Plot the Parts of the Story
Story Structure, like plot, is a triad. It three parts—the beginning, middle, and end—have parameters that are almost universal:
- The first quarter of a novel constitutes the beginning.
- The middle or Act Two makes up one half of the story.
- The last quarter consists of the resolution, Act III or the end.
And within these three, the plot lines of emotional development, dramatic action, and thematic significance interact.
“The reader owes the writer nothing. It’s the writer’s prerogative to start her book slow, to build up to the action and so forth, but it’s the reader’s prerogative to fling the book aside in a fit of boredom. We owe it to the reader to make the experience worth their while from the get-go—to make every line count.”
Every story begins with a protagonist who wants something. The long-term goal sets up the forward movement of the story.
The writer introduces the protagonist, his world, the tone of the story, as well as the major characters—who they are, their emotional make-up and relation to one another. But, as John Cheevers has said, “If you’re trying to establish rapport with your reader, you don’t open by telling him that you have a headache and indigestion and that you picked up a gravelly rash at Jones Beach. …The first principle of aesthetics is either interest or suspense. You can’t expect to communicate with anyone if you’re a bore.”
- “Penny Dawson woke and heard something moving furtively in the dark bedroom. —Darkfall by Dean Koontz
- We were somewhere around Barstow on the edge of the desert, when the drugs began to take hold. I remember saying something like “I feel a bit lightheaded; maybe you should drive….” And suddenly there was a terrible roar all around us and the sky was full of what looked like huge bats, all swooping and screeching and diving around the car, which was going about a hundred miles an hour with the top down to Las Vegas. And a voice was screaming: “Holy Jesus! What are these goddamn animals?”— Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson
- The strangest thing about my wife’s return from the dead was how other people reacted. —The Beginner’s Goodbye by Anne Tyler
Anne Tyler is no beginner when it comes to beginning a story. In The Beginner’s Goodbye, Tyler’s protagonist, whose name is Aaron crosses paths with a neighbor Jim Rust that see him walking with his returned from the dead wife Dorothy. Aaron thinks that perhaps the neighbor who sees him and his wife will presume “that the house was still intact, and Dorothy still alive, and the two of us still happily, unremarkably married.”
Two short paragraphs later, Aaron admits, “In fact, I have wondered what made Dorothy select the moment she did to come back. And so do we.
More peculiar, upping our curiosity, Aaron tells us that she didn’t return to him “immediately after she died, which is when you might expect. “It was months and months later. Almost a year.” In classic Tyler style, whimsical tone.
“Of course I could have just asked her, but somehow, I don’t know, the question seemed impolite.” Aaron suspects that a reference to the wondrous gift of his wife’s return might break the spell, which is presented to us as anything but a magical contrivance or illusion, and he will again, lose his wife, something he couldn’t bear to live all over again. Will he, the reader can’t help asking?
Almost haphazardly, as Aaron describes his wife’s beauty, a beauty she is oblivious to, he says that he noticed “the creases as fine as silk threads that encircled her wrists and her neck.” [Scars are hardly to be described as silk threads, unless of course, silk threads allude to frail tethers that suspend her in his world.]
What are the successful elements of these opening lines? First, they give the name of a character. This specificity creates the illusion of reality from the get-go. A variation on this is to begin with a pronoun: She heard something moving in her bedroom. What I like about the Koontz approach, however, is that a name gives that extra measure of verisimilitude and makes the “willing suspension of disbelief” that much easier. The second thing to notice is that something is happening or about to happen to the character. And not just anything—something ominous or dangerous. An interruption to normal life. Give readers a feeling of motion, of something happening or about to happen. Give them this feeling from the start. If you begin with long, descriptive passages (an acceptable trend in the past), the feeling you’ll create is not one of motion but of stasis.
Unless something disturbing happens to your protagonist early on, you risk violating Hitchcock’s Axiom: "A good story is life with the dull parts taken out."
Something upsets the status quo. A threat or challenge happens to the protagonist and sweeps the reader up in the tension and all that hangs in the balance. How will the protagonist turn things around and land on his feet? High stakes demand that the hero rises to confront the obstacles, as the goal exceeds his actual or perceived abilities.