Becoming a Storyteller: The First 50 Pages, or, Gimme Some Space, Short Story!

journalSo, my writing about writing has taken a backseat to my writing about sports recently, but as I find myself waiting for the termite tenting crew to arrive at my house, I’ve decided to whip up a new little post.

Last night I finished a short story, and this morning I submitted it to a magazine for consideration. It was my first serious attempt at mystery, and I found the word limit something of a hindrance. I had 1,200 words to tell my story, bu the first draft checked in at more than 1,600 words, and it was missing some key elements of the mystery genre. I started revising like crazy, and inserted those needed genre elements, and brought the piece in at 1,197 words. I’d like to think I got everything in there, a compelling POV character/voice, setting, crime, motive, suspects, clues, a red herring, etc. We’ll see.

I’ve always found the idea of writing a novel more comfortable than the limiting space afforded by the short story. There’s elbow room to be had in a novel. Or so I thought. And as I found myself flipping through an old notebook this afternoon, I came across notes I took during a workshop on The First Fifty Pages at a writing conference. Looking it over, I realized that even in the roomy realm of novel writing, there are still some tight-fitting spaces you need to endure within a reasonable length into the narrative, or an agent/editor/reader will disconnect.

The presenter of the workshop was Jeff Gerke, an editor, a Christian speculative fiction author and founder of the indie publishing company Marcher Lord Press. He’s written a number of nonfiction books on writing craft as well, including  Plot Versus Character: A Balanced Approach to Writing Great Fiction and The First Fifty Pages.

Things To Do in the First 50 Pages:

  • Engage the Reader
  • Introduce the Hero
  • Establish the Context, the “Ordinary World”
  • Reveal the genre/backdrop/era
  • Establish the tone
  • Establish the theme
  • Introduce the Antagonist
  • Present the Stakes
  • setup the Main Character‘s change
  • setup the Circularity
  • Something not to do: start with a dream sequence

The majority of those items seem fairly obvious. I’ve been told to introduce things like genre as early as by the end of the first page, and to introduce your main character/hero in the first sentence. The term “Ordinary World” is borrowed from Joseph Campbell and his “Hero’s Journey“/monomyth discussion.

I think the danger of starting with the Ordinary World is creating an opening that lacks tension and conflict. The entire purpose of the “Ordinary World” is to provide a glimpse of the main character/hero’s life before they embark on their life-changing journey. I guess it’ll work if it’s only a glimpse, but even the slightest bit of the narrative that lacks tension could leave the reader disengaged. And to start with such a scene or sequence might be disastrous.

The idea of presenting the Stakes seems important, especially considering you’ll need to raise the stakes at some point along the course of the narrative. The audience, be it plain readers, an agent or an editor, will need something to gauge how much more difficult life has become of the main character. The question becomes, how high are the stakes at the start? If you start too low, it might not catch the reader’s attention. If you start too high, you’ll need to find a place higher to push it.

The item from the list that intrigues me the most is the one about Circularity. This concept, of bringing things back around to the beginning, is something I’ve often taught my middle school students to do with their essays. Bring it back. Connect to something from the beginning. I love the idea of having a main character start in one place, leave, journey through the narrative, struggle, fight, and change, only to return to that same place again. The intriguing aspect is now presenting that starting place in a new light. How will the main character see it, now that they’ve returned a different person?

Of course, the one tidbit regarding Things Not To Do is the one thing I did do once upon a time. The very first appearance of my main character from a novel manuscript some years old at this point was a dream sequence. I think I’ll burn the manuscript in effigy this weekend.

Four Different Ways to Begin a Novel:

Option 1: “Prologue”

  • Jeff Gerke opened with this, then immediately said, “Don’t call it a Prologue.” The term is stigmatized, perhaps Elmore Leonard‘s fault . Gerke said you don’t have to have your hero “on-stage” in chapter 1. It can be an opportunity to present the villain  the stakes, and/or the “ticking time bomb”. 

Option 2: Hero Action

  • This opening involves presenting the main character in action. This is an opportunity to reveal the personality of the character, the heroism, and the character’s inner journey. This would seem to be the best option to setup the character’s change down the line. 

Option 3: In Medias Res

  • In the middle of things“. Beowulf famously starts this way. Here, you pick up somewhere along the line, and if there’ any important information the reader needs from earlier, it can be presented in Flashback. 

Option 4: The Frame Device

  • This option is one where an older version of the character or characters are telling to story, so to speak. It might involve Flashback to the younger versions in order to tell the story. Think: The Notebook

I’m wondering about openings these days as I decide whether or not to revise (Read: utterly overhaul) the aforementioned soon-to-be burned completed novel manuscript, or start with an entirely new idea. A friend of mine has always said I need to focus on short stories and get a few published before agents will even give my work a second look, and after recently completing my first one in some time, I might head that route. All I know is, short stories are as restrictive as you allow them to be, and I’ve always been one to enjoy a little elbow room, but novels have spots that are tight, too.

We’ll see.