Starting Your Story

For over a decade now, no thanks to various set-backs, I’ve been taking notes for a book on how to write fiction (and planning a tool for organizing them).

You might ask why, when there are already so many other books like that. Well, three reasons:

  1. Many of them are either about the spiritual/lifestyle experience of writing or the business of getting published or about a very narrow field of information, like how to write horses. None of those are very helpful for who I was in high school, when I started this whole idea.
  2. Books about writing tend to fall into two categories:
    1. Books by academics, who have deep understanding, but are so focused on literary theory as it applies to analysis and criticism that it’s hard to make the leap to apply their insight to creating new works.
    2. Books by published authors who take some part of their insight for granted when it’s actually part of the reason they became skilled authtors while I needed to start this whole project. (The best teacher is one whose understanding didn’t come easily.)
  3. Those books cost money. My goal is to increase the quality and quantity of stuff out there for me to read. That means trying to help amateur/hobbyist authors improve. It’s already going to be hard enough to convince them to spend time reading my book without charging for it… especially for fanfiction authors.

So, with that said, here’s the first draft of a fragment which I don’t think needs to wait for the full book. The final version will be edited heavily to make it clearer, punchier, and less reliant on advanced vocabulary which might drive away teenage fanfiction authors, but it’s good enough for now.

Feel free to debate the correctness of any of this in the comments. If there’s something I got wrong, I want to know. If I can prove I’m right but you’re not convinced, I still want to know. It’s a draft for a reason.

That said, let’s get started.

Laying Out Your Concept

There’s a set of questions I like to ask whenever I’m preparing to write or mothball an idea, or helping a friend with one of theirs. They’re the kind of simple things that can take less than a minute if you already know what you want, but are very important to ask yourself if you don’t.

There will be no “fill out this character sheet that’s half irrelevant to your story” here. Just a few simple questions you can ask and answer… though you might still want some paper. Writing, typing out, dictating, or explaining your ideas to someone else forces your brain to think fresh thoughts instead of reusing old ones, and that helps to prevent writer’s block. (This is why you’re likely to realize the answer to a problem in the middle of asking someone else for help.)

Yes, this is a long post, but only so you understand why these questions are important and what kind of answers you should be looking for.

What’s The Raw Idea?

This one is a bit of an exception, because, unlike the others, the answer does need to be written down, but the question only needs to be asked in certain situations.

Before you do any brainstorming, it’s important to write down your idea in the purest form possible. Brainstorming or, sometimes, even trying to put an idea into words, can lead you astray and it’s important to have a solid record of that initial spark of inspiration so you can back up, refresh your memory, and try a different path if you find that the “magic” is fading.

Often, your earliest inspiration will be hazy, and mostly a feeling, so this takes a surprising amount of practice to do reliably. I’ve actually lost a couple of ideas because the emotional spark that made them special slipped through my fingers while I was trying to put them into words, but you get better with practice.

I recommend doing this in at least two stages:

First, write down the purest, rawest description possible. Don’t try to be coherent. Don’t try to make sense. Don’t try to figure out how it would work as a story… just write the first words that come to mind to describe what you’re thinking and feeling. Don’t risk losing it by thinking it through. You’re trying to make a backup of your emotional state.

Second, now that you’ve got a safety net, start writing out a more coherent version, and allow yourself to think about what will and won’t work. Do this several times if you need to… just draw out as much of the idea into written form as you can so you have a solid basis for the questions that don’t need to be written down.

Don’t be afraid to do this in as many stages as you need. You’re trying to make a backup of a spark of inspiration, not how you think it needs to be implemented, and the big hazard is dismissing something as “that’ll never work” without even noticing what you did. A good story is just as much about the emotional experience as the rational, and good writing is about thinking out of the box, so you need to know what felt so special so you can keep looking for less obvious ways to polish up and purify that experience.

What’s The Driving Conflict?

If you don’t remember high school English class, every novel, every novella, and many short stories are built around a driving conflict. The arc of the story starts with a character who was used to their situation, then something happens that shakes them out of that normalcy, and the story follows them as they do something to resolve that discomfort. In other words, a conflict can be anything that drives the character to push back and seek to change things.

