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.

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

  1. Congratulations on finishing your short story, and I hope you’ll let us know when it gets accepted.

    Interesting information you have shared in this post. I have a question for you, though. Just how hard and fast is the never start with a dream sequence rule? I ask for two reasons. First, one of my favorite books of all time, Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca) opens with a stunningly beautiful dream sequence that I believe is considered quite good. Of course, I realize that most of us aren’t in her league, but surely there are other ways to make such a thing work, and other authors who have done so?

    My second question is this. Assuming that, in general, if you aren’t Daphne du Maurier, you should probably skip the dream sequence, how do you judge what you can get away with in a prologue, for instance? Does “dream sequence” mean the entire prologue or opening chapter? What if the dream sequence is only three or four lines, designed to startle the character awake and into immediate action, rather than stand on its own merit? And what if even those very few sentences set up a backstory in a quick and concise way, giving the reader insights he would never have otherwise? Would this still be a bad idea?

    I’m just curious as to what your opinion would be on this. In the meantime, you have given me something to consider, and I do love a good ponder! Thanks for a very interesting post.

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    • Hey Marcia! That dream sequence in Rebecca is great, and it obviously goes against that rule, but I think the great authors out there can break whatever rule they feel like breaking. It’s probably a matter of building up a cache as a writer, then you get to take whatever chances you’d like as a writer.

      Like I said in the post, I started my first novel manuscript with a dream sequence, and I had a prologue before that! Double whammy.

      In my opinion, I think backstory should be sprinkled in along the way as you develop the character. That’s what I’ve done since then. All the feedback I’ve received from agents and editors reinforces that. It’s a matter of introducing just the right amount of information so that the narrative can get going, the character can develop, and the conflict can complicate matters. The backstory stuff has the potential to bog down the forward motion of the narrative.

      As far as dream sequences, everything I’ve heard and read calls it cliche. I can see that, especially since most of us mere mortals can’t touch du Maurier. I guess it works if dreaming is an integral part of the plot.

      Enjoy the ponder!

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      • Thanks, David! I appreciate your quick and thorough response. I’ve pondered for a while now, and will probably do so a while longer. My first thoughts are in agreement with you, that dream sequences can be terrible cliches, and if you aren’t du Maurier you probably should avoid them. My second thoughts are that there might be times (and ways) where one could bend the rules a tiny little bit and get away with it, depending on your target reader, perhaps, or the genre in which you are writing. Maybe. A bit. 😀

        As for the backstory, I would normally choose to do it exactly as you say, scattering it here and there, where it makes sense, and delivering the facts without a big Info Dump, or the like. In the case I mentioned, the dream is really only a device to startled this character awake, and is truly very, very short. The term “sequence” seems to me to indicate something longer. But I do agree that even a short one is probably pretty risky. It wouldn’t be difficult to insert the small amount of backstory into the scene elsewhere, and startle the character awake some other way. I just happen to like this small bit of nightmare a lot. And since this character’s main focus is rather nightmarish in itself…well, I guess I liked the aspect of showing what gives a Nightmare…nightmares!

        Probably I will elect to be safe. But possibly…just possibly…I may throw caution to the wind and go with my instinct. If I do, at least I will be making a conscious choice to do take the risk, rather than just blundering into it through ignorance.

        Thanks for giving me so much to think about. I am definitely going to keep the First 50 Pages List taped next to my computer. And again, good luck on your story.

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  2. David,
    Thank you for this post. I understand the first 50 pages so much better after reading this, partly because your examples are so specific, and also because you’re a good writer (at least I think so.) There’s quite a bit of advice out ther, but I never really got the whole package until just now. Wow.
    Congrats on submitting your short story. I’m keeping my fingers crossed for you. You are so right … adhering to a 2000 word limit is a whole different challenge after you’ve been working on a novel. It certainly seems o be a challenge you were determined to win by the sound of it. Looking forward to reading more of your posts.

    Like

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