Writing Excuses 10.14: How Much of the Beginning Needs to Come First?

April is all about beginnings, at least as far as Season 10’s syllabus is concerned. So let’s start!

The cool stuff you plan to put in your story will need other stuff to set it up, and that setting up means that other stuff needs to come first. But how far down does that rabbit hole go?

In this episode we talk about how you can determine which elements of your story should come first. We also define (finally!) the term “promises” in the way we use it when we say “promises made to the reader,” and then we talk about how to figure out what promises we’re making.


Homework: Start writing your story! Write 500 words, focusing on just one of the promises you’ve identified for your story. Then stop, and start writing another 500 words with a different promise. Aaaand then do it a third time.

The Three-Body Problem, by Cixin Liu, translated by Ken Liu, narrated by Luke Daniels

22 thoughts on “Writing Excuses 10.14: How Much of the Beginning Needs to Come First?”

  1. Howard, now that you’ve described that tension between “should i like them?” and “will they get it in the end” I realize that is exactly what you did with Mako in the most recent arc, and it worked wonderfully. I couldn’t identify it before– thanks for a great story and a helpful analysts.

  2. Awesome episode, as always!

    I have a small question: Just how subtle can the promise be?

    Can you, for example, show a painting and have the contents of that painting suggest the future of the character?

  3. Tolkien didn’t take 20 years to plan LOTR. He started writing it in Dec. 1937, three months after The Hobbit was published.

    He took twelve years to finish it, but that was due to various reasons, personal and professional, one big reason being that he had no idea what the story was. He had no plans to write a sequel; The Hobbit specifically mentions that Bilbo lived happily ever after – but his publisher begged for one and he started searching for an idea. After some false starts he finally came up with the idea that Bilbo’s magic ring was something sinister that needed to be destroyed (which necessitated a genius in-world retcon that the original version of The Hobbit included Bilbo’s false story about how he acquired the ring; in the original published edition Gollum was going to willingly give Bilbo the ring anyway, but later editions give the “true” story as Gandalf elucidates in LOTR).

    Tolkien was a discovery writer, so he had to make up a lot as he went and the story grew far bigger than he originally planned. He included many ideas that he had pondered as a scholar, but was hesitant to publish as academic papers or lectures, so he wrote them as fiction.

    He was an extreme perfectionist and would often re-write whole chapters rather than revising what he had, though, to be fair, this was often due to an extreme reworking of ideas – for instance, Aragorn was originally a Hobbit called Trotter with either wooden shoes or feet (something to due with being tortured by Sauron), and Treebeard was an evil giant.
    The story also started to connect far more deeply to his Middle-Earth mythology (some had crept in to the Hobbit, which wasn’t originally connected to it) which he had been writing in since WWI. The Silmarillion is often confused with a worldbuilding document for LOTR, but it was actually a collection of stories and poems that were meant to stand on their own. They became backstory for LOTR and he intended to publish The Silmarillion along side LOTR. Due to a misunderstanding with the publisher, Tolkien thought they didn’t want it. After LOTR was published they actually did want to publish the Silmarillion, but Tolkien’s energy and health declined and he died before revising it to his satisfaction. It still needed some work to fully fit in with the world he created in LOTR and his continuing evolution of certain ideas. The published version is pieced together by his son from the many versions of the stories he had, but it doesn’t represent all his thoughts at the time of his death. Those are found in the last two or so volumes of 12 volume The History of Middle-Earth series which cover the various drafts of the Silmarillion and LOTR.

  4. One of the most important things on my list of priorities is to make sure there can be no convenient moments. The last thing I want is for readers to think, “Why couldn’t they just take the airplane instead of doing things the hard way for the sake of the plot?”

    If I run into such a problem, I go back to the beginning and establish a sound reason for why they can’t just take the airplane to the mountain, skipping the whole journey in the process. The beginning will consist of the pilot demonstrating that his plane cannot land on jagged glaciers, nor on dry land close to the mountain, because it is a seaplane instead of an airplane. It can only tread water, but it only works if there is already water in the first place as part of the setting. I merge this demonstration-of-capabilities directly into another relevant event.