People are most familiar with conflicts like “Voldemort is trying to steal the Philosopher’s Stone” or “Lex Luthor stole 40 cakes (and Superman needs to get them back)” but things like “The main character is struggling with depression” also work to motivate a story. It needs to be something where there can be a sense of resolution at the end, so the story can have an arc, but, otherwise, anything goes. Depression isn’t going to go away overnight, but seeing the light in the distance can be a triumph. What’s important is having a a problem with a resolution that motivates the main character to get up and do something, so the story can start when it begins and end when it’s resolved.

Stories don’t technically need a driving conflict (they just need to be interesting and to change enough to avoid getting stale), but our cultural upbringing trains us to expect one so strongly that, if you don’t have one, readers will cloud-watch their way to what they think the conflict is, and then be unsatisfied when you break that expectation.

In the end, it’s best to think of a driving conflict as a guide for the author, like a compass. It keeps you pointed in the right direction to make your storytelling as powerful as possible. It also lets you know when you’ve arrived and it’s time to end one volume and begin the next. (But don’t be like Diana Wynne Jones with Dark Lord of Derkholm and Year of the Griffin and forget necessary epilogues. Readers need to feel the protagonist’s success or the story will feel incomplete and, sometimes, it takes long enough from when they’ve won to when they see the results that you need that time-skip.)

One example of a driving conflict is “Character finds themself uprooted and moved to a new neighbourhood. They have to make new friends and generally find a new comfort zone in this new environment.” (And, if that sounds boring, think about this: It’s the basis for many “stranger in a strange land” stories in science fiction and fantasy. Context matters.)

You want to introduce the conflict as early as possible, because readers and editors expect you to hook them by the end of Chapter 1. That means making a first impression that accurately represents what the rest of the story will feel like.

(Authors who take their insight for granted sometimes call this “start right into the action”, not realizing that novice authors can have a very narrow definition of “action” which can ruin what would have become deep and nuanced but non-martial conflict.)

You can have a time-skip before the point where you need to have your readers hooked though. “By the end of Chapter 1” makes allowances for having a prologue or two as long as they’re not too long. (At the same time, if your “Chapter 1” is 20,000 words long, readers may just refuse to give it a chance in the first place.)

That said, you can write a story about anything, so let’s introduce an example conflict I can build on.

Suppose you want to write a story about getting a bite to eat and then getting back to a game you’re playing.

Before the story, you’re sitting in a chair, playing a game. That’s your introduction. Then, you feel hungry. That’s the conflict. You go to the kitchen and get some food. That resolves the conflict. Then, the epilogue shows how satisfied you are from actually eating the food. (Note how the conflict is resolved as soon as success is assured, and then it time-skips to the epilogue. Showing the busywork between those two points just dilutes the story but the epilogue is necessary for the satisfaction.)

What Is Your Chosen Resolution?

Once you’ve got your conflict, think about how you plan to resolve it. You don’t need a lot of detail, and there will probably be only a few possibilities and they’ll probably be obvious.

For example, if a hero is going after a villain, the hero can defeat them, the hero can fail tragically, the villain can escape to menace another day, there could be a twist that leads to the villain being redeemed, etc.

This is important for two reasons. First, it helps to reinforce the use of the driving conflict as a compass for finding your way. Second, it may reveal a problem.

If you know how your story is going to start, and you know how your story is going to end, but the conflict at the start doesn’t match the resolution at the end, then you’ve got a series on your hands, and you need to disentangle the two conflicts.

(The purpose of breaking your story into volumes is to choose where the reader will take a rest, to avoid the risk of them not resting and burning out if your story is very engaging, and to refresh their memory of details that will be important later. Professional editors require first-time authors to keep their submissions between 80,000 and 120,000 words so they have enough length to easily explore the idea in proper depth but not so much that they wear out the reader. )

Aside: Story Conflicts and Series Conflicts

When thinking about your conflict, it’s also important to understand that conflicts come in more than one type. In fact, you’re likely to see three (really more like two and a half) different kinds of conflicts in a series of novels:

First, is what I’ll call the “story” or “acute” conflict. These are conflicts where things happen quickly, and tension can be like a roller-coaster. An example would be in the first Harry Potter book, when someone is trying to steal the Philosopher’s Stone. You always need at least one of these, and they seem important, but they’re actually the weaker of the two major kinds.

