Hey all, Sam here.
Okay, sorry for breaking up the Weekend Writer this weekend, but I realized it was going to take some time to write up all the breakdown for this book, and I wanted to be able to dedicate the proper time to it, while also continuing to get out my blog content, and spending time with my mom…and we kept pretty busy all weekend, so I didn’t have a lot of free time for my Camp NaNoWriMo writing and reading and the rest of my usual weekend blog prepping.
But it was still a nice time. It just meant rearranging things. I also started reading another book on creative writing, and I don’t think it will be a book that I do this big section by section breakdown, but I will do a bonus Weekend Writer that is a review of the book as a whole. I might put that post up in a couple weeks. We’ll see how I’m feeling.
And now, into Chapter 6 of The Writer’s Guide to Beginnings: How to Craft Story Openings That Sell. After this, we only have Chapter 7 and Chapter 8 to get through…and then we’ll be on to the next book on the writing craft. Be sure to check out last week’s Weekend Writer post for the options for our next book deep dive.
Give your story its best start!
The best beginnings possess a magical quality that grabs readers from the first word and never lets them go. But beginnings aren’t just the door into a fictional world. They are the gateway to the realm of publishing–one that could shut as quickly as it opens.
In The Writer’s Guide to Beginnings , author and literary agent Paula Munier shows you how to craft flawless beginnings that impress agents, engage editors, and captivate readers. You’ll learn how to develop the big idea of your story and introduce it on page one, structure opening scenes that encompass their own story arc, kickstart your writing with effective brainstorming techniques, and introduce a compelling cast of characters that drive the plot. You’ll also examine the best-selling novels from different genres to learn the secrets that experienced writers use to dive straight into a story.
With thorough examinations of voice, point of view, setting, dialogue and conflict, The Writer’s Guide to Beginnings is a must-have tool for luring your readers in with your opening pages–and convincing them to stick around for the ride.
“Writing a book? Hard. Writing the beginning of a book? Rocket science! Strap on your spacesuit, because thanks to Munier’s nuanced, actionable breakdown of every possible aspect of a gripping opening, authors everywhere can now take their books to the stars.” — K.M. Weiland
Chapter Six: The Beginnings Rulebook II – The Dignity of Greatness
Chapter Five went through a few elements of story: Voice, Point-of-View, Character, and Setting. This chapter continues on that concept of breaking down elements of story, this time covering Action, Conflict, Dialogue, and Theme.
There’s no introduction or anything to begin the chapter. Munier just jumps straight into to discussion of Action. She says that opening your story with action is the most reliable option, because readers want to read action not dull set up. This is something I find amusing because I read so very many books out there that don’t start off literally in the middle of some bit of action. Usually there’s at least a few paragraphs that give you an idea of the protagonist and who they are and where they’re from. But sure.
As F. Scott Fitzgerald pointed out, “Action is character.” Characters who don’t act are boring and stuck and impotent. No one wants to read about boring, stuck, impotent people. We get enough of that in real life, and it frustrates me. We don’t want those characters in our lives or in our fiction.page 146
I guess the main point for this section on Action is that action just means not sitting around thinking about things. The protagonist could be sitting on a train, heading somewhere to visit someone or try something new. They could be standing in the doorway, about to open the door to go somewhere.
I’ve always seen beginnings as that tipping point when a character is standing on a precipice and they can either stay in their current position in life or they can try something new (whether they do so by their own choice or because something happens that forces them to do something else).
As part of Action, Munier recommends thinking about if your story was a film, and imagine what you would see on the screen, what your hero would be doing, how you would show their problems and hopes and dreams and flaws, etc. I think that is definitely a good way to think about it. Visualizing the story can help with description, action, characterization, and even planning how to set up dialogue. To extend this idea, an exercise Munier suggests is to take a screenwriting class to help you think cinematically, write scenes, and transform thought into action.
Next for Action is to research your story. By knowing the time and place and content you can more easily write action by dramatizing the history and characters and setting. Munier even gives examples with each section within each element of story.
From there we move on to Enacting Your Story. If you’re having difficulty with the drama and dialogue and action of your story, then you can play pretend and make yourself step into the role of your protagonist. Honestly, for me, this is pretty easy to do, because I regularly write in first person Point-of-View. Munier also recommends having some actor friends, some theater and drama acquaintances, because if you get stuck you can have your friends inhabit your characters for you and just see how they interact and what they come up with.
