Changing styles?

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Thread: Changing styles?

  1. #1
    Member wannabe1's Avatar
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    May 2010
    New York & LA

    Changing styles?

    I've been reading for a very long time and writing for more than thirty years.

    Older stories always seem to begin with enough background information meant (I guess) to entice the reader. New stories seem always to jump right into the action. Then, as the story goes on, background information is inserted as needed.

    So, what's the right way to begin a story?

  2. #2
    Strictly linear stories have been passe for more than a decade now.
    Nowadays most stories mix it up.
    This is simply because story-telling, like anything else, is continually evolving.

  3. #3
    Member Fiender's Avatar
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    Jan 2020
    Rochester, New York
    Generally, I think looking for the "right" way to start a story is kind of going about it wrong. Maybe think of it this way:
    I feel that, these days, readers tend to be more genre and trope savvy. Starting a reader off 'slowly' without giving them an emotional or plot hook right away is going to cause a lot of people (myself included) to put a book down. It doesn't help that we've no shortage of books and other media constantly clamoring for our attention.

    Now, I'm not sure which "older stories" you're referring to, nor exactly what you mean by providing background information. Even among the older books I've read, I don't recall anything starting with the literary equivalent of a manual. But even today, stories don't need to start with action, per se, they just need to start with some kind of conflict. One of the writing books/youtube seminars I've consumed said that we need a hint of something not being normal for the characters, a hint of intrigue or even menace to pull the reader in, even if that sample is not part of the primary conflict of the story.

  4. #4
    Most literary agents will suggest that stories start in the middle of the action (in media res) because readers tend to have shorter attention spans than in years past and starting in the middle of some sort of action as opposed to looking out of a window eating breakfast is more likely to pull the reader in.

    It's a difficult thing to generalize, though, not least because different genres have different meanings of what constitutes 'in the middle of the action'. A romance might start with a young woman sitting in a college class, depending on what happens in that college class -- say, if she notices some good-looking guy or argues with her professor or whatever, it could still constitute being 'in the middle of the action'. If she's just sitting there, not doing or saying or revealing anything important, though, then that's probably not going to work.

    All scenes need to move, IMO. It's not good enough to have twenty pages of opener describing some cliffs in the manner of Thomas Hardy. There has to be a sense of movement, some sense of change from scene to scene, and that includes the beginning.
    Last edited by luckyscars; February 12th, 2020 at 09:33 AM.

  5. #5
    Member hvysmker's Avatar
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    I sometimes begin with an action flashback, but usually change it on the first rewrite.

    I guess the answer depends on the story. Action is always good. Showing a conflict might entice readers.

    Maybe something strange or interesting in the background description? "Karen was caught by surprise while removing her bra, a large mouse falling to the floor." Now, I ask you, who wouldn't be interested?

  6. #6
    Member wannabe1's Avatar
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    May 2010
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    Okay, I'm still a little confused. I get the idea that many stories begin in the middle and then needed background is added as the story progresses. I've been in the habit of attempting to begin my stories with some information about the main characters as well as some idea about where the story is going to go. I'm pasting the beginning of a story (about 1,000 words) I'm working on below. I expect this novel to end up at close to 100,000 words. Please let me know if you think it has too much background or an okay amount or is just plain bad. Thanks in advance.

    The couple relaxed in their living room, sharing the Sunday paper when the house phone began ringing. As Craig glanced over, Erin stood up, walked to the small table near the kitchen and picked up the old black, corded, rotary dial handset. It was a relic from the distant past that, for some unspoken reason, neither of them wanted to give up. Erin listened quietly for several minutes and then said one word, ‘yes’. She came back to the couch and stretched out, without explaining what the call was about or whom it was from. As she brushed a bit of her long blond hair from in front of her eyes, a thoughtful look formed on her face. She made a point of not making eye contact with her husband.

    “Who was that?” Craig asked his wife, unable to contain his curiosity, while reaching for his coffee in an effort to appear unconcerned.

    “My boss. He had an interesting call and offered me, us a job.”

    “I thought you were taking some time off.”

    “Yeah, well this assignment is too fascinating to pass up.”

    Craig put his favorite old ceramic coffee cup and the day’s paper down as he turned to fully face Erin. “Where are we going now?” He asked, not thrilled with the prospect of another mysterious adventure.

    “China,” Erin let the single word hang in the air.

    “Really? I didn’t know you had any interest in Asian history.”

    “I don’t, in fact, I’ve never been to China or any other country in that part of the world. What about you?”

    “Only a long time ago, when I was in the army.”

    “Really? You never told me.”

    “As I recall, it wasn’t very exciting. Just some training stuff in South Korea. I was only there for a year and then got reassigned. It was the year after that I decided to move over to the CIA. All I really remember is that the food wasn’t very good.”

    “Oh Craig, you never like the food anywhere we go. I was afraid you were going to lose a lot of weight when we were in Peru. You always made an awful face at any dish put in front of you.”

    “That’s not true, I loved the food when we were in Turkey. It was stuff like the guinea pig, they offered in Cusco, that was not very … ah … appetizing.”

    “Oh, come on, there were lots of ‘normal’ choices always available,” Erin protested with an easy laugh.

    Craig shook his head, dismissing the conversation. “Anyway, what’s this new assignment all about?”

    “Something about a new discovery in Xian.”

    “Never heard of it.”

    “It’s a very famous area. A bit more than forty years ago, some farmers discovered a site that was lost to history for almost two-thousand years. The farmers were sinking a water well and accidentally discovered some curious items. The person that owned the property reported the event to the local authorities and they decided to investigate. Ultimately, a very large man-made cave system was discovered. It’s sort of a tomb and contains more than seven-thousand life-sized terracotta soldiers. No two of them, especially their faces, are exactly the same. It’s supposed to be a marvelous place to visit, drawing hundreds of thousands of tourists every year.”

