Part 05 – The Start

by Al Kalar

“The bad guy is never a villain in his own eyes.”

There were some other things I wanted to address before we got here, but I noticed that we haven’t gotten into any of the “fun” stuff. So, I’ll skip a few things (we’ll get back to them) and get into the actual writing.

Every story needs to start somewhere. So does a report or a textbook.

Reports and textbooks should probably start out with the “tell ‘em what you’re gonna tell ‘em” (especially the report). However, if you can start out with a story, even if it’s just an anecdote, you’ll get more interest; especially from a bored student.

Unless you have a loyal following of fans, your start is going to help to sell your book or kill a sale. Remember, we’re learning how to write a “salable” book. If it won’t sell, you may as well go to a vanity press, have a few copies printed and give them to your friends and relatives. If you want to be a real-live “author” your stuff needs to sell.

The saleability of a book depends on a number of things, which we’ll get into near the end of this series. The start is one of those things.

The start should be something that “grabs” the reader. In fact, the best advice I ever heard for people who write action stories is to “grab the reader by the balls and don’t let go until the end”. No, I don’t know who first coined this phrase. To a certain extent, this applies to all story writing, especially by first-time authors.

What are we talking about here?

We’ve all seen the “disaster movie” formula: start slow, introduce the characters, get them all aboard the plane, into the blast zone, whatever. Then somewhere around the middle or later, the story heats up and all the explosions you saw in the advertising trailers happen. You saw the explosions only if you were still awake by that point.

Why does this work? Because you saw the ad trailer with all the explosions, screaming, and such and you’re willing to wait for them. In many cases, the explosions in the trailers are all the “good stuff” you’re going to see. That’s it. The rest is characterization and long boring arguments between the “only person who knows something is wrong” and the “unbelieving stuffed shirt authorities”.

But, unless your book is hyped as well as a studio or television mega-disaster movie, no one is going to put up with that in your book.

“But wait, I’ve seen many books by so-and-so that start slow and still sell well.” Yep; and “so-and-so” is well known and has a huge following of rabid fans that will buy and read anything s/he writes. Why? Because the fans trust the author to deliver the goods eventually.

You, they never heard of.

So, save your slow start for when you have a following of rabid fans of your own.

So, what goes into a good start?

  • An intriguing proposition
    • “I’m going to show you ten steps to get rich within a year.” You’ll be immediately intrigued by this one.
    • “Today is the first day for your total makeover. In ten days you’ll be twice as healthy and more attractive to the opposite sex.”
  • Immediate excitement
    • Nothing gets a story going like a murder in the first chapter.
    • A life and death fight is great.
    • A girl gets jilted by her boyfriend and the first scene is the stormy breakup.
    • Robert Heinlein rarely forgot this rule, even after he acquired a huge following of fans. Let’s peek at the first paragraph of Friday, written late in his very successful career:

As I left the Kenya Beanstalk capsule he was right on my heels. He followed me through the door leading to Customs, Health, and Immigration. As the door contracted behind him I killed him.

  • Start with the disaster rather than making the reader wait. Here’s a bit from Al Philipson’s Children of Destruction:

“Flight 423 heavy descending to 500 feet. On approach.”

“Flight 423, you are clear to land runway twenty-five R.”

“Roger tower. Turning to . . .”

“Jesus Christ!” Dr. Herman Proust, PhD yelled as the passenger next to him suddenly disappeared leaving only his clothing, which settled into a disorderly pile. Frantically, he looked around the cabin of the airplane. All of the seats seemed to be empty.

Dr. Proust unbuckled his seatbelt and stood up, but could see no one. Those seats he could see had clothing in them, but no passengers or members of the flight crew.

The plane’s port wing suddenly dipped, almost dumping him back into his seat. “Holy shit!” He looked out his port side window and saw the airport runways where they didn’t belong.

Dr. Proust screamed hysterically and wet his pants as the Boeing 747 continued its descent and crashed, in a pyre of flaming jet fuel, into the middle of a shopping mall one mile from the runway.

  • Anything that grabs the reader’s attention and makes him want to see more.

You don’t need to tell the reader everything about what’s going on. Here’s the advice I give to writers who want start with a boring “info dump” or background material:

“Make the reader run to keep up.”

In other words, only tell them what they need to know and tell it on the fly, preferably through your characters.

I wanted to show some examples of bad starts, but guess what? I don’t have any in my library and I don’t want to embarrass the writers who’ve sent in bad stuff and may be working on fixing it.

Does anyone have a “bad start” they’d like to share? If it’s yours, did you fix it or do you want advice from other writers? If it’s not yours, how would you suggest it be fixed?

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