Saturday, March 20, 2010

Writing: How to Write Colorful Openings

We've heard much ado about opening chapters with action. It's among the most hackneyed expressions of writing advice. While action is important, it accounts for only one facet of the dynamic opening. Other fragments of a great opening are: mood, pace, tension and conflict. The makings of such an opening is well within the spirit of every serious writer. I hope to help you to explore what you already have. So, let's dust off that jewel within yourself, polish it and create memorable openings.

Here are the components to great openings: Fear, Dialog, Conflict and Scene.

Let's start by exploiting the most basic human emotion: fear. For the sake of memory, I use the following acronym to describe those fears, L. Podic. L-P-O-D-I-C, which stands for the fear of: Loss, Poverty, Old age, Death, Illness and most of all Criticism.

Exploit one or more fears in the context of conflict.

"Conflict!" is a superior dynamic toward the great opening. Conflict builds tension, sets the mood and allows the demonstration of character development. In other words, you won't have to tell the reader. You can show them through a given conflict. The reader will become lost in the story as each character responds to conflict. So, there's number one: conflict.

So, forget about action. Conflict stimulates action. Conflict speaks to the reader through language, choice of words, the attitude of the character and encourage the reader to desire a particular action.

How to create conflict? I knew you would ask. Here's how. Here are a few techinques. First, ask yourself, who do you know who cannot seem to answer a simple question without filling you in on all the unncecssary details? Who? Write that individual's name down.

What would he or she say if there were an accident? How would this person respond to a broken arm, or, a broken relationship? Is this person very dramatic? If so, start a scene with the idea that something has gone wrong and a character (not unlike the reader) is trying to discover the nature of the problem, but big mouth is telling all the details that led up to the problem, leaving us on the edge of our seats in anticipation of what actually happened. Make the reader want to shake the speaker until she spits it out.

This technique creates tension. I've created an example below, but first, let's explore additional techniques toward creating conflict and tension.

How? Ask yourself, what is your pet peeve? Write it down. Let's say you can't tolerate second hand cigarette smoke. Now, let's say you have legitimate reason to be in a room with a chain smoker. He is unreasonable and does not consider those around him. Let's say the last will and testament will be read in this room. You are rumored to be the principal heir to this fortune. The chain smoker, Uncle Buck is the executor of the will and primary witness to the intentions of the deceased.

So, Uncle Buck lights up.

Number 2, Dialoge.

Allow the dialoge to pull the reader smack into the story before they know it. To do so, successfully, think "scene." It does not matter whether you're writing a scene. It does matter that your mentality is that of a scene taking place.

Earlier, I alluded to a scene of a loquacious individual who cannot get to the point when asked a simple questions. I think of my niece who is the ultimate drama queen. She would not say, " The child stepped on a nail," when she can say, "An ambulance came. They took Johnny. We don't know that it were poisonous, but rumor has it that, in some cases, gaingrene sets in and they have to amputate. In some cases."

Here's an example of an opening filled with conflict and tension. See if you can determine which of the basic fears are involved in the conflict.

"They're laying off eighty six workers next month," he said.

His wife caught the coffee cup that fell from her hand and nearly onto the graphite counter top. A coffee maker whistled as steam rose beneath the hood of the oven.

His wife studied the blue gray smoke as if his words had gathered there: HE'S LOOSING HIS JOB.

Her back yet turned to him, she neatly folded her note -- the one she spent two days itemizing living expenses and past due bills on paper. She folded the paper into even smaller quarters and clenched it in her fist before hiding it within her bosom.

"...cutting back in every department and every category except the fat cats get to stay on. In fact, the top three executives received a big bonus," he said.

A mortgage. Two car notes. Insurance. Three kids and another on the way. One in college. Tuition. Books.

"...and was going to try to get on at the BMW plant, but their first choice of candidates for the three jobs will be among the fifteen hundred people they laid off last year."

Three. Only three jobs. Credit card balances.

"Honey? The coffees ready," he said.

Her mind faded into a world of whistles, steam and bills.

Now, see if you can indentify the fears invloved in the above scene.

Below is antoher example.

The two of them sat at a booth. Jenny shuffled in her seat, fumbled with the handle of a coffee mug and bit her nails. Periodically, she looked up toward the door. She even noticed all movements and comings and goings in the nearby parking lot.

He sipped from his own cup and noticed the way she played with her eggs and bacon.