Acute conflicts break down into the driving conflict for the story as a whole, which I already mentioned, and any conflicts that drive subplots, which is why I said there are two and a half kinds. However, they’re not really fundamentally different… you just use them differently.

(Subplots deserve their own post but the basic idea is that, since any realistic conflict will ebb and flow, it’s useful to have other things going on, which you can cut away to when a lull in one conflict shouldn’t cause a lull in the story and time-skipping wouldn’t give events a chance to sink in properly. You basically think about them the same way as the driving conflict, except you have to make sure they’re finished before or at the same time as the driving conflict.)

Second, the other kind of conflict: What I call “series” or “chronic” conflicts. These are conflicts which move slowly but powerfully. In the Harry Potter example, this is your “Voldemort is out there and it’s him or Harry.”

A series doesn’t need a series/chronic conflict (look at sitcoms), but it helps to tie it together into one big arc and allows you to build a different kind of attachment in the reader. A story/acute conflict will let you wind up the readers like a coiled spring… but the slow, steady movement of a series/chronic conflict can build a deeper connection.

However, a series conflict also moves slowly but powerfully inside the story’s universe… it defines the arc for something that can only be written as an epic… for those who weren’t in class that day, an “epic” is a story where a small, ordinary person winds up changing the world.

Thanks to Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Lord of the Rings, you probably think “throw the Ring into Mount Doom” when you think of a small, ordinary person changing the world… but fantasy is strongly wedded to stories with simplified morals and goals, so let’s look elsewhere.

It’s the 19th century or some equivalent, your lead character is a woman or a member of some other underclass, and you’ve tasked them with being the hero who defeats some aspect of systemic discrimination that exists in their society. That’s not something that can be done in a single acute conflict. Human power structures are just too wedded to preserving the status quo. (And it’s deeply rooted in human psychology, so you can’t just cheat by making your characters non-human. Either they think enough like humans that the same problem applies, or you’ll spend at least as much time and effort teaching your readers to relate to them.)

Once those in positions of power stop ignoring your hero, and then stop laughing them off as impotent, they will use their power to protect the system that has treated them so well. Individuals who are open-minded but happy with their lot in life won’t want to accept that the world is so much darker than they thought. People who have grown used to being helpless are likely to fear the uncertainty of suddenly being given so much agency. People who have been raised to see their victim-hood as normal are going to recoil from the emotions of having to accept that they were victimized. Society has inertia… and a lot of it.

Even if you acknowledge that fixing something like that is going to be a multi-generational effort, and your character’s triumph will be merely setting society on a new course, your character is going to need a long series of books to achieve that goal. The readers will burn out and lose interest if you just try to stretch out an acute conflict, but they still need to be carefully shown how your character is going to counteract all that inertia and make it stick… Step by step. Bit by agonizing bit. …or your story will feel either shallow and unbelievable, or impermanent… a won battle in a lost war. That is why series conflicts are needed.

It’s also important to recognize that the tension for a story can have different shapes. Harry Potter’s series conflict is an arc. Voldemort and the Death Eaters gain power throughout the books until the big climax, and then tension falls back… like a slower but more powerful version of an acute conflict. By contrast, something like Sherlock Holmes is a more or less flat sequence of acute conflicts. Yes, there’s the Reichenbach Falls bit with Moriarty, but it’s otherwise just a sequence of independent cases, each one revealing something new about Holmes’s character. (A topic for another post. Characters who grow vs. characters who you just keep learning new facets of. Holmes doesn’t grown and change, but your perception of him certainly does.)

So, with that said…

What Type Of Conflict Is It?

Another thing your high school English teacher probably taught you is the types of conflict, with names like “man against man” and “man against nature”.

You can write a story about anything… the only question is how you make it interesting, and this is where conflict types come in. They ask you to commit to focusing on a specific interpretation of your conflict so you can really make it powerful. (Because you will run into situations where you could focus on more than one interpretation of the conflict, and consistently building up the same one makes for a more effective story.)

