Writing Excuses 10.14: How Much of the Beginning Needs to Come First?
Key Points: What do you want to tell the reader, and what do you need to set that up? Of that list, what comes first? What do you need to put in the beginning so the reader is willing and excited to keep reading, and what can you exclude? Talking about the first one third of the book. What promises do you want to make, what will you pay off by the end of the story? Character motives, tone, plot? A book is way to hack the brain, to produce a specific emotional state, and readers want to know what this book will do for them. That’s a promise! What kind of arc will your character have? Introduce the character, show us what they want, and why we love them. Show us the hole in their life, what they are missing. The first third of the story is about asking questions. What is the large framing question, and what are the smaller ones inside that? Three key elements: starting state of the character, what they want; inciting incident, that kicks them out of their comfort zone and makes them act; the big decision, to do something. The Hollywood Formula says the character is forced to act in the first third, and ends when they start acting instead of reacting. From romance, we have denial, reluctance, exploration, and acceptance. Start with the awesome moments that you want to write about, and look at how to tell the reader that they are coming without being too explicit. Blow something up! From the homework: try different beginnings, emphasizing different promises, and see what happens.
[Mary] Season 10, Episode 14.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, How Much of the Beginning Needs to Come First?
[Howard] 15 minutes long.
[Mary] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Dan] And we’re not that smart.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Mary] I’m Mary.
[Howard] I’m Howard.
[Dan] And I’m Dan.
[Howard] We got that in the wrong order, but we’re going to go ahead anyway.
[Brandon] All right. So, we are on to the actual writing of your story.
[Brandon] We took three months…
[Brandon] To teach you how to plan your story.
[Howard] You know what, Tolkien took 20 years.
[Brandon] That’s right. We’re accelerated. We’re going to start talking about beginnings today, and how much of the beginning needs to come first. This was a really clever title that Howard came up with.
[Howard] Are you going to ask me to explain it?
[Brandon] Go for it.
[Howard] Oh, dear heavens. There are so many things that you want to tell in your story to your reader. So many things that you want to have happen, and every one of those things typically has some sort of precursor, preamble, something that foreshadows it, something that sets it up. Of that whole list of things, which of those things comes first?
[Howard] Yeah. It’s not necessarily the whole novel is one single causal sequence. But what are the pieces that you need to put in the beginning, so the reader is willing and excited to follow you through to the middle and the end?
[Mary] At the same time, while you’re making that decision, you are also of course making the decision about what things do you not need to include at the beginning.
[Brandon] Right. Now, we’re… Beginning in this phrasing, we’re talking about the first one third of your book. We’ll drill into the early pages in another podcast, probably in two weeks. But right now, what we want to talk about is just framing in your head how you’re going to make promises to the reader. That’s a phrase we use a lot on Writing Excuses, is talking about promises. What do we mean by promises, Dan?
[Dan] The promises that you make at the beginning of a story are the promises that you intend to pay off by the end of it. So you could think of this, for example, in terms of the MICE quotient. If we start by presenting an idea, then the… That’s a promise that we’re making, that by the end of this story, we will have explained that idea, we will have going deeper into it. If we start by asking a question, our promise is that by the end of the story, we will answer it. So the first part of your story, a lot of what it’s doing is setting up these promises. What does this character want? Well, then we know that you’re promising to tell us whether he or she gets that at the end. Things like that.
[Brandon] Right. We should be setting up character motives. That’s one of the most important things to be doing in these early chapters, character motivation.
[Howard] In a broader sense, the story has what, for lack of a better term, I’ll just call body language. Things that you communicate by virtue of the fact that your story at the beginning sounds like the beginning of a James Bond movie or the beginning of a romantic comedy. By doing those sorts of things, you are inherently promising things that belong to that form. Whether or not that’s the kind of novel you’re actually writing, that’s a promise you may be making. That’s where, in many cases… I uncover this with my writers group all the time, where in chapter 3, I realize, “Well, this isn’t what you told me I was going to be reading. You told me I was going to be reading something else.”
[Brandon] This is a tone promise.
[Brandon] Very important to get the right tone across. You’ll notice that a lot of films accomplish this with a prologue. They say… They know, “All right. Indiana Jones, we’re going to start really our story with him in a university somewhere talking to students. But that’s not the tone of our movie. That means we need to back up and have a scene at the beginning of him on an adventure and ending an adventure in order to set up the proper tone for the entirety of our story.”
[Dan] Song of Ice and Fire does this really well. The very first thing of Game of Thrones is a prologue where we fight an ice monster. Then we leave that for… There is no more magic until the end of that gigantic book, but we’ve set up that promise in the beginning so that you know what kind of book it is.
[Mary] We’ve just hit a couple of things where we’re talking about prologues. I really want to make sure that people understand that prologues are totally not necessary. You can do this without a prologue. Particularly if you’re writing short fiction, prologues are a really bad idea.
