Beginning Your Story–Secrets We Uncovered in Our March 10th, 2015, W.I.S.E Coffee

In our March 10th W.I.S.E. Coffee, we learned about using intellectual property lawyers to negotiate book contracts, and we learned some things that are typically negotiable in that contract. (You can find them in your state and city here.)

Two books came to the fore to learn about writing and law. (See Legal Books for Writers.)

THEN, we moved ahead to fiction and ways to open a story, based on a Writer’s Digest blog post

Beginning your fiction story can be troublesome if you don’t know the guidelines. According to writing pundit Jeff Gerke, there are four main ways to begin a story. 

The four main ways to begin your story are…

1. A prologue
Many Christian publishers shun the prologue, so be careful with this one. The key is to do it right, and even then, if you find out the publisher you’re aiming for hates prologues, relable it “Chapter One.”

Gerke explains in chapter nine of The First 50 Pages, that a prologue is separate from your main story.  It tells an offstage story that either sets up the main action, is causal to a problem in the the main story, or foreshadows challenges which develop later.  

You can use  the novel’s minor characters or unknown characters effectively in a prologue, but you can also use the main hero or villain.

My own observation tells me that prologues are often separated from the main story by either time or location.

Very often, this way of beginning shows the hero as a child. I’ve read prologues that show both the villain and the hero in their youth and how the conflict between them got started.

The book Jurassic Park has, in my opinion, too many prologues, but the one I liked told the story of a baby in danger from a dino that had escaped the island to the mainland. It foreshadowed the problems that were going to occur later in the book, and included none of the main action characters. 

Gerke exemplifies the movie Mulan as a story with a prologue. In this case, the villain (an army) is shown on its way to attack Mulan’s village. They are separated by location, but are concurrent in time.

His post explains further and gives even more examples of stories with prologues.

2. Hero in action
This is a common way to start. The hero is doing something. Perhaps he is arguing, or running away from an enemy, or fighting. Often he is busy at his occupation–a great way to show who the character is.

Gerke offers the opening scene in the movie Groundhog Day as an example of “hero in action.” The main character, Phil Connors, reports the weather during his segment of local news. Phil is sarcastic and rude.

Raiders of the Lost Ark (my example) opens with Indiana Jones recovering an artifact, running for his life, and losing the statue to his arch nemesis. 

There are more examples of “hero in action” in the WD post.

3. In medias res, which means “in the middle of things”
When a story opens at a point that happens much later in the story, you have in medias res.

For instance, in the movie Megamind, the main character (who is both hero and villain, all wrapped into one) is falling from the sky at rapid speed and is about to die. He narrates over the scene so the audience knows that this happens later, but the scene cuts off with him still in the sky, falling, and the audience wonders, What is going to cause him to fall from the sky? How does he survive?

In medias res causes the audience/readers to feel anticipation about the story, so when you back up and start from the beginning, even if the story has a slow build, there is tension anticipating the moment they caught a glimpse of at the opening.

I thought Megamind was my example, but I found it mentioned in The First 50 Pages after I wrote this post. So let’s just say I read his mind–his mega mind, no doubt. 😀  

Gerke gives other examples and has more to say about in medias res in his post and his book.

4. A frame
Some stories have two stories going on at once, the main story, and a frame story that introduces the main and cuts in every now and then to frame it.

The Princess Bride (both book and movie) is the most obvious example. A grandfather reads a story to his grandson during his grandson’s illness. The story the grandfather reads is The Princess Bride.

The grandfather/grandson story starts the book and movie, but the main story is really the story about Princess Buttercup and her love, Wesley.

A frame story will not just start the book or movie, it will cut in throughout the story, and then come in at the end to finish.

A member also mentioned that The Notebook, by Nicholas Sparks, has a frame.

Gerke explains much more than I have here, including why you would choose to use each of these, the drawbacks to using them, as well as more and different examples. Click here to read his post.

His book, The First Fifty Pages, has a great explanation of prologue and how to do it right, as well as explaining the other openings.  It’s an amazing book for the  fiction writer in so many ways!

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