That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have multiple meanings that are relevant to the story (In fact, it’s very satisfying to the reader if something like your story’s title does reveal itself to have multiple meanings in the context of the story.), but the distinction is easier to demonstrate than to explain.

I’m going to modify the list of types a bit, because the set you see on sites like Wikipedia is good for grouping a specific set of classical fiction based on their cultural significance, but it isn’t as useful for classifying how to think about ideas you want to write into new fiction.

First, I will be using “person(s) vs. …” instead of “man against …” because you can anthropomorphize anything (see, for example, Millicent and the Wind by Robert Munsch) and inexperienced authors don’t need “man” unnecessarily biasing their thoughts toward human characters.

Second, I will be using five categories, instead of the traditional four, because, as I hope you’ll see from my descriptions, “person(s) vs. fate” is just as fundamental as person(s) vs. person(s), self, society, and nature.

So, with that out of the way, what kinds of conflicts can we use for our “quest for a snack” idea?

Person(s) vs. Person(s)

This is what everyone thinks of first when they think of conflict. One or more protagonist characters against one or more antagonist characters. Unlike person(s) vs. society this is about antagonists who get explored as individuals acting on their own agency, instead of as agents of the values of a prevailing social norm.

Pitting a hero against a villain falls into this category and is a perfect example of everything that can go right or wrong with this kind of conflict. Bad authors tend to be drawn to the most simplistic interpretation of it, while good authors recognize how much freedom villains have to explore interesting motivations. (The only thing that truly defines a villain is their decision to achieve their goals in a way that is unacceptable to the hero and the readers who see the story from the hero’s perspective. Villains can be sympathetic or misunderstood or tragic or countless other things.)

Likewise, a protagonist doesn’t have to be a hero. Reading a story where you’re rooting for someone who isn’t exactly a “good person” is what the idea of the antihero is all about.

…but person(s) vs. person(s) doesn’t have to be martial conflict. It’s just two people or groups of people who can’t agree on a way to get what they both want, so they struggle against each other. Maybe one wins. Maybe they learn to compromise… or maybe it’s a tragedy where the protagonist isn’t the only one who fails. (Unless it’s two protagonists pitted against each other where both are “the good guy”. Then, it’s probably “person(s) vs. fate”.)

For the quest for a snack, you could go the easy route and make the antagonist one or more roommates or family members… but anything can be personified in fiction. What about a naughty pet? Maybe it’s a tragedy where the protagonist tries so hard, only for their cat to sit on their keyboard and ruin their game.

…or even better. I did say anything can be personified. Maybe your character needs some kind of assistive device which is overdue for replacement and seems to glitch out at just the wrong times in just the wrong ways, like the malfunctioning machinery that torments Donald Duck in classic Disney shorts like Tugboat Mickey and Clock Cleaners. Heck, if you’re creative enough, you could write a gripping short about a guy and his obstinate bottle opener. Go wild!

Person(s) vs. Self

Person(s) vs. self is about the protagonist being their own enemy.

Note that this doesn’t apply to stories about people with split personalities if the personalities are treated as separate characters. This is about a person struggling against themself in the purest sense. A struggle to lose weight. Overcoming depression or a phobia. These are the most obvious generic examples, but let’s look at some specific ones.

Maybe the food quest is a gripping psychological piece about fighting your own laziness or depression, driven by mounting hunger pangs and the horrifying realization that there is nothing in the house that’s quick and easy to make.

Maybe the house is dark and quiet and leaving the comforting glow of your TV or desktop computer makes you nervous… the unease growing as each half-imagined creak, groan, or rustle goads your imagination that little bit closer to panicking. (This works best if you can find an excuse to keep the lights from working without also making the TV or computer portable. Is the house being renovated?)

An example of a novel-length person vs. self conflict would be a redemption story where the character’s greatest enemy is how they cling to old familiar behaviours and beliefs.

Person(s) vs. Society

What makes person(s) vs. society distinctive is the special middle-ground it occupies, where the antagonist is made by and of people, but they have ceded their agency and authority to it until it almost becomes a force of nature. “Everyone knows they’re wrong. Why would I even question that?”