[Brandon] In fact, the Indiana Jones one, that can just be chapter 1. I mean, that’s… If you look at the first Indiana Jones film, he’s on an adventure… You have a mini adventure at the beginning. I wouldn’t write that as a prologue. I would probably write that in the book as Chapter 1.
[Mary] One of the things also with Indiana Jones, just to point out, is that what they are promising with that is the sensation of I am watching part of a serial. So having multiple adventures is part of the promise that they’re making.
[Howard] Another thing that they are inherently promising, that would have been undercut if that scene had come later in the film, is that we are not going to explain the physics behind how these 5000-year-old traps work.
[Howard] They just work. You can see that they work, and that is just part of the universe we live in, or that this movie lives in. That expectation… I see that a lot in corny movies, which I love, because they allow themselves to be corny, where in the opening scene, I see something ridiculous and I realize, “Oh, this movie has just thrown down and told me it’s going to be ridiculous.” But the promise… With that promise made, with my expectations set, if the movie then delivers that level of ridiculous in corny, I’m okay.
[Mary] One of the things that I want to really highlight as we are talking about promises, is that when you’re writing a book, when you’re talking about genre and tone and mood and story questions and all of this, one of the things to remember is that the book is a way to hack the brain. So when people are picking it up, they are picking it up to produce a specific emotional state in themselves. This is a very highbrow way to think about it, but it is what you’re doing. That’s why the promise that you’re making is so important. Because if someone picks it up and they are planning to create a specific mood and you deliver something else, they’re going to be frustrated because it’s not doing what they needed it to do. That’s not why they picked up that book.
[Brandon] Exactly. This is very important. It is very helpful for the reader… The writer to understand this. We’ve talked a lot about the tone one. I want to go back to some other types of promises that we need to make.
[Howard] Sure, sure.
[Brandon] Let’s talk about character promises. Specifically, the character arc. In the first third of your story, you really should establish what kind of arc your character’s going to have. How do you do that?
[Dan] I… Last time we talked, the Writing Excuses class, I did… Or retreat, I did my class about story structure. One of the things that I put up there was one of your early bits in the Hollywood formula is we are introduced to the character, we find out what they want, and we know why we love them. That was like a light going off in the audience. They’re like, “Oh. We need to know why we love this character right off the bat the very beginning.” It hadn’t occurred to them. That first of all, once you know what they want and why we like them, that establishes our reason to care about whether or not the character gets what they want.
[Brandon] In line with that, most stories that are doing this also show the hole in the person’s life. There is something they are missing. That’s part of why we like them, is because we know there’s a hole. We know there’s something they want and we’re going to follow them getting that. If you establish first third or earlier this character needing that thing, you’re promising that they are going to either find that or fail to find that. But there’s going to be a conflict related to that in the book.
[Howard] One of the disconnects that I find a lot occurs when we have a protagonist that is difficult to like, because the promise… If it’s well-written, you can get away with it, but often the promise is unclear. Am I being told that I am going to learn to like this person or am I being told that this person is going to get it in the end? It may be that you’re writing a story where that is the tension that you are establishing with the reader. I don’t get that answer until the end of the book. But you need to know that going in. You need to know what you’re writing. You need to know that you are saying this and you need to know what you are planning on delivering.
[Brandon] Yeah. This… For little bit more help with this, if you want to dig into writing characters like this, last year we did a sequence of podcasts we talked about kind of three sliding scales, you can move up or down with a character. One of them was likability, but one of them was proactiveness and one of them was competence. We talked a lot about how to write a character who is not very likable, but very competent or vice versa and things like that.
[Howard] In the sense of talking about promises, if you go back to that slider metaphor, when you have somebody who is likable but not particularly competent, often the promise that you’re framing is this person is going to become competent. I’m expecting to see a montage scene where they learn how to sword fight.
[Brandon] Let’s do our book of the week. Dan, you’ve got our book of the week.
[Dan] The book of the week is The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu, it was translated by Ken Liu, and it is read by Luke Daniels. This is a really great book. It reminded me a lot of Contact by Carl Sagan, in that it is a highly scientific look at what would happen if our world today actually contacted another species from another planet. The difference, and the reason that I think it’s such a great book for this topic, is that it starts way, way back at the dawn of the Communist Revolution in China. Which casts everything that comes afterwards in a really interesting light, and sets up some very different and unique promises that the story is going to pay off. Wonderful book. It was a huge hit in China, and we have it here now. The Three-Body Problem by Cixin Liu.
[Brandon] Excellent. They can get that by going to audible. Going and downloading Howard?
[Howard] No, not downloading me. But going to audiblepodcast.com/excuse and starting a trial membership and you get The Three-Body Problem by… I can’t pronounce the other name, but translated by Ken Liu, narrated by Luke Daniels.
[Mary] Luke Daniels is an incredibly gifted narrator.
