Tied to the Tracks: Leading with Peril

First off, apologies for not having an entry yesterday. I’ve been sick the past few days and am only starting to climb my way out of it.

But that’s not today’s topic. Today’s topic is Leading with Peril. Now what do I mean by that? Well, when you start off your story – novel – screenplay, what have you, you want the story to grab the reader by the lapels and really shake them around. It should say “hey, this is important!”. God forbid you lead off with an internal monologue or a “weather” beginning.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with a “weather” beginning (though it’s quite a cliche by this point), it begins by describing the weather that a character is experiencing, something of which I’ve definitely been guilty. I’ve also been guilty of the internal monologue beginning. I mean, hell, the book that I was trying to sell – the one that may indeed still sell – starts with an internal monologue. The rewrite does not. The rewrite follows the principle of leading with peril.

But let’s look at an example from my own past to establish just what I’m talking about (from the second draft of my own long-abandoned novel, Jazshael):

The congested I-81 corridor from Northwestern Virginiais more than just a thoroughfare; it is a means to transport a traveler into a land of carmine autumn mountainsides, spacious verdant fields, and unresolved dichotomy. The unsuspecting traveler to the Shenandoah Valley moves from a place where a rural sensibility informs the outliers of a metropolitan area to an insular, unique land, where a BMW may find itself stuck in a no-passing lane behind a black horse and carriage, where drunken frat boys from that metropolis rub shoulders in sparse, redneck bars with mountain men just come down from ancient familial perches in the Blue Ridge. It is a place where the citizenry would fly both a Confederate Flag and an American Flag and see no contradiction, so long as some know-it-all from the city didn’t think to comment. The average tourist may remain unaware of the nature of the land, but those who have lived there know it, and feel it in their pores for the remainder of their lives.

It’s a travelogue, basically. I’m sure it would work just fine as a travel book, but as the beginning of a novel, it’s pretty damn weak, even if I do think the writing itself is fairly strong.

Now, I don’t necessarily mean that the character has to be in danger right from the outset. That will get a reader’s attention, but what if you’re writing a book where the character is not in physical danger at any point? I’ve read in a few places that the danger you present may be emotional. Or a career danger, or a mental danger. So that gives you some possibilities. You could lead off with the end of a relationship, or the threat of ending a relationship. Or having a job threatened.

I mean, stories are, at their core, about conflict – conflict that changes characters. If you can lead your story off with a conflict that’s even remotely related to the main plot, it’s a really good start. As I’ve become more selective about what I read, I’ve definitely noticed that the poor, slow starts always turn me off. I always sit there wondering when it will get going. Don’t get me wrong, I understand that sometimes literary works are slower burns.

But there is a way to make a literary novel also start with this peril. Like I said, it’s about identifying an immediate danger to the character – even a literary novel has some sort of conflict, and that’s what you need to be focusing on. For instance, one of the novels that I wrote once upon a time was about a young man who moved to join an artists commune in Northern California in the early 70s. It was intended as a deconstruction of the end of the Hippie Era and the end of the 60s in general.

The prime conflict within the story was that this guy wanted to become the best artist he could possibly be while living within his own ideals – more beatnik than hippie in nature. But within this commune there were rules about collective bargaining; now that I know a little more about the world, the plot is fairly ludicrous, but give me a break, I was 19 when I started it. Anyway, the rule was that it was okay to sell your works, but no agents. Dissatisfied, a group of artists broke off and made a deal to produce counterfeit art with this man who claimed to be a great agent and would eventually get them big gallery shows (which he did deliver upon).

There was also a subplot involving him falling in love with a woman who already had an abusive boyfriend who tries to kill her, but they end up killing him and running off to Mexico. It was all very melodramatic, but I was trying to wrap an artistic approach around that. Obviously I didn’t feel it worked, because I never sold the book, but I learned a lot. The reason I mention this book, however, is that I recall the opening to this book:

But that was after.

Before, it was a hot July day. Before, I was dealing with one of those days I’ve always hated, when nature wants you to soak you in your own juices. Before, I hadn’t met Norm.

Wait. Let me back up and tell you a little about Norm Lavoy.

Of all the bastards I’d seen come and go, Norm was the most significant of them all. When Norm was a kid, he kept live rats in his basement. His mom would tell him to kill them, he’d put them in a box. Norm would tell you to fuck off, then hug you like you grew up together and were just boys.

And now (or rather, then), I stood before Norm’s apartment door having never met the guy, knowing only of him through second-hand anecdotes of one of his stoner friends. My stomach was tight in my throat, my heartbeat in time to agitated thought behind my eyes. Those thoughts weren’t that important, but they involved some variations of him laughing his ass off at me, followed by homelessness, followed by hobosex in the back of a Jack in the Box at 3 AM in exchange for some trashed burgers. They weren’t that important. I knocked once, a quick tap.

That’s right, hobosex.

The only answer to my knock was machine-gun-fire barking. I imagined a gnarled dog hunkered down in some World War I trench, firing off barking rounds to protect its position from the encroaching cat army. Then…ah, yes, it paused, peering over the trench to see if the enemy was still there. I heard footsteps behind the door.

Then the doggy soldier unloaded another fusillade as it dove, ass-first, back into the trench.

This bit of a mind-movie, amusing as it was, was interrupted by a thump against the door and the quieting, but not ceasing, of the dog’s volleys.

Actually not as bad as I had once thought, but the second paragraph describes the weather, and there’s not much hint of a conflict here, and it doesn’t get much better over the ensuing pages. We just meet Norm and his jail-bait girlfriend. But keep in mind what you see above is the fourth draft. In the original draft, we followed him in agonizing detail as he walked from his car to that front door. It was a slow, plodding affair, because I had been reading a lot of literary works at the time and wanted to emulate that style. It was a very Kerouac-influenced book.

If I were to rewrite this today, I would likely start with him wondering what the hell he’s done signing this agreement with this “agent” and then work backwards from there to show him arriving while cutting out the extraneous details. At the time, though, I felt that I needed to show as many of the opening events as possible. Now, of course, I’ve realized that you can shorthand a lot of stuff.

I mean, that’s just one example of how you can do it. Look at the key point in your story and how you can harness some of that to get the story going. Some books I’ve read say that beginnings of novels are actually easier than endings and I’m inclined to agree. Now that I’ve actually learned the secret to creating a good beginning, I don’t have much trouble with it. Here are a few off-the-cuff examples that I’ve come up with, and there are loads more that can serve as spurs for writing:

  • Mark wanted to understand why he was a marked man, but the gun in his back was a more immediate concern.
  • She’d always suspected there was something unusual about her dog. The bones in the kitchen just proved it.
  • It’s not every morning you awaken in another world, but today just happened to be that kind of day.

And on and on. You get those, and you can sit down and think about which ones really work for you. Sometimes I think it’s good practice to just write these intros and ask yourself the following questions:

  • Who is the character saying or observing this?
  • What is the situation all about?

From that you can get solid story ideas and proceed onward.

Again, leading with peril. Leading with conflict. We’ll talk about endings tomorrow.

Today’s featured blog is Middle of the Road Reviews, which I think really tries to present a balanced perspective on book reviews. They’ve created their own rating system, and also offer reviews for parents so they know what they’re getting into. Check it out!

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