She answered her cell phone. "...umhmm. Here at the Waffle House. The one on Rockbridge Road. Uhmm. He's here. Okay. (laughter). Cool, girl. Bye."

"That was short. Who was that?" he asked.

"A girl friend," she said.

She shifted in her seat and began biting her nails, again.

"Are you sure there's nothing going on between you and Cindy?" She asked.

"Who said that? Who told you something like that?"

"Are you seeing her?"

"Cindy? Me--" he pointed to his chest --" and Cindy? "

She shoved her meal aside, toyed through her purse and then removed a small mirror and applied lipstick.

"When was the last time you saw her?"

"Who, Cindy?"

She rubbed her lips together and turned her head aside until her dangling ear ring shown in her compact mirror.

"What--two weeks ago?" he said.

"Not last night?"

He hesitated. "No."

"Not at  Barleys in the parking lot last night?"


"Why would someone lie about that?"

"I dunno. You can ask Emmet. Last night I was with him."

She looked up...toward the door. The lady marching through the door had business on her mind. She stood erect with a heavy purse strapped to her left shoulder. Her right hand stuffed inside the purse, she said something to the cashier who pointed toward the table where they sat.

The cashier rushed behind the kitchen door and beckoned the waiters to join her.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Writing: Access Your Resevoir of Experience

As the Bible states, It is better to give than to receive.

During those moments when we are feeling deep emotions, we may want to write our feelings down. Whether we are experiencing joy, pain, sadness or anger, there are descripitons hidden within emotions that adds color to our lives and to our stories. Our feelings are invaluable.

Treat your emotions like a gold mine and mine them. There is great value there. Dig and give away what you find. Others might appreciate it.

Having said that, I strongly suggest we access our own experiences more and share those experiences with others, not necessarily in a story, but in a letter. Write a letter about what you are feeling.

For example, pretend you are with a therapist (you're on the sofa). What do you have to say?

It may go something like this:

Dear Reader,

Today, I am missing a very close relationship. I was married for eighteen years and now that I am not, my life is quite different. I am, yet, adjusting.

I have dated a few people, but, in doing so, I've learned that I do not want a serious relationship, just friends. In moments like these (the present) however, I would like more.

I have to be careful here, because there is a difference in missing a person and missing the relationship. People, often falter by going back and forth, in and out of unhealthy relationships for that reason. Sometimes people do not want to be alone. It's like going back to a job you left. Look, Either you left for a reason or you did not. Here's where we have to trust ourselves.

Lonelines is okay. Pain is okay. Because we are feeling pain from loosing a loved one does not mean we should jump into another relationship with that same person or anyone else; after all, we are always alone. Always.

I've found that once I grew up and accepted the reality of loneliness as a temporary thing, and the state of being alone as eternal, I began to make better decisions.

People who can handle pain are people who tend to make better decisions in the long run, as it pertains to break ups. People who are overcome by pain tend to jump out of the frying pan and back into the pot.

All of the above entail my inner thoughts at the time of the writing.

Now, how do I turn this into interesting fiction. Well, if art imitates life, then I'm on to something here.

Here we go.

He snuffed out a half smoked cigar and stared at a full glass of wine that sat before him, untouched. He repositioned himself in the hammock and put the novel aside. He was on page 31 but could not remember what he had read.

He sat the book aside.

"It's okay," he whispered.

He opened the cell phone, stared at her name and number and closed the phone for the third time without dialing.

The phone rang.

"Hi mom. Fine. No, we're not back together. No. I miss.....the relationship, but I don't miss her. Okay. I'll come, but Mom? I may be alone."

He closed the cell phone and smiled. He really smiled. His eyes smiled. "Relationship," he mummbled.

Larry, placed the phone on the grass beneath his hammock, lit the cigar and took a long drag. Again, he smiled. He stared at the stogie. It tasted better. He licked his bottom lip. Larry then sipped from his glass of wine. He then held the glass in front of him as if it were his lover's face. He shook the glass, ever so slightly, just enough to give the wine legs that ran along the inside of the glass like diluted syrup. He sipped it again, chewed it and smiled.

"Now that's a glass of wine," he said.

Life is good when you know what you're feeling. Larry nodded, approvingly.

He finished the novel and dialed.

"Hi," he said. "This is Larry. We met at the library...last week? Yes. Thought I'd invite you over to my mother's for dinner tommorrow. Sure, then I'll take you home immediately, afterwards. Okay. Thanks. See you then."

Larry toasted to the open air, alone. He sipped and smiled.