Writing Tip of the Week – Story Structure: The Beginning, Part One

Every story has a starting point, a place where the writer has decided to begin the story and launch the characters into an adventure that differs from the day-to-day normalcy of their lives.  Over the next few weeks, we’ll explore the different aspects of the Beginning, Middle, and End of a story and what components go into each.

Let’s get started.

Where Are We?  Location, Location, Location.

The opening chapter or scene sets the stage for what’s to come.  Give us the location, the time period, and the current circumstances.  Is this a contemporary story?  Are we in Victorian England?  In a galaxy far, far away?  Give the reader descriptors that help orient them into the world of the story.  Your characters occupy a specific space at a particular time.  The beginning is where to establish these things and make sure the reader has a clear understanding.

Read the first chapter of a few novels and see how those authors establish location and time while also moving the story forward.

Who Are We With? Who’s the Story About?

Whose journey are we following?  Knowing your main character and who they are before the Inciting Incident is a key factor to ensure you know how they will react and actively pursue their goals when the new events begin to unfold.  What’s their name?  Their profession?  What relationships do they have?  What conflicts do they have in their lives?  What’s their personality?  

In his book, The Story Solution, Eric Edson lays out nine “personality traits and story circumstances that create character sympathy for an audience” (Edson 14).  These don’t all have to be used, but they are a great way to help your reader/viewer connect with your main character at the beginning of your story:

•          Courage – “brave people take action, and only action can drive the plot forward.” (15)

•          An Unfair Injury – placing your “character in a situation where blatant injustice is inflicted upon her…[it] puts the hero in a position where [they’re] compelled to DO something, take action in order to right a wrong.” (16-17)

•          Skill – “It doesn’t matter what your hero’s field of endeavor might be as long as [they’re] an expert at it.” (17)

•          Funny – “if you can bestow upon your hero a robust and playful sense of humor, do it.” (19)

•          Just Plain Nice – “We can easily care about kind, decent, helpful, honest folks, and we admire people who treat others well.” (19)

•          In Danger – “If when we first meet the hero [they’re] already in a situation of real danger, it grabs out attention right away.” (20)

•          Loved by Friends and Family – If we see that “the hero is already loved by other people, it gives us immediate permission to care about them, too.” (21)

•          Hard Working – “People who work hard have create the rising energy to drive a story forward.” (21)

•          Obsessed – “Obsession keeps brave, skilled, hard-working heroes focused on a single goal, which is enormously important to any story.” (21)

These are just a few points from the book, which I highly recommend. You can pick up a copy at the link below:

Active or Passive Protagonist?

In modern commercial fiction, the protagonist is almost always active.  This means that when things happen, they react and actively pursue a goal.  Mando in The Mandalorian is actively working to keep Grogu (aka Baby Yoda) safe from those who wish to harm him.  Mando’s inciting incident was meeting Grogu; he now has an active goal to protect him.  His actions move the story in a new direction.

Katniss in The Hunger Games actively volunteers her life to save her sister’s during the Hunger Games lottery.  She is actively involved in the decision that launches the story in a new direction.

A passive protagonist just allows things to happen around them, or they don’t do enough to try and fix what’s happening.  Even in disaster movies where the elements are out of the hero’s hands, they still are active in their attempts to save their own lives and the lives of others.  When you watch TwisterDante’s PeakSan Andreas, or Volcano, notice that while what’s happening is out of the main characters’ control, they are still actively pursuing a goal: survival.

What actions can your protagonist take to try and resolve their newfound issues?  What is their active goal, and what steps will they take to reach it?  They can try and fail, but they should be active in their attempts.

Is It Really “The Beginning”?

A story begins at a point that shows the reader/viewer the protagonist in their normal element.  We, as an audience, have to assume that this character existed before this story. We are about to see a series of events markedly different and far more interesting than a typical day in their life. 

You want to give your readers a glimpse of this world before things begin to change and move the protagonist into a new direction that they didn’t see coming.  We need to know who they are before this story starts so we can witness how the events of the story impact and change their lives by the end.

A character’s story is on a continuum.  What we are writing about and what the reader/viewer is experiencing is something out of the ordinary.  Steve Rogers (Captain America: The First Avenger), Elle Woods (Legally Blonde), and Mando (The Mandalorian) all were just doing their normal thing until a new set of circumstances took them to a new level of existence, which is…

What Starts the Journey? The Inciting Incident.

