Today on the MS Editors Blog, I share the difference between Story and plot in a short video, using Harry Potter to illustrate.
Bonus: At 3:15 I tease StoryWorldCon. It’s gonna be BIG!
Source: Story Secrets
Chapter One. It’s what gets agents to represent your book, it’s what gets publishers to publish your book, and it’s what gets readers to read your book. First impressions are everything! So here’s a list of resources for you when writing, workshopping, critiquing, editing, or rewriting the beginning of your novel.
Part of my series on plot and story structure, this post focuses on the beginning.
Subjects: the Inciting Incident (“Change”), Rooting Interests, Prologues, Opening Lines, Nine Ways to Start a Novel
This post explains the acronym WATCH, asks what kind of novel you’re writing, and then teaches four different methods of where/how to begin and end your novel.
Subjects: Genre, World Building, Character Introductions
A companion post to “WATCH,” this quiz will help you choose a direction when writing your beginning.
Seventeen opening lines and seven methods of writing your own
Ten more methods for writing your opening line
Compare this to method #4 of “10 Ways to Start Your Story Better” for a different opinion regarding “inside-out” versus “outside-in” beginnings
I’m currently working through Bill Idelson’s Writing Class, which I highly recommend for any storyteller. It is very straightforward and highly approachable. If you read it one chapter at a time and do the assignments without skipping ahead, you WILL become a better writer. In this curriculum, Bill gives the secret to storytelling:
What makes a story? 1) A character, 2) a desire or goal, and 3) an obstacle. Introduce all three elements at the beginning. If you haven’t introduced them all at the beginning of your story, you’re starting your story at the wrong place.
Want your first chapter edited by me? Fill out a quote request here and select “substantive edit” to get a sample line edit of your first 1,000 words. Then check out my special rates for the first 10 pages and 10,000 words.
I’m going to give you four openings of books, and you tell me how they hook the reader. Why does the reader keep reading?
1. In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. “Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”
2. First Lieutenant Jimmy Cross carried letters from a girl named Martha, a junior at Mount Sebastian College in New Jersey. They were not love letters, but Lieutenant Cross was hoping, so he kept them folded in plastic at the bottom of his rucksack.
3. When I wake up, the other side of the bed is cold. My fingers stretch out, seeking Prim’s warmth but finding only the rough canvas cover of the mattress. She must have had bad dreams and climbed in with our mother. Of course, she did. This is the day of the reaping.
4. When Mr. Bilbo Baggins of Bag End announced that he would shortly be celebrating his eleventy-first birthday with a party of special significance, there was much talk and excitement in Hobbiton.
Here are the sources for the openings:
Here are my answers of what might be going through a reader’s mind as s/he reads the openings:
Earlier this week I posted about WATCH, a method of figuring out which of four elements your novel focuses on. Each novel has all four, but novels generally stress one over the others. When you know which element is your focus, you have a good idea of how to start and end your novel, giving it continuity. The four elements are World, Answers (or theme), Time (or events), and Character. Read about them on the previous post.
Beginning and ending your book with your focus element is a helpful tip. It isn’t a rule. To Kill A Mockingbird begins with a statement about Jem, Scout’s brother, then talks about events leading up to his injury, and then the book ends on theme.
Tuck Everlasting begins with a mystery and ends with a theme, but the epilogue ends with more events. All together, the story is a Time story—readers want to know what happens next.
The Outsiders starts by talking about the narrator and ends with him wanting to tell the world about his friends. The book’s themes and plot and world are important, but the story begins and ends with character.
A Study in Scarlet is a mystery, but the first chapter is about Dr. Watson introducing himself and then being told about Sherlock Holmes. But even the character of Holmes is its own mystery, which is why the reader doesn’t want to know how the characters grow so much as answer the question of who they are.
Isaac Asimov’s Foundation begins with an “excerpt” from the Encyclopedia Galactica. It’s not difficult to guess that World is definitely a focus in his books.
Agents want to read and represent a book that hooks them from the first paragraph. That’s why plenty of agents despise prologues. But wait, you say, plenty of fantasy and sci-fi books start with prologues. If World is your focus, you’re more likely to get away with a prologue. If the focus is Character or Answers, then you likely should not have a prologue—backstory and answers should be revealed throughout the book. Don’t give your milk away for free if you’re trying to sell a cow.
If you are debating about including a prologue, first consider the following:
If you absolutely must include a prologue, I suggest titling it Chapter One rather than Prologue. Include a date or time stamp there and on Chapter 2 to show a shift in time or place.
When writing or revising your beginning, ask yourself what is important to you as a writer and as a reader.
Answer each question yes/no. Then rank your “Yes” answers in order of what matters most to you.
