Key points: "In late, out early" tells you the right place to begin. Also, you need to establish tone, setting, and character. Remember that beginnings are where you make promises to the reader. Prologues may work, but they are often overused. Orient the reader, don't disorient them. Your first scene needs motion, conflict, change. Make something happen. Establish a question and spark curiosity. Use something fascinating, interesting, geewhiz to pull the reader in. If it is not this world, quickly establish that it is another world. But remember learning curve. You don't have to try to tell us everything at once, just suggest and promise to come back later.
[Mary] Season Seven, Episode 49.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Beginnings Revisited.
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you're in a hurry.
[Dan] And we're not that smart.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Dan] I'm Dan.
[Mary] I'm Mary.
[Howard] And I'm ready to start again.
[Brandon] Okay. We wanted to do a podcast on beginnings. It's been quite a long time. Before, when we talked about beginnings, we basically said, "In late, out early." We want to do a podcast where we just assume you know what we mean by that. If not, go listen to the podcast that talked about it. It is very important to begin your beginning in the right place. But let's talk about the other aspects of the beginning. What is important and vital to a beginning?
[Howard] So we've covered in the right place. Now let's cover with the right stuff?
[Brandon] Yes. Exactly.
[Brandon] I should have let you introduce this.
[Howard] Pithy is the one trick…
[Dan] That's all the pithiness he's got.
[Howard] This one-trick pony knows.
[Mary] This is why it's important to plan your beginnings before starting.
[Howard] Before actually starting.
[Brandon] There we go. Thank you very much. All right. So, what are the things that need to be in that right place?
[Mary] Well, one of the things that you need to be doing with your beginning is establishing tone.
[Brandon] Okay. Right. This is a very big one, particularly for newer writers. Now, understand, your beginning, you can go fix. Don't stress too much about your beginning, but we're going to assume your story is finished, and now you're looking back at your beginning. You've got it started in the right place. Tone is vital. I have a good friend who submitted a story, a middle grade story, out to editors and they were loving the first chapters. He was getting all kinds of responses. They wanted the whole book. Then they would get the whole book and say, "Oh. Right. This isn't actually… Okay. We're passing." It was that the opening chapters were about this clumsy boy doing silly things. It had this ridiculous tone. Then he went on a serious fantasy adventure with a somewhat dark tone. They kept saying, "We like the clumsy boy story. That's what we have a slot for. We don't have a slot for… Right now," or "We're not the right person for dark epic adventure with a middle grade protagonist."
[Howard] In terms of establishing tone and establishing setting, David Brin's Existence, which is full of big ideas and interesting characters and settings all over the globe… He had to start that book somewhere in order to tell us… I mean, he has to start the book in such a way that it sets the tone for the whole piece. So he starts us with a garbage collector in orbit using a magnetic lasso to pull things, to pull space debris out of orbit, and he has a monkey as a companion. In doing this… I mean, the chapter's got a monkey in it. I'm sold.
[Howard] But in doing this, he sets up all kinds of technological pieces and sociological pieces and… It's really, really fascinating, and well done. It's also compelling, because the piece of junk that gets pulled in, that's our first contact moment in chapter 1. Sets the tone for the whole book, but it also sets out… Lays all of these pieces for these technologies that you're going to see throughout the story.
[Brandon] Right. When we say tone in this manner, we aren't talking about like the literary professor saying, "The tone of…"
[Brandon] No. We're talking about kind of the simple meanings of tone. Is this going to be an action adventure story? Is this going to be a romantic story? Is it going to be a political intrigue? Is it going to be funny? How funny is it going to be? All of these things are… You know, we talk a lot about hooks? These are more important than your hook
[Mary] These are promises you are making to your reader.
[Dan] One trick that you will see used constantly is one that I call The Ice Monster Prologue based on The Game of Thrones.
[Brandon] Okay. Yeah.
