The How-to Of Creative Writing - Where To Begin

Posted at 02:36am on 21st September 2008
Related Posts: Joining up the Dots

HOW TO PLOT A NOVEL & HOOK YOUR READER

At what point do you decide if you’re going to like the book you’ve picked up to read? Almost certainly, it will be by the time you’ve reached the bottom of the first page. If the narrative hasn’t hooked you by then, you’re unlikely to read on.

So why should it be any different when you start to write your novel / true-life story / testimony? You want what you write to grab your reader, don’t you? Of course you do! Because if you don’t get their attention on that opening page, they may never read the rest of your masterpiece. And that would be a shame.

So let’s have a reminder of what we’ve already covered, then see how you can plot the beginning of your book to ensure maximum magnetism.

PLOTTING A STORY IS LIKE PLANNING A JOURNEY

Last weekend we looked at the concept of Joining Up The Dots when plotting a story – be it a novel, a true-life inspirational story, or a testimony (a real-life experience with a spiritual slant). I likened it to planning a journey – mapping out a route – and reminded you that Theme is the purpose of the journey which (like a railroad) keeps you on track; Characters are the drivers, not merely travellers and Story is the vehicle. I asked you to make a timeline map for your story - a simple flat line with a time sequence for each event. And I then asked the following questions:

  • If Plotting is the planning of a journey – a process of marking on a map the route from one place to another – then when/where should your story begin and end? Can you establish the departure point and destination?
  • What does it mean when I tell you that all the above (Theme, Character and Story) are crucial elements of that journey?
  • Why will the journey not follow the flat planes of your timeline, but will traverse a terrain of steep rises and sharp falls?

So let’s take a look at the first of the points above, and see if we can begin to answer the question, how do we go about the process of getting from the beginning of your story to the end?

IS THE BEGINNING OF YOUR TIMELINE THE DEPARTURE POINT OF YOUR STORY?

Remember, I promised we’d compare your flat timeline with a short story which is a few thousand years old. Here it is:

THE WIFE OF a man from the company of the prophets cried out to Elisha, ‘Your servant my husband is dead, and you know that he revered the Lord. But now his creditor is coming to take my two boys as his slaves.’

Elisha replied to her, ‘How can I help you? Tell me, what do you have in your house?’

‘Your servant has nothing there at all,’ she said, ‘except a little oil.’

Elisha said, ‘Go round and ask all your neighbours for empty jars. Don’t just ask for a few. Then go inside and shut the door behind you and your sons. Pour oil into all the jars, and as each is filled, put it to one side.’

She left him and afterwards shut the door behind her and her sons. They brought the jars to her and she kept pouring. When all the jars were full, she said to her son:

‘Bring me another one.’

But he replied: ‘There is not a jar left.’
Then the oil stopped flowing. She went and told the man of God, and he said:
‘Go, sell the oil and pay your debts. You and your sons can live on what is left.’ NIV

The story, of course, is a Biblical one, and has been taken from the book of Kings in the Old Testament. It is 200 words long and contains a complete narrative: that is, a beginning, a middle and an end. The points I want you to consider today are:

  • What is the Theme?
  • Who is the main Character?
  • Where does the Story begin?

I’m not going to answer the question about Theme yet. What we are going to look at over this session and the next, is the shape of the story – the route which is plotted out to take you on that journey – beginning at the beginning.

WHERE DOES THE JOURNEY BEGIN?

Not where many would-be-authors would start it! If you were writing this story, would you be tempted to begin at the beginning of your flat timeline, with a chronological narrative about the widow? Consider this:

Noname was an Israelite; she was born sometime between 800-900BC. She grew up in the desert not far from Shunem and, true to the culture of her times and society, she probably married whilst only a teenager. Her husband was a prophet; in fact, a member of a select band of prophets. Between them, they had two sons – and probably a few daughters, but as women were not held in high esteem, they were only background figures.

When the boys were almost grown up, their father died. Poor Noname was left widowed and, worse still, she was in debt. In exchange for wiping out her debts, her creditors threatened to take her sons as slaves because this was the normal practice in her time and culture. Naturally, she was distressed.

This simple conveyance of facts is reportage. Can you see what this treatment of the story has achieved? Even with the few emotive words ‘Poor Noname’, ‘worse still’ and ‘Naturally, she was distressed’ it has completely robbed it of all the elements of the original which grab the reader’s attention and make them want to read on. All the information contained in this new beginning has been taken from the original story, but it has been rendered flat and uninteresting. And why? Because we’ve eliminated, or obscured, the Conflict. And, therefore, the Emotion.

Let’s have another look at the original opening:

THE WIFE OF a man from the company of the prophets cried out to Elisha, ‘Your servant my husband is dead, and you know that he revered the Lord. But now his creditor is coming to take my two boys as his slaves.’

These two sentences tell us quite a lot. They answer almost all of the requirements of What, Why, When, How, Where and Who.

  • WHAT – The story is about someone in trouble
  • WHY – Because she is in debt
  • WHEN – only implied as being during the era of prophets
  • HOW – She is in debt because she has been widowed. She is in trouble because creditors are coming to take her sons as slaves
  • WHERE – again, only implied
  • WHO – A woman; in fact a widow

Crucially, the two sentences contain all the conflict and emotion to engage our attention and make us read on.

  • The woman cried out. We can hear her pain in those two words.
  • She feels aggrieved because her husband was a good man (he revered the Lord) but he’s died (perhaps before his time?). We feel pity for her. We agree with her (implied) analysis – that what has happened to her and her husband isn’t fair.
  • Worse, her boys are about to be taken. We are outraged. This is injustice indeed.

CONFLICT, CAUSE & EFFECT

So – what can we conclude from this? That a story should begin at a point of conflict. In the very first sentence of the original version, the emotions of the reader are engaged. This poor woman has lost her husband and now looks as if she will also lose her sons. She is suffering! She is living out the consequences of what has already happened before the story begins – and she’s terrified.

As one human being reading about the plight of another, aren’t your emotions engaged? Wouldn’t you find her story compulsive reading? Don’t you want to know what happens to her?

Remember, we said that a story is a series of events with a time sequence. And plot is also a narrative of events with a time sequence - but with the emphasis on causality. In the original story of the widow we see that right at the starting point:

  • There is conflict in her life.
  • The cause of that conflict is the death of her husband.
  • The effect is that she has fallen into debt.
  • The consequences threaten to be dire – the risk of losing her sons (and therefore any future hope she might have of bringing in an income).

START WITH THE CONFLICT WHICH WILL TRIGGER YOUR THEME

Remember I asked you what you thought the Theme of this story is? You should be able to sum it up in a word or a phrase. Don’t know? The theme is Trust.

HOMEWORK

Right, that’s enough for now. Having established how your plotting should begin, take another look at your Timeline and highlight the first moment of Conflict which will trigger your Theme.

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NEXT WEEK

Having established where the story begins, we’re going to look at where it’s going and how we get there.

© Mel Menzies, September 2008

The author of a number of books, one a Sunday Times No. 4 Bestseller,
Mel is also an experienced Speaker
and has addressed live audiences of between 20 and 700+
in addition to participating in TV and Radio chat shows,
and leading Family Forums, Marriage Enrichment, and Writers' Workshops.

Her latest novel ‘A Painful Post Mortem’ may be purchased online on my books’ page, Booklocker ; or at Amazon

ALL Profits - approximately 35% of book sales - are for charity.
To book her as a Speaker, contact her at: author@melmenzies.co.uk at:

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