This week’s episode of the excellent Writing Excuses podcast set an interesting challenge in preparation for next month’s focus on beginnings:
Decide on the promises you want to make to your readers in your story. Then outline according to those promises.
The folks at Writing Excuses have talked a lot about the importance of the promises the beginning of a book makes. As a writer, you need to be aware of these promises, and pay off on them at the end, to leave readers satisfied. For more on this I’d recommend checking out some of their episodes on story structure.
Sieges and Silverware
For the exercise, I’m going to do some plotting for the fourth book in the series of Epiphany Club novellas I’m working on. I’m doing this because I need to start planning it anyway, so I might as well use the Writing Excuses exercises for that. With the first two books now at the editing stage and the third one part written, this is the one to get my planning teeth into.
I also find that I’ll put more effort into an exercise if I’m going to use the outcome – hence the use of previous exercises to help plan my Friday flash stories.
Entitled Sieges and Silverware, this story sees Victorian adventurers Dirk Dynamo and Timothy Blaze-Simms arrive at a German castle in their pursuit of clues to the location of the Great Library. It’s 1871, Germany has just been unified, and the occupants of the castle are holding out against that unification.
Plotlines and Promises
To work out what promises to make at the start of the story, I need to know how I’m planning to end it. The biggest plotlines, and where I want them to end, are:
- Following a parting of ways at the end of the previous book, I want to see Dirk and Blaze-Simms get back to cooperating with their former colleague in adventure Isabelle McNair, who currently has the clues they need to find the Library.
- This castle isn’t going to be able to hold out against the Prussian forces besieging it. In the end, it falls.
- The lord of the castle has been carrying out horrifying mad science experiments, and the story will end with his defeat, so that the heroes get a win.
- The lady of the castle has had her husband locked up and been running the place. This plotline addresses an issue bubbling along in all these books, and especially Isabelle’s character arc – the challenge for women of taking control of their lives in a male-dominated society. So I want to end with Her Ladyship moving on to something else, not defining herself in terms of the castle and marriage she was pushed into at a young age.
There are other plots too, but those are the main ones. So, if I want them to end that way, what are the promises I want to make for each plot?
- That the tension between Isabelle, Dirk and Timothy is going to be a major problem, and that the guys will deal with what they see as her betrayal.
- That we’re going to see this siege through to the end.
- That we’re going to find out what’s behind the strange monsters prowling the castle.
- That we’re going to see what’s going on behind the scenes of this castle, because the lady is being evasive about what’s keeping her husband from meeting the heroes.
MICE Don’t Squeak
There’s another implied promise to be addressed – Orson Scott Card’s MICE quotient. Is this a story whose structure is about Milieu (a setting), an Idea, Character, or Event.
Though they’ll all feature, and different plots are more focused on different aspects, I think this is primarily an Event story. It’s about Dirk and Blaze-Simms’s attempt to retrieve what they want from a castle under siege. So it needs to start as close as possible to the disruption of the event starting, and end as close as possible to its resolution.
That’s easy enough. I can start with them arriving by hot air balloon just as the siege begins, and end with them leaving the same way, with what they came for.
What Goes Into the First Chapter
That being the case, I now have a good idea of what my first chapter will look like.
It starts with the heroes arriving by hot air balloon at the castle, where they believe Isabelle is. There they meet her and Her Ladyship, and find that they’ve combined forces. They ask to speak to the lord of the place, but can’t get straight answers on that. As all of this is happening, Prussian forces arrive to demand that the local region join the newly unified Germany, and Her Ladyship refuses, triggering the siege. Just as they’re trying to work out what to do about all this, a body of a servant is found, ripped to shreds.
Hopefully you can see how I’ve set up all the plot threads there, creating an implied promise that they’ll be addressed. When I come to write the chapter I’ll plan it in more detail. For now though, I have the previous volumes to edit, and I’ve rambled on enough here.
What are your thoughts on how to start a story, and how to get the promises right? Have you tried this exercise? Have you noticed the promises in the books you’ve read? Share your thoughts in the comments.