Posts Tagged ‘The Event’

Front_End_Loader

One trick for starting a short story is the trick of front-loading, so that the overarching fantastic element, source of melodrama, or underlying theme or emotion, is presented to the reader immediately or shortly after the story commences. This technique is often useful because within the first few lines or paragraphs of your story, the author still has the readers’ complete trust. The reader has not had a chance for doubt to creep in and impinge upon their suspension of disbelief. In short:  At this point, they’re still open to buying what you’re selling.

Now before we go any further I should probably point out that this is just one technique which can be used effectively when commencing a short story. It is not the be-all-end-all of how to start a story. There is no single one right way. To quote Nick Mamatas once more from his fantastic collection of essays, Starve Better:

Write what you want, when you want, and how you want to write it. If you keep finding yourself staring up at the lights while the ref counts to three, try another strategy. There are plenty to choose from … whatever gets the story published and enjoyed is what works.

Getting back to the idea of front-loading: Using the term “curse” as a byword for melodrama in plot, Ansen Dibell says in her book :Elements of Fiction Writing – Plot:

There are straightforward ways of setting your curse in the middle of solidly credible things and declaring it right from the beginning. There are other methods of misdirecting attention so that the curse has already happened and been accepted before the reader has a chance to holler, “Hey, now, wait a minute!”

I’ll start with the front-loading ways first—putting the unusual right up front and making it part of the story’s fundamental reality.” (Simon: Emphasis mine)

Ansen then goes on to list a number of ways to do this, and gives examples of:  the protagonist in Kafka’s Metamorphosis awaking and realising he is an insect, the opening scene of Star Wars: A New Hope being laser fire between spaceships, and the vampire talking into the tape recorder at the start interview with a vampire.  (Note:  Ansen’s book is a great book, buy this book.)

Kristi DeMeester, author of Split Tongues, whose short fiction you can find at places like Black Static Magazine, Shimmer zine, and Shock Totem Magazine, says:

“That great short story idea you had? Put it up front. Make it your lead. If your story is about a woman birthing plastic dolls who is then deemed the new Madonna/Mother Mary, start there with the shiny, plastic birth.”

And what a start to a story that would be! In fact, I want to read that story. (Kristi, fill your boots!)

Joe Hill, author of novels such as The Fireman, Heart Shaped Box, NOS4A2, and fantastic short story collections such as 20th Century Ghosts, says on his blog Joe Hill’s Thrills:

“Readers are inclined to just go with you at the very beginning of a story, which is why it’s the best place to drop a whopper on them. I began my short story “Pop Art” like this:

My best friend when I was twelve was inflatable.

The reader’s response? Oh, okay, Joey! Inflatable friend. Got it.

Also: think about if you saw a U.F.O. or a ghost. If you were telling a friend about it, you’d probably drop that shit on them right away: Dude, I was driving back from work last night and I saw a fuckin’ U.F.O. And it landed! And a ghost got out of it!!

You wouldn’t tell him about the business account you lost during the day, the conversation you had with your Mom that made you angry, and the nap you took under your desk. You wouldn’t even *think* of telling him about that stuff, not at first. YOU SAW A U.F.O., DUDE. Start with that part. Don’t be afraid to be amazing right from the beginning.”

Often this kind of declaration of intent that a writer makes, is actually a method of introducing that The Event as well (Refer to Part 1 of this series for more on that)

The following except is from the beginning of Angela Slatter’s British Fantasy Award winning story, The Coffin-Maker’s Daughter and I think it makes a fantastic case study of several cool techniques, including front-loading:

The door is a rich red wood, heavily carved with improving scenes from the trials of Job. An angel’s head, cast in brass, serves as the knocker and when I let it go to rest back in its groove, the eyes fly open, indignant, and watch me with suspicion. Behind me is the tangle of garden—cataracts of flowering vines, lovers’ nooks, secluded reading benches—that gives this house its affluent privacy.

The dead man’s daughter opens the door.

She is pink and peach and creamy. I want to lick at her skin and see if she tastes the way she looks.

“Hepsibah Ballantyne! Slattern! Concentrate, this is business.” My father slaps at me, much as he did in life. Nowadays his fists pass through me, causing nothing more than a sense of cold ebbing in my veins. I do not miss the bruises.

