Writing the Character-Driven Story: Chapter 4, Part 1

In today’s Journal

* Short Video
* Writing the Opening
* Of Interest
* The Numbers

Short Video

on my YouTube channel: Yes, this is southeast Arizona!

Still thinking about reviving the channel to talk about writing. But I already do that in the Journal, so…. Thoughts? Leave a comment.

Writing the Opening

As I mentioned in the Definitions section of the Introduction, the opening is the introductory scene of whatever you’re writing.

The sole purpose of the opening is to introduce the reader to a character with a problem in a particular setting. That’s it.

Well, and to pull the reader into the story through the description of character and setting and thereby make the reader care about the character.

The opening is usually 300 to 500 words. So about a half-hour’s work.

The opening is important in two different ways:

First, this is the part of the story that determines whether the writer wants to keep writing or shelve the idea for another time or just forget it altogether. This is the part of the story that either runs or doesn’t.

I am fortunate in that most of the time, the opening runs and I go with it. Then it becomes a short story, a novella or a novel.

Every now and then (rarely, thank goodness), something about the opening fizzles. Then I do one of two things:

If I really liked the idea, I toss out the opening and write another one off of the same idea. If that one runs, I go with it. If it fizzles too, I toss out the opening, period. If the idea was all that good, I’ll have it again eventually.

If I didn’t really like the idea, I chunk it, come up with another idea, and write another opening.

Second, after the story is published, the opening is the part of the story that determines whether the reader wants to continue reading, shelve it for another time, or just forget it altogether. Sound familiar?

The only difference is that you, the writer, control what the reader experiences as he’s reading the opening. So take your time. (You’ll hear this again.)

You are experiencing the story as you run through it with the characters. But don’t assume the reader will see, hear, taste, smell and feel (physically or emotionally) what unfolds in the story if you don’t put it on the page.

Take Your Time.

Write everthing in the setting that the POV character notices, write everything that happens, and write every physical and oral reaction of the characters to what happens. If you don’t, chances are you’ll leave out something that would have been important later in the story.

But don’t intrude on the story. You are an outsider, only the observer and recorder. If you add something you “think” should be there, that is an author intrusion, and it will sidetrack the authentic story. (Chances are, you’ll feel a little twinge in your gut.)

Tips for Writing the Character in the Opening

Use the character’s full name, including any major nickname, the first time you mention him.

This matters because it embeds in the reader’s mind any names he might encounter for this character later in the story.

For example, my character Joseph “Joey Bones” Salerno is called Joseph by his mother, Joe, Joey or Mr. Salerno by family members, acquaintances and others who know him, and Joey Bones by a select few.

The nickname, in every case, is used either to indicate actual or hoped-for familiarity and respect (for example, by peers in his line of business) or to indicate disdain or disrespect (for example, by law enforcement officers).

Often the character’s full name will be the first words of the story and part of the hook. More on that in the example under “Tips for Writing the Problem in the Opening” and in the upcoming chapter on writing the hook.

Give the reader a sense of the character’s physical appearance as well as what he’s wearing and doing. This will make the character more real to the reader.

Note: Despite what you might have heard from people who don’t have a clue what they’re talking about, it is NEVER all right to withhold a character’s name strictly to build suspense.

When you withhold a character’s name and the reader finds out later you did so without a valid reason, the reader will feel cheated and alienated.

And usually the reader who feels cheated and alienated will close your book, put it into a Donate to the Friends of the Library box, and find something else to do.

Tips for Writing the Problem in the Opening

The problem in the opening doesn’t have to be (and usually is not) “the” big problem or conflict of the story. It’s only a problem the character has to solve in order to move into the story.

The problem in the opening often is implied rather than stated outright.

The problem in the opening, implied or otherwise, often appears in the first sentence along with the character’s name. I strongly recommend it appear at least in the first paragraph.

For example, a hook—

“Joseph P ‘Joey Bones’ Salerno tried the door knob to his bedroom again. He frowned, then reached for the pistol under his left arm.”

In only that hook, you can see a tiny bit of the setting and the implied problem(s), right? The first and main implied problem for the opening is that the bedroom door is locked, and that it being locked is unusual.

The second implied problem (what he will find behind the door) depends on what sort of story you’re writing. It might even be “the” big problem or conflict of the story.

The problem doesn’t have to be implied, of course, and it can appear alone in the opening sentence.

For example,

“An explosion rocked the asphalt parking lot and ripped the northeast corner off the seven-story parking garage.”

Or “An explosion rocked the front of the ship, tossing the crew about like kindling.”

