Monday, February 8, 2010

Writing Basics Tip #1

Beginning - Middle - End = Hook & Story Problem

Whenever I say this in one of my company's writing workshops, I inevitably get an eye roll or two. Yes, of course, Kris, we know that a story has to have a beginning, middle, and end. It's not just writing that first sentence and then hoping that all the other sentences create the middle and then the end. A writer must have a story problem. Even though many participants nod when I say, "Does your story have a story problem?", most give me blank or expectant stares.

So, since it's my workshop, I make them suffer through a brief discussion on this topic. Because where else does a writer start, but at the beginning?

I have reviewed many manuscripts where there was no beginning, a middle, or even a ending. The "story" just sort of started and then sort of ended. No story problem, no wraparound. No real beginning, no real ending. These were not good manuscripts, and they were not accepted by my company.

Other manuscripts, as well as most published books, have a beginning - a hook - oopss, there's another word writers should know - which draws the reader into the story almost immediately. In a picture book, the first two pages with their text and illustration must explain what the problem is (the hook). In a chapter book, I've heard that the first paragraph must draw the reader in, but I really think it is the first sentence. I think the very first sentence is one of the hardest to write.

Pick up any book and read the first sentence.

Here are a few I have lying around:
"I remember lying in the snow, a small red spot of warm going cold, surrounded by wolves." Shiver by Maggie Stiefvater

"It wasn't much, really, the whole Jessica Feeney thing." Firegirl by Tony Abbott

"You have been chosen for your special skills to do something that urgently needs to be done." Swindle by Gordon Korrman

All of these first sentences--or the hook--makes the reader want to read on.All of them are from chapter books.

The beginning needs to present the problem that the main character needs to fix. Throughout the middle, the character must continue to reach the resolution to the problem, and usually finds more problems on the way. The ending needs to tie it all up. The original problem should be solved and no new problems should be introduced, unless the author is writing a series. Ending in a cliff hanger is especially good for a series as it will make the reader want to immediately buy the next book.

Take a look at the first line of your first chapter. Does is pull the reader in? Does is set-up the problem? If you answer no to either question, I suggest that you revisit this first line. It needs to whack the reader in the head and make them say, "Huh?" or "What?" or "Groovy!"

Story problem problems? I tell my workshop writers to come up with a question that has a yes or no answer, and that should be the story problem.

From Charlie and the Chocolate Factory: I think the story problem/question is, Will Charlie find a golden ticket which will change the lives of him and his family?

From The Lightning Thief: Will Percy finally understand his differences and how they will impact the world around him?

The story problem can be a basic one that is explored through the text, but it must be there. It's like a guide in the beginning to the rest of the story, and it will help the author tie everything up in the end.

What are some of your first lines and/or story problems? Have you ever thought about your story problem specifically?


Selestial said...

Oooo I like this.

This is the first line from my current piece (and having read what you said here, it may need some tweaking to really get to the big problem): They wouldn’t mean to, but the doctors would kill me if I didn’t get out of here.

SG Redling said...

I had such a problem kicking my first chapter into gear that I literally took scissors and cut the pages apart into paragraphs and laid them out side by side. Then I cut the paragraphs into sentence strips. It was ridiculous - there were strips and tape everywhere! I finally wound up losing 1/3 of the chapter (and gaining a few paper cuts) before it worked. It's brutal work but worth it.

Unknown said...

Shelia~hey, you gotta do whatever it takes to help you get it right. I'm all for that! Seriously, though, I've written and re-written first lines so many times. It takes an open mind to get it right, I think.

Here's the one I'm currently working on: The ice moaned and creaked beneath my feet, but I didn’t care.

It's okay, but it could be better.

Selestial~ I like your first line. I'm intrigued where the person is, why the person has to leave, and what kind of doctors he/she is talking about. Intrigue is good!

Selestial said...

Thanks! And yes, intrigue is great, but like you with yours (which is good), I think mine could be better.

Liz Lipperman said...

Ooh, this could be fun. Here's my latest.

Single white female stuck in a dead end job, loves to party but barely makes the rent on the dump she calls home looking for tall, dark, handsome, rich guy who...

My heroine writes Personals at a small-town newspaper, and this is her own she's writing until she is interrupted.

Selestial, without knowing anything about your story, what about

I was about to die at the hands of the very doctors I worked for. (Okay, I confess. I'm a mystery writer and always thinking about murder.)

Anita Clenney said...

Great tips Kris. I remember when I first heard about beginnings middles and endings, and I thought "oh my gosh, do I have them all covered?" I did, but because I don't analyze things, I just do what seems to be right, it can be hard to pinpoint. It's good for me as a writer to step back and force myself to look at specifics to see if I've covered all the bases.

I love a good first line, but writing them can be so hard.

Unknown said...

Liz~ Your first line made me chuckle. I'm soo wondering where that is going!

Anita~ I try to do the same thing with my writing, but it's hard to see it sometimes as the author. I'm much better at it when I've not looked at the piece for a long time, or if I'm editing someone else's.