    I root it at the beginning, and only the beginning. Establishing that the plane cannot be used within the same scene it is needed looks like the author didn’t think the problem through, pulling a convenient rabbit out of their hat to avoid a convenient moment for the story: “We could take the plane, but I regret to inform you that the plane is out of fuel just in the time you need it most. How inconvenient!”

  5. Hello, I was just wondering about the promises concerning character development in a story series or if the book in question is planning to have sequels with the same characters. Does the process at witch these characters go through their arc change or will they go through a different type of arc through every book?

    Also this question is a bit irrelevant, but what are the group’s thoughts on a story that follows multiple characters from a first person perspective? Is it doable or should something like that say in the the third person like what George R.R. Martin did?

  6. @Nicole: Don’t conflate “promises made to the reader” with “foreshadowing.” A promise is something the reader knows has been made (whether or not you intended to make it.) Foreshadowing CAN be a promise the reader recognizes, but it can also be something whose significance they miss until the payoff later.

    What you described? That’s foreshadowing, unless there’s enough navel-gazing during the scene for us to start assigning importance to it.

  7. @Chris: Thank you! Obviously I couldn’t say anything about this while the story was running, because then the tension is gone. I’m happy that it worked!

  8. @Chase: If a character has arrived at a perfect place, closure and all, at the end of the first book, then the promise you’re making the reader is that the NEXT book will either break this, or will focus on different characters.

    If a character still has work to do at the end of the first book, you’re promising us that this work will continue in the next book.

    Re: 1st-person POV w/ multiple characters—like any technique, done well it’s going to be simultaneously amazing and transparent to the reader. Done poorly it will be distracting and confusing. Doing this one well is difficult, but if it’s the right way to tell the story, then that’s how the story should be written.

  9. @Howard Tayler You’re completely right, I confused things. Thank you for the correction! I need to listen to the podcast again.

    Sometimes, applying the concepts I listen to on the podcast to my story feels like trying to pin down a greased up gerbil.

    Thanks again for the help and the awesome podcast.

  10. In the beginning, was the… promise? Prologue? Questions? Tone, character, plot? Where do I start?

    Well, you could read the transcript! Right over here:


    Or in the archives.

    Don’t worry, I heard the final exam is going to be an essay test. So you don’t have to memorize everything, just be prepared to write, and write, and write…

  11. I am hoping that you guys could address what is going on with the Hugo Awards? As a female writer, I’d love to hear your insights and thoughts on the politics of writing, especially the SAD PUPPIES statement that writing Sci-Fi can’t be about the oppression of women, transgender issues, etc.

    Thank you!

    1. @Jada: While this space (the comments under a particular episode) is absolutely NOT the place to have this discussion, I want to address your concern, because we’re definitely listening, and we’re certainly aware of what’s going on.

      We probably will NOT do an episode about the current kerfluffle, in part because we record months in advance, and in much larger part because the Season 10 syllabus is set up more like a master class, and much less like a collection of topics-du-jour. Of course, if you’ve listened to our podcast for any length of time, you know that our position on WHAT you write is simple—write what you’re passionate about, what you’re interested in, what inspires you to tell a story. That can be anything.

      There are caveats, of course, but every time we lay down guidelines about things like “make sure you get the guns right” or “be careful about cultural appropriation” there are plenty of reasons to break those rules, and lots of good books that do. Don’t let anybody (especially us) tell you what you can or cannot write about.

      The genre is defined by what’s on the shelves, and your book is defined by what’s on the pages. The Hugo awards are defined by a few thousand people, and maybe ONE of those people is actually writing your book. Take heart in that!

      Now, there’s an emotional component to this which cannot be ignored. I’m going to go out on a limb and assume from your question that things being posted by folks in the Sad Puppy camp (especially the self-proclaimed “Rabid Puppy” tent in that camp) are discouraging and perhaps even hurtful to you. Having an upbeat, funny, take-em-to-task episode from us that validates everything I wrote in the previous paragraph might make you feel a lot better.