In this scene, Angela does a number of cool things:

  1. The arrival at the house of the dead man is The Event. The house, more specifically who lives there and the business the protagonist Hepsibah has there, is central to the entire story. So her rocking up on site really is the beginning of the story here.
  2. By describing the door and the knocker she impresses upon the reader the importance of what is behind the door and instils a sense of trepidation. What horrors lurk behind this portal?? Perhaps also mixed with wonder or intrigue, as the description of the plush garden and reading nooks, and the general affluence of the house is raises questions. Who lives here??
  3. Then the dead man’s daughter opens the door, leaving us thinking “Who died? And what importance does their death (and perhaps death generally!) have to this story?” Additionally, the contrast of the pale, peachy, lickable maiden who answers the door versus the suspenseful description of the door from the preceding paragraph and the horrors it implied,  is masterful.
  4. And finally, and most crucially as far as this post goes, she front-loads that fantastic—she reveals Hepsibah’s dead ghostly father is beside her berating and beating her “as much as he did in life”.

Within 4 short paragraphs, I’m anticipatory; I’m intrigued and tantalised; I’m not even blinking my eye when she’s telling me there is horrid ghostly fathers that follow around their children cursing them. Hell, I’m buying what Angela is selling, folks!

Alternatively, rather than front-loading the element of the fantastic, an author can front-load the theme of a story or the underlying emotion of a piece for incredible effect.

I’ll use the opening paragraphs (which includes one of the very best opening lines I’ve ever read) from Jack Ketchum’s novel The Girl Next Door:

You think you know about pain?

Talk to my second wife. She does. Or thinks she does.

She says that once when she was nineteen or twenty she got between a couple of cats fighting—her own cat and a neighbor’s—and one of them went at her, climbed her like a tree, tore gashes out of her thighs and breasts and belly that you can still see today, scared her so badly she fell back against her mother’s turn-of-the-century Hoosier, breaking her best ceramic pie plate and scraping sick inches of skin off her ribs while the cat made its way back down her again, all tooth and claw and spitting fury. Thirty-six stiches I think she said she got. And a fever that lasted for days.

My second wife says that’s pain.

She doesn’t know shit, that woman.

Yes, that poignant question is the opening line of a novel rather than a short story, but it illustrates the point I’m trying to make here. Straight away we know what this tale is about. We have some idea of what the subject matter is, the primary theme the novel is going to explore. When you read that opening line you immediately  question yourself, you question that knowledge you think you have about pain.  I know about pain, asshole. I think. Don’t I??

When you read the following description of the lady who got mauled be the cats, and the narrator’s assertion “My second wife says that’s pain.”, you know know this novel is going to be a treatise on or an exploration of pain. And, indeed, that’s what it is (along with an extreme social commentary on rape culture, mob mentality and many other things).

Important notes/sub-essay in the margin:

When I’m talking about front-loading, I mean front-loading the element of the fantastic or melodramatic; front-loading the theme, front-loading the central emotion of your piece etc. What I’m NOT talking about is front-loading exposition (scene, descriptions of the fucking weather or descriptions of characters) or back story.

When you start up front with backstory, you’re missing the Inciting Incident Describing back story, Donald Maass, literary agent and owner of the Maass literary agency, says in his book The Fire In Fiction:

Backstory is the bane of virtually all manuscripts. Authors imagine that readers need, even want, a certain amount of filling in. I can see why they believe that. It starts with critique groups in which writers hear comments such as, “I love this character! You need to tell me more about her!” Yes, the author does. But not right away. As they say in the theater, make ’em wait. Later in the novel backstory can become a revelation; in the first chapter it always bogs things down.

I’m telling you now folks, this is as true of the first scene of a short story as it is of a novel.

Here I’ll turn to Thomas B. Sawyer, head writer of the classic TV show Murder, She Wrote and author of Fiction writing Demystified:

Don’t front-load your exposition.

Sure, you’ve fully imagined your characters, given them complexity and dimension. You’ve created concise and solid biographies for them. You know a lot about them (though you’ll learn more as your story progresses), and you’re anxious to use it, to tell your readers about it.

Resist, with all of your strength, the temptation to squeeze all that great stuff into the first scene, into those first moments that this or that character is onstage.

Why? Because, as far as the Theory of Locomotion is concerned, exposition is dead writing. It’s not moving things forward at all. Rather, if we do what was suggested in Part 1 of this series and start with or near The Event, and then frontload our story with something appropriate, the start of your story can be a powerful and adroit delivery. On time and on point, so to speak.

