, I suppose. They don’t come up with anything creative when they herald the beginning of a new year, or day, or second. They simply tick one iteration forward, the exact same process as for the moment that came before, and the exact same as for the moment that will follow. The truth is no new day or year is truly a beginning out of nothing. Each beginning exists within a context, being preceded by prior beginnings and followed by others.

That same principle applies to authors and the stories they craft. Virtually every tale is going to begin in media res. Characters are not springing into existence out of nothing. They were already born some time ago, have done and seen things, have developed personal opinions, and have expectations for what the world has in store for them. Thus when you begin your story you are not telling the start of your characters, you are not even telling the start of events, you are only telling the start of your story. Your story should have bounds, a scope defined by its themes and arcs. Once those bounds of the story are understood, it is already clear with what scene it should be opened.

Let’s look at an example. In preparation for Lord of the Rings, J. R. R. Tolkien developed one of the most extensive backstories ever known. He wrote a comprehensive history of the world and even charted out main characters’ family trees. None of that exposition is what he opens with, though, all of that information is tucked away in an appendix completely separate from the story. Because none of that context is relevant to the bounds of what his story is actually about.

What his story is actually about is a group of small and provincial people rising as heroes to hold back the hordes of evil for another generation. Therefore the arc of the story mandates that Lord of the Rings start somewhere in that quiet and provincial. Thus the first chapter is A Long-expected Party, and here we see that the greatest excitement in the lives of Frodo, Sam, and the other hobbits is nothing more than a big birthday celebration. The humble beginning is established and the arc is ready to run its trajectory.

But knowing where your story begins is only half of the problem. Even if you know exactly what your first scene is, you still have to figure out that opening phrase. The problem here seems to be an infinity of possibilities. We could describe the setting, or a character, or we could start right in the middle of a conversation and set the scene after the fact. What sort of narrator are we using? What sort of vocabulary? What if we just write something to get us started, and later come back to fix it?

My general rule-of-thumb is to start with the tone, or the mood. You hopefully have a sense of how you want your story to feel, the style it is going to be utilizing. You know whether you want it to be a fast-hitting thriller or a slow, simmering epic. You know whether it is humorous, or serious, or maybe a little bit of both. Your reader doesn’t know any of this, though, and it is one of the first things they probably want to be informed of, even before being introduced to main characters and themes.

Some of my favorite stories have used this technique, and every time reread I am instantly transported back to their domain through their use of tone-deliberate openings. Let’s look at examples of this from Moby Dick, A Tale of Two Cities, and Harry Potter.

Call me Ishmael. Three words and the tone of the story is already established. The narrator is speaking to us directly, and even has a personal name. We’re ready to hear a tale from an individual, a grizzled seaman with personality and perspective. We know that the story is going to be colored by his opinion and belief, and that he’s willing to break the fourth wall.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. We have a far more traditional and omniscient narrator here. As such we do not expect the story to express personal opinions, but rather the absolute “facts.” Also we should note that the writing already has a poetic balancing of opposites. Best and worst, this is a central theme of the entire story and we’re already introduced to it within the very first sentence.

Mr. and Mrs. Dursley, of number four, Privet Drive, were proud to say that they were perfectly normal, thank you very much. There is an unmistakable humor to this opening, one that suggests to us a more lighthearted and fun tale. Furthermore the emphasis on things being “perfectly normal” seems to be exaggerated, and thus hints to us that things are not going to remain that way. Strange and adventurous things are coming, and probably very soon.

A story that begins with a strong sense of mood and then presents the first of its overarching themes is instantly engaging and consistent with all that will follow. These are principles that I have been following while crafting my current novel. On Thursday I will present the introduction to that novel, and you can be sure it will start with mood and arc. I can’t wait to share it with you to start off the new year!

 

A Proper Cadence

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On Thursday I shared the first half of a story that I had originally intended to publish in a single post. As I explained at the time, the reason for dividing it in two was based on the constraints of my appointed deadline. Each of my posts is given a three-day period to be taken from conception to published completion, and trying to do the entire story of The Noble in that allowance would have rushed the the work faster than it should have been. That “rushing” to which I am referring is twofold.

First, the story would have had to be less words. Where I have three days to write each story post, there are only so many words that I can write and still somewhat polish the work before pushing it out the door. I’ve come to learn that for me 3000 words is about my limit before I’m going to be cramming to get the post done in time.

So why didn’t my story fit within that 3000 word limit? Well, right from the outset I had created a general outline for the story, and it called for a very specific number of scenes: five. Each of those scenes was going to run for about a thousand words. Thus the only way to make the math work would have been to lop off two-fifths of the story, either by compressing the length of each scene or by removing them entirely.