[Dan] That is a book about… It's an epic fantasy, it has magic in it, it has this big long story. But the story starts with the Starks in their little castle, and it takes him several chapters to get to the real meat, and it takes him like hundreds of pages to get to any of the magic. So what he does it is, he starts with a prologue with other characters where you see one of the White Walkers. You see this scary ice monster. That tells you exactly what kind of a book it's going to be, and it promises that there will eventually be magic. So you're on board and you're ready to sit through the early stuff.
[Brandon] Right. The other thing he does… George Martin is a really, really good writer. Prologue, very short and sweet and does this. Immediately goes into a trial where a boy is watching his father, who's the Lord, execute a man that he's pretty sure doesn't deserve to be executed. And he knows his father is pretty sure, but he's following the law. Sets up, this is going to be a story full of moral quandaries.
[Brandon] It's going to be a story about a family. It's going to be a story about a man who upholds his principles, even when his principles may be wrong and they have dire consequences. All of these things are set up in the first few scenes. One of the people being executed is the guy who saw the White Walker out in the…
[Dan] Another place you'll see this is Star Wars. It's a movie about exciting space adventure, but the first half hour of it is little farm boy in a desert. So they start with a prologue that's a space battle to promise you what kind of a story it's going to be.
[Brandon] Now this is dangerous. This is dangerous because the prologue in sci-fi fantasy has become a cliché unto itself. You have to have the prologue. It's… A lot of these start to feel very generic to me. The prologue is the exciting hook and so everyone kind of does it the same way. It's started to worry me a lot as a writer about how much we're kind of falling into this trap.
[Mary] Yeah. I think that a lot of people are moving away from that. Most of the time, you can do all of these things, particularly in short form, you can do all of these things without needing that extra prologue. There are times when the story structure demands it, but I think, like most things, you should only do it when the story structure demands it.
[Brandon] Yeah. There are great reasons to do it, just don't take it for granted that you have to do it.
[Mary] See if you can find a way to solve it without doing it before you go there. The other thing that we've been kind of talking around is, besides the tone, that you need to establish setting. Because there are very few things that you experience as a person where you don't know where you are. It's disorienting for the reader if they don't know where and when they are.
[Brandon] Okay. Yeah.
[Howard] In, if I can reference one week ago... I guess it was two weeks ago when we talked about brainstorming Mary's episode, where... Mary's story with the sailing to where you can finally see the moon. A few short sentences in the very beginning... "Sarah stood on the deck of the ship and watched as the horizon... the sea became a wall of flame" or something. So you evoke that imagery and you draw us in, so now we're seeing something, we're experiencing, she thinks, she feels like, "Oh, it's flame. Wow. The myths are true." We're experiencing this with her, and then it gets taller and taller and taller, and then it turns round. As that experience happens, you're drawing us in, just visually, just with a picture. You're painting one picture.
[Brandon] See, I'm going to add to that character. Because... just one potential thing to do. Picture is great. What you just described is awesome. I want it to evoke character, too. I want her to be saying, "No, the sea is not on fire. I promise you." Because she's leaving religious intolerance. So we can snap into a bit of scientific clarity or something. "No, we're going to be okay." Everyone else is like, "We're going to be on fire." She's like, "No." She's waiting. Then it becomes the moon or something like that.
[Howard] See, there's...
[Mary] It's not that she thinks it's on fire. She thinks she sailing toward land. Where people are.
[Brandon] Oh. Right. She thinks it's land.
[Mary] She thinks it's land. She thinks it's land with artificial lights.
[Brandon] She thinks it's something.
[Mary] Sorry. We're about to deviate there, because I'm sitting here scribbling notes for this story.
[Howard] Well, the other... Brandon, when I... at first I described it as just the visuals. The other... I say the other. I guess there's only two ways to do this. Another way to do this is to paint the picture through the dialogue of the characters. As one of the characters screams, "Oh, my gosh, the sky is on fire" or "The horizon is on fire."
[Brandon] Well, see, I think you should be doing both of these.