A gang of people isn’t a society, and a villain with a lot of henchmen isn’t a society. Person vs. Society happens when the people blur together, too fleeting or too minor to be “the bad guy”, and that blur becomes the antagonist… like the story of someone with mental illness pitted against the neglect of a society that doesn’t understand them.

Some of the most famous dystopian stories are person(s) vs. society stories for this reason. How are you supposed to fight or reform something as big as a society and do so when nobody wants to give up the comfort of conformity to join you?

This is also a good fit for a story where the lead is an antihero, driven by circumstance to become the villain for someone else’s story… either to fail tragically in the end at the hands of their adversary, or to end their arc in some form of mutual redemption, reborn in the struggle to set right what drove them to villainy.

Think about how interesting it could be, but how uncommon it is, to read a tragedy, where you sympathize with someone who is forced to walk the path of the “bad guy” because circumstance has dictated that they must be sacrificed for the good of society, and to set themselves against unarguably good, heroic people and plans that will help many more people. Think of the opportunity for catharsis when they have their tragic fall.

Aside: Did you notice how easily terms like “bad guy” can bias your thoughts? Not just the obvious “What if the antihero is female?”, but also the more subtle tendency to see a “guy” as probably an ordinary, everyday person belonging to whatever demographic you do. …but what can we do? There’s a conceptual difference between a “bad guy” and a “bad person”, but not all “bad guys” are “villains” either. This is why it’s important to question everything for the good of your story.

Anyway, what would person(s) vs. society look like in our food example? That’s actually a very good question. I chose an example that is very small and mundane to show how anything can be a story… something that would be difficult to stretch out into a novella, let alone a novel, and society is inherently something that lends itself best to longer stories with greater significance. A novel, if not a series. It’s genuinely difficult to think about how society could believably interfere with something as quick, simple, ordinary, and routine as going to the kitchen for some food.

The first idea that comes to mind is that maybe it’s not so quick and simple. Maybe, whatever society is doing to make it a problem is chronic. We’re not seeing an isolated incident, but instead a representative sample of a big, ongoing problem.

That has potential, but we still need to find a conflict against society that can be solved in such a contained situation. Does it still count as enough of the same concept to satisfy this demonstration if we balloon the scope up and write a “but when she got there, the cupboard was bare” story? Where the protagonist leaves their game paused, struggles to put food on the table, and then comes back to resume their play. Until now, all of these were simple ideas more suited to a long short story or short novella. It seems unsatisfying to make an exception, when all the other examples could probably be rewritten to fit this larger scope, but I suppose it could work if they are gaming, then go to work, then come home and game some more.

Person(s) vs. Nature

It might be more accurate to call this “person(s) vs. the/their environment”. Person(s) vs. Nature is all about a character struggling against a passive, uncaring environment that has no agency, and opposes them purely by existing.

Examples of this include Cast Away (2000) where Tom Hanks struggles to survive alone on a tropical island, and Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey (1993) where three animals who believe they’ve been abandoned cross the Sierra Nevada mountains to get home.

For our food example, maybe the house is cluttered… or being renovated… or you just broke your leg and you’re not used to walking on crutches… and you are upstairs while the kitchen is downstairs… and you don’t want to eat in the kitchen so you have to navigate all of the obstacles while carrying food.

Person(s) vs. Nature is traditionally thought of in the context of wilderness or the open ocean and, in the traditional literary criticism that may be true for all I know. However, as a tool for story planning, it’s about the environment passively opposing you just by existing. (You may encounter a bear, or a shark, but that animal isn’t “the antagonist”… just one piece of the “nature” that’s opposing you.)

Depending on how the story is told, a family struggling to maintain domestic normalcy in a war-torn country could count as this.

Person(s) vs. Fate

I said I’d explain why Person(s) vs. Fate is fundamental, so I’ll start with that.

What is Fate? It’s a force that doesn’t fit into any of the other categories:

  • It’s external to the character’s mind, unlike Self.
  • It’s active, unlike Nature.
  • It’s not embodied in one or more definite characters, like Person(s).
  • It’s not the collective actions and beliefs of a cultural group, like Society.