Another exercise thrown into this chapter is to imagine you’re writing a story where the lead role will be played by Angelina Jolie. List fifty ways to show that she’s depressed. Then do the exercise again, but as if you’re writing the character to be played by Brad Pitt. Once you’re finished, compare the versions. What follows from there is a page full of quotes from writers on action.
The next big element of writing discussed in this chapter is Conflict, which is basically defined as the opposition of persons or forces that gives rise to dramatic action in a drama or in fiction. Now, any of us who has taken any sort of literature course has probably heard of some of these conflict options: Man vs Man, Man vs Society, Man vs Nature, Man vs Self, Man vs Fate/God, Man vs Technology, Man vs Paranormal.
Munier only does the most basic breakdown of each of these options…so you know what, I’m going to let them stand on their own, and give anyone interested the opportunity to look up any of these conflicts for yourself.
Dialogue is the next element of writing discussed in this chapter. We enjoy dialogue because it’s fun to read, it makes us read through pages quickly, it propels the plot, it reveals more about characters, it livens up the scene. Dialogue can be so useful, but it can also be tricky to write. Munier has a few suggestions for this.
Listen to how people talk. Eavesdrop the next time you’re waiting in a line or sitting at a restaurant. Pay attention to the rhythm and syntax of speech. You want your characters to talk like real people, but actually even better. Munier includes some examples of the dialogue voice of different characters
But Munier warns not to weigh down dialogue with information dumps, which is a mistake many writers make: having dialogue convey information and backstory. And Munier writes us up an example of terrible dialogue that is a massive info-dump. The point is that dialogue is supposed to reveal character and/or propel the plot, and the best dialogue definitely successfully does both.
Here’s a few other rules for dialogue. Do use dialogue to reveal character. Do use dialogue to propel the plot forward. Do make your dialogue do double duty. Do capitalize on subtext in your dialogue. Don’t write in dialect. Do use word choice and sentence structure to indicate speech patterns. Do use dialogue tags wisely. Do not break the fourth wall.
The main points I pulled from all of those rules that I wanted to touch on a bit more are the dialect point and the dialogue tags point. So, Munier says that writing in dialect or spelling dialogue phonetically is considered outdated even when done well and in the right hands, and can be seen as racist/sexist/xenophobic if done poorly and in the wrong hands. Plus, Munier says that it drives editors crazy because it slows readers down while they try to figure out what is being said. But a rule-breaking that worked is an example of Mark Twain when it came to Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn…and Twain included a note to readers at the beginning of the book to prepare them for the dialect use.
The other dialogue point is about using dialogue tags wisely, because nothing says amateur faster than the use of creative dialogue tags. Don’t use tags like queried, proclaimed, pondered, replied, grinned, screeched, expounded, etc. Stick to said or just use action instead.
Now look…I disagree with this point wholeheartedly. I can’t think of any writer out there who only uses said or action when adding dialogue to their stories. There is nothing wrong with using replied or questioned or other dialogue tags, as long as you don’t use them too frequently. And okay, fine, tags such as screeched probably aren’t needed considering that the wording and punctuation can make the point clear on its own.
The next element of writing discussed is theme, which is what your story is really about and is grounded in the emotions that drive us. The earlier readers know what the story is about, the sooner they can settle into the narration. Munier includes a chart on Page 172 with a whole bunch of themes, including their light and dark aspects that you can apply to your writing.
And if you don’t know what your theme is, look at your protagonist, or your hero if your protagonist isn’t your hero. What they desire, what they feel, what they do, and what their motivations are will help you figure out your theme, because there should be a connection between them.
Munier ends the chapter by talking about the fact that now you know the elements of fiction writing, and once you know the rules and know how to use them, if you’re sure the benefits outweigh the risks, then you can break the rules.
Yes, I agree that knowing the rules means you can weigh if it is worth breaking them, but I also feel that some of the rules regarding the craft of writing are not necessarily meant to be strictly followed. Perhaps it’s something we need to play around with as writers, and figure out what does and does not work for us for telling our stories.
Any of these books on writing are meant to aid and inspire us in our own writing journeys, but the best kinds of training are where we take information from a number of different sources, pull out the information that works for us, and leave the rest behind. It’s merging what you learn from a number of different people, especially different people talking about the same topic, and then forge your own path.
Well, that is all from me for today. There’s still two more chapters to cover with this book, and then we’ll be moving on to a new book on writing craft. Thank you so much for stopping by and I’ll be back soon with more geeky content.