    “If it’s been a known site for so long, it must have been examined pretty thoroughly by now. What’s your assignment going to be?”

    “A local team of archeologists and anthropologists have discovered a whole new area of caves. They’ve just begun their excavations and have already made several exciting discoveries.”

    “If there’s a team already working there, why do they need you?”

    “Do you remember Dave Rabanow? He was one of the graduate students that worked with us, years ago, on the excavation at Ephesus, Turkey.”

    “Yeah, as I recall, he was a big guy. He was always ready, willing and able to do any heavy lifting. Although, he struck me as being more interested in one of the female members of the team. I think her name was Melissa.”

    “Good memory. In fact, they’re married now. Anyway, they were on vacation in China and decided to visit the old city of Xian and the area where the Terracotta Warriors were discovered. Apparently, they overheard a discussion about a new discovery and ended up getting involved in the investigation.”

    “So, why are you, we getting involved?”

    “A couple of reasons. First, they’ve discovered some very old texts that they are having a lot of trouble translating. One of the local archeologists is convinced the manuscripts are based on an ancient Middle-Eastern language. No one on the local team has any background with the dialect, or even the alphabet, so they need someone that does. Dave suggested they get in touch with the museum and that’s why I got that call this morning.”

    “Okay, that makes sense. What else?” Craig asked, sensing there was more to the story.

    “Well, that’s a little more complicated. Apparently, the archeologists don’t get along very well with the authorities. A large group of the local people are opposed to any more excavations. They claim all the tourists are interfering with their lives. They crowd the roads and have led to a lot of new commerce that competes with local businesses. The police are apparently more sympathetic to the people than to the archeologists. Anyway, the head archeologist, a woman named Martha Huáng, wants to find someone to translate the old texts and to find another way to protect the new excavation.”


    “Yeah, apparently, it’s very common for the Chinese, that interact with foreigners, to select an English first name. They think it makes conversation with ‘Westerners’ much more personal.”

    “And what’s the story about ‘another way to protect the new excavation’?” Craig asked, repeating Erin’s statement.

    “Well, since the authorities are on the side of the locals, they aren’t offering much assistance to the archeologists.”

    “Why? Have there been any confrontations?”

    “Not yet. But, from what my boss told me, Martha is very concerned.”

    “So, I’m supposed to be a one-man protector?” Craig asked, reluctance clear in his voice.

    “Well, Dave told Martha about your background and she thinks it would be a good idea to have you around, just in case.”

    “Just in Case?” Craig repeated.
    Last edited by wannabe1; February 12th, 2020 at 09:40 PM.

  7. #7
    Primarily a short story author, (and not necessarily by choice), I find that I my first sentence had better be pretty powerful. If it's not, then maybe the second sentence. If not that one, then the first paragraph had better rock. If, by then, I haven't come up with a hook, it's time to revisit the whole idea and see if it's even worth salvaging.

  8. #8
    As far as I know, people like different starts. I like your start -- you start with action (the phone rings) and you keep going. I can see how it would get the story moving and interest the reader.

    For me, it has far too much boring, irrelevant detail right at the start. "The couple relaxed in their living room." I'm bored. Is this even relevant? What if they weren't relaxing, what if they were, say, discussing dinner or reading the newspaper. It would still be the same story. I think you would do with fewer words. Maybe you want more detail than me (probably everyone does.) But:

    The house phone rang. Erin answered the old black, corded, rotary dial handset. She listened quietly for several minutes and then said ‘yes’.

    She came back to the couch, stretched out, and waited for Craig to ask what the call was about.

    Did I miss anything the reader needs to know? You then have a somewhat-long, off-topic discussion.
    Useful information you can't find anywhere else. Hidden Content s Hidden Content

  9. #9
    Quote Originally Posted by wannabe1 View Post
    Okay, I'm still a little confused. I get the idea that many stories begin in the middle and then needed background is added as the story progresses.
    I wouldn't personally think of it as 'the story begins in the middle'. The story begins when it begins. What I prefer is to try to think of the story's beginning as being as close to the ending as possible - Mark Twain quote.

    I realize that sounds confusing, but think of it like this: The story should be about a journey to something, whether that's an actual place or an emotional one, doesn't matter. If your story is about a nobody character becoming a superhero and defeating the Evil Emperor Zurg, when should you start that story? You probably start it around the moment the chain of events begin that lead him to fulfilling his/her destiny.

    So, like, in Harry Potter, the novel begins when Harry is a baby and is dropped off at his Aunt and Uncle's house. This is the correct place for it to start - no earlier and no later - because without the information contained in that segment the rest of the story makes no sense. You could start the book at the hospital or wherever where Harry is actually born, but you don't, because there would be nothing in that which is relevant to the rest of the book.

    You could also wipe that scene completely and have the story start when Harry arrives at Hogwarts, but then you would lose all the information regarding his background that becomes so deeply relevant to the prophecy that anchors the story. It would not make sense how he got there, or why he is important.

    Ergo: The first scene of Harry Potter is the correct place, because it reveals what is needed to be known for the rest of the story to make sense. The basic theme of the story, its emotional register, its world, needs to be made clear within the first few pages, if not the first few lines.

    In the extract you provided I think you do this OK, though its kind of hard to tell out of context. We do learn things about the characters and who they are. Whether these things are incredibly relevant to the rest of the story is up to you. I will say I wasn't immediately struck to read on because I found the dialogue a little ho-hum, but I may not be your target audience.

  10. #10
    I think what you've posted is just fine. Writing advice is good to keep in mind but also good to just write it the way it comes to you and leave the polishing for later. You can always go back and fiddle with the details after you get a solid rough draft down.

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