Hey all, Sam here.
Here we are, at the end of the beginning and the beginning of the end…for this book at least. I think it has been a pretty darn successful Weekend Writer arc so far. I’ve managed to get through a few book deep dives so far with this series, and I can absolutely say that I’ve learned something from each writing craft book I’ve picked up so far, which is great.
It feels like we should strive to always continue learning. You never know what you can pick up on and merge into your knowledge base and awareness, whether from non-fiction or from fiction. And I say that because I’ve sometimes learned about characterization or plot development or description or a myriad of other things just from enjoying stories (whether reading them or watching them).
But, y’all, I’m gonna be so glad to expand the conversation to a focus a little broader than just beginnings. Okay, let’s just get started with today’s 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 Seven: The Structure of Revelation – The End of the Beginning
Munier opens this chapter by saying that right before she started working on this section, she spent some time with the writer Robert Olen Butler. Specifically she had worked with a number of writers who were meeting with Butler who was critiquing the first 500 words of their novels, stories, and memoirs. Apparently the writers were upset because that didn’t seem like enough words to really understand what their story is about, and Munier told them that it’s more than many editors, agents, and readers would give before passing or deciding to continue reading.
Because we both knew that if the first five hundred words aren’t right, then the next five hundred words won’t be either, nor will the five hundred words after that, and so on, for fifty- or seventy- or ninety-thousand words.page 177
Wow. Again, how much of a blow does Munier plan to give to authorial hopefuls? Five hundred words is only a few pages of a story. Okay, sure if I’m reading a short story, then that should be more than enough for me to decide if I want to finish off the story, but with a novel (and even more so if I’m reading an epic fantasy or something chonky like that), I tend to give the book at least a hundred pages…which is a hell of a lot more than five hundred words.
Because yes, we all do hope to have beginnings that draw people in and make them want to keep reading, but the reality is that there are some stories that need a little bit more time to really breathe, to draw us in, and that is still fine. There just has to be a little something that keeps the reader going until they are fully invested.
Honestly (and personally) I’d rather have a slightly slower beginning than having a slow middle or an underwhelming end.
From here Munier mentions that we’ve already looked into the three act structure and even looked deeper into the structure of the first scene…but this time we’re looking at the story structure from the perspective of the challenges and thwarters of what your main characters desire.
We are given a few examples of the Act One/Act Two/Act Three breakdown with “Star Wars,” “Pride and Prejudice,” and “The Maltese Falcon.” But there are also more generalized breakdowns, such as what you would use for a romance, a crime story, a hero’s journey, or a mission story.
By breaking a story down into something this simple, such as the romance’s simple Beginning: Boy meets girl, Middle: Boy loses girl, and End: Boy gets girl back, it becomes clearer why the beginning is so important. Because the beginning has to grab the readers interest and keep them reading, but it also has to reveal the hero/heroine’s desires and set up the rest of the story.
After this, Munier moves into Plot Points, which is just a fancy way of talking about the big scenes that make up the frame of your story. Okay, cool. Easy enough. Without the frame of plot points, the story can’t stand up on its own, and won’t be able to support the weight of the characters and the conflict.
So Munier then decides to utilize the examples of “Star Wars,” “Pride and Prejudice,” and “The Maltese Falcon to break down Acts One, Two, and Three with even more detail. This is pages 181-185, if you want to get all the details on this.
In this section we are also given an exercise focused on MacGuffins, talking about how they are objects or goals or events or even characters that can help propel the plot. The exercise asks if you have any MacGuffins in your story and then to list them…and if you don’t have any, then brainstorm ideas and list how they might help drive the action of the story.
One of the big important things I pulled out of this particular section is that even when planning out the plot points of your story, keep your protagonist in mind. By the end of the story, how do they get what they want, and does getting what they want consciously give them what they want subconsciously.
This leads to another exercise, one where you break your story down into the main plot points: beginning, inciting incident, plot point #1, midpoint, plot point #2, climax, and denouement.
Another exercise is to create one storyline where your protagonist gets what they want both consciously and subconsciously, and one where they do not. Then ask yourself which story is more appealing, which one is more dramatic, which one is more satisfying for you, and which one will be more emotionally satisfying for your readers?
