How Beginnings Work (and other neat tricks)

What a good opening page looks like…

I’m a slow starter, and this is why.  This is a story about beginnings:

Once upon a time…

Now that’s a good opening.  Short.  Simple.  Sets a mood.  Makes you wonder what could come next.  Everything a good opening should do. Those Brothers Grimm knew a good thing when they saw it.

… there was, to a king, a girl born with hair as black as coal, lips as red as roses, and skin as fair as snow…

This is what’s known as your protagonist, your main character.  You can visualize this one pretty easily, and while our interpretations may vary wildly, I’ll bet most of us think of the Disney Snow White (1937) when you hear those words.

… but she was lonely because her mother died birthing her, and the king was busy ruling his Kingdom…

This is known as a sympathetic trait.  Something to invest you in the character.  As a children’s tale, the loss of a parent is one of the most powerful elements to bind a reader to a protagonist.  Think of what you did when Bambi’s mother was shot, or when Simba’s father faced the wildebeest stampede, or when Nemo’s mother met her fate.  There’s a reason Disney is so cruel to parents.

It’s called a profit margin.

OK, not really, they use it because it works.  It’s emotional shorthand.  And while you can say its just a cliché, its a cliché that works.  Because it’s universal.  All of us have parents.  Most of us know who they are.  Issues with parents are things some people never work out.  And when children become parents, it’s a chance to look at the whole thing from the other side.  Kind of like starting over from a taller viewpoint.

So, we have our setting, our protagonist, and our emotional stake.  What else do we need?

… and the King married a Queen, a proud vain woman who longed to be the most beautiful woman in the Kingdom, and watched her budding step-daughter with calculating eyes…

Good.  An antagonist.  Just what every solid story needs.  And we can see the set-up of the conflict.  The Queen is feeling her age, seeing faint lines appear on her face that weren’t there before.  And Snow White is a little hottie.  Lush young body, burgeoning sexuality, still that tinge of sweet innocence.  Unaware of the power she’ll have over men.  True, she’s the King’s daughter and the Queen is knocking boots with the old guy whenever he commands, but still…

Yeah, that’s not in the story…  not exactly.  That’s what we call subtext, and I’ll talk about that some other time.

… so each day, the Queen would ask her magic mirror who was the fairest in the land, and the mirror would answer “You are fairest, My Queen” and the Queen would be satisfied.

But one day, she asked the mirror her question and the mirror responded “You, my queen, are fair; it is true. But Little Snow-White is a thousand times fairer than you.”

And the Queen’s heart hardened.

And with that, we have all the pieces we need to set our story in motion.  A sympathetic hero/heroine, a villain, and a drive.  With that proclamation from the mirror, our story is set in motion.  We have a villain who wants something and a hero that prevents them from getting it.  Everything that follows will spring from that basic story.  All the details that follow are window dressing for that one simple story: Will Snow White escape the jealous Queen and live happily ever after?  The dwarves, the Huntsman, the Prince, the poison apple, the glass coffin… all of that serves the central question.

This is all that good storytelling embodies;  Someone who wants something and someone standing in their way.  How badly they want it and how strongly the other resists, well that’s a mark of how good a story can be.

In a movie, you’ll be somewhere between 14 to 20 minutes in when you see the story.  At that point, you will know who the hero is and what they need to do.  In longer movies, it can occur later, but you’ll still learn pretty early in that Frodo has to take the One Ring to Mordor, that only the Wizard can help Dorothy get back to Kansas (in one of the great movie fake-outs), that Rick Blaine will have to confront his past in Casablanca, that Simba will need to overcome his guilt and return to lead his pride, that Marlin will have to venture into the great unknown world to find Nemo, that Michael will have to join the Corleone family business (no matter how much he denies it).  And so on and so on and so on…

It’s like gymnastics or running or skating.  When done right, it looks effortless.   Yet it is anything but.  Beginnings are easy.  But the easier they look, the more effort usually goes into them.  Each minute on the ice or the balance beam represents 10,000 hours or more of painstaking practice and effort, of sweat and straining to make it just so… to make it appear easy.  Yes, beginnings are easy…

… but Good beginnings are hard, and usually come about only after you’ve written the end, several drafts down the road.  And the more you write, the more you know just how complex and elusive things that look easy can be.

But this is just my quick take on them.  And that’s why I’m a slow starter.

Page Tally:  last week, I wrote 22 pages of audio drama, 2 blog entries, and 6 pages of original script. Most of the audio drama will stay, but the 6 pages may be rewritten if they don’t fit.  For now, they go into the first draft pot.

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About TonyC

Voracious Reader, sometimes-writer, director and producer. Hopes to make a living from his words someday soon. And get a dog. Likes: Springsteen, good books, intelligent movies, clean modern architecture, smart cute girls with glasses, and rain. Dislikes: bad drivers, trendy food, heat waves, and writers block. View all posts by TonyC

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