Saturday, April 1, 2017

Lessons in Beginnings for Writers

A swirl of books. How do you get into a story?
As a writer, have you ever heard the term "throat clearing"? Over the years I've heard this term used when I met with editors at writers conferences and also in workshops. For me, this usually applied to a short piece I was showing them, like an article or devotional, but the principle applies to longer pieces like books and chapters also. The editors were telling me that I didn't really get to the heart of my piece of writing for several sentences or even paragraphs. (Tweet that!) In longer pieces, you may find your real beginning pages later.

I was reminded of this term recently by an article in the Christian Communicator:
…great beginnings often don't appear in the first draft. Or, if they do, they often aren't at the beginning. That's why the editing process is so important.

Many times you will discover that the first couple pages of your writing are no more than "throat clearing," and you get to your point somewhere around page 3. In a short piece, like a devotional or article, those first lines you type may not be the best beginning and will probably need to be deleted and replaced with a sentence currently in your fourth paragraph. 
("Your First Impression" by Linda Taylor, March-April 2017 issue of Christian Communicator, page 15.)

From my own experience, I find this principle very true for my non-fiction writing. And as I pursue writing fiction I find the same holds true. However I've learned a lot about beginnings and how to get started from working in screenwriting and making short films. (Tweet that!)

How do we get into the Story?

One of the first short films I produced was "Air Guitar." This was actually a practice film. I was preparing to shoot the first short film I produced on my own and I wanted to run through the whole procedure once just to perform the process from start to finish — including filming, capturing sound, then the film editing. I also wanted to run through the whole process with my small film crew — camera man, sound person, actors, film editor. So one day I gathered my camera man, sound, casting and acting coach with a couple young actors and we did a run-through. I'd worked with the camera man on a short film the previous year, so we both had that experience. He would also be my film editor.

In order to have something to shoot and practice with, I wrote a one-page script. It was actually a joke I'd made up and then wrote it to play it out with actors. I opened the script in a kitchen with my actors cooking brownies for a birthday party. We set up to film in my kitchen.

Then my camera man hit me with a question: Yes, it's a story about a birthday party, but how do you want to open up the film? What's our first image? What do we show?

Until then I didn't even realized that I had never considered how to get into the story. How do we get started? (Tweet that!) How do we introduce this world we're in and our story's characters. Thankfully my camera man also had a suggestion: he did a close shot of just our hands passing out festive-colored plates and napkins. In the editing he put jazzy music under the scene. And, of course, he added the title and opening credits. That's how we got started.

Had I left it as I had it, we would have just jumped into cooking and dialog. No title. No opening credits. The audience would not have known it was a party. We would not have set the festive tone with the jazzy music. My script probably would have stumbled around with some meaningless dialog — "throat clearing" — trying to get into the story.

If you'd like to see the short film we made that day, it's here: "Air Guitar" short film

Since then I've tried to think much more about how to start my stories, articles, and books — both fiction and nonfiction — as well as each chapter. How is it best to get into them?

Establishing shots

In film, it used to be popular to show what is called an "establishing shot." I'm sure you've seen them, you just didn't know what they were called. An establishing shot is usually a camera shot showing a city skyline or the outside of a building or house — something that shows, and establishes, where we are. The tone is often also given: a storm is brewing, or a sunny day, or scary bad-guy music. But there is no dialog or anything that moves the story forward.

For the film I'm currently producing, a documentary of a true-life event, so far my best thought for opening the film is to show an establishing shot of a certain street intersection in the small city where I live. Then we'll widen the shot to show more of the city skyline and mountains beyond. I'm thinking I may even superimpose the city's name, state, and population. Of course the audience won't understand the importance of any of this information at the beginning, but it's all important and relevant. It will tell them where we are (city and state). Then through the story they will learn that this busy traffic intersection is actually where the event took place, in a city of sufficient size that it's very interesting that so many people are connected to what happened that night. This establishing shot will help me introduce and get into the story. (By the way, I also plan to come full circle and end the film here at this intersection … with one important change that has taken place since the event happened.)

Films and television shows don't use establishing shots as much as they used to. In writing, it may be good to have a character in this "establishing shot" or something that moves the story forward, but that is one way to get into the story. (Tweet that!)

Thesis Statements

In non-fiction writing, whether articles or a chapter in a book, it's good to focus the piece of writing with a focus statement or thesis statement. I wrote on this topic in a previous post so you can find more help with that here:

The thesis statement typically goes near the beginning of the piece and then the rest of the article or chapter supports that statement. So finding an introduction that introduces or "gets to" that thesis statement is needed, and is the path to a good beginning. (Tweet that!) However finding that path is still challenging.

"Throat Clearing" is Necessary to Find Your Beginning

You may need to do a lot of writing, allowing yourself to do a lot of "throat clearing," before you find the best path into your article, chapter, or story. That's okay. Do it. (Tweet that!) Just be sure to let it rest (days, weeks if you have the time), and then go back and edit. Let it rest. Edit. It will most likely take several rounds before you get to a great beginning.

What about you? Do you struggle with great beginnings? Do you need to do some "throat clearing" in writing before you can find your best starting place? (Tweet that!) It's not bad or wrong to write this "throat clearing." I actually think it's necessary in order to find the best starting place. We just can't leave it like that. We need to edit all the throat clearing out and find our best beginning before we turn in a project or let a prospective editor or publisher read it.

That doesn't mean we can't let anyone read it. We often need the help of another writer. A friend and fellow traveler on the writing journey, because they understand what a great beginning is. And they can spot "throat clearing" in our writing far better than we can see it in our own.

Take a look at the beginnings of your previously written stories or articles. Can you see any "throat clearing" going on? How would you now edit that beginning?

Then take a look at your work(s) in progress. Have you found the best beginning yet? Or do you need to do some "throat clearing" to find a it? (Tweet that!)

When you look at your previously written projects and your current works in progress, what lessons in beginnings can you learn?

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