Monday, 12 November 2007

Story Structure: phase 1 - the set-up

We all know that stories need to have a beginning, a middle and an end. Act One of a story is the beginning. We meet the characters, find out what their lives are like and discover what problems they are facing.

Set up
In Joseph Vogler's Hero's Journey, this stage is called the Ordinary World. We see the protagonist as they are before the journey they are about to embark upon changes them. This is the place where we have to introduce our hero and heroine and create sympathy for them and curiosity about them. Now, according to Mr MIchael Hauge, in a movie, this should take about the first 10% of the screen time. In a novel, however, there is more room to play. Sometimes there is not set-up at all and we meet the hero at the first turning point. It all depends on the requirements of the story. In fact, just about any of these structural elements depend what may fit your story; there are no hard and fast rules - only what works.

The main thing to avoid is stretching this section out by dumping in backstory, or including events that do nothing to move the story forward. If anything, as novelists, we can be guilty of setting up a little too much. Another trap to avoid is to have lots of scenes showing who your main character is before anything really happens. Show only what the reader needs to know and get the story started as soon as possible. The best way for the reader to find out what your characters are like is to give them something to do! Make them face problems, test their limits.


Lovely scenes that sketch out your character are nice, but if you do too much of that in the set-up phase, your reader is going to turn the light off and go to sleep. Not good. The Set-up is where you want to hook your reader. Right from the first page. Right from the first paragraph. From the first sentence, if at all possible. Just because this is the world that is "ordinary" to your characters, does not mean it should be dull! Top-selling M&B Romance author Liz Fielding has a great article on her website about opening scenes. Go and check it out.

I'm struggling with the opening sentence of my wip at the moment. It started of as, "Louise wasn't looking at the man sat opposite her—the one voted "Hollywood’s Hottest Hunk" in some stupid magazine poll only last week. " Presently it is: "Most women would have given at least one kidney to be in Louise’s shoes—both literally and figuratively."

Who knows what it will end up as. But the point is this: ask a question with your very first sentence if you can. Maybe my first effort raises a more interesting question: if you were sat opposite a drop-dead gorgeous movie star, would you be staring at your cutlery? Of course not! So why is Louise not gazing into his eyes and drooling? Your first sentence question may not be the main story question (although extra points if it's related somehow) but even a little question that gets the reader to keep going until you can hit them with an even bigger, juicier question is good.

I've decided to look at a few well-known movies for examples (because more of us have seen the same movies than read the same books) to see how this story structure stuff hangs together:
  • Notting Hill - as the credits roll, we see Anna's 'ordinary' life as a movie star. (It may not be ordinary to you and me, but it's her ordinary life.) And shortly afterwards, we meet William, an average guy living in Notting Hill and running a failing bookshop.
  • Pretty Woman - Edward is a cold, ruthless business man who cares only about the bottom line. Vivian is a cheap hooker with dreams of bettering herself and is struggling to pay the rent.
  • You've Got Mail - Kathleen is the owner of a small bookstore and has a pretentious boyfriend. However, online she is ‘shopgirl’ and she is having an internet romance with ‘NY152’. Since they don’t talk about personal details, she can’t know that he is Joe Fox and that his family owns a chain of book megastores.

So, after all that, a little challenge! Julie Cohen did a first page challenge a while ago where she asked people to post the first few paragraphs of a book/work-in-progress; I'm doing a first sentence challenge. Either post your sentence on your blog and provide a link, or use the comments section here. Go on, hit me with your best shot!

8 comments:

Ray-Anne said...

How about this opening line from my latest WIP?

'Marigold Jane Chance had two best friends. One was a laptop computer called Lulu, and the other was a hippie flower child.'

Want to read more?
LOL Interesting Post - thanks Fiona.

Fiona Harper said...

Funnily enough, it's the laptop that intrigues me the most! And it evokes sympathy - why is her only friend a computer?

Ray-Anne said...

Hi Fiona. Good point.

Originally this line was :

Marigold Chance had two best friends; one was a laptop computer called Lulu which made her life possible, and the other was her twin sister Rosa, a hippie flower child who pushed the boundaries of possible on a daily basis.

I did think it was too long - but does this version make it clearer?
Lulu and Rosa. Gotta love them.

Mel said...

Here's mine and this is about the third time I've changed it.

Megan Hazley frowned at the dirt drive way, leading to the home she swore to never step foot in again, and then said into her phone, "Think Mommie Dearest minus the wire hanger."

Still not perfect, but it's getting there.

Fiona Harper said...

Ray-Anne, I think your first sentence is shorter and snappier, but the second version has more emotional hooks. As soon as you mention that the hippy is her sister, it fired my curiosity up even further.

Mind you, if the same information came in the first paragraph, it would probably still have enough of a hook for me to keep on reading.

Mel, I like it. You've got the emotional hook: why doesn't she want to go home? And the humour gives a nice taste of what kind of book it's going to be.

Nell said...

“Surprise!” Immi blinked owlishly from under my security light and waved an unopened bottle of champagne at me.
This is from my current wip. Animal Instincts.

Danica/Dream said...

How about... Her day could not have gotten any darker.

Phillipa said...

Er Um. I'll post the opening lines (dialogue) to Just Say Yes on the provisio my editorial notes are on their way. But here it is:

“Well, are they there?”

“Fiona, is the Pope Catholic? Of course they’re here!”

The phone subsided into silence as Lucy Gibson did a left into the anonymous North London street. She could have sworn she heard actual cogs whirring in Fiona’s mind before her mobile crackled into life again.