      It’s unlikely that it would help the matter much. This is not a pot that needs further stirring. I feel very strongly that most of us would be best served by writing OUR stuff rather than writing responses to someone ELSE’s ideology. No position paper, no rebuttal, and certainly no shouting match will change the fact that if you write a good book, a really GOOD book, there is an agent and an editor somewhere who will buy it. It doesn’t matter if you’re a straight white male writing guns and grey-goo, or a transgendered hispanic writing parapsychology and the politics of race. If the book is good, that will speak far louder than whether or not it aligns with the perceived politics of one award.

      Our objective here is to help you write YOUR book. Not the book that an award administrator thinks should get a trophy, and certainly not the book that a bunch of people who are not you can nod at and say “this is the sort of thing ALL books should be.”

  12. Thank you so much for your patience and your response. I wasn’t sure where to ask this question, so I apologize for being off topic. In the future, if we had questions like this, where can we direct them?

    Thank you again =)

    1. @Jada It’s okay, Jada. We do not have a convenient place on the site for the public to post questions publicly (like, say, a FAQ page), so it’s *OUR* fault that things like this get posted here. We do have a site redesign in the works, and a discussion area for episode-independent questions is part of the project’s specifications.

      Thank you for asking a timely and important question. There’s a lot of emotion bound up in this particular topic right now, and if we can do anything to help our listeners get back to the business of happily writing awesome things, that’s what we want to do.

  13. Comment Moderation has been enabled

    This comments thread is for talking about writing beginnings, not for arguing positions on current events. I am pruning off-topic comments with extreme prejudice. I’ve already had to delete comments from multiple camps posting links to Puppy-related stuff. Writing Excuses listeners who want to while away productive time on this matter are certainly capable of using Google to find the information they want.

    Yes, I’m a censor with an agenda: YOU ARE OUT OF EXCUSES NOW GO WRITE.


    As fascinating as the politics of WSFS may be, in the long run I think your book will be far more interesting. Let’s talk about THAT. Better still, let’s all go write! I’m out of just as many excuses as anybody else is.

  14. @derth …..everyone knows by now that you are the resident fact checker. You don’t have to prove yourself anymore it’s alright.

  15. You guys know that speaking aloud the words “Hollywood Formula” is one of the three phrases that will invoke my presence, right? But with respect and apologies, you’ve mischaracterized a little bit here. There are actually three decision points that occur in the typical storytelling structure of a commercial film.

    The first point is called the Fateful Decision. This occurs around the 12 to 13 minute mark of the first quarter of the story and is the point at which the protagonist actively decides (often against opposition) to engage in the story. In The Matrix, this is the red pill verses blue pill choice. In Thelma & Louise, this is where Thelma decides to go out with Louise anyway, despite her overbearing husband forbidding her to go. In Thor, this is when Thor and friends decide to invade the frost giants’ realm despite this father’s orders. If our protagonist does not actively decide to embrace the adventure at this point, we have no story.

    The second point occurs at the midpoint–usually the exact midpoint–of the film and is the switch from wandering to going on the offensive. In Star Wars, this is the point at which Luke Skywalker realizes that the princess is on the Death Star too and determines to mount a(n ineffectual) rescue. In the first Harry Potter film, this is the discovery that someone is killing unicorns in the forest and this must be stopped.

    I say “ineffectual” above because the protagonist cannot succeed as long as they are refusing to face the truth about their nature or let go of their old habit. Again in Star Wars, success cannot come until the third decision point, the decision to forgo technology and embrace faith at the moment when Luke “uses the force” to blow up the Death Star. In the Avengers, Tony cannot succeed until he lets go the idea of himself as a selfish individual and embraces the notion that a hero is someone who must be willing to lay down his life for others.

    These three decisions together form the arc of the main character’s advancement in most Hollywood films. And now I recede into the midsts from which I sprang….

  16. Thanks for the formula-check, Lou. We get these kinds of things wrong (or half-right) all the time in the interest of time, and having good liner notes here in the comment section is absolutely invaluable.

  17. I just love listening to you guys. I hope to see all of you at World Con this year. :)

  18. For protagonists who are initially reluctant, but will eventually turn into a hero, how can you make promises about their hero-ness when they are still at a stage where they don’t want to be one?

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