Dont Warm Up Your Engines

Often, when i start to read a story written by an inexperienced writer, I am reminded of those cold winter mornings long ago in Ohio when I sat miserably beside my father in the old Buick, in the dark garage, waiting for the engine to warm up before driving away from home.

In those days it was considered good form to warm your engine before driving the car. Multiviscosity engine oil was far in the future, and the theory was that the motor should idle a while under no strain while the heat of ignition warmed the oil so it could circulate more freely, providing better lubrication.

Those days are long gone. But, amazingly, fiction writers still do the same kind of unnecessary and wasteful thing in starting their stories.

"Why", I may ask them, "have you started your story with this long, static description of a town (or a house, or a street, or a country scene)?"

"Well", the beginning writer will reply, puzzled, "I need to set up where the story is going to take place. "

Or I may be forced to ask, "Why have you started this story by giving me background information about things that happened months (or even years) ago?"

"Well", the poor neophyte will say, "I wanted the reader to know all that before starting the story. "

Such static or backward-looking approaches to fiction are probably lethal in a novel, and are certainly fatal in a modem short story. Readers today-and that of course includes editors who will buy or reject your work-are more impatient than ever before. They will not abide a story that begins with the author warming up his engines. If a setting needs to be described, it can be described later, after you have gotten the story started. If background must be given the reader, it can be given later, after you have intrigued him with the present action of the story.

I've had the horrific experience of standing in the doorway of a room at a magazine publishing house where first readers go through freelance submissions, deciding whether the stories should be passed on to an editor for further consideration, or sent back as a rejection at once. Sometimes a reader would slit the end of a manila envelope and pull the manuscript only halfway out of the envelope, scanning the first paragraph or two of the yarn. Sometimes - on the basis of this glance alone- the, story was either passed on to an editor for consideration, or tossed into the reject pile.

Do you think that you're really going to get past that first reader with an unmoving description of a house or a street? Do you imagine that that reader, going through hundreds of manuscripts every day, is going to pass on your story if it begins with stuff that happened twenty years ago?

The chances are very, very slim.

Moral: Don't warm up your engines. Start the story with the first sentence!

How do you do that? By recognizing three facts:

1. Any time you stop to describe something, you have stopped. Asking a reader to jump eagerly into a story that starts without motion is like asking a cyclist to ride a bike with no wheels - he pedals and pedals but doesn't get anywhere. Description is vital in fiction, but at the outset of the story it's deadly.

2. Fiction looks forward, not backward. When you start a story with background information, you point the reader in the wrong direction, and put her off. If she had wanted old news, she would have read yesterday's newspaper.

3. Good fiction starts with - and deals with - someone's response to threat.

Let's look a bit further at this No. 3, because it tells us how our stories should start.

As human beings, it's in our nature to be fascinated by threat. Start your story with a mountain climber hanging from a cliff by his fingernails, and I guarantee that the reader will read a bit further to see what happens next. Start your story with a child frightened because she has to perform a piano solo before a large recital audience - and feeling threatened, of course- and your reader will immediately become interested in her plight.

It stands to reason, then, that you should not warm up your engines at the outset. You should start the action. What kind of action? Threat- and a response to it.

Every good story starts at a moment of threat.

Does this mean you are doomed to spend your writing career looking for new and dire physical threats? I don't think so, although some fine writers have thrived by writing fiction dealing with literal, physical threat and danger. But you don't have to write about physical catastrophe to have fascinating threat in your stories.

Think back a moment over your own life. What were some of the times when you felt most scared, most threatened? Perhaps it was your first day of school. Or at a time when there was a death in the family, or a divorce. Perhaps the first time you had to speak a line in a school play. Or when you tried out for a sports team. Maybe your first date? When you changed

12 mm. The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes schools? When the family moved? When some new people moved in next door to you, and you didn't know if you would like them? When you were engaged or married, or when you started your first real job? When you were fired from a job? Or promoted to a better one?

All stressful events. All threatening, even though many of them were happy occasions. Now, why should that be so? Isn't it strange that happy events would be threatening?

Not at all. Better minds than I have pointed out that we human beings like to feel in harmony with our environment and our situation in life. Each of us carries inside a view of ourselves, our life, and the kind of person we are. When things are going well, we feel in harmony with everything and everyone around us, and we aren't threatened. But enter change-a/»2i«/ any change-and our world has been shaken up. We feel uneasy.


Nothing is more threatening than change.

From this, it stands to reason that you will know when and where to start your story-page one, line one-when you identify the moment of change. Because change is where the story starts.

A bus comes to town, and a stranger gets off.

The boss calls an employee: "Please come in here. I have something important to tell you"

A new family moves into the house down the block.

A telegram is delivered to your door.

The seasons change, and you grow restless... uneasy.

It is at this moment of crucial change, whatever it may be, that your story starts. Identify the moment of change, and you know when your story must open. To begin in any other way is to invite disaster:

• Open earlier, with background, and it's dull.

• Open by looking somewhere else in the story, and it's irrelevant.

• Open long after the change, and it's confusing.

Begin your story now. Move it forward now. All that background is an author concern.

Readers don't care. They don't want it. The reader's concern is with change... threat... how a character will respond now.

"But I really like that stuff about Grandpaw and Grandmaw, and how things were in 1931!" I hear you protest. "I want to put that stuff in!"

Not in this story, you can't -not if this story is set in present times. Maybe you can work a little of it into the story later, but starting with it will kill you. (If worse comes to worst, you can write some other story about the 1930s, where the old stuff can become present-day stuff in terms of the story's assumptions. )

Remember what the reader wants. Don't try to inflict your author concerns on her. You must give her what she wants at the start, or she'll never read any further.

And what she wants-what will hook her into reading on -is threat.

The most common variety of which is change.

Test yourself on this. In your journal or notebook, make a list of ten times in your life when you felt the most scared or worried.

My list might include my first day at college, the day I entered active duty with the air force, my first formal speech before a large audience, and my first solo in a small plane. Your list might be quite different. But our lists, I'll bet, will have one thing in common. Both will represent moments of