So in my dilemma I saw only three options.

  1. Reduce to 3000 words and publish a polished but incomplete story, one that would essentially be a glorified outline of the full story I originally wanted to do.
  2. Super-speed write five thousand words, leaving no time for polish and refinement, and thus taking a hit in quality.
  3. Break the story into two posts.

Obviously the third of those options is the most attractive, given that it does the fullest justice to the story itself. But why did my story need to have five scenes in the first place? Could it really have not worked with only three? Why did each scene have to be a thousand words? Could they really have not worked with 600 each? These are questions related to a story’s overall cadence and a scene’s overall rhythm. Let’s look at these in greater detail.

How Many Scenes?

How many scenes are to be in a story is determined early in the writing process, usually it comes about as a direct byproduct of outlining your plot. Which leads us to the following question: when writing an outline, do you consciously consider how many scenes you are setting up your story to have? Do you have a specific number that you are trying to shoot for? Do you just starting with the beginning scene, decide what should immediately follow, and thus incrementally add scenes until you get to the end? It might be tempting to ignore these questions entirely and just let the story happen “naturally.” That does sound nice, but in practice this approach runs a high chance of finishing your entire work and only then discovering that its pacing is lopsided and disjointed. Far better to put the time in up front to get this right.

In the case of my story The Noble, I chose five scenes for a very specific reason. There were five main phases that I wanted my protagonist to go through in his arc, and each of those phases needed their own equal weight within the story. These steps of the story were chosen intentionally to give his development the natural arc I wanted, passing sequentially through cynicism, intrigue, hope, despair, and finally triumph. Notice how that sequence establishes the cadence of the entire story. About half of it will be spent in slowly ascending from cynicism to hope, after which we have a climatic drop to our lowest low and rise to our highest high. It’s a full and complete experience, and to reduce it to any three of those sequences would make his journey feel disjointed and unnatural.

These are exactly the sort of considerations you want to have when planning out your own stories. Have you decided which cadence you want your tale to follow? Have you chosen scenes that contribute to that natural rising and falling motion?  If your outline is missing a step in its arc then your plan is incomplete and you need to develop it further. Or if you have a complete trail from start to finish but then a few extra scenes along the side, then those parts are just “filler.” Cut them.

How Many Words

Alright, so that’s why I wanted five scenes for my story, no more and no less. But why did I choose 1000 words for each of those sequences? Quite frankly, I didn’t. When I first began I had no consideration for how many words each sequence would be,  that decision was to be determined by one thing and one thing alone: the tone.

Personally, I don’t believe in trying to make a story or a chapter fit into a predetermined size. I don’t think you should inflate your text to try and make it look more serious, I don’t think you should cut each sentence in half because you want it to sell better. It may be that a bigger or shorter story will be perceived differently, or will affect how many sales you are likely to achieve. But I consider each of those criteria to be far beneath the ultimate deciding factor: what sort of rhythm does your story want to be written in.

Consider my story Tico the Jester. This was from the perspective of a child and her toys. Their reality was one of quickly changing interests and high-energy imagination. The scenes there wanted to be written in a fast and snappy rhythm. Pausing to describe the scenery in detail would have been contrary to the tone of that story.

One the other hand consider Deep Forest. This was the recounting of a strange being slowly awaking in a massive forest, one buried by the accumulated dust of millennia at rest.  The scenes there wanted to be elaborate and ponderous. Trying to quickly move from one sensation to another would have also been contrary to the tone of that story.

So when it came time to write the first scene of The Noble, I simply started writing, detailing things or leaving them unexplained according to what felt right. It felt right if it matched the tone that I was trying to establish for that story. At the end of the first scene I looked at the word-count and it was at a thousand words, and I knew that this would be the average magnitude for each scene in the work. Individual sections might run a couple hundred words above or beneath this average, but they would all be around this estimate because they would each be given equal weight in their own space.

To be clear, this isn’t an excuse to be unnecessarily wordy, which happens to be a flaw of mine that I am trying to keep in check. Nor is this an excuse to ignore painting the scenery, a flaw of mine that I am trying to get in the habit of. Merely it is stating that you try to find a narrative tone which has good synergy with the ideas of your story. Allow yourself to move along at a snappy pace when appropriate, and pause to take a knee and breathe in the world when that is what’s wanted.

 

In conclusion, I want to reiterate that your driving motivation in deciding both your story’s cadence and your scene’s tempo should be what your story needs. You should give your story what it deserves, and then let every other consideration follow behind.

It was that very mindset that resulted in me deciding that The Noble simply couldn’t exist in a single post. I look forward to sharing the second half of that tale with you on Thursday, and I hope you’ll find it was worth the intermission.