My favourite abstract example is when fate forces two people into conflict, but both are equally good or bad. Neither is “the bad guy”, and they’re not struggling against society, but something forced them into a situation where two protagonists are pitted against each other.

My favourite concrete example is a father and son who become separated. The father spends a decade losing hope that he will ever find his son, while the son spends a decade stewing in resentment over the misconception that he was abandoned… and then fate brings them together.

Both are sympathetic protagonists, but now that they’ve been brought together, the old status quo is no longer tenable. They can’t just forget about each other now that they’ve been reconnected. The son is right in feeling the hatred he does, but the father is also right in wanting to make peace. The only “villain” is fate, for separating them, keeping them separate, and guiding the son to become so emotionally invested in a perfectly reasonable misunderstanding. The story can only end in either some kind of grand sacrifice or a willingness to attempt reconciliation… and I don’t think the sacrifice would be very satisfying.

You could say that it’s almost a person(s) vs. self because they are trying to overcome their expectations and preconceptions, but not quite, because of how it isn’t just one person struggling against their own demons and it isn’t two protagonists allied against the problem. The bad guy was fate, placing their desires at odds, and then forcing them to deal with that unresolved past.

Academics agree that “man against nature” is one of the fundamental types of conflicts but omit “mang against fate”, but it’s much easier to say “Fate set up the conflict against Nature, so all ‘man against nature’ is a subset of Person(s) vs. Fate” than it is to dismiss Person(s) vs. Fate as akin to other proposed conflicts like “man against machine” or “man against God”. (Is the story casting the machine/God as a person, a force of nature, etc.? This is about how the author approaches writing them, not their cultural significance.)

That said, it’s pretty easy to intuit the difference between Person(s) vs. Nature and Person(s) vs. Fate when you compare examples of them. Just because fate crashed Tom Hanks’s plane in Cast Away (2000) doesn’t make his struggle to survive any less Person(s) vs. Nature.

(This is an important distinction. The conflict used to set up for the plot, like the plane crash in Lord of the Flies, isn’t necessarily the conflict that drives the story.)

Beavis and Butt-Head Do America (1996) would also count as a Person(s) vs. Fate. Their TV gets stolen and the conflict isn’t against the thieves. That motivates them to get up and go on an unexpectedly long journey through a collection of serendipitous events and unconnected people before finally finding their TV… it’s like Homer’s Illiad and Odyssey without Poseidon. 😛

So, how might a Person(s) vs. Fate story about getting a snack look? Well, maybe they want to just get some food and get back to their game, but new demands on their attention keep showing up now that they’ve left the solitude of their room. Murphy is out to get them, and Murphy doesn’t count as a person.

Important phone calls, family members who need help, etc. None of them are antagonists and they’re not conspiring in any way… fate just doesn’t like the main character and sets others up so their perfectly reasonable desires happen to interfere with the main character’s quest for food.

That said, I will admit this example doesn’t feel as clear and well-defined as the others. If anyone can suggest something better, please do.

When And Where Does It Start?

On an intuitive level, readers assign a lot of importance to a story having self-contained causality. That is, it shouldn’t feel like the author is reaching in and meddling after events have started. (In the theology of the narrative process, readers are deist, not theist.)

(This has important implications for all kinds of fiction, such as how you should aim for it to feel like all events are caused by characters. As an example, David Weber is particularly good at this and it allows him to pull off stuff which would seem contrived if you hadn’t seen how it came about from ordinary people acting in realistic ways. For an example of making even the most serendipitous things feel character-caused instead of author-caused, I suggest reading his book, Oath of Swords. Pay attention to how the ambush scene is set up.)

This becomes most visibly important in Alternate History stories and fanfiction. If you’re starting from a chronology your readers already know, then they will allow you one free “poke from the finger of God” at the beginning of the story, and everything else should appear to ripple out from that.

It doesn’t have to happen during your story (eg. It could happen thousands of years ago in a prologue), but it’s important for the readers to feel that everything has a solid, internally consistent causality, even if they can’t quite tell how event A caused event B.

