11 October 2011

The Class of Writing, Part II

Susan Slater
Last week, we asked and answered the question:
• Question: What do readers need to know right up front??

• Answer: Whatever will keep them reading!

This week we tackle three more questions on writing.

• Question: How do you know where (within your story) to start?

• Answer: Start as close to the ending as you possibly can!!

Why?? It makes you consider and reconsider using backstory and should encourage you to plop your reader down in the middle of action.

Too many times the lure of backstory makes a writer add a prologue. If you can’t start your story by simply dropping your reader into the deep end, you may want to rethink your storyline. Prologues seldom work!

A tricky beginning but one that does many things is what I call psychological backstory—tell a story within a story that shows the inner workings of the protagonist—his or her frame of mind. Consider Craig Johnson’s opening to Cold Dish:
“She might have knocked, but I didn’t hear it because I was watching the geese. I watch the geese a lot in the fall, when the days get shorter and the ice traces the rocky edges of Clear Creek… The geese fly down the valley south, with their backs to me, and I usually sit with my back to the window, but occasionally I get caught with my chair turned; this seems to be happening more and more, lately.”
There isn’t one of us who hasn’t daydreamed watching some act of nature—fish schooling, clouds drifting, rain hitting the window—and those moments of introspection are revealing—we’re contemplating problems, we’re wishing we were someplace else or with someone else. At the very least it sets up a longing, a hint that not everything is truly “right” with Walt’s world. “Geese flying south” . . . does he want to get away? What is he wanting/needing to escape? And because he’s so human, we want to find out what’s wrong and how he’s going to go about making it right. The reader is invested from the first. The foibles, vulnerabilities, Achilles heel—these are what hook us. He/she’s just like we are and we want to root for him or her. We want to see “growth”—where it starts and where it ends.

Consider Nicholas Sparks opening to The Notebook:
“Who am I? And how, I wonder, will this story end? The sun has come up and I am sitting by a window that is foggy with the breath of a life gone by. I’m a sight this morning; two shirts, heavy pants, a scarf wrapped twice around my neck and tucked into a thick sweater knitted by my daughter thirty birthdays ago. The thermostat in my room is set as high as it will go, and a smaller space heater sits directly behind me. It clicks and groans and spews hot air like a fairy-tale dragon, and still my body shivers with a cold that will never go away, a cold that has been thirty years in the making. Eighty years, I think sometimes, and despite my own acceptance of my age, it still amazes me that I haven’t been warm since George Bush was president. I wonder if this is how it is for everyone my age.”
Again, backstory woven neatly with the present giving the reader psychological insight—a peek inside the character’s mind.

• Question: Why do you need to know the span of time your story covers BEFORE you start to write?

• Answer: It will act as a control.

A time framework gives (usually) much needed parameters to your story. In this case, write between the lines!

• Question: Why is word choice so important starting off?

• Answer: You don’t get a second chance to do it right!

I'll explain why next week.


  1. Susan, I'm always curious. Did you post this with your new computer? If so, what kind did you decide on? Your closing line--"You don't get a second chance to do it right--intrigues me. I'll definitely be back to see exactly what that means and how it relates to rewrites and editing.

  2. This is a thought provoking post, Susan. I wonder if you could expand, a bit, on what you mean about time span providing parameters to a short story or novel. And: Do you find there is a difference in the way it interacts, depending on whether the story is a novel or a short?

    Have to admit: I've never really considered time span up-front when writing. So, this is quite a different concept to me. I see you've published several novels, and would be very interested on your take.

    I'd like to hear more on the subject -- whether it's within these comments, or in a future post -- particularly when it comes to novel writing, which I find quite complicated.

  3. Susan, it's good to be reminded of the writing tenets I take for granted and sometimes forget. Keep them coming.


Welcome. Please feel free to comment.

Our corporate secretary is notoriously lax when it comes to comments trapped in the spam folder. It may take Velma a few days to notice, usually after digging in a bottom drawer for a packet of seamed hose, a .38, her flask, or a cigarette.

She’s also sarcastically flip-lipped, but where else can a P.I. find a gal who can wield a candlestick phone, a typewriter, and a gat all at the same time? So bear with us, we value your comment. Once she finishes her Fatima Long Gold.

You can format HTML codes of <b>bold</b>, <i>italics</i>, and links: <a href="https://about.me/SleuthSayers">SleuthSayers</a>