Having said that you can still have a slow burn story—one that starts slow and builds up. It doesn’t have to begin with vampire fangs, ghosts, or the apocalypse. There is no requirement set in stone that one must, or necessarily should, front-load the fantastic/theme/etc. There are different horses for different courses, and there are no rules. At the end of the day, what works is what works, what gives the best effect, and what results in a fiction sale is what was appropriate.

For example, one might start near the Event, yet not really front-load anything.

In my own “Little Spark of Madness” (forthcoming 2016, Morbid Metamorphosis, Lycan Valley Press) , we can see that I open it like this:

“She wore a fluffy, pink dressing gown and a vacant stare. The lady stood outside the large red brick house at the end of the cul-de-sac, set well away from the other houses; a building cast under a shadow, as though a cloud had parked itself directly above.”

In this instance, The Event is the character Brodie is meeting the other main character, Sally,  in the story for the first time. It’s equivalent of the “Stranger comes to town” archetypal beginning. In this story, and particularly in this beginning, there are no UFOs, no ghosts or full moons, no overt element of the fantastic. There are no laser beams. What relationship or effect this lady is going to have on the protagonist is not immediately apparent. And that’s OK. What I hope the reader might be thinking at this point is:  “Who is the woman? Why is she staring vacantly? Is she sick/sad/etc?”. Perhaps they might too consider the contrast between the pink and fluffy dressing gown and the lady’s catatonic appearance.

Nick Mamatas says the following in Starve better, and I think he makes a good point here:

“Start with a hook” is bad advice, ultimately, because of the word ‘hook’. A hook is an important part of a story to be sure, and could do anywhere. It is the motor of the story—it can be the twist at the end, the broad concept, the compelling change the character undergoes, the language or clever structure of a piece…whatever makes a story worth reading is its hook. A hook may go in the beginning, but it need not. Beginnings are for something else. The start of a story, its first paragraph, should assure the reader that they are in capable hands. The beginning of the story should tantalize, not hook, the reader.

Starting with a “strong hook”, front-loading the fantastic, grabbing the reader by the balls, laser beams—is just ONE way to start a story. It is ONE technique.

Try it. Experiment with it. See when and how it works for your fiction.

Nailing with hammer

I’ve read a few short stories in my time. How many hundred, it’d be hard to say. Having written my own short stories and having read so many written by other people, it is pretty clear to me that the hardest aspect of short story writing is nailing the beginning. If I had to make a wild-ass guess, I’d say maybe 3% of writers know how to start a short story.

This is going to be a lengthy post because, frankly, it’s something I’m super passionate about. What I cover here is probably the number one issue that makes me, as an editor, want to stop reading a submission.

Invariably, authors fall into three categories:

  1. Those who start writing BEFORE their story has actually begun.
  2. Those who start writing AFTER their story has actually begun (much rarer, in my opinion); and
  3. Those who begin writing at the start of their story.

I’ll get back to these categories a bit later on.

So what, or when, is the start of the story?

I’ve often heard people say “Start the story as close to the end as possible”. This was certainly one of the 8 pieces of advice the great Kurt Vonnegut has given. I guess this makes a kind of sense, but, personally, it never seemed particularly actionable advice to me as I always found it to be interminably vague. How does someone really know where the end of the story is when they’re just starting to write the dang thing? Hell, if you believe that guff about “Pansters and Plotters”, then probably 50% of people don’t even know what the end of their story will be when they start writing.

One might, of course, argue that this is a form of editing advice, more than it is writing advice. I.e the author should write the story and then return to the beginning and pare things back until they reach the true start of the story. This makes a bit more sense, I suppose—but for the newer writer who still has no idea how to determine the true start of the story, of what value is it to them?

Over time, mostly because I’ve always found it comparatively easier to determine, I’ve started to consider the true beginning of the story to be the “Inciting Incident”.

An explanation of the Inciting Incident excerpted from NarrativeFirst.com:

The Inciting Incident (or “exciting incident” as someone once referred to it) is the event or decision that begins a story’s problem. Everything up and until that moment is Backstory (emphasis mine); everything after is “the story.” Before this moment there is an equilibrium, a relative peace that the characters in a story have grown accustomed to. This incisive moment, or plot point occurs and upsets the balance of things. Suddenly there is a problem to be solved.