Or “An explosion shattered the front window of the Lincoln Navigator.”

Nothing implied in any of those, right? Who reacts in what way to that opening sentence will inform your hook, your opening and your story. (And no, it doesn’t always have to be an explosion.)

Tips for Writing the Setting in the Opening

I will cover Setting thoroughly in Chapter 6: Writing Setting. For now, here are a few tips:

Any descriptions of the setting must come through the POV character’s physical or mental or emotionlal perception and are often accompanied by his opinion.

For example, if the opening is set in a wedding chapel in Las Vegas,

One character might believe the decorations, music, scents, and so on are gauche or distasteful or cold and commercial.

Another might find those same aspects of the chapel humorous or ironic.

Another might find them beautiful. If two of those characters are getting married, your “big” problem might be couched right there.

Use as many of the POV character’s physical senses as possible in describing the immediate and overall setting.

Incredibly, most writers use only the sense of sight, thereby rendering the writing “thin” or “shallow.”

Using only the sense of sight renders the setting one-dimensional. The reader who is fully grounded in the setting will “experience” the setting and find it much more difficult to put down your story.

When Do You Write an Opening?

The short answer is Whenever you get an idea. In fact, that’s the long answer too.

Sometimes I won’t even have a full idea (character with a problem in a setting). In fact, most of the time I have only a story starter.

  • Maybe a title occurs to me from something I read or saw or heard.
  • Maybe a sound evokes a memory or a mood.
  • Maybe a character name or a line of dialogue in a particular dialect pops into my mind.

When anything like that happens—when I get an idea or a trigger—I sit down and put my fingers on the keyboard as soon as possible and write an opening.

Most often it takes off and I just keep writing the next sentence and the next and the next. Whatever the character gives me.

A Case in Point

I was doing nothing in particular one day when three words — Joey Bones Salerno — popped into my head. And the character popped in with them. I could see him and smell his aftershave.

The words “Joey Bones” roll off the tongue better if they follow “Hey,” pronounced without the hard H sound. And the whole thing comes off better if there’s a bit of attitude behind the pronunciation.

I could see this guy, Joey Bones, in my mind. He was standing on a street corner in Brooklyn. So there’s the overall general setting. (I’ve never been to Brooklyn except when transported there while watching a movie.)

His facial features, physique, and clothing—even the scent of his aftershave and the smell of exhaust and sounds from passing traffic—were as sharp as if I was standing three feet away from him. (So there’s part of the more specific setting.)

When he spoke, his voice and his accent—even the way he clipped his words and where he clipped them—were clear and crisp. The emphasis on the accent varied a bit depending on whether he was talking with peers or his boss, underlings, or those who didn’t know him. Yeah, just like he was a real person.

I mentioned smelling his aftershave. Maybe it was his cologne. Doesn’t matter. I remember (as if I was actually standing close to him) feeling surprised it wasn’t stronger. Remember, all of this was in a flash in my mind. I even felt the humidity draped in the air and the temperature.

And that one story starter—those initial three words and the character “vision” that came with them—spawned at least eleven short stories and one novella. The novella and probably four or five of those short stories were based directly on that particular character. The rest were based on the character type.

Next up, Chapter 4, Part 2. Talk with you again then.

Of Interest

Editor and Reading Observations… Part 12 Another good post.

The Thing About Self-Promotion…  Note: Don’t do the cover-on-a-thirt thing unless you own the art the cover is based on (or have licensed it for that use). You could find yourself in court.

The Numbers

The Journal……………………………… 1740

Writing of Blackwell Ops 20: Soleada Garcia: Into the Future (tentative title)

Day 1…… 3681 words. To date…… 3681
Day 2…… 3044 words. To date…… 6725
Day 3…… 3375 words. To date…… 10100
Day 4…… 3349 words. To date…… 13449

Fiction for February……………………. 17135
Fiction for 2024…………………………. 134739
Fiction since October 1……………… 437796
Nonfiction for February……………… 13560
Nonfiction for 2024…………………… 45520
2024 consumable words…………… 180259

2024 Novels to Date……………………… 3
2024 Novellas to Date…………………… 0
2024 Short Stories to Date……………… 1
Novels (since Oct 19, 2014)…………… 85
Novellas (since Nov 1, 2015)…………… 9
Short stories (since Apr 15, 2014)…… 239
Short story collections…………………… 31

Disclaimer: I am a prolific professional fiction writer. On this blog I teach Writing Into the Dark and adherence to Heinlein’s Rules. Unreasoning fear and the myths of writing will slow your progress as a writer or stop you cold. I will never teach the myths on this blog.

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