by Brandon M Johnson
This week’s delightful and advice-filled blog post was originally submitted as an article on writing to Silver Blade magazine. Unfortunately, that magazine recently changed its editorial polices and no longer accepts such articles. However, we felt that the article deserved an audience because it lays out the elements of a good story in a concise, to-the-point way. Besides, with that title, it was too enticing to pass up. We hope you find it useful, and we hope that Brandon Johnson will consider sending us more such articles for our consideration in the future.
From Brandon Johnson:
Writing has much in common with confronting dragons. Imagine you are a swordsman walking through an enchanted forest when a dragon appears. Your first reaction to facing this dragon would not be to survey your surroundings or engage in pithy dialogue. No, you would run ahead, screaming as you thrust the blade into its abdomen. Writing a story is much like this. You are the swordsman and the reader is the dragon.
Perhaps I am not the most qualified to speak at great length on writing. My only credentials are a startling number of rejections and one short story sale. Luckily, the key to appearing professional lies not in credentials, but in sounding like you know what you are talking about. Self-deprecating disclaimers aside, one thing that I have learned over the last year is this: you have to immediately engage the reader—or the dragon—at the beginning of the story.
Think of it as a battle. You want to lead with your strongest attack and catch the enemy off-balance. Then, once you have stunned the reader/dragon with your attention-grabbing opening/attack, all you have to do is maintain their undivided attention for the next few thousand words or so.
With that in mind, why would you start your short story with a description of the weather? Ask yourself: Is my description of the clouds really the best part of this story? Does it entice the reader to go on? What about that dream sequence you wrote? Do you believe that upon realizing the opening to your short story was actually the protagonist’s nightmare, the reader will be surprised? No, he will instead say, “Can I have the last five minutes of my life back?” At least, I do.
“Then tell me, what does constitute a good opening?” you ask.
The simplest answer is that a good beginning forces you to read more, no matter how it accomplishes this. To be more specific, a good beginning should establish conflict and character as quickly and efficiently as possible. (Do not concern yourself with theme at this point; that will work itself out in the end.) The beginning should tell who the main character is and show the conflict. Describing the setting is optional at this point. If your story takes place on a planet made of cheese or a future society ruled by sentient squirrels, some exposition is needed. If the setting is not pertinent, do not waste your prime first-page real estate in describing it.
“But wait, what exactly is conflict?”
Conflict is your paramount concern in the opening pages. Unless you are Isaac Asimov reincarnated, your dialogue is probably not sufficient conflict. In some cases, even fighting is not conflict. No matter how awesome your opening car chase is, if you can take it out and have the entire plot still make sense, it is probably unnecessary.
However, if your car chase is used to establish your character (he is a drifter prone to rash decisions like stealing cars) and shows conflict (the car chase is actually a metaphor for your protagonist’s refusal to face his demons) then keep it in. In the latter scenario, your car chase establishes internal conflict: Will the protagonist stop running and accept responsibility for his past sins? With this added depth, the thrills of your action sequence are now better integrated and you have your reader’s attention. This is the kind of conflict needed to engage the reader from the onset.
So you have attacked your reader with your great opening and have his attention. Now what? This is where the ability to plot comes in to play. You need to present a clear sequence of events, none of which are extraneous and all of which propel the narrative forward. Remember, just because you stabbed the dragon with your sword does not mean he is defeated. This is where you continue your attack. Impress the reader with your clean prose, unforgettable characters, and airtight plotting. As long as the narrative does not get bogged down—again, descriptions of the weather are deadly in that regard—and continues to build toward a climax, you should be fine… so long as you build toward a climax, that is.
“Oh, a climax, I need one of those…”
When you have the dragon on the ropes and you feel like the battle is won, that is not the time to let your guard down. You still need to chop off his head. You need to finish. This seems basic, but it is of the utmost importance: your story has to actually end!
Remember the guy in the car chase from earlier? What if that story ended with him driving out of town? He resolves none of his problems, there is no conflict aside from a simple cops-versus-robbers situation, and consequently, there is no sense of resolution for the reader. You need to have a complete story arc. Otherwise, what you have written is a vignette. While vignettes can be enjoyable, they are not easy to sell.
An arc can be simple. Your drifter can start off as a man who runs from his problems, he can have an epiphany, and then he can start driving to his hometown to make amends with his estranged father. That seems almost the same as him driving away, but because the character is dynamic (he changed during the story, in this case learning to face his demons), there is a complete arc. Consequently, your thrilling vignette evolves into a full-blown story.
Finally, you must realize that upon slaying the dragon, there is no reason to stand over the body and gloat. Once your story reaches the most exciting point and wraps up all loose threads, end as soon as possible. You can end mid-sentence if you want. Simply end the story at the earliest opportunity, because no one likes a grandstander.
If you attack the reader from the start with an opening salvo, maintain suspense, and finish strong, your chances of publication will increase. Being a writer will still be difficult, though, but if writing were as simple as fighting dragons, giants, and other magical creatures, everyone would do it.