[Mary] Yeah, but... Yes. I think that there's very few cases where you should start with dialogue. That opening with dialogue... The number of times in which you will hear a line of dialogue without having anything else grounded is incredibly rare. It's really disorienting for a reader, I personally think. Now there are cases where you can do it, and it works really well. I mean, the opening to Ender's Game is a solid half page of nothing but dialogue and no description at all.
[Howard] The white room.
[Mary] There are times and places that you can do this, but...
[Dan] I did it in Hollow City specifically because it was disorienting.
[Mary] Yes. That is one of the cases. Know what it does.
[Brandon] Right. Although... I mean, there are variations to this. "The sky's on fire," Sarah yelled as she stood upon the deck of the... you can give both... but what I was saying is, ideally on the first page, you should be able to establish setting and character.
[Brandon] And theoretically some amount of plot. We're going to stop for book of the week. We'll get back into this.
[Mary] So, book of the week is The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages. This is a YA book and it's... Ellen is a Nebula award-winning short story writer. She's amazing. This particular book is about a girl whose father is part of a supersecret project in 1943 in Los Alamos.
[Mary] Which is, of course, the Manhattan project. At the beginning of the book, she doesn't know that. All she knows is that they're moving away, they're moving far away to New Mexico. It follows her through the course of the Manhattan project and her understanding that this is a moment when the world changes. Since we are talking about beginnings, I'm just going to read you the first paragraph.
[Brandon] Okay. Go for it.
[Mary] Dewey Kerrigan sits on the front... whoops, excuse me. Dewey Kerrigan sits on the concrete front steps of Mrs. Kovack's house in St. Louis, waiting for her father. He is in Chicago -- war work -- and she has not seen him since the Fourth of July. It's almost Thanksgiving now. She looks toward the corner every few seconds.
[Mary] It sets tone, it gives you an idea of character, and it certainly gives you the idea that this book is going to be fairly literary in style.
[Mary] I love these books.
[Brandon] Yeah. They can get a copy by going...
[Howard] audiblepodcast.com/excuse. You can start a 30 day free trial membership, download...
[Mary] The Green Glass Sea by Ellen Klages.
[Howard] For free, and pick up another title for 30% off.
[Brandon] All right. So we've talked about tone. We've talked about establishing character and setting. Are there other things we need to do? Because I've got one.
[Dan] Go for it.
[Mary] You dive in.
[Howard] Oh. Motion. Conflict.
[Brandon] Something needs to be changing. In your first scene, I would suggest. This is something I reinforce to new writers a lot. Because a lot of new writers say, "Okay. I can establish setting." You know what? They can. I get 10 pages of setting about this village life in this opening scene. You need to have something changing. It doesn't necessarily need to be conflict, although it's good if it is. Someone should be going somewhere, someone should be changing emotionally, something should be happening in these opening scenes. It shouldn't be static. You're not painting a picture of still life.
[Howard] At risk of picking up the stick and swinging at the dead horse again, I think that is the crux of "in late, out early" is you find the moment when things are changing and that's where you start telling the story.
[Howard] You want to tell a story about the change, and establish setting and some character and stuff like that, but...
[Brandon] You know what? You don't have to make it the change that's going to be your entire book. If you're using it later... if we can use some films again, for instance, Indiana Jones. The first Indiana Jones movie. You... he's... I... he's establishing that this is going to be an adventure story, and this is our main character, and... This isn't the actual plot in this beginning vignette that's going to be the plot of the whole show. But what it's doing is, there's motion. It's not let's talk about who Indiana Jones is, it's let's show you Indiana Jones in his element doing what he does. Then we go back and he's a professor for a little while. It's just that same sort of concept, we're going to have this... and you should be looking at doing this. Have motion that shows your character changing in some way or at least going somewhere and doing what it is they do. Remember, a lot of stories we talked about are going to be the same thing has been happening every day. Show us that thing happening. It's okay if it's the same thing that's happened every day to the character. It should be new to us and there can be motion to it.
