The following is a compilation of ideas I’ve had recently about how to write effective opening scenes for a novel or short story. The usual caveats apply: I’m an idiot, this is not a secret formula, a great writer can make anything work, etc. Use, ignore or argue with at your leisure.
Is The War of Art really a craft book? Maybe not by any reasonable definition, but it does cover a topic of great interest to many budding authors: if I want to write, how come I rarely actually write anything? If this question sounds absurd to you, you’ve obviously never spent much time on writer’s forums, where variants of it come up over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over again. See, with a little practice, anyone can figure out how to cut an adverb or cliché, but when it comes to the thorny issue of motivation, there are no easy answers–at least until now.
I read this book at the request of a friend who had heard rave reviews from various media outlets proclaiming it to be the greatest thing since spellcheck (perhaps the fact that he was too lazy to read it himself speaks volumes as to whether or not he needs it). Impressed by the blurbs, I put it on my Kindle and ended up consuming it over the course of a couple hours (it’s not that engaging, but it is very short). What I found was a pretty good self-help guide, mixed with a good smattering of nonsensical blather, especially in the final third. Read on for details.
It’s an oft-repeated maxim in writing that good ideas are overrated: a good writer can make a good book out of an awful idea, and conversely, a bad writer will take a great idea and usually turn it an awful book. A common story, first brought to my attention by Brandon Sanderson, tells the origin of Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series. To quote Wikipedia:
The inspiration for the series came from a bet Jim was challenged to by a member of the Delray Online Writer’s Workshop. The challenger bet that Jim could not write a good story based on a lame idea, and Jim countered that he could do it using two lame ideas of the challenger’s choosing. The “lame” ideas given were “Lost Roman Legion”, and “Pokémon”.
The moral of the story, aside from “don’t make bets with Jim Butcher ‘cuz he really takes that shit seriously,” is: don’t spend too much time worrying about whether your ideas are good or not, when you could be using that time to write (and thus becoming a better writer in the process).
Chuck Wendig’s 250 Things You Should Know About Writing will always hold a bit of nostalgia for me. I was around a third of the way through my first novel when I stumbled across it on Amazon, and at the time I had never read anything about how to write–actually, it had never occurred to me that such books could exist. What clinched the deal was the price, 99 cents, and the pitch, which reads (in part): “Contained within are things you should know about plot holes, self-publishing versus legacy publishing, “on-the-nose” dialogue, story versus plot, metaphors, copy-editing, killing darlings with a claw hammer, cursing like an undead pirate, and generally being a cranky and irreverent creative type.”
The following is a cleaned-up version of my personal notes on how to create characters. Any discussions or suggestions of things I missed are welcomed.
Why think about character construction?
No two authors create characters the same way. Often characters are created intuitively, seemingly popping into our heads fully-formed. Sometimes they may be based on real people, either whole or as an amalgamation of several individuals.
But other times, an author may be held back from creating great stories by their inability to imagine new characters. This is seen most often when an author falls into the trap of creating a cast of characters who are all essentially the same person with different ages, genders, races, etc. Other times, an author may have a “stock set” of characters that they deploy for every story, and as a result every story they write is at heart just a copy of the previous one (although some authors have actually made lucrative careers doing this).