Plunging In

How and Where to Start Your Story

© 2003 by Deborah M. Hale

"Come on in, the water's great!" I love to swim. But show me a pool, a river or an ocean and I want to ease into that water. A step or two at a time, half against my will, if the water's cool. It can be a pretty painstaking process. My sister just climbs onto the diving board and plunges in…while I watch and shudder. When it comes to beginning a story, my natural inclination is also to ease in rather than to plunge. But I've learned to fight that tendency.

The very last storytelling lesson I learned before I sold was how and where to start my story. It was a tough one to get through my head, for some reason. I'd read good advice about it in various writing 'how-to' books and from generous published authors willing to share their own hard-won wisdom. But it just didn't sink in.

In my first manuscript, I had three chapters of lovingly crafted scenes before my hero and heroine finally came face to face. I had received and heeded tons of good advice about other aspects of the story, but whenever it was suggested that I might plunge into the action sooner, I turned a deaf ear. As if I was being asked to leap into deep, frigid water…with sharks circling and no land in sight.

I thought I had good reasons for the way I'd started my story. After all, those early chapters of mine weren't tedious description of the setting or an account of the heroine's life from birth. They had strong scenes with lots of dialogue and action and tons of conflict. How the hero and heroine came to be meeting for the first time at the church where they were about to be married was a complicated and (I thought) intriguing story in itself. If I tried to begin any later, readers would be confused or I'd end up with a dreaded back-story dump that I'd been warned against. It wouldn't work. I couldn't do it. No, no NO!

Finally, after two lackluster outings in the Golden Heart and a slew of rejections from editors and agents, I was once again told that I should start my story with the pivotal wedding scene. I still might have stuffed my fingers in my ears and begun humming loudly, but I was getting the same advice from two different and very trusted sources. So, I gave in. Sort of. With very bad grace.

Muttering 'back story dump' under my breath, I said I'd try it their way to see if it could be done. Then I changed Chapter Four to Chapter One and plunged into my story. I floundered a bit at first, but I kept treading watering, holding on to two of the best pieces of writing advice I've ever come across, as if they were a buoy and a life line. One was from Patricia Gaffney's article "Plotting the Romance" in the old Golden Heart Handbook: "It's amazing how much the reader does not need to know at the beginning of the book." The other came from "Peeling the Onion: Avoiding Too-Much Too-Soon Syndrome", an RWR article by Diana Whitney Hinz: "When I'm outlining a story, I like to think in terms of questions, rather than answers. That is, what do I want the reader to be asking herself at any given point in the book?"

Taking a new attitude that I wanted my readers to ask questions and wonder a bit about what was happening, I did not cram all the information from my old opening into my new one. Hence, no dreaded back story dump. In fact, I hung onto some of that information for many chapters, doling it out a hint at a time, luring readers deeper and deeper into the story.

Now, when an editor, agent or contest judge started my manuscript, they were confronted with two strangers making wedding vows and neither of them very happy about it, despite an unacknowledged spark of attraction. Why were they doing this? Would they consummate the marriage? What would happen when the heroine's sea captain sweetheart returned from his voyage? Those were questions I hoped would hook them and keep them reading, though I still had secret fears readers might not understand what was going on without my original first three chapters.

On its next shot at the Golden Heart, my story catapulted into the finals and won. I signed with an agent and got requests from several publishers. A few months later, my manuscript sold to Harlequin Historical® , was published and went on to make the RITA finals. Never once, in a review or a fan letter, did anyone suggest they'd been confused by the opening or needed more information than I gave them to become immersed in the story.

Now, after all that, you'd think I'd learn, right? Well, I did…sort of. There's still part of me that wants to ease into my stories. Take a couple of chapters to introduce the reader to my hero and heroine. Show them why these two are going to be a volatile combination, but ultimately perfect for each other. If the compulsion is really strong, I may even write those chapters. But when it comes to submitting a proposal, now, I usually reread those articles by Pat Gaffney and Diana Whitney Hinz. Then I save those earlier chapters for my own information and make myself plunge into the story as close as possible to the hero and heroine's first meeting, or the meeting that will put them on their collision course with destiny.

So, if you're like me and easing into stories just isn't working for you, I suggest you commit those quotes to heart, change Chapter Two or Three or Six to Chapter One and take the plunge. If it doesn't work, you can always go back to your original version. But, I'm guessing and hoping that once you plunge in, you'll find the water's great. And readers may be more eager to plunge into your story, too.

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Cover art copyright © by Harlequin Enterprises Limited ® and ™ are trademarks of the publisher.
All text within this site is © Deborah Hale. Reprinting without permission is prohibited.

 

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