[Mary] I completely agree with that. I think closely tied to that is the idea of a question. That you should be establishing a question and trying to spark curiosity in your readers.
[Mary] That question can sometimes be a question that the character has, and sometimes it can be a question that the reader has. They don't... sometimes it can be both. They don't necessarily have to be the same question.
[Brandon] Right. Right. Exactly. What else do we start a story with? Dan? Come on.
[Howard] I... I'd go for... I'm always looking for something that is fascinating, that is interesting. I mean, it's not just...
[Mary] The geewhiz factor.
[Brandon] Okay. Yeah. The geewhiz. Yeah. The strange attractor.
[Howard] One of my favorites was... from my own work, and obviously, I get to draw pictures, so I can cheat. I can put... I can have an establishing shot that's got something interesting happening. It was... I can't even remember which of my books it was. It might have been The Body Politic where the opening scene, we're looking at Jupiter and there's conversation taking place. As you scroll down, they're having this conversation about resonance mining of Io. You see a broken shell of one of Jupiter's moons in orbit about Jupiter. That was just fun. The idea that, "Well, you know what, we broke a moon. Because... whoops." It was kind of a throw away.
[Howard] It was kind of a throw away, but it established that this is a big epic space opera, big technology, science fiction.
[Mary] Along those lines, if there are rules of physics or rules of the natural world that you are going to violate in this story, you need to set up at the beginning that it is not the same world.
[Brandon] Yeah. You do.
[Mary] I mean, that's part of the setting, but in particular, you need to let us know right up front. Which is why that magic scene, the...
[Dan] In Game of Thrones.
[Mary] Thank you.
[Brandon] Right. We also... let's push back a little bit here. Remember learning curve. Remember that you don't need to introduce us to your entire world and all the rules...
[Mary] That's true.
[Brandon] You need to establish that this is another world where weird things can happen.
[Mary] Yes. Fair enough.
[Brandon] How you want your learning curve to go is really your call. I've been rereading Fire in the Deep. His learning curve is astoundingly steep. He just throws it at you. This is hard SF of the best kind, and you're going to deal. You read the first hundred pages of that and you say, "Wow. I guess I dealt." It's wonderful, it's amazing, but the learning curve is extremely steep. Other stories, the learning curve intentionally is made a little more gradual. I said famously before that in the first Mistborn book, I did not show the magic in chapter 1. I cut away from the character going to use the magic, and cut back to that character in the city, so that you knew that magic happened, and I promised that I would explain it eventually. But the magic was so complex that I wanted to wait and establish character first.
[Mary] That's part of... one of the things that you do when you do that is by promising that you'll answer it later, you're also raising the question and the curiosity. Scott Card does that with Ender's Game. One of the things... if you look at the first page in the paperback, one of the things that's really fascinating to me is that he raises the question of the Buggers, or the Formics, but does not explain it. But he mentions the word right up front. But he mentions it right after having answered another question. Which gives the audience confidence that he will later answer this one. I think that structurally, the first page is really interesting.
[Brandon] All right. Well. We are out of time. Thank you all for listening. Our writing prompt this week is going to be... starting a new story. I want you to do each of these things. I want you to give us character, place. I want you to give us a sense of tone from the first sentence. All right. Do all of it in the first sentence. Character, place, sense of tone.
[Mary] I want you to do it in 13 lines, which is how many lines someone will see on your first page.
[Brandon] All right. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.
[Brandon] Hi, all. This is Brandon. I hope you enjoyed today's episode. I just wanted to give you a special reminder. Audible has my novella, Legion, up for free in audiobook. So since they're a sponsor of the podcast, I thought I'd give an extra shout out. They actually have, if you go to www.audible.com/sanderson, they have Legion up there. You... there's no trial, there's no strings attached, you just get it for free. So I hope you guys go give it a listen if you haven't already. You can go to audible.com/sanderson to download it and give it a try.