This means that you can’t just say “chaos theory” and do whatever you want. Readers aren’t looking for actual causal connections, but a feeling that they exist… and, because they never truly forget that you’re pulling the strings, they’ll hold you to a higher standard of consistency than reality. (This is where that “truth is stranger than fiction” line comes from. We recognize that fiction is written by a human mind with the goal of telling a story, and we judge it based on that.)

Just like knowing your driving conflict and your chosen resolution, knowing your divergence event in an Alternate History story or fanfic will help you to stay on track.

As you might suspect, this is also one reason it’s so difficult to write a multi-cross (a fanfic combining elements from more than two source works). Your one “touched by the hand of Author” event gets the first two series to meet… but it’s much harder to find a reason for more to join in when they never crossed paths in canon. (The other reason it’s difficult is that, the more characters you mix in, the more difficult it is to give each one enough attention and the more it feels like you’re not doing the source material justice by cherry-picking what you do have time for.)

This is also why you can’t just arbitrarily borrow jargon, like using “Virtual Intelligence” outside a Mass Effect fanfic or calling your reactionless engines “impulse drive” outside of Star Trek. It’s too implausible for those terms to be chosen independently in two different series, so the reader applies Occam’s Razor and lands on the immersion-breaking answer that you, the author, were being lazy. (In the case of VI and AI, it’s implausible because no other franchise uses it and, in real life, we already have completely unrelated terminology that we use instead… “weak AI”, “narrow AI”, “control program”, or “expert system” versus “strong AI”, “general AI”, “AGI” (Artificial General Intelligence), or even “ASI” (Artificial Superintelligence) for AIs that are to us as we are to animals.

Let’s look at an example. Suppose you’re writing an alternate history story where U.S. foreign policy didn’t change course after FDR’s death. Even if you don’t show how everything connects, it’s important to understand the connections well enough that, if your editor or beta reader asks, you can explain your reasoning to them.

You don’t have to be certain (who can be in alternate history?), but you do have to be plausible. You don’t have to be shackled to reality, but you do have to write something that feels like it was set in motion and then left to run without the intervention of deus ex machina, overt or otherwise. You can still use things that might be judged dei ex machina, like the ending of Lord of the Flies, but you want them to feel merely unlikely… not an author reaching in and meddling with the story’s universe after it has started to run. Knowing your divergence event helps here.

Aside: The Two Kinds of “Starting”

Think back to that mention of a prologue and a divergence a thousand years in the past for a moment. This brings up the question of which kind of start we’re asking about.

Do we mean “When does the first important event happen?” or “Where does the story’s first scene take place?” …and how do prologues, time-skips, and flashbacks fit into it?

The more you think about it, the more you realize how important distinguishing the different kinds of “starting” is to that poorly phrased “start right into the action”. You don’t want to spend pages and pages setting up for “the good stuff”, but there’s a lot that probably happens to make “the good stuff” come to pass.

How much can you skip and then reference later as it becomes important? Would a prologue allow you to show the event that touches it all off, skip the build-up, and then start into the results? The better you understand “what your story is about”, the better you understand what to show, what to skip, and how to pace your story.

As for flashbacks, “When in doubt, don’t use them”. Good writing hooks the reader, but a hooked reader generally wants to see what happens next. For a flashback to work, you have to prepare the reader to care, not about what happens next, but what will be revealed next. For example, hooking the reader on the mystery of why a character is so different from what the reader expected them to be.

If you fail to achieve this, they’ll be chomping at the bit for the flashback to end so they can get to what they want to see. Good writing always primes the reader to care just as much about both choices when you cut away from one thing to another to let anticipation build, and jumping back in time makes that much more difficult because of our intuitive sense for causality and urgency.

In the end, it’s your story, but asking yourself these questions and making sure you have good answers will go a long way toward making your writing better. …and making it easier to bring in a friend or family member for a second opinion. This “User’s Manual” may be long but, once you’ve got the idea, this is just half a dozen questions you could fit on a sticky note. Make sure you can answer them to your own satisfaction, and writing will be easier and produce better results.

CC BY-SA 4.0 Starting Your Story by Stephan Sokolow is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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