[Howard] I want to say something real quick about the phrase three body problem. Because mathematically, this ties into what we are doing perfectly. In physics, a two bod… Two body Newtonian mechanics. They are starting positions dictate everything, and you know exactly what’s going to happen. It’s just straight math. When you have three bodies, it no longer works, and you have to step through a simulation of the whole thing. When you are starting the beginning of your book, what you are starting fundamentally is more like a three body problem where you have to let everybody interact often as you’re structuring your story. It’s not just the story starts here, therefore it will end here.
[Brandon] Excellent. We’ve talked a lot about character promises. We’ve talked about tone. Let’s talk about plot. How do you set up your plot in the first third of your story?
[Mary] The first third of the story, for me, is about asking questions. It’s the questions that you’re raising, and therefore the ones that… The promises that you’re making. I’m going to refer back to the MICE quotient again, because I find that that works fairly well for me. But… I will just say we’ve got the whole episode on the MICE quotient. I’m not going to recap it much here except to say that it’s looking at milieu, idea, character, and event. These are different ways to structure plot. But what I do frequently when I’m looking at the beginning is that I’m looking at what is my large framing question? Then what are the smaller framing questions that I have within that large framing question?
[Dan] Okay. The way I think about plot, especially in the beginning of the book, is that I have to know what three key elements are. First of all, what is the starting state of the character? Which is kind of what I talked about before. What do they want out of life? Second, what is the inciting incident? What starts the story and gets in and kicks them out of their place of comfort and forces them to act? Then, third, the big decision, which is essentially where they decide to do something. Luke Skywalker decides to get on the ship with Han, and therefore we have a story. Otherwise, he just stays on the planet and nothing happens. Once I figure out what those three things are, that is what sets the plot in motion and tells you the promise. By the end of this, Luke will have learned all these things and met all these people and defeated the Empire.
[Brandon] In a kind of a Hollywood Formula, which is interesting to study… I don’t always use it, in fact I rarely do. But the Hollywood Formula says that the first third is often where the character is only acting because he’s forced to. He or she is made to do these things, and the end of the first third happens where they change from being acted upon to someone who is acting. For Star Wars, a lot of people point at the moment where they go in to get Princess Leia. Rather than doing the… They’re pulled in on the tractor beam and things like that. At that moment, then they make a decision. We’re going to go and save her. That changes the story from the kid who’s been forced away from his family, forced to go with this old man, forced to get on a spaceship because people are trying to shoot him to no, I’m going to go do something heroic. Often times this is later than the first third. But that’s kind of one way to think about it.
[Mary] Just as another… Because these are both, I mean, that’s a fairly heroic… I recently took a romance class, and one of the things that she talks about is that it is… That in romance, you’ve got your character’s self-definition, everybody’s self-definition is very precious. At the beginning, the character is in denial, then the character is reluctant, then… Which means that they understand, but they are reluctant to… Then they explore the idea, and then they accept. Then in romance, there’s matrimony. But again, this is something that you can look at, that frequently a character is refusing… Part of that refusing to accept or getting kicked out is that they are in denial that this whole thing is happening. I have been looking at that, going, “Actually, this applies to a lot of other things, a lot of other formats.”
[Howard] When I’m thinking about the promise that needs to be made, the things I need to put early in the book, I always… The first thing I frame for myself is what are the awesome things that I want to write about and draw. What are the awesome moments? Now, how do I tell the reader that that thing is possible and might be coming? Without telling them exactly what’s going to happen. I mean, we say promises and it’s not really the same as an actual promise. I promise you I will go out and buy bread means you’re going to get bread. I promise you that this is going to be an action romp and something’s going to explode way bigger than this thing that just exploded is more like the sorts of promises that I make. I make them by making something explode. It usually is the inciting incident.
[Brandon] If you’ve done the homework that we’ve assigned two weeks ago, then you will already have a list of all your favorite things that you want to put in this story in order. Then you’ll be able to take them and say, “Okay. How do I make promises regarding these things? I know that I’m going to… I have this great awesome moment in my story that I want to work toward.” You can ask yourself how to put in the beginning of your story something about each of these. Your homework this time is actually a little more active than that. We actually want you to start writing your story. Okay? Yes. Time to start writing.
[Howard] Tolkien had 20 years.
[Brandon] You got three months. We’re going to make you write it three times, actually. We want you to start your story, and we only want you to write a couple pages each time. So 500 words each time. But we want you to each of these attempts to take a different one of the things from that list. If you didn’t do your homework, go ahead and think about a story you want to write and three different promises you could make. Try in those each two pages to emphasize a different one. To emphasize a different tone and a different type of promise. In a full novel, you’re going to do multiple promises and you’re going to make some of them really important and some of them subplots and things like that. For this time, you’re going to pick one and be like, “All right. This is the story where I’m promising a romance.” Or this is the same story, the same setting, but I’m promising that something big is going to blow up. Whatever it is for you, pick three different promises and do your best at emphasizing them. All right, guys. This has been Writing Excuses. You’re out of excuses. Now go write.