Mark Morris, editor of the Spectral Book of Horror Stories vol 1 & vol 2, whose collection Wrapped in Skin was recently published by ChiZine Publications, says:

I guess if I think about it I always start a short story from the very first incident of that story. So for instance, in my story The Name Game, which is set entirely at a dinner party in which my protagonists, a husband and wife, are meeting their new neighbours for the first time, I started the story with the couple knocking on the door of their hosts’ house – and then any background stuff which is relevant (e.g. they’ve just moved in to their new house) will become apparent through dialogue or short, explanatory sentences attached to either an action or a piece of dialogue which pushes the story forward.

I recently had a great chat with Anthony Rivera, publisher and editor at Grey Matter Press, and after prefacing his comments with the statement that there is no one right way to start a story, he said:

It’s possible to write an effective short story in a number of ways and how it “starts” depends on the piece itself — slow burn or whatever. But, if one is looking to grab the reader’s attention quickly, I would agree with your Inciting Incident approach. I might even go one step beyond and say, if possible (which of course it’s not always, nor does the strategy lend itself to every short story), start in the middle of said “incident”.

Ansen Dibell, aka Nancy Ann Dibble, science fiction writer and a former editor of Reader’s Digest, mentions in her book Elements of Fiction Writing – Plot:

The Greeks, as translated by the Romans, called it in medias res: In the middle of things. Starting there, in the middle of things, is even more necessary if your story is going to have negative motivation—that is, if it is one in which your chief character, the protagonist, is reacting against something that has happened. Stories arising from reactions have a past that will try to encumber the story’s beginning if you let it.

That kind of built-in past is called ‘exposition’—the necessary explanations that are needed to understand what’s going on now. Because exposition is, of its nature, telling rather than showing, it’s intrinsically less dramatic than a scene.

Richard Thomas (editor, author of several novels and collections, including the collection Tribulations from Crystal Lake Publishing, says in his article on dramatic structure:

This is where the story begins. It is your narrative hook, the tip of the iceberg, early hints at theme, character, setting—and if done right, the conflict. This is where your Inciting Incident happens, that moment in time where the story really begins, that tipping point beyond which things will never be the same. Whether your story is a straight line, a circle coming round, or some other structure, you have to start someplace. As mentioned in previous columns, starting in media res, Latin for “in the middle of things,” is a great way to grab your audience’s attention. You are setting the stage here, so paint a picture, give us the backdrop, and start the thread (or threads) that will run through your narrative. I can’t tell you how often I’ve stopped reading a story because the opening paragraph was random, boring, or confusing.

Personally, I often think of the Inciting Incident not necessarily as a problem or necessarily a direct challenge that protagonist is faced with, but more of an “event”. The Event (as I like to think of it)  may be immediately problematic or challenging to the protagonist, or the challenge/problem/change that it sparks may be less obvious and not immediately apparent. This is where I believe the quote from NarrativeFirst.com is  actually so brilliant. If you view “exciting” with the meaning “to arouse, to stir up” rather than “to make happy and eager” then this quote makes perfect sense. The Inciting Incident is like someone (or some thing!) plunging into a body of water, stirring the sediment off the pond floor. Until that Event occurred, the water was calm, still and clear. Thus the purpose of the The Event is to create movement, or as I call it elsewhere, Locomotion.

For me, thinking of the Inciting Incident as The Event is extremely useful. When I think of an “incident” (or incitement, for that matter!) I immediately think of something that has gone wrong, something terrible, an emergency, overt conflict. The start of your story is not necessarily terrible; is not necessarily something going wrong; is not necessarily over conflict. There start of your story, however, is an event of one kind or another though. Thinking of it in this way widens the scope so that the starts of the story is no longer only about the explosion or gun going off, but rather the start may be any event of true plot importance. This then opens wide the possibilities for slow-burn stories as well as tales that grip you by the short and curlies form the first line.

What is the result of completely missing The Event—or worse, having no Event at all?

When the beginning of a story strays too far from the Inciting Incident, stories tend to fall into either Category 1 or 2 mentioned earlier.

For Category 1 beginnings, the authors have begun writing before their story has actually begun. In this case, everything before that incident is backstory, a form of prologue, which in the short story world can be a kiss of death for the reader (especially the editor you’re submitting your story to). I somewhat snarkily refer to this as “The Pre-Incident Waffle”.  Quite often those authors guilty of Pre-incident Waffle are also offenders of the crime of The Post-Incident Waffle, as well.

