Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Under starter's orders

One of the most important lessons any writer can learn (and it's something you keep refining, whatever level you're at) is the skill of starting a story at the correct point. It applies to chapter openings as much as the opening of the book, or short story. Indeed, it's probably even more appropriate to short stories, given the word count limitations. No point wasting a few hundred words with superfluous drivel at the start, when in all likelihood you'll be scratching around at the end looking to squeeze everything in.

I suffered at the start of chapter two of... oh, let's call it The Mountain. (That won't be the title, but it does feature a mountain, after a fashion. And it's a big one at that). The chapter opened with a mysterious drifter arriving at an inn (I know, that old cliche). There's a kid spying on him from above the bar, waiting for the drifter to leave in the morning so he can follow him. I liked the way it introduced both of these characters, particularly the drifter. He had some cool and intriguing dialogue with the barman, and it allowed me to drop hints of backstory and character into the opening of the chapter.

But the more I re-read it, the more I realised I was slowing everything down. The single most important aspect of the chapter is that the lad is about to do something stupidly dangerous - setting off into the wilds in pursuit of this drifter, who may as well have death and violence stamped across his forehead. So I hit the fast forward button and the chapter now opens with the drifter in the bar, preparing to leave in the dead of night. He's still talking to the barman, and I've still managed to throw in some tantalising snippets. The moment the drifter opens the door to leave, the young fella is out of his spy hole and in pursuit.

Maintaining the pace, and intrigue, is vital, especially when you're writing for a younger audience. Chapter one ends with such a bang, that the last thing I wanted to do was slam the brakes on and have the reader judder to a halt. Yes, the opening to chapter two does slow things down in terms of action, but the what-the-hell-is-going-on-now intrigue is there from the off. At least I hope it is.

I see a lot of writers falling prey to the wrong starting place syndrome while reading submissions for Nemesis. They focus on too much backstory too early on, instead of hitting the ground running. You need to start the story as late as you possibly can, engaging readers from the get-go. You can fill them in with background as and when they need it as the story unfolds.

Having said all this, I'm not convinced that chapter one opens at the correct point. I've opened it late, but I've a nagging feeling that, on this occasion, a little earlier would work better. I'll let that idea ferment for a little while longer. At least I know how chapter three opens, once I find my way there.

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