Sunday, July 17, 2011

Writing the beginning of your story

I got an email in my inbox this morning from someone who had been reading my work ever since I was drawing Blue Zombie. I don't really have permission to divulge everything that was brought up in the email he sent, but this snippet should explain everything:

"I need help with [the beginning of my webcomic], and was wondering if I pitched my story to you sometime, you could suggest a good way to open it up? I can get everything else to work just fine(action scenes, the works) but i'm just pulling my hair out trying to figure out how to open it up!"

And, of course, me being me, I wrote a huge response about things he should consider when starting his story and how to approach going about it and even examples of TV shows, comics and video games that have done it very well.

And then, right when I was about to hit that "Send" button, I thought "Hey, this would make a good blog post!"

Now, before I begin, I will say that while much of what I have written in this post is truthful, it doesn't necessarily mean that I followed all of the advice myself. Much of Blue Zombie and Lumia's Kingdom (...well...okay, MOST of it) is made up as I go along. But while I might not be the shining example of the practical application of what's written here, there are several thousand examples that do take this path and shine brighter than anything I could ever write.

So without further ado...

When writing the beginning of your story, be it a novel, a comic, an animation or even a character-driven video game, your first goal is to hook your audience as quickly as possible. These are some (but not all) of the things you will want to consider in order to effectively pull this off:
  • The mood you want to convey
  • Past/future events in your storyline
  • How you intend to develop your character
  • The current social climate of your character's world

The mood you want to convey
The beginning of your story is what will ideally hook people into sticking with you. With that in mind, you should try very hard to give a good idea of the mood you wish to convey relatively early on. When you choose to do it is up to you; you don't have to convey the mood right from the get-go, but I don't think it would be very wise to switch your story from super serious in the beginning to slap-stick mid way through the entire plot.

Is your story humorous? Then it might be best to lead in to a funny or silly situation. It could start off super serious for the first few minutes/pages, but then have a really wild and hilarious twist that makes your audience roll in the aisle with laughter.

Or perhaps it's not funny at all; perhaps it's super dark and very gruesome. To illustrate the contrast, you could show something beautiful and bright, showing what the world could have or used to be like and then segue into a dark, rainy world where hope is hanging on by a thread.

A good example of this is the beginning of Shaenon Garrity's webcomic Skin Horse. The first two panels of the comic explain the situation our heroes are facing; they're in the Washington D.C. National Zoo facing down a genetically altered African lion that has escaped from its enclosure. There appears to be a person standing fearlessly a few feet in front of the lion. He mentions that there's a sniper on the roof poised to shoot the lion a moment's notice. How does this sound to the reader? Dangerous? Yes. Intriguing? Heck yes. How did the lion get loose? How is it genetically altered? We want to know.

And what do the next panels show us? We focus on that person standing in front of the lion. It's a man with a folding chair. Huh. Why does he have a folding chair? Why not a club or a katana or a rifle? And he's wearing women's clothing?? What kind of guy is this??

Finally, we get to the last panel. This man, who has been thinking to himself the entire strip, lets us know that despite the seriousness of the situation, everything is under control. Confidently, he reveals his title to us: "I'm a psychologist."

Why is a cross dressing psychologist facing down a genetically altered lion in the nation's capital? I don't know, but I do know that the story is extremely silly and that this man, whoever he is, is confident in his ability to bring a stop to the chaos and is willing to do so dressed in a skirt and some high heals. At this point, the reader can decide for themselves whether this story is their cup of tea. As for me...well, I'm game :)

Starting with the past or the future
One way to start the story is to start off with a flashback or show events further ahead to in the series and then segue into past to show how everything unfolded up to that point. This provides a bit of intrigue for the audience; they're given a glimpse of what has happened or will happen and they will want to see how it effects or is effected by what's going on in the story now.

Take Joss Whedon's sci-fi series Firefly; the beginning starts off with a massive fire fight between two opposing forces on the planet Serenity. We're introduced to our valiant hero Malcom Reynolds as he tries to rally the troops and stand up to the Federation. He has his partner radio for aerial support only to find out that his side has given up the fight. We pull away in slow motion as the federation bombs his troops to death and see despair and hopelessness in Malcom's eyes.

And now we're in the present--we are plucked from the battlefield and presented with Mal and his (new?) crew several years later. Who lived through the ordeal? What are they doing now? How have they changed since the events that have taken place on Serenity? I want to know.

How you intend to develop your character
Regardless of if you've given your audience a glimpse of what your character was like or what they're going to be like in the future, you'll need to plot out how your character develops as time goes on. Are they going to become incredibly strong throughout the course of the story? Then they should start off relatively weak or put in a position where they have trouble fending off the opposition. Or perhaps they're already strong, but need to fall in love or become compassionate. Then they should start off refusing to get attached to people. Maybe they find skillful ways of avoiding interactions and commitment, or maybe their a bit of a hard-ass who simply tip their hat and walk away from people's problems.

Okay, bare with me for a moment, because the freshest thing I can think of right now is the first episode of the rebooted My Little Pony series. In the beginning, the main character is a pony named Twilight who seems to prefer the company of library books to dealing with other ponies. Her behavior has proved to be quite useful, though; through reading the books, she learns of dark prophecy that could prove to be disastrous to all of Equestria if not brought to the attention of those in charge. Despite her efforts, though, the prophecy is brushed off by her superiors and she's sent to another village to prepare for a ceremony. There, she meets up with several other interesting ponies who, against her will, try to befriend her. She struggles to deal with learning about friendship just as the events of the prophecy manifest and their darkest fears are realized.

The episode ends on a cliffhanger. What will happen to Twilight? Will she put her issues aside to band together with her new "friends" and save Equestria? Do you even care? I do, and apparently so do millions other people.

The current social climate of your character's world
The character and the mood aren't the only thing that are important to beginning of the story. It would also benefit to give a glimpse into the social climate of the world we're looking at. What are the people most concerned about? What makes them happy? What makes them sad? Are they thriving or are they dying and why?

One of my favorite video games of all time is Michel Ancel's sci-fi action-adventure game Beyond Good and Evil. Starting a new game opens up with a news reporter immediately talking about an alien race referred to as the Domz attacking a faraway planet called Hillys. From there, we're given the image of a what appears to be a relatively quiet planet and a strange object comes rocketing towards it at high speeds. Then, we're taken to a rather pleasant scene where our main character Jade and her orphan companion are peacefully practicing meditation under a tree. As Jade opens her eyes, we see the sky turn dark as the alien object enters the atmosphere.

What's Jade's response? Contrary to what we may think, it's not "What's going on? Why did the sky go black??" Instead, she says "They're coming!" She, and the rest of the world, already know who "they" are. And she knows enough to gather up the orphans and take cover. Whoever is coming, the people of Hillys are scared of them and know to run away when "they" arrive.

In summary...
These are just a few of the things you should think about as you start writing the beginning of your story. There are, of course, several more aspects that that you could and should take into consideration, but for the sake of brevity, I will simply end the my list here. As I stated before, the goal here is to try to hook your audience as quick as possible. The results will vary and the each medium will have a different set of expectations associated with it. But regardless, there is one definitive fact that holds true to them all; if it takes you more than an hour or several hundred pages to describe the setup of your story and/or introduce your characters, then I'm going to take my attention and time elsewhere.

If anyone has any other suggestions on how to go about starting a story, want to talk about what's written here or simply have a question, feel free to leave a comment below.

No comments: