What to do.

Write your own story beginning.  Analyze the examples, and determine what you want to accomplish with your beginning. Always strive to engage the reader.  Do you want to do that in narrative or in scene? Do you want to describe or create action that reveals? You’ll need to have your prose at a level where momentum, mystery, and heightened awareness are seamlessly embedded.  Some authors like to provide the ending, of course not recognizable until the end, in the beginning.  300 word limit.

Some traditional rules for beginnings.

  1. Set the tone of the piece, establish voice, and establish a “contract” with the reader as to expect with narration: first person, third person singular, third person multiple (omniscient, to some), and the validity of the narrator.
  2. Establish who, what, when, where.
  3. Avoid narrative description in favor of in scene action.  Engage the reader rather than tell the reader the past or use extensive narrative description.  Clearly let the reader know what the story is about.
  4. Start characterization with first sentence.  Use action, internalization,
  5. Usually, don’t start with dialogue in opening sentence; it may delay high priority information needed to engage the reader.
  6. Don’t try to tell the entire story.
  7. Avoid: back story, past perfect tense, passive constructions, treading water (get to the story).

Read the samples of various beginnings, some traditional, some contemporary, and see which you think are most effective and why.  There is wide variance in effect and skill in the samples, and the reader responses to value will be highly individual. Therefore, use the why to guide you in your own work.  Be careful.  You will not create a great beginning by copying someone else.  Great writing, including beginnings, comes from intellect, knowledge, and experience in life as well as writing and storytelling.  Create your style, and don’t copy.

SAMPLE BEGINNINGS FOR STUDY


The Masque of the Red Death

Edgar Allen Poe

THE “Red Death” had long devastated the country. No pestilence had ever been so fatal, or so hideous. Blood was its Avatar and its seal — the redness and the horror of blood. There were sharp pains, and sudden dizziness, and then profuse bleeding at the pores, with dissolution. The scarlet stains upon the body and especially upon the face of the victim, were the pest ban which shut him out from the aid and from the sympathy of his fellow-men. And the whole seizure, progress and termination of the disease, were the incidents of half an hour.

 


PRIDE AND PREJUDICE

Jane Austen

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.  However little known the feelings or views of such a man may be on his first entering a neighbourhood, this truth is so well fixed in the minds of the surrounding families, that he is considered the rightful property of some one or other of their daughters.

“My dear Mr. Bennet,” said his lady to him one day, “have you heard that Netherfield Park is let at last?”

Mr. Bennet replied that he had not.

“But it is,” returned she; “for Mrs. Long has just been here, and she told me all about it.”

Mr. Bennet made no answer.

“Do you not want to know who has taken it?” cried his wife impatiently.

“You want to tell me, and I have no objection to hearing it.”

This was invitation enough.

“Why, my dear, you must know, Mrs. Long says that Netherfield is taken by a young man of large fortune from the north of England; that he came down on Monday in a chaise and four to see the place, and was so much delighted with it, that he agreed with Mr. Morris immediately; that he is to take possession before Michaelmas, and some of his servants are to be in the house by the end of next week.”

“What is his name?”

“Bingley.”

“Is he married or single?”

“Oh! Single, my dear, to be sure! A single man of large fortune; four or five thousand a year. What a fine thing for our girls!”

http://www.gutenberg.org/catalog/world/readfile?fk_files=2121217


WUTHERING HEIGHTS

Emily Bronte

1801. I have just returned from a visit to my landlord–the solitary neighbour that I shall be troubled with.  This is certainly a beautiful country!  In all England, I do not believe that I could have fixed on a situation so completely removed from the stir of society.  A perfect misanthropist’s heaven: and Mr. Heathcliff and I are such a suitable pair to divide the desolation between us.  A capital fellow!  He little imagined how my heart warmed towards him when I beheld his black eyes withdraw so suspiciously under their brows, as I rode up, and when his fingers sheltered themselves, with a jealous resolution, still further in his waistcoat, as I announced my name.

http://www.gutenberg.org/catalog/world/readfile?fk_files=1832855


Moby Dick

Herman Melville

Call me Ishmael. Some years ago—never mind how long precisely—having little or no money in my purse, and nothing particular to interest me on shore, I thought I would sail about a little and see the watery part of the world. It is a way I have of driving off the spleen and regulating the circulation. Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul; whenever I find myself involuntarily pausing before coffin warehouses, and bringing up the rear of every funeral I meet; and especially whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me, that it requires a strong moral principle to prevent me from deliberately stepping into the street, and methodically knocking people’s hats off—then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can. This is my substitute for pistol and ball. With a philosophical flourish Cato throws himself upon his sword; I quietly take to the ship. There is nothing surprising in this. If they but knew it, almost all men in their degree, some time or other, cherish very nearly the same feelings towards the ocean with me.

http://www.gutenberg.org/files/2701/2701-h/2701-h.htm#2HCH0001


Tessa Hadley

The New Yorker

June 6, 2011

Clever Girl

My stepfather wasn’t a big man, not much taller than my mother.  He was lithe and light on his feet, handsome, with velvety dark brows, a sensual mouth, and jet-black hair in a crewcut as thick and soft as the pelt of an animal (not that I ever touched it, though sometimes, out of curiosity, I wanted to).  His face was one of those whose features seem compacted, as if under pressure within a frame.  He was energetic, intelligent, diligent, faithful—a stroke of luck for my mother, a lightening bolt of luck that had illuminated her grinding, narrow future and transformed it.  They’d met at work, at the Board Mill, where the packets for Wills cigarettes were made; he was the manager of cost accounting.  It was a real love, much more than she could have hoped for, past her first youth and with a half-grown daughter as part of the package.


Barn Burning

William Faulkner

The store in which the justice of the Peace’s court was sitting smelled of cheese. The boy, crouched on his nail keg at the back of the crowded room, knew he smelled cheese, and more: from where he sat he could see the ranked shelves close-packed with the solid, squat, dynamic shapes of tin cans whose labels his stomach read, not from the lettering which meant nothing to his mind but from the scarlet devils and the silver curve of fish – this, the cheese which he knew he smelled and the hermetic meat which his intestines believed he smelled coming in intermittent gusts momentary and brief between the other constant one, the smell and sense just a little of fear because mostly of despair and grief, the old fierce pull of blood. He could not see the table where the Justice sat and before which his father and his father’s enemy (our enemy he thought in that despair; ourn! mine and hisn both! He’s my father!) stood, but he could hear them, the two of them that is, because his father had said no word yet:

“But what proof have you, Mr. Harris?”

“I told you. The hog got into my corn. I caught it up and sent it back to him. He had no fence that would hold it. I told him so, warned him. The next time I put the hog in my pen. When he came to get it I gave him enough wire to patch up his pen. The next time I put the hog up and kept it. I rode down to his house and saw the wire I gave him still rolled on to the spool in his yard. I told him he could have the hog when he paid me a dollar pound fee. That evening a nigger came with the dollar and got the hog. He was a strange nigger. He said, ‘He say to tell you wood and hay kin burn.’ I said, ‘What?’ ‘That whut he say to tell you,’ the nigger said. ‘Wood and hay kin burn.’ That night my barn burned. I got the stock out but I lost the barn.”

http://www.rajuabju.com/literature/barnburning.htm


HEART OF DARKNESS

Joseph Conrad

The Nellie, a cruising yawl, swung to her anchor without a flutter of the sails, and was at rest. The flood had made, the wind was nearly calm, and being bound down the river, the only thing for it was to come to and wait for the turn of the tide.

The sea-reach of the Thames stretched before us like the beginning of an interminable waterway. In the offing the sea and the sky were welded together without a joint, and in the luminous space the tanned sails of the barges drifting up with the tide seemed to stand still in red clusters of canvas sharply peaked, with gleams of varnished sprits. A haze rested on the low shores that ran out to sea in vanishing flatness. The air was dark above Gravesend, and farther back still seemed condensed into a mournful gloom, brooding motionless over the biggest, and the greatest, town on earth.

The Director of Companies was our captain and our host. We four affectionately watched his back as he stood in the bows looking to seaward. On the whole river there was nothing that looked half so nautical. He resembled a pilot, which to a seaman is trustworthiness personified. It was difficult to realize his work was not out there in the luminous estuary, but behind him, within the brooding gloom.

http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/526/pg526.html


MISERY

Anton Chekhov

THE twilight of evening. Big flakes of wet snow are whirling lazily about the street lamps, which have just been lighted, and lying in a thin soft layer on roofs, horses’ backs, shoulders, caps. Iona Potapov, the sledge-driver, is all white like a ghost. He sits on the box without stirring, bent as double as the living body can be bent. If a regular snowdrift fell on him it seems as though even then he would not think it necessary to shake it off. . . . His little mare is white and motionless too. Her stillness, the angularity of her lines, and the stick-like straightness of her legs make her look like a halfpenny gingerbread horse. She is probably lost in thought. Anyone who has been torn away from the plough, from the familiar gray landscapes, and cast into this slough, full of monstrous lights, of unceasing uproar and hurrying people, is bound to think.

http://www.ibiblio.org/eldritch/ac/jr/045.htm


Lauren Groff

The New Yorker

June 13 & 20, 2011

Above and Below

She’d been kept awake all night by the palm berries clattering on the roof, and when she woke too the sun blazing through the window she’d had enough.  Goodbye to all that!  She sang, moving the little she owned in the station wagon: her ex-boyfriend’s guitar, the camping equipment they’d bought the first year of grad school (their single night on the Suwannee, they were petrified by the bellows of bull gators), a crate of books.  Goodbye to the hundreds of others she was leaving stacked against the wall: Worthless, the man had told her when she tries to sell them.

Goodbye to the glass mountain of debt she was slithering out from underneath.  Goodbye to the hunter-orange eviction notice.  Goodbye to longing.  She would be empty now, having chosen to lose.

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300 word limit


   Work submissions for Assignment 4: Beginning

The way that her curly hair stuck out in all different directions made it so that people knew without a doubt Margaret was batshit crazy. She had been talking with her friend Eliza,

“He had three brothers, I swear,” Margaret said thinking back.

“Nah,” Eliza argued, “Only two, he only ever had two brothers.” Eliza was so certain that she had to agree to disagree, meanwhile, Margaret went on about his three brothers. Eliza kept her mouth shut it was very dangerous to disagree with her friend.

“What ever happened to him? or his brothers?” Margaret went on.

“I don’t know,” Eliza admitted.

Margaret had finally stopped talking when, the very him, of whom they were talking about walked into the coffee house. They were both very silent because the man, was Eliza’s ex- fiance, and Eliza was still bitter, Margaret was bitter too because the bastard had hurt her sweet friend Eliza, the nicest woman she had ever known.

“Did you want me to go talk to him?” Margaret asked. “And by talk to him, I mean pour hot coffee all over him.” She added.

“No, no!” Said Eliza, “ But tell me something, does he see me?” Margaret looked over at him, only to find that he was guiding a woman to go sit with him, his hand on the small of her back, they sat by the fireplace, where Eliza’s back was to them. Margaret’s look of disgust, made Eliza all too curious. “What?” She asked when she could no longer bare Margaret’s silence, she turned in her chair to take a look for herself. He was getting cozy with a pretty brunette. She turned around to face Margaret. “Now,” Eliza said, “Now you can pour that hot coffee all over him and his new muse.”

Instructor Response

Hey. Great.  You’ve got action and conflict underway.  You are building characterization.  And all that you’ve created makes reader interested in what is coming next.  Good work!

The way that her curly hair stuck out in all different directions made it so that people knew without a doubt Margaret was batshit crazy. She had been talking with her friend Eliza,

“He had three brothers, I swear,” Margaret said thinking back. This is understood.

“Nah,” Eliza argued, “Only two, he only ever had two brothers.” Eliza was so certain that she had to agree to disagree, meanwhile, Margaret went on about his three brothers. Eliza kept her mouth shut; it was very dangerous to disagree with her friend.

“What ever happened to him? or his brothers?” Margaret went on.

“I don’t know,” Eliza admitted.

Margaret had finally stopped talking when, the very him, of whom they were talking about walked into the coffee house. They were both very silent because the man, was Eliza’s ex- fiance, and Eliza was still bitter, Margaret was bitter too because the bastard had hurt her sweet friend Eliza, the nicest woman she had ever known.

“Did you want me to go talk to him?” Margaret asked. “And by talk to him, I mean pour hot coffee all over him.” She added.

“No, no!” Said Eliza, “ But tell me something. Does he see me?” Margaret looked over at him, only to find that he was guiding a woman to go sit with him, his hand on the small of her back. They sat by the fireplace, where Eliza’s back was to them. Margaret’s look of disgust, made Eliza all too curious. “What?” This is very good, I think. She asked when she could no longer bare Margaret’s silence, she turned in her chair to take a look for herself. He was getting cozy with a pretty brunette. She turned around to face Margaret. “Now,” Eliza said, “Now you can pour that hot coffee all over him and his new muse.”

Thanks,
Bill

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Trent told me about the day the cops came. He’d heard them coming up the front porch, reaslied what they had come for, and jumped onto his computer to wipe the hard drive clean. Then they began pounding at the front door.

I woke from the commotion and stepped out of my room about the same time Chris stumbled out of his. Ahead of him, through the opaque glass which framed the front door, I could see the fluoro vests of the officers. I walked toward Chris who was trembling and whining in confusion. In keeping with his midlife crisis, he disallowed responsible thought processes.

 “Darien, what the fuck is going on?”

“Go into your room and close the door.” I glanced at his marijuana-print shorts. “They’ve no reason to search in there.”

Chris scurried back into his musky lair. The cops hammered at the door again.

“Hello?” came a woman’s voice. It was loud, firm and reasonable. “We’ve got a warrant for the arrest of Trent Cooper. Please open the door or we will forcibly enter.”

I stood at the front. Trent’s door was ajar and I pushed it open. He was at his desk with his face in his palms, black hair twisted through pale fingers.

 

“Trent, I’m gonna open up,” I said. He didn’t move. I turned the lock on the front door. The door was pushed open from the other side and I stumbled back.  

Instructor Response

Good work.  I’ll suggest some changes and try to express my reasoning.  With as much talent and craft skills as you have, I’d like to help you see how a reader might be more engaged in these crucial opening lines.  I’ll use color coding: green for narative looking back to the past.  Blue for exposition.  Highlight for in scene.  I’ll leave dialogue as is but make comments and suggestions.  Overall, there is too much expressed, and there is not enough focus on engaging.  You’ve done an excellent job on who, where, and what!  I’ll give some examples, not to be used but as possibilities to show what I mean about grabbing the reader and focusing on story.  I’ll use some of the essentials given in the assignment directions and some references.  I’ll undeline when I’m commenting on the writing. 

Trent told me about the day the cops came. He’d heard them coming up the front porch, realised what they had come for, and jumped onto his computer to wipe the hard drive clean. Then they began pounding at the front door.

I woke from the commotion and stepped out of my room about the same time Chris stumbled out of his. Ahead of him, through the opaque glass which framed the front door, I could see the fluoro vests of the officers. I walked toward Chris who was trembling and whining in confusion. In keeping with his midlife crisis, he disallowed responsible thought processes[The last two sentences are information too early for this beginning.  Overall, there is a shift in story time, and a lot of information that could be used later, even in some of the characterization.  See below.]]

 “Darien, what the fuck is going on?”  [This needs attribution.  It is important to leave no question as to who is speaking.]

“Go into your room and close the door.” I glanced at his marijuana-print shorts. This information is too early.  And it is not clear if he’s a user, a dealer, or just likes the shape of the leaf.  You could straighten all this out at another time.  To suggest it here weakens the openingI use for momentum in the example below.] “They’ve no reason to search in there.”  This is too obvious and sounds like fill.  Need to be succinct with ideas in the opening.

Chris scurried [not the right word.  Chris doesn’t sound like the scurry type.  This would be an opportunity to got more accurate characterization in a single well chosen word.]  back into his musky lair. The cops hammered at the door again.

“Hello?” came a woman’s voice. It was loud, firm and reasonable. “We’ve got a warrant for the arrest of Trent Cooper. Please open the door or we will forcibly enter.” [Work to keep dialogue succinct and story specific.  See Dialogue, and Improving Dialogue essays.]

I stood at the front.  [Of what?  Be specific.] Trent’s door was ajar and I pushed it open. He was at his desk with his face in his palms, black hair twisted through pale fingers.  [Too wordy for a beginning.]

 

“Trent, I’m gonna open up,” I said. He didn’t move. I turned the lock. on the front door. The door was pushed open from the other side and I stumbled back.  [How about something like: “I turned the lock; the cops barged in.  In action, excessive words dilute the intensity.]

 

Here’s what I see as essentials for this opening:

                1. Introducing “I” and Chris.  Darien too.  Not clear about his role.  A woman, not clear where she is in scene or who she is.  Outside?  A cop.  Trent.  [There are a lot of people and it’s not clear where they all are—many in different places and not clear how the front door relates to the other doors mentioned, and why and how all these people are related.

                2. Cops come.

                3. “I” decides to open front door and cops come in.

See how, with a little reorganization, you might increase threat and mystery.

               

We were all inside the house—Chris, Helen, Darien, Trent and me.  There was loud pounding on the front door.  Through the glass window I could see cops in riot gear.  “What the fuck?” Trent said from inside his room.  “Jesus,” Chris said sweeping packets of marijuana off the coffee table and stuffing them under the sofa.  I turned the lock on the door.  Trent came toward me and hit my arm.  Too late.  The cops burst in. 

 

 

Not great but I hope demonstrates bare bone action and introducing characters and exposition and shortened dialogue.

 

Recommend reading: Dialogue, and Momentum

 

WHC

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He puts down his beer and looks across the highway at the towers that rise white, clean, straight, monolithic. They run on and down the valley, sunlit and neatly staggered, diminishing into the distance.  The valley runs straight and precisely north-south here, as if intentionally designed with the purpose of channeling the southern inhabitants into Seoul, thirty miles north.  Bikepath, river, subway, and highway all hum together day and night like power lines transmitting a pulsing human energy along their circuits.  He feels he is separate from this energy, a witness with the wisdom of an outsider.  His ignorance of the specific, the menial, he likes to think, gives him a clairvoyant’s vision of the whole.

Of course he knows this is a fantasy, a way of coping with the overwhelming not-knowingness, but it’s a fun game, a repartee with himself that goes perfectly with the beer and the moment.  It’s a Sunday and beautiful.  The haze is light and the sky blue; the sun warms gently and is cut just so by a soft between-seasons breeze that is intermittent enough to be appreciated.  He feels a slight glow on his cheeks from the drink and the sunlight.

“It’s crazy, isn’t it?  How ignorant we are here?”

“I know.  I keep thinking, ‘This must be what it’s like to be illiterate.’”

He follows his wife’s eyes past the towers to the squatting green mountains.

“It’s cleared up.”

“From the rain,” she says.  “It’s worth being stuck inside for a day when it’s like this after.”

He nods.

“This time a year ago…” he says. “I hate to even think about it.”

“Me, too.”

“I wonder if we’d have had the guts to do this.”

“I think so.  It made it an easy decision.” She says.

“A non-decision.”

“Right.”

 

Instructor Response

He puts down his beer and looks across the highway at the towers that rise white, clean, straight, monolithic.  They run on and down the valley, sunlit and neatly staggered, diminishing into the distance.  He turned to his wife sitting next to him.  (I’d move next two paragraphs to the end after the dialogue.  The exchange is engaging; the narrative description and interalization is good, but maybe too slow to keep a reader with you.  I’ve moved them to let you see what I mean.)

“It’s crazy, isn’t it?  How ignorant we are here?”

“I know.  I keep thinking, ‘This must be what it’s like to be illiterate.’”

He follows his wife’s eyes past the towers to the squatting green mountains.

“It’s cleared up.”

“From the rain,” she says.  “It’s worth being stuck inside for a day when it’s like this after.”

He nods.

“This time a year ago…” he says. “I hate to even think about it.”

“Me, too.”

“I wonder if we’d have had the guts to do this.”

“I think so.  It made it an easy decision.” She says.

“A non-decision.”

“Right.”

The valley runs straight and precisely north-south here, as if intentionally designed with the purpose of channeling the southern inhabitants into Seoul, thirty miles north.  Bikepath, river, subway, and highway all hum together day and night like power lines transmitting a pulsing human energy along their circuits.  He feels he is separate from this energy, a witness with the wisdom of an outsider.  His ignorance of the specific, the menial, he likes to think, gives him a clairvoyant’s vision of the whole.  Good!

Of course he knows this is a fantasy, a way of coping with the overwhelming not-knowingness, but it’s a fun game, a repartee with himself  he’s talking to his wife that goes perfectly with the beer and the moment.  It’s a Sunday and beautifulYou describe the scene well.  Don’t use generalizations when not needed.  The objective description is excellent and makes “beautiful” redundant. However, if you restructure the sentence so that it’s more in his voice and point of view not so much a “narrator” statement, it could be characterization about whether his subjective interpretation is that of everyone’s, and this would be characterization.  Minute stuff, but important for good writing.) The haze is light and the sky blue; the sun warms gently and is cut just so by a soft between-seasons breeze that is intermittent enough to be appreciated.  He feels a slight glow on his cheeks from the drink and the sunlight.  Like the description, and perfect for placing the reader in a setting. 

 

A really good beginning.  Makes reader look forward to what’s coming.

All the best,

WHC

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            Sometimes a meaningful life moment steals into our lives and we don’t even know it has happened.

            Returning from my paper route on a chilly April morning, I climbed the eleven steps to my house on the hilly side of Church Avenue. I caught a flicker of something dash into the storage shelter, under the porch.

            I peeked, stooping at the entrance for several moments, peering inside. I smelled a whiff of musty newspapers but I could see nothing in the dark. A shiver ran through me. Wind whipped a tree branch against the house, but I heard nothing from within. So I hightailed away; paid it no further mind whatsoever; wrote it off as my imagination.

            On my way to school, I played the incident back in my head. That’s when I remembered leaving my prize possession, my Roberto Clemente model baseball glove, under the porch. My parents bought it for me last year when I made the junior high school team. I’d be really pissed if that was stolen. I should have checked more thoroughly, got a flashlight, inspected every nook and cranny.

            Before now, I never thought twice about leaving stuff under there, even though the entrance had no door. Our house was up and away from the street. The porch ran its entire front length and the space underneath did too, paved in concrete with a door to the basement. That, we always locked from the inside.

            I thought of ‘Under the Porch’ as my space. Mom and Dad stored things there, old papers for pick-up, outdoor tools for gardening and grass cutting. But it was special to me, my safe place, where I went to be alone.

            But an interloper may have intruded. I think that flicker was a flash of a face.

Instructor Response

Very well done. You got all your information in, presented in a logical and graceful progression. I’m especially impressed that the story suspense is started while you were still loyal to the action of what happened in the time line. Imagery is good and just enough but not too much. Impressive.
Thanks for the submission.
Bill

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Alone, Roy followed the trail out of the woods. The path opened up to a knoll overlooking a long, rolling meadow that extended undisturbed for dozens of acres. It was still early, just before dawn, and Roy could only see an outline of the trees that bordered the far edge of the field before him. There was no snow yet, but a faint layer of frost blanketed the area. The sharp white crystals crunched quietly underfoot as he made his way through the shadows of the morning. Though only 56, he was no longer young, and it showed in the permanent creases stretching across his forehead. His frame was full, sturdy even, but his knees struggled to carry the weight and he limped slightly.

He moved languidly towards his truck, yet he wore a strained, almost panicked expression. The blue ’92 Ford Ranger was parked on the hill looking east, partially buried in a bed of big bluestem. Its tailgate, no longer able to latch, hung open. Along the sill and wheel wells, rust had corroded the metal. Flaky brown patches dotted the pickup, and three or four holes had punched through to the bed where mangled pieces of aluminum, steel, and copper were piled beside a pair of dented air conditioners. Roy approached the truck and braced himself against the rear quarter panel. Two icy streams of condensed air shot through his nostrils. Glancing towards his feet, he noticed the clumps of soil that clung to the leather sidewalls of his boots. He thought first about the frozen layer of earth that he had forced his way through, then about the soft dirt that had been only a couple inches down. He had already done a good deal of work and was getting tired. But he was not finished.

Instructor Response

Nicely done. You’ve effectively created the story world and given a narrator perspective for the storytelling. You’ve effectively introduced Roy. The writing flows. As I know you know well, very soon story needs to be introduced. I suggest you see it in terms of conflict, and decide too if the story will be plot oriented or character based. If character based, you’ll probably want to begin to feel and think with Roy. Be sure it’s clear to the reader what is the character’s dilemma. If plot based, you’ll want to stay in the perspective of the narrator, or Roy. But you’ll need to get exactly what the threat to the status quo is. Good work. You’ve succeeded very well. WHC

  1. I appreciate the constructive criticism. I know I have a tendency to introduce conflict late into the story, for better or worse. Its something I need to gain better control over.

    Its a great boon to novices like me to receive feedback, so thank you for volunteering your time like this.

    All the best,
    Tim

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Sometimes a meaningful life moment sneaks into our lives and we don’t even know it happened until much later. Especially if you’re a fourteen year old boy.

            On a chilly morning in April, I climbed the steps to my house on the hilly side of Church Avenue. With my Post Gazettes delivered, I had just enough time to change clothes and grab some breakfast. As my eye-level rose above the top step, I caught a flicker of something dash under the porch. Perhaps it was a flash of a face. For a moment, I thought I saw two eerie eyes staring at me.

            It was dark. Just my imagination, I told myself. Still, I peeked, to be sure, stooping for several moments, peering into the dark enclosure. Satisfied, I hurried into the house to get ready for school.

            On my way to school, I played the incident back in my mind. I really believed I saw something. I remembered leaving my baseball glove under the porch. I’d be really pissed if that was stolen. I should have checked more thoroughly, got a flashlight, inspected every nook and cranny.

Instructor Response

 

Sometimes a meaningful life moment sneaks into our lives and we don’t even know it happened until much later. Especially if  when you’re a fourteen year old boy.

            On a chilly morning in April, I climbed the eight porch-steps to my house on the hilly side of Church Avenue. With my Post Gazettes delivered, I had just enough time to change clothes and grab some breakfast.  [This deleted information breaks the action.]  As my eye-level rose above the top step, [note how this imagery is impossible to see in the mind.  Could you make the image more of the boy and the step thing a clearer indication of how far away he was from the flicker?  An eye above the front step sees a flicker of something dash under the porch.  How did that occur?  Wouldn’t it be more likely when the eye was closer to ground level?  See what I mean?  It’s confusing but an important detail to get your reader engaged.]  I caught a flicker of something dash under the porch. Perhaps it was a flash of a face. For a moment, I thought I saw two eerie eyes staring at me.

            It was dark. Just my imagination, I told myself. Still, I peeked, to be sure, stooping for several moments, peering into the dark enclosure. Satisfied, I hurried into the house to get ready for school.

            On my way to school, I played the incident back in my mind. I really believed I saw something. I remembered leaving my baseball glove under the porch. I’d be really pissed if that was stolen. I should have checked more thoroughly, got a flashlight, inspected every nook and cranny.