Generally speaking, starting close to, or at, The Event will also ensure the story is a memorable one for casual readers and fans. It will be an interesting story that is immediately going places and will encourage readers to continue reading and keep turning those pages.

In another piece, I talk about “Locomotion” and use a freight train as analogy for a story. Backstory is just that, back story. Back story is missing the train. It may be interesting information but doesn’t advance the plot of the actual story you’re trying to tell at all. Think about it—you jump in a train expecting to go forward to your destination, not backwards for a few stops before it starts moving forward once more!

For Category 2 beginnings, as mentioned previously, the author has begun writing AFTER their story has begun. This is actually the more disastrous of the two categories, in my opinion.

When a story has no Inciting Incident, when that initial event that is meant to upset the humours of your protagonist, or present them with a challenge, or push them into action, or cause to step out into the wide world, doesn’t exist—it risks becoming a sequence of events that happen for no reason; or a series of events that just unfold (see: slice of life or vignette). We live in a world of cause and effect. When something happens to us, we respond to it. Our circumstances change. Our story begins to evolve and write itself. Whether we consciously know this or not, we know it at a subconscious level. When you come across a story where that conflict was merely alluded to, or worse still, absent… there is no cause and effect. There is no conflict or incident, no response by the protagonist, no push that propels your story train forward along the tracks.

Category 3 beginnings have the author starting close to, at, or during the Inciting Incident. This means that from virtually the moment the reader begins with the tale, that plot is moving forward. From here on in, your story might be a slow burn to the heavens (or hells), or it might be a rollercoaster ride, but either way, your reader is locked in from the get-go.

To conclude, by way of cautionary advice, I’d like to share some advice from Nick Mamatas. For those who don’t know him, Nick is a former editor of the speculative fiction magazine Clarkesworld; is the editor of the science fiction and fantasy imprint Haikasoru; and is an author of various short stories and collections, and novels such as the forthcoming I Am Providence (pre-order it here). The following advice from is his collection of essays Starve Better. I’ll interject here and there in bold where I think he’s touching on something I’ve talked about:

The cult of advice has misled many a short story writer. Here’s an insidious piece of advice you’ve surely heard before: Your short story has to start strong, with a hook.

On one level, it isn’t even bad advice. Often, writers do just sit down and start writing. They have no idea how to begin a story, so they often begin at the beginning—with their protagonist waking up. Or perhaps with a lengthy bit of scene-setting, or the weather (Simon: literally the two most common bad starts to a story, in my opinion) or a snippet from a historical artifact or newspaper article. Pages and pages of background information, or the results of research, or tooling around with breakfast foods, keep the reader from getting to the story for pages and pages(Simon:  I think this what I call the “Pre-Incident Waffle”). The most common variations are especially deadly—I once had a streak of five stories in a row that featured a protagonist awaking confused in a strange room. Even if the fifth story was actually very good and absolutely required such an opening, I was already poisoned by its competitors. (Don’t fret, though; I walked my dog and came back to the fifth story after a short break. It was terrible.)

The flaw of the “Gotta have a hook!” advice is that it leads to a secondary error on the part of many writers. Having heard that new writers tend to have a few pages of nonsense up front and that stories have to be engaging from the get-go, they often create an energetic first paragraph full of gun fights, monsters, characters cursing (“Fuuuuck!” or “Oh SHIT!” are very common story openings these days), and various other “hooks.” Then, almost invariably, the author reveals that the gunfights are on TV, the monsters from a dream, the cursing character has woken up with a back spasm or is simply stuck in traffic (indeed, “stuck in traffic” might be the new “just woken up”) and then we have the several pages of nonsense before the story actually begins (Simon: I think this is what I refer to elsewhere as the “Post-Incident Waffle”). Rather than correcting the error of a boring beginning by eliminating the boring beginning or by changing the story’s structure so that it is interesting from beginning to end, they simply added some “action” up top.

I believe this advice from Nick is cogent and gels pretty well with my own beliefs on the matter, in that it advises the writer to eliminate the boring beginning and move to the start of the story and once that start is found, to eliminate the following pages of garble that are so common afterwards. Nick also makes a great point that the opening of the story need not be a string of explosions or curse words; rather, as I’ve stated previously, it should be The Event.