Archive for July, 2014

A Day in the Life of . . .

Begin at the Beginning

 Perhaps the most popular piece of advice for writers is to begin the story in medias res (in the midst of things). Start with a significant event, something exciting to draw the reader into the story so they can’t wait to read what happens next.

Mystery writer’s typically open their story with a victim, usually a dead body, perhaps floating on the river or buried in a shallow grave in the woods. Romance writers might open their story with the discovery of a sordid affair. Science fiction writers might describe in great detail the explosion of an unexplored distant planet.

Readers want more than anything to know what happens to the main characters. They want to identify with the main character(s), love the protagonist, despise the antagonist, feel their pain and sorrow, and share in their joy. Memorable characters make or break a story and often an author’s success hangs in the balance.

Character’s lives are formed and affected by events, both historical (before the story starts) and ongoing (what happens during the story). An author might have the most interesting characters in the world, but if nothing happens, there is no story. It reminds me of the Seinfeld episode where George and Jerry pitch an idea to NBC for a show about nothing.

Coming up with a story idea and an effective opening which entices the reader to sit up and take notice isn’t usually difficult. A murder, an explosion, a car accident – throw in a character or two and you have a solid opening to a story.

It’s what follows the opening that sometimes bogs us down. Even more, it’s what comes before the opening, the events leading up to where your main character(s) find themselves that sometimes offers a greater challenge and often leads to the writer’s most feared adversary – writer’s block.

Most writers experience writer’s block at some point in their quest to write the Great American Novel and it comes in all shapes and sizes. You might draw a complete blank and cannot get started; staring at a blank page for what seems like hours until you finally surrender and turn on the TV. You might have a solid story line but struggle to organize your scenes and chapters. Or you know what the story is about, have a number of interesting characters standing by waiting to be cast into your imaginary world, but can’t decide what they do, and when, how, and where they do it.

Try doing a biographical sketch of your characters. They all had a life before the story began and thousands of events to draw upon. You don’t need much detail but deciding on the most significant events for your main character will allow you to brainstorm how your character dealt with, say, an abortion or a death in the family. Perhaps he or she was robbed at gunpoint or saved the life of a friend. Maybe they were bullied in elementary school and later on in the story meet one of their tormentors. Memorable events like these shape your characters and influence how they deal with life’s challenges.

I suspect most writers agree conflict is necessary to present an entertaining and hopefully unforgettable story. By brainstorming the life’s events of your main characters (by main characters I mean those contributing to the story), you can determine when and how these characters in conflict first meet and how their lives become intertwined.

I find the biographical sketch method useful in a number of ways.

  1. Provides the background story necessary to keep the timeline accurate.
  2. Brings your story to the point of your in media res.
  3. Encourages a natural reaction to ask What if?
  4. Helps to determine character motive.

What will emerge from this process is a timeline for the major characters.

For example, let’s assume your story begins with the protagonist getting death threats from person or persons unknown. Your biographical sketch reveals a few years ago he or she intervened in a hostage situation. The perpetrator was shot by police, arrested and served time, but died violently in prison. A biographical sketch of the scene determines who was there, what happened, and how the other characters will contribute to the story. You might decide a relative of the perpetrator was an accomplice during the hostage situation, was not caught, and seeks revenge on the protagonist.

From the time a person is born (the birth itself might be a memorable event) they meet people, go to school, fall in (and perhaps out) of love, experience death, travel to faraway places, and work a variety of jobs, all of which will not only provide ideas for an entertaining story but reduce the odds of the invasion of writer’s block.

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