Things are pretty normal for your main character.  They’re just living their life as always when suddenly…something big happens to alter their life for the better or worse.  This is the Inciting Incident, the moment where the protagonist has to begin making choices that will launch them and us into a new storyline apart from what they are familiar with.

Your main character could be all set to go into the boss’s office to get a promotion and get fired instead.  Your main character could find out something devastating about their family that requires them to act and discover the truth.  It can be anything that jolts the main character out of their normal life and takes them on a new path.

Brainstorm some ways a character’s ordinary world can suddenly change and how your character would react to new information and their potential paths forward.

Homework

Now that you have the basics about the Beginning of a story, watch the first 15 minutes of a few movies or read the first few chapters of some novels and see how events, characters, and Inciting Incidents are introduced.  How does the main character react when something new happens?  What’s the first thing they do?  How do their actions at that moment propel the story forward?  What traits from Edson’s book are present in the main character when we first meet them?

Happy Writing, Reading and Viewing, and I’ll see you next week with more on story beginnings.

When You’re Writing, Don’t Be Afraid to Act It Out

To the casual observer, writing can appear to be a low-energy, even passive activity.  But we as writers know that this is not the case. While our fingers may be the only thing moving externally, our minds are alive and active with ideas, thoughts, dialogue, and description that help bring our story to life on paper.  

But sometimes, even in that state of inner active creativity, we can get a little stuck.  Maybe a sequence isn’t coming together as effectively on the page as you want, or there’s an element missing from the dialogue or action.  

When this happens, get out of that chair and work through the scene.  As a writer, you are the creator, director, actor, and stunt coordinator of everything in your story.  It is your job to do whatever you can to get the story right.  And if you have to workshop it in your living room like a play, that’s 100% acceptable.

Here are some ways to do it.

Get On Your Feet and Move

As Lucy Ricardo (Lucille Ball) demonstrates in this clip from I Love Lucy, working through the emotion, the conflict, and the drama of a scene as you write can help you create more realistic dialogue and scenes. 

Reading your dialogue aloud can also be a great benefit to ensure that the characters speak like human beings and not as literary characters on a page (unless that’s the style you are aiming for).  

If you have someone to assist you, you can improvise a scene you’re having issues with and work out what problems you may be having.  Often as writers, we internalize too often.  Getting your story’s words and situations into an external space can help you see them from a better perspective and make more substantial story choices.

Make a Model

Perhaps your story has a big fight sequence or chase that involves several characters and would be complicated to stage at home.  Legos, action figures, water bottles, or even cups can be used to create a mock version of your characters (I suggest labeling the characters so they don’t get mixed up while your working).  You can use boxes or other objects to create the setting, then position your characters accordingly during the sequence.  

In doing so, you can now visually see how things would work, where the character would be positioned throughout the sequence, and how best to end the sequence given your parameters.

Seeing clear visuals can also help you see any problems, so you fix them before writing out the entire sequence.  

Hollywood does this all the time with big sequences using animatics.  While their aim is to save money on costly reshoots, your aim is to save time on headache-inducing rewrites.

Use Name Cards and Drawings

Another method can be used for even bigger sequences like a giant battle or even a murder mystery with a dinner party.  In this exercise, you write the names of all the characters on separate index cards, then use poster board or another large piece of paper to map out what the room or battlefield will look like.  Then you can move the “characters” around and see where they are in relation to other characters and locations.  

In doing so, you can see if there is logic in who is conversing with who, helping who, and fighting who depending on where they are in the diagram.

This exercise was done by the writers of Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End for the final battle involving three pirate ships, three crews of pirates, and the main cast.  As they were writing, they used the diagrams to see where characters started when the sequence began and how to effectively move them from ship to ship throughout the battle.

As you can see from the movement of characters in the clip below, this would have been very useful in the writer’s room!

With all three, I recommend filming and talking through each exercise so you don’t forget any details that may change or pop into your head while you’re working.  Once it’s done, and on the page, you can delete the footage, and no one has to know what great lengths you went through to make that big sequence work.

Happy Acting, and Happy Writing!