What matters most from questions 1–4: ___ (1-A, 2-B, 3-D, 4-C)
What matters most from questions 5–8: ___ (5-D, 6-B, 7-C, 4-A)
What matters most from questions 9–12: ___ (9-C, 10-D, 11-A, 12-B)
If you answered mostly A’s (Answers)—Start your book with a theme and end it with the final statement on the theme. For the rest of the novel, be sure to illustrate (show) rather than explain (tell) so you don’t get preachy. These are the books that, when thematic and done right, change people’s lives and become their most beloved books. When structured as mysteries or capers, these are the most open to becoming series.
If you answered mostly B’s (Time)—Start your book immediately with the inciting incident, and end each chapter with a change of events. Finish the book with a final change of events (which might be a cliff-hanger if this is part of a series). These books are the ones that people can’t put down and recommend to their friends because it’s such a thrilling read.
If you answered mostly C’s (Characters)—Start and end your book with interesting details about the character. Voice is everything. So is making the character sympathetic by using rooting interests. These are the books that people fall in love with, that generate the most fan fiction.
If you answered mostly D’s (World)—Fascinate them with the world you create. Start with a regular day, if it’s really amazing. Otherwise begin with the most interesting places or event in your world, and end once the world finds a new normal. These are the books that people immerse themselves in—the ones that generate the most cosplays and fan art. They have a very high potential for spin-offs. (They are also the ones that have the highest costuming and CGI budgets when transferred to film!)
This post explains the acronym WATCH, asks what kind of novel you’re writing, and then teaches you where/how to begin and end your novel. Short fiction writers—don’t fret. You can learn about beginning and ending your stories effectively, too.
I’ve been reading Characters and Viewpoints by Orson Scott Card* and learning so much about point of view and types of novels that I’ve not read anywhere else. So of course I’m going to share what I’m learning with all of you!
[*EDIT: When I read the book and wrote this post, I was unaware that Orson Scott Card is homophobic. As such I do not recommend his book. I still learned something from it though, and I’ve shared that below.]
My main takeaway was his idea of a “MICE Quotient.” He says there are four types of stories. Each story has all four elements, but stories will emphasize one more than the others. M.I.C.E. stands for Milieu, Idea, Character, and Event.
I think his use of “Idea” is a bit misleading, and I’d probably have to look up “milieu” again every time I saw it in the future. So I created my own mnemonic device that works well in the context of my time-traveling historical fantasy.
Okay, I know the H in “character” is silent. Nobody’s perfect.
This is Card’s “Milieu,” but “world” is far less pretentious and more memorable, in my humble opinion. You’ve probably heard of “world building” if you are familiar with Sci-Fi and fantasy, or the broader term “universe.” World concerns itself with setting, place, time, culture, customs, manners, and the like. Every novel has some degree of its own world. In some stories, though, the world-building is so central to the book, it almost becomes a character itself.
Westerns, epic fantasy, and historical fiction tend to focus on World.
This is what Card refers to as “idea,” but I think “Idea” has connotations of “theme” and not much else. An Answer story poses a question or a problem that needs to be answered or solved by the end. The question could be obvious—”Who murdered Mr. Boddy?”—or it could be figurative. If it’s figurative, the answer might very well be the theme of the story. Take The Great Gatsby, for example. While the World (1920s), Time (events), and Characters (Gatsby, Carraway, Tom, Daisy, etc.) are all important and well-developed, they are all used to illustrate the themes (money, power, time, etc.). An allegorical story like Pilgrim’s Progress has universal, and thereby flat, characters, but it can get away with it, because the story is about finding answers. What is Christian’s purpose? To get to the Celestial City.
Mysteries, capers, allegory, and some sci-fi and classical fiction focus on Answers or theme.
Examples: Sherlock Holmes mysteries, Ocean’s Eleven, Pilgrim’s Progress, The Great Gatsby
Time deals with events. Cause and effect. The plot. What happens. If you’re trying to get a writing degree at a respectable university, they will tell you that Character must always trump plot. And while that’s true for literary fiction, it’s not true for all fiction. Anne Lamott, whom many of us regard as one of the finest writing instructors alive, urges writers to think about characters and their motivations, hang the plot. But in Bird by Bird, she confesses that she had to rewrite one of her novels countless times, because the plot made no sense, and her editor kept telling her it didn’t work. So she learned how to do a plot treatment, and she fixed it. Plot gets thrown under the bus by some respectable writers, but it’s definitely important.
I really enjoy character-driven short fiction, but if I pick up a novel in which nothing actually happens, I’ll throw it across the room and rage about it to my poor, unsuspecting husband. Popular fiction, the kind that is nearly impossible to put down, focuses on Time and what happens in the book. Hopefully the characters will change by the end of the book, but that isn’t always the case. Katniss Everdeen isn’t the deepest character on the shelf, but she sure does a lot.
