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William Lashner's PI-Writing Blog

The Meat of Things

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

I'm revising the beginning of my new novel, so let's talk about beginnings.

Where does a story begin? At the moment when things change. There is always something that gets the ball rolling, what is called the inciting incident. Before then life is as it ever was; after it is never the same again. (If you can't say that then you don't have a story.) It can be the finding of a dead body, meeting the girl that changes your life, getting notified of a tragedy, have the comely new client walk into your office. Generally, the closer you start at that incident, the better.

The novel I'm working on is about three friends who keep in touch religiously, once a week, just to say hello, just to say that everything is fine. Just to let each other know that they've still gotten away with it. What the it is doesn't matter yet, just the calls. The story begins when a call from one of the friends in Vegas doesn't come. That failure to call is right there on the first page. Right after that our hero is winging out to Vegas. The story has begun. Bam.

Writers have a great desire, though, to show life as it was in the before so that the contrast with the after can seem so much bigger. It's an impulse that should be stifled, like comments in the movie theater. Sometimes there are fifty pages of life as it was before the crash of events begin, and sometimes the reader only gets to thirty before she puts the book down. No matter how good those fifty pages are, they are not worth the waiting. Writers do all this work, create all this background, and then want to show it off. Don't.

James Cameron put the script of Avatar on the web. The script differs from the movie in a couple of ways, and one of the ways is the very beginning. The script starts with our hero, Jake, on earth, in a bar, in his wheelchair. He's feeling miserable, bitter. He sees a guy at the bar beating on a girl, everyone turns away, but not Jake. He wheels over and beats the crap out of the guy. Then he gets thrown out of the bar, his wheelchair thrown out after, landing with a clatter. Jake is sitting in the alley, with his useless legs among all the garbage, ruminating on the misery of his life, when two guys in suits show up. The guys in the suits have an offer for him, an offer that starts the story. It's not a bad scene, a little devoid of subtlety, sure, but surely serviceable. But as you can see, until the guys with the suits show up, it has nothing to do with our story. It is all before stuff. Cameron cut it. And here's the thing, nothing was lost in the cutting. Everything we need to know about Jake we learn in the story itself.

Whatever you can cut without losing anything of real value should be cut. That's usually all the before stuff.

Start at the beginning, not before..


Blogger Unknown said...

That's great advice, William. I've been working on a mid-grade mystery novel for the last six months and I've re-written the first of the book a half dozen times, each time cutting more and more superfluous crap that doesn't need to be there. It hurts at the time, but I think it makes it stronger. After your blog, I think I'll take another look at it.

On a side note, I just found your website today. I picked up Past Due at a thrift store four or five days ago and have since bought most of the rest of your books, LOVE Vic, he's a great "hero" and I just learned that you also wrote Kockroach, which I devoured and really enjoyed last year!

January 14, 2010 at 1:14 AM  
Blogger William Lashner said...

Hey Kris,

Welcome to the gang. I'm really glad you liked KOCKROACH.

Good luck on the book. Cutting is great fun after you've actually done it, cutting is the easiest way to make a novel better. All it takes is a cold eye and the stomach for it. The first day of writing school my teacher told me a writer's job is to be interesting, and one way to be interesting is to cut out the stuff that isn't.

January 14, 2010 at 9:12 PM  

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