 

Excellent.  You have a good idea and good presentation.  A lot of information is seamlessly supplied.  Here is a suggestion for improvement.  Can you get the imagery and setting absolutely clear for the reader.  And can you make the boy’s reaction stronger.  The idea is that there may be something under the porch.  The protagonist is not afraid, I mean he thinks about it casually and later.  He suspects somebody might have stolen his baseball glove.    But a clear picture of the scene (the porch—is it huge where a cougar could hide?  is it low where a rabid raccoon would hide?  Help the reader imagine.)

 

On a chilly morning in April,     On a chilly April morning,    [unnecessary word—accumaltive effect deadens the writing]

 

I caught a flicker of something dash under the porch.  Does a flicker dash?  It flicks, doesn’t it.  And do you want to use the word something?  It’s abstract when it represents an opportunity to engage the reader.  Not using it would work—let flicker do its job.    Maybe “I glimpsed a flicker . . .”?  Accuracy is important. 

 

Perhaps it was a flash of a face. For a moment, I thought I saw two eerie eyes staring at me.  Even in the imagination, the writing is unclear.  The only thing he really sees is a flicker and dark (dark twice).  He imagines a face and “eerie” eyes?  To really be effective, what are the specific details that cause him to imagine a face and why would he imagine eerie eyes when nothing else about the incident seems to make him even slightly apprehension.  The “eerie” does indicate he has a little worry, I admit, but with a little more descriptive specificity, and more solid understanding of his emotional state, the reader would get more from the imagaintionand respond more.

 

            It was dark. Just my imagination, I told myself. Still, I peeked, to be sure, stooping for several moments, peering into the dark enclosure.  “Dark” doesn’t do much for a reader.  And you use it twice.  An opportunity to help the reader visualize.  “I could barely see the outline of a cardboard box with a torn lid,”  or “Nothing moved that I could see where the underside of the steps blocked the light that seeped through the cracks in the porch floor,”  or “I couldn’t see a face or eyes, but it was so dark I would only see it if it was three feet away and looking right at me.”  Not right, but do you see my attempt to stimulate setting?

 

It was dark. Just my imagination, I told myself. Still, I peeked, to be sure, stooping for several moments, peering into the dark enclosure. Satisfied, I hurried into the house to get ready for school.

            On my way to school, I played the incident back in my mind. I really believed I saw something. I remembered leaving my baseball glove under the porch. I’d be really pissed if that was stolen. I should have checked more thoroughly, got a flashlight, inspected every nook and cranny.  This paragraph is fine.  But there are opportunities.  It doesn’t have much emotional content that is useful.  What if the reader knew in some way the glove was his dead father’s first-base glove when his father played for the Dodgers before he was injured and had to collect garbage for a living.  Stupid, but I’m trying to make the glove and the potential loss of the glove important for the boy so the reader begins to feel for him.  Also, there’s an opportunity for fear.  It has to do with credibility and characterization.  The boy treats all this pretty casually.  It does characterize him to an extent in a passive way, and is good from that standpoint.  But to engage the reader, what if he was scared out of his wits.  Afraid there was a dead body being eaten by rats.  Or a terrorist with a bomb was there and the flicker had been glare from the clock timer?  Or that the neighbor’s pit bull had followed him and was waiting for a chance to attack.  Or that his little sister afflicted with autism had disappeared again and he had failed to think she was alone under the porch in the dark and damp, and she might die.  Of course it doesn’t have to be so drastic, just a little apprehension or worry could be effective.  But it’s something that would hold the reader to the story.

 

You write a very well and tell a good story.  I go into all this detail to help you recognize opportunities for you to stand out from the crowd as a writer and storyteller.  You have that kind of potential!

Thanks for the submission.

Bill Coles

 

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Sometimes, the force of two contrasting emotions could pull apart the fabric of the human heart. Marin felt it acutely each time she walked through the door. Her reality was carved into the lines of the faces behind these walls. So she dreaded them, but she loved them, too. In the daytime, they were all the family she had.

“I’m home,” she said, slinging her backpack off at the foot of the stairs.

“Hi honey!” Her father’s voice sounded raw, coated with a thin layer of enthusiasm that dripped away in the air between them. “How was school?”

“The same.”

She climbed the stairs slowly, thankful at least for the comfort of home, where no one watched her. It felt like busting out of a mold. Here, she breathed without thinking. On the outside, she focused always on her breathing, pulling in air and compressing it into a sphere, which she pictured in her belly, like an empty womb. When she breathed, only the sphere moved, not her shoulders, not her back, not her chest. It was a trick she learned years ago on a hike with her Girl Scout troop. Just off the path, she’d spotted a dust-colored lizard, and cried out. At her cry, the lizard flattened itself against rock. She tried pointing it out to the others, who had gathered around her in excitement. But the lizard did not move, and was invisible on the stone. In moments, her troop moved on. People never wait for long, Marin thought. If you learn to be still, they will look right through you.

Instructor Response

Sometimes, the force of two contrasting emotions could pull apart the fabric of the human heart. Yes, very effective opening sentence.  Marin felt it acutely each time she walked through the door. Going well, but you’ve put her through a door into what?  In the next sentence you refer to “behind these walls.”  Slightly confusing.  Suggest you have her go through the door into a house or a room or something.  Then “these walls” would flow.   Her reality was carved into the lines of the faces behind these walls. So she dreaded them, but she loved them, too. Great!  The two emotions dread and love.   In the daytime, they were all the family she had.  This is confusing.  Why in the daytime.  Wouldn’t the family be there in the nighttime?  Or are you referring to nighttime dreams when she didn’t think about them?  This is good, but it needs to be clear. What are you trying to convey and what is the purpose for the story?  Carry the reader through your thinking as an author without obscurities that disrupt the flow of understanding for the reader.

“I’m home,” she said, slinging her backpack off at the foot of the stairs.  Well done.  For me, you achieve purpose, in this sentence, of orienting me to place very well, and giving me information about her age (with backpack) without frank exposition.

“Hi honey!” Her father’s voice sounded raw, coated with a thin layer of enthusiasm that dripped away in the air between them. “How was school?”  Great too.  The reader is in scene and learns about father and his characteristics, and you’ve nicely set the emotionally tone of the scene.  This is high quality.

“The same.”

She climbed the stairs slowly, thankful at least for the comfort of home, where no one watched her. It felt like busting out of a mold. Here, she breathed without thinking. On the outside, she focused always on her breathing, pulling in air and compressing it into a sphere, which she pictured in her belly, like an empty womb. When she breathed, only the sphere moved, not her shoulders, not her back, not her chest. To this point, you’re going great.  You’ve poetically captured feeling in these sentences, and provided valuable characterization.  But be careful about what comes next.  You go into back story about an experience that taught her she is invisible to others a times.  It is effective, and a very nice touch.  But consider if this is the right place for it.  As back story, it stops the action and flow of the scene.  And the juxtaposition of this back story next to the trick she’s learned with her breathing (also nicely done–it rounds out how desperate she is to control what rages within her, and we want to find out!) doesn’t fit.  That is, the next idea about invisibility, for the reader, is a non sequitur.   You might consider carrying on with her breathing and significance to the story line you’ve got going with leaving the father and going to her room.  You could expand those ideas.  It is true, invisibility could be used here, but it would need to be presented in a different way to be maximally effective.  In essence , the lizard back story stops the movement of the segment and it doesn’t seem to connect to the nicely developed ideation of what proceeds.  It was a trick she learned years ago on a hike with her Girl Scout troop. Just off the path, she’d spotted a dust-colored lizard, and cried out. At her cry, the lizard flattened itself against rock. She tried pointing it out to the others, who had gathered around her in excitement. But the lizard did not move, and was invisible on the stone. In moments, her troop moved on. People never wait for long, Marin thought. If you learn to be still, they will look right through you.

 

Comment.  This is really excellent, and without hyperbole, you are an excellent fiction writer.  I’ve taken an idea-by-idea progression through this segment to suggest how, in revision, you might go through your work.  Look to what you’re providing for your reader, imagine what they will be taking away from your writing, and particularly look for inappropriate story-logical thinking disruptions, these are the things that will confuse the reader about action, motivations, emotional arcs, and consistent characterization that readers will perceive as writing that is not quite as good as they would like.  And you are good.  I think this type of thinking in revision could raise you to a level that would please both reader and you.

All the best.

WHC

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While sipping her hot coffee Natalie picked up the divorce papers from the dining table and her eyes ran through certain paper details that were unimportant to her. She did not believe in such written documents when a relationship was falling apart. Legal proceedings will not alter her conviction neither comprehend her sentiments and her five-year old relationship with her husband, Jonathan.

The moment she looked at her wedding ring, she wanted to pull it off. To her dismay, she could not. She twisted her ring finger and somehow pulled it off with a jerk. She wiped her tears with her elbow and quickly went into the toilet to flush it off. Lines from her forehead seemed faded away a little. Her lips trembled. She gave a short quick laugh. She did not notice the scratch on her finger before. She did not care about the sudden gush of fresh blood on her white skin. Her vulnerable soul had bled already.

The more she tried to forget him, the more her thoughts lured towards him. She was on a verge of an outburst that she could not have any control. Her physical body ached while her wounded heart wandered in search of some peace. She recalled her past and tried her best to know what things had gone wrong with her. She had worked hard enough to please him since they had moved to a different locality. Since then many things happened that she had no explanations and had just ignored them for her love sake. She was decorating her own dreams then. She could not tell when her husband was not hers anymore.

Instructor Response

Excellent work.  You have incorporated many principles very effectively.  Now I suggest you put this beginning away, and mark you calendar to return in three to four months.  And put away this story too.  Make up other stories as you work on the other assignments.  When you return to this story beginning, you’ll have an entirely new perspective, almost as if reading if for the first time.  You’ll discover revisions and new things to be said to achieve your goals.  And you will have learned a lot of new ideas in the interim that may be applied.

Go on now to other assignments.  Keep making up new stories.  Imagine new scenes.  Keep writing scenes for practice.  And when you’re not writing imagine stories as you go through each day.  Try to approach your story imagining not as describing a happening or event  but with a protagonist struggling against odds with some resolution.  (This is true for entire stories, but you should also try to apply the idea to individual scenes.)  Stories have a beginning (information and conflict), a middle (action precipitated by conflict), and end (resolution of the conflict with some new realization of what it means to be human and live in our world).  When you make up stories with this underlying structure, your story gains momentum, interest, and gives the reader pleasure.  So if you find your stories flat and uninteresting, go back and learn to imagine and create conflict at every level in the story.  It’s how good storytellers succeed.  (You might also make up stories on the spot and tell them to friends and family–see what their reactions are.  The tendency early is to tell a story like:

Little Red Ridinghood went to her grandma’s house at the other side of the dense forest and when she got there grandma was dead, devoured by some animal.  It was just awful!  NOT GOOD.

But look what you can do, as a storyteller.

Little Red Ridinghood’s mother told her to go to grandma’s house through the forest and not speak to anyone . . . and NOT to linger!  There were dangers in the woods!  Little Red met a wolf on her journey, and told him she was going to grandma’s house.  Then she stopped to pick flowers for grandma and enjoy the warm day.  When she got to grandma’s house, granny didn’t look or talk the same.  Some thing wasn’t quite right.  And you know what happened next?  Well . . .   IMPROVED

See how insertion of conflict (encounter with a carnivorous animal and Red’s disobeying her mother) has added action, suspense, and meaning into an otherwise listless story?

Keep working.  I admire your determination and know you will be rewarded with the development of a writing and storytelling style that you’ll be pleased with.

All the best,

WHC

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She made up her mind to destroy everything that reminded her of him. She puffed and murmured beneath her twitched lips. She tried to pull off her engagement ring from her finger, but she could not. She twisted her ring finger with her slender right hand and somehow managed to pull it off with a jerk. She suddenly closed her kitchen cabinet with a bang and some utensils inside it seemed to clutter. She quickly wiped her hot tears that came down her cheeks with her right elbow. She did not notice the scratch on her finger and the sudden gush of fresh blood on her white skin. She did not care that little cut; she was already wounded from inside.

 

 

She wanted to brush off every moment she was with him in all those five years from her mind and soul, but she could not. The more she tried to forget him the more her thoughts wandered towards him. Earlier, his smell, his touch, and every of his breath soothed her like a fragrant ointment and gave her strength to live. Now, they all had made her vulnerable. She could not fight back her grief. Life seemed to fall apart and she could do nothing.

 

 

She trembled when her thoughts took her back to the past. How dare he could ever treat her like that? She gasped and kneeled down on the kitchen floor. She did not care about her red tear-rimmed eyes; she seemed too lost to forget her presence. The milk boiled and spilled down on the gas stove and then on the ground. She could not smell the burnt utensil; nor could she see the spilled milk on the floor beside her.

 

Instructor Response

She made up her mind to destroy everything that reminded her of him. She puffed and murmured beneath her twitched lips. She tried to pull off her engagement ring from her finger, but she could not. She twisted her ring finger with her slender right hand and somehow managed to pull it off with a jerk. She suddenly closed her kitchen cabinet with a bang and some utensils inside it seemed to clutter. She quickly wiped her hot tears that came down her cheeks with her right elbow. She did not notice the scratch on her finger and the sudden gush of fresh blood on her white skin. She did not care that little cut; she was already wounded from inside.

Excellent work. Lets dissect this paragraph. First, what are the important ideas expressed?  destroy everything that reminded her / she was already wounded / she’s engaged/ she’s angry.  Now consider the action presented: puffed and murmured beneath her twitched lips / taking off engagement ring / closing cabinet / wiped tears / scratch on finger–cut.  Exposition.  In kitchen. Engaged.

Let’s do the same for the next two paragraphs.

She wanted to brush off every moment she was with him in all those five years from her mind and soul, but she could not. The more she tried to forget him the more her thoughts wandered towards him. Earlier, his smell, his touch, and every of his breath soothed her like a fragrant ointment and gave her strength to live. Now, they all had made her vulnerable. She could not fight back her grief. Life seemed to fall apart and she could do nothing.

Ideas: can’t forget him / grief.  Exposition: Five year relationship.  He pleased her.   Action: all internal.  No action.

She trembled when her thoughts took her back to the past. How dare he could ever treat her like that?  She gasped and kneeled down on the kitchen floor.  She did not care about her red tear-rimmed eyes; she seemed too lost to forget her presence. The milk boiled and spilled down on the gas stove and then on the ground. She could not smell the burnt utensil; nor could she see the spilled milk on the floor beside her.

Ideas: anger / denying she cares /  Action: kneeling / milk boiling over /

Now look to the effect of the scene on the reader and ask: Is the scene producing the maximum effect you desire?  You’re beginning your story and you probably want to introduce your character(s) . Does the reader form an image of the character, know her name, know anything about her other than she’s having a reaction to a man’s treatment of her?  (You don’t have to do this in the opening, but ot often helps engage the reader.)  Does the reader know why she’s hurt and angry?  Did he dump her?  Cheat on her?  Kill her cat?  Seduce her sister? etc.  In the story beginning, you may want to present the story conflict too, or a hint of it.  Could the beginning express what she will be struggling within the story and foreshadow some change that will occur?   (Will she commit suicide, or mangle her lover, or flush the expensive ring down the toilet, or fall in love with someone else, or learn that her denials of caring are useless in easing her pain . . . for a few ideas to help you determine what you might want the story to say.  You don’t need to give story away, just tweek inerest, if you have time and space.)  In revision, you may want to ask about the amount of telling (and time) used to present an idea.  She’s angry and hurt.  Are there too many of too few internal revelations expressing that idea; in essence, are there redundancies.  Also ask if ideas expressed such as her slender hand are right for the moment in your story beginning?  (True, it tells the reader something about the protagonist, but is it the best image for the moment?  Does being slender have anything to do with what will happen, reveal something about her that will be important to the plot?)   (At this moment, slender seems to work against the idea that she’s having trouble getting her ring off.  She might be fat from overeating due to the stress of her relationship, or she might have deforming arthritis that makes her unattractive and makes her breakup all the more important because she doesn’t have further potential.)   These may not be useful, but it’s the idea that there is potential for even a single adjective to work for the story.  And when something doesn’t work, it acts with negative effect on the reader.)

You may want to look at the action.  Crying, removing ring, closing cabinet, spilling milk. etc.  Could different actions support story and her emotional state more?  Removing ring seems to fit nicely.  The cut, however, seems an act of fatalism created to allow the author to compare protagonist’s lack of distress to the bleeding to the bleeding of her heart.  Ask if this is the most effective way to let the reader know her pain.  If it is not effective, it may push the reader away from accepting the protagonist’s emotions, that is, those emotions may seem contrived.  If that seems reasonable to you as author, look for new ways to present the idea, or you might remove it since the emotion is repeated many times and you could chose the best presentation for the depth of her hurt.   Ask also if the action with the milk has any clear relation to your story and character.  Is there metaphorical advantage?  Would some action regarding the ring, or some other object symbolic to the person, her reaction, or to love lost in general, be a better choice?  In making these actions contribute to story progression and meaning, an author will heighten reader enjoyment.

Note too, that there is an abrupt change of narration at the end.  “The milk boiled and spilled down on the gas stove and then on the ground.  She could not smell the burnt utensil; nor could she see the spilled milk on the floor beside her.” It may not be obvious when you first reread it, but notice how the story narration moves from inside the character’s ideas and feelings being told, to another narrator.  (Through negative construction of the character not seeing and smelling, the narration has to come from someone else other than character since the character can’t narrate a negative . . . she can’t tell what she she didn’t smell or see when she didn’t experience it.  It may seem miniscule and unimportant, but it is how writers create effective story prose.)  This is a subtle shift in POV, and is not necessarily wrong, but it can jolt the readers and keep them from becoming deeply engaged in the story at this point.

It is a judgment call depending on how important setting is to story, but ask if you want the reader anchored in setting.  Does the kitchen serve, without development or expansion, purpose you want for story?  For example, would a kitchen-on-fire-after-an angry-burst-caused-stove-accident-to-ignite-curtains idea engage reader more by immediate involvement of the reader.  (Why? What will happen? Will she be all right?) Wonder about outcome, could that be what you want to achieve?  Or would some setting that would imply the later action of the story have a strong effect?  Could she be waiting in the shadows of her lover’s parking spot at his condominium implying she’s waiting to do something, for example.

In prose story telling, because you don’t have the visual effects of plays or movies, specificity can be important.  Look for concrete rather than abstract, specific rather than general.  “How dare he could ever treat her like that?” might be more effective by presenting what he did–“He hit in the head with a bat.” is bad treatment, too much, but you get the idea..

Finally, look to the telling of emotion.  Telling is: “not care” “wounded” “vulnerable” “grief.”  In the use of prose to present emotion and idea transfer to the reader, showing is usually more effective than telling. You seem to show with: . . . his smell, his touch, and every of his breath . . . gave her strength to live. It takes more time to show than tell, and good judgment is needed to maintain appropriate pacing.  But showing is best when appropriate.

These comments are detailed to give you ideas for revision.  There may be the tendency to feel discouraged.  Don’t allow that to happen!  You’ve succeeded well.  The analysis is simply to present alternatives for consideration; they are not mandates for improvement.

Thanks for sharing your work!

WHC

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Annalisa could feel the blood gushing from her back as she lay motionless on the bed.  Her heart was beating, and with each beat, more blood seemed to gush forth.  She wondered what she had done to anger Josh so much.  Usually, just a slap across the face was his worse comeback, but tonight, he seemed more intense than ever.  He had ran from the house and jumped in his jeep and spun off after beating her with a whip, and throwing her across the bed.  How could she possibly get to the phone to call for help?    She tried to move off the bed, but could not.  She fell back on the bed and staring praying.  Life was so precious…..she had never really thought about dying like this.  Suddenly, she saw the lights of a car flash through her windows, and the sound of the motor come shut off.  Who could this possibly be?  Surely Josh did not come back to finish her off.  Oh, God!  Don’t let it be Josh!  Suddenly, she heard footsteps in the hall, and a soft voice call her name.  “Annalisa”, “Annalisa”.  She did not recognize the voice.She began to feel dizzy, as blood was still pouring from her back.  She could not move, and her lips could not seem to answer.  The voice called her name again, and could not respond.  She was helpless.  She would die here alone if someone did not find her soon.  She waited for the voice to call again, but she heard nothing.  Then she heard a car crank up, and saw the lights as it pulled from her drive.  She would die alone.  Oh, God! Where are you?

Instructor Response

You’ve achieved excellent momentum–you’ve carried the reader through a period of story time delivering essential and related-to-scene story information within the scene action–and you’ve engaged the reader firmly with an admirable sense of drama. The reader wants to know more, wants to know what happened, and feels sympathetic to Annalisa’s plight. Here are a few things to consider as alternatives.

           

1. Scene veracity and word choice. You have a woman on a bed. It is assumed she’s lying face down, but for the reader’s image development it might help to indicate how she is lying. (It makes a difference in what she would feel and how she would feel it. Bleeding from the back against a mattress is different than bleeding unhindered, for example.). You are in her point of view. She has been whipped. In assessing your scene, would she feel gushing blood from back wounds at all? Isn’t gushing like oil from a ruptured BP oil line, lots of oil and fast. Would back wounds, where there are not major arteries, gush? Would a heartbeat be perceived as causing a gushing from a back wound? Would ooze or words of the like be a better choice? This has to do with veracity for the reader–you don’t want the reader thinking, even subconsciously–could this have happened? Readers are more engaged if they believe the scene could have happened in the real world. They tend to have more sympathy with real people than animated or fantasy characters, especially in literary fiction where the expectations are for character-based fiction. If there are images or ideas that don’t make sense or lack logic, their intensity of involvement is lessened. So in revision always check for credibility of the situation and images you create.

           

2. Back story positioning. In the second sentence you are internal–in Annalisa’s mind–and you are in back story. It’s done effectively. But you might ask, what is the effect of back story on the scene action. And since this is a beginning, when you have engaged a reader’s interest in the progression of the story by describing the feelings of a woman, her thoughts about her tormentor, her questions about motivation, does information unrelated to the immediate moment add to the scene? This information is essentially exposition (introducing Josh, exploring possible motivations, etc.). Then you slip back into immediacy of in scene writing, providing information about her dilemma: she can’t reach a phone, she is praying, she musing about dying. What if you delivered your information with a little different structure? What if you engaged the reader with what is happening in the scene, the bleeding, the trying to get off the bed, praying, seeing lights, someone coming speaking her name and leaving, her inability to call out–to let them know she’s there and needs help. Things seem to be moving along. Then she’s abandoned by someone she doesn’t recognize but knows her, and she’s afraid of dying. What’s going to happen next?

            This might all be done before dropping into back story about who tried to kill her and how, Josh and the whip and what he did to her before. (Remember, we know she doesn’t die; in this point of view she’s telling the story from a later time so she has to live. So the tension is not whether she dies or not, but what happens.) You can deliver back story in the next few paragraphs (choosing one of many techniques, exposition, narrative description, dialogue, internal reflection, continued in scene action, etc.).

            To effectively analyze your scenes you can try to reflexively ask: Is that possible? Is there a more effective placement of information? Will that require suspension of disbelief (the veracity issue)? Is the plot momentum logical? Is there a better word to create the effect I need? Is there too much in this scene–do I need to cut or replace ideas and images?

           

3. Energy dissipation. This suggestion addresses scene energy. You’ve created high energy (and dramatic tension) in the scene. But it suddenly drops off in the end when the mysterious person drives off. Consider why. You’ve introduced a nice bit of tension in this unknown voice who calls out her name but she doesn’t know who it is. But is this nice tension in conflict with the tension of the immediate action, that is, will she be found and will the bleeding be stopped to save her? When you’ve chosen the scene to address dramatic action, will the momentum created be continued, or augmented, by introducing other significant mysteries too early and too fast (who the stranger is and why did he/she come and how did they know her? and why did Josh do this and where is he and will he be punished for his crimes? are examples). This might be too much to envelop in a single opening scene that has engendered significant momentum. Addressing this idea could help maintain the energy at the level you’ve established.

           

You’ve done a great job. The suggestions are for learning through choice of alternatives rather than demanding implementation. You’ve got the potential of a lifetime of enjoyable writing, an enviable gift. WHC

 

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I put the helm down and she comes up through the wind as sweet as maple syrup. Five thirty on an early May morning. Nothing stirs but the dog, the boat, and the tide.

The immediate past is but a blur of grief. Time it is to erase that which has gone before. It must be as nothing, to be forgotten, best never to be remembered.

Sonnet leans by the mast, the long, black fur on her ears flipped occasionally by the windward jib sheet. Dogs don’t remember either, not in the sense that they consciously recall the past. She lives for the moment, and I am thus taught.

We near the shore; I free the main halyard, drop the gaff-rigged main and nuzzle the dinghy under foresail alone into the small creek by the Watch Hut. The prow squelches into a bed of black mud and Sonnet leaps for the cleanliness of the Samphire. I smother the jib, secure both sails, heave a mud-weight over the bows, wriggle into the grey/green rucksack, and slither after my dog.

The open sea reveals itself in sound before I gain the top of the wide shingle bank. A great rumble of pebble-laden gratings retreating seawards from each thump of solid water hitting at my small salty corner of this vulnerable Norfolk coast.

I stare into the empty waste of the horizon. No ships mitigate the loneliness of the scene, or the emptiness that I feel.

 

Instructor Response

 

Excellent work.  You establish a strong voice immediately, and you pull the reader in in the first paragraph.  And kudos for starting in action. 

 

You might reexamine the effect of the second paragraph.  [The immediate past is but a blur of grief. Time it is to erase that which has gone before. It must be as nothing, to be forgotten, best never to be remembered.]  You’ve inserted summary information, a suggested back-story with a time shift from story present, and all with a touch of mystery.  All good information, but it stops the reader–mainly with the time shift–and disengages him or her from the beautiful effect you’ve created in scene.  Readers will enjoy being with the "I" in this opening.  Let them stay with the "I" in the story movement. You are, after all, very skillfully creating an interesting and provocative scene, and the scene you’ve created really gives the sense of loneliness and grief (so consider letting it do it’s work without interruption).   Your choice of imagery and action is excellent.

 

It is common for writers to open in scene with effective action and exposition and then to immediately fall into back story, halting the readers involvement.  It can be effective, but rarely, and it is usually not worth the time and effort to make it work.

 

Suggestion.  Move information in second paragraph to be presented later, or maybe just delete it for now.  The last sentence [No ships mitigate the loneliness of the scene, or the emptiness that I feel.] seems to effectively give much of the information that is in the second paragraph. 

 

And if you present the second paragraph later, consider your method of presentation.  Telling intense feelings is not as effective as showing.  And in first person, telling emotions is particularly tricky; the character seems to be trying to demand sympathy, which can flow into sentimentality.  (An objective third person alleviates this problem somewhat, but loses the first person advantages).  Not that you should change this paragraph much if you insert this ideas elsewhere, but just consider delivering the "grief" and its need "to be erased" through some sort of action, either in the dramatic present, or dramatic back story "present," so that actions, or dialogue, can be developed to show grief to the reader.  It seems too important for brief narrative description.  You have the skill and the impact will be greater.

 

This is very good writing.  Thanks for participating.  WHC

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