Time novels start with something amiss that needs to be fixed. They right a wrong; they “save” women from spinsterhood. Or at least they try to fix the problem. They primarily try to change what happens, though the people in the story are usually changed, too.
Because they deal with problems, the line between Time stories and Answer stories can be a blurry one. The difference is that in an Answer story, something is learned or realized, resulting in an understood truth. But in a Time story, something happens, resulting in a shift in circumstance. Answer stories have an intellectual conclusion, whereas Time stories have a physical one.
Dystopian, disaster, justice/revenge, thriller, horror, sci-fi and romance are generally Time- or event-focused.
Examples: The Hunger Games, Jurassic Park, The Count of Monte Christo, The Da Vinci Code, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Doctor Who, Pride and Prejudice, Bridget Jones’s Diary.
A character-driven novel is one in which the most important factor isn’t what happens, when and where it happens, or the author’s intent. The important thing in a character-driven story is personal growth. The character should change for the better or for the worse. If the character doesn’t change, the reader grows in understanding of why that character will never change.
Contemporary literary fiction concerns itself primarily with character: who characters are and why they act the way the way they do. Motivation, motivation, motivation.
General fiction, literary fiction, and the bildungsroman (a coming-of-age story) depend primarily on character.
Examples: To Kill a Mockingbird, The Things They Carried, Huckleberry Finn
When the world in your story is the focus, you begin by introducing the world. “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” Tolkien created a gigantic universe that is Middle Earth. His stories begin by showing what life is like. Then things begin to shake that world up a bit. Orson Scott Card gave the example of The Lord of the Rings. Why does the story not end when the One Ring is destroyed? Because the story isn’t just about Frodo Baggins and his Fellowship; it’s about how Middle-Earth completely changed. So the story ends not at Mount Doom, or at Aragorn’s coronation, or after the scouring of the Shire. It ends when the last of the elves leave Middle Earth. The world has changed. It’s changed for Frodo, too, so he leaves with the elves.
If you’ve read or watched many mysteries, you know they all start the same. They might have a couple of lines or minutes introducing the protagonist as a person capable of solving a mystery, but they really start when someone’s been murdered or another crime has been committed. They start with a mystery or a question. Why do you think some people call mysteries “Whodunits”? The story ends when you find out who did it.
In theme stories, the story begins with theme and ends with theme. The Great Gatsby begins with advice (given in the past) about considering someone else’s history against your own, and how those histories have affected your presents:
“In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since. ‘Whenever you feel like criticizing anyone,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.'”
It ends with the message that even though we make effort to change our futures, we will always be pulled back to our past:
“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
You end the story once the characters or the reader has a new understanding.
In a series of Answers stories, they might end on a new question. Readers read the next book to have the new question answered. That’s usually how seasons of Castle end. And if you watch Sherlock, you really know what I mean about ending on a question!
Time stories begin by showing you what’s wrong. There might be a quick introduction of characters, but then we see what sort of circumstance the characters are in, and they realize they’ve got to do something about it. Or they reject it but end up doing something anyway.
The Hunger Games begins with the Reaping. Pride and Prejudice begins with a woman who, according to her mother, needs a husband (preferably a rich one). Doctor Who episodes usually begin with the discovery of aliens bent on the destruction of the universe.
Time stories end when circumstances change. The woman gets married; the world is saved. Justice is had; someone is avenged. They basically end when there’s nothing else to tell—nothing else happens to change the circumstance of the world or of the protagonist. At least not until the sequel. If a time story is part of a series, one story might end when the circumstances change in order to create a new story. The Hunger Games ends after circumstances change for Katniss and Peeta. They’ve hit a new normal. But Haymitch assures them that more change is to come. Catching Fire is notorious for its cliffhanger ending.
Character stories begin with the character living a normal life.
Everything that happens in the story affects the character somehow, and by the end of the story, the character has grown. Character stories end with the change or growth in character. A new life for the character has begun.
(500) Days of Summer is not a love story, it’s a character story. It doesn’t end with a relationship, it ends when Tom finally gets a life. (I adore this movie.)
Chris Oatley has a great post on “How to Write Great Character Introductions” [archived] over at Paper Wings Podcast. If you’re writing a character-driven story (and even if you aren’t), be sure to read it.
Take some time and think about your favorite books and movies. What kinds of stories are they? Where do they begin? How do they end?
Once I get through my notes and finish Characters and Viewpoint, I’ll be starting a new series on Point of View. Subscribe or follow me on Facebook to stay in the loop!