After this we are led into Munier’s professional opinion that 90,000 words is the sweet spot for a book, and so you should always plan your stories for 90k, which makes a 360 page book if there’s 250 words per page. This overall breaks down to Act One being 90 pages for roughly 22,500 words, Act Two is 180 pages for roughly 45,000 words, and then Act Three mirrors the first act with 90 pages for 22,500 words.
Then we briefly go into subplots and how to weave them into the overall structure of the story, and Munier says for subplots to be effective, some (if not all) need to be introduced in Act One. This should lead to more complexity for the beginning, which would make it stronger. A list is included of potential subplots to consider, such as love interests, exes, relationships with friends, relationships with family, relationships with colleagues and bosses, and relationships with antagonists.
From there we look into specific points from the first act, and the first one mentioned is prologues.
For the record, readers often skip prologues, just as they skip introductions, forewords, and prefaces. I say this with great authority because once upon a time, I was an acquisitions editor, and I always let my authors write all the introductions, prefaces, and forewords they wanted for their nonfiction books–because I knew readers would never read them. Readers are smart; they know that whatever comes before chapter one in a nonfiction book is (often) just a self-indulgent rant, a nostalgic trip down memory lane, or otherwise nonsensical notes that have more to do with the ego that wrote the book than the book itself (the introductions to my own books notwithstanding, she said with a smile).page 191
Nonfiction books can mostly be opened up anywhere beginning, middle, or end, and be read and understood. But with fiction and memoir, prologues should be scenes from the past that help to inform the story that is to come. If it doesn’t inform the story then you don’t need it and should get rid of it. Most prologues end up being a lot of backstory and don’t actually help set up the story. Again, according to Munier.
Look, I read a lot of fantasy, and you know what, there are quite a few fantasy reads out there that have prologues, and even when they don’t initially seem to have a point that informs the story or appears to immediately tie into the larger story, eventually it does have relevance. For me, part of the joy with some of these more epic fantasies is trying to figure out those small details that I might have initially missed, that after a later pass or after deeper thought, I realize that those details actually really do help tie things together.
So I feel like a lot of prologues actually do end up having deeper meaning. It’s just up to the reader to piece it together.
Otherwise known as again, there’s some of Munier’s words of wisdom that I simply don’t agree with.
Oh, I guess Munier does go on here to say that you can have a prologue without calling it a prologue. You can use a time or place reference instead to differentiate it from the rest. Or you can do something like news clippings or maps or diary entries or letters. There are a number of devices that do similar things to what some use prologues for. You can also use a different format for a prologue, such as making the text italicized instead, although try to keep that brief because it can strain a reader’s eyes.
From there Munier goes into Organizing Principles. Plot is what happens in the story, and an organizing principle is a way of organizing and enhancing the themes and imagery of the story alongside the plot. As an example, Munier compares making a story to baking a cake; you combine essential ingredients (the scenes) to create the batter, but then you can choose to organize that batter in a number of different ways (sheet cake, cupcake, cake roll, layer cake, etc). The enjoyment of the batter doesn’t change based on how the batter is organized.
Several different romances are then given as examples of how to take similar plot points and organize them in various ways to make the story have a different feel. Munier actually spends several pages showing off different examples of how organizing principles are used in a number of different stories.
The final portion of this chapter discusses the differences of beginnings based on the various genres, because each genre will have its own specifics for elements that are expected. There is a brief dive into women’s fiction, literary fiction, romance, crime fiction, science fiction, fantasy, horror, historical fiction, young adult/children’s, and memoir. Again, I’m not going to spoil every detail within this book, but you can find the information on pages 202-209.
We are given an exercise to run down the list of caveats for each genre, starting with the one your story belongs to. Look at which on the list apply to your story, and which ones you need to work on more. Also consider the dos and don’ts for the other genres and figure out if there are any that could be making your work better or worse.
But if it hasn’t been made clear by this point in this book, beginnings are important. Your opening is important. Whether the agent or editor asks for the first ten pages, the first fifty, or the first one hundred, you need to make it count. For them to ask for more depends on the strength of what you send them.
Well, that is all from me for today. Thank you so much for stopping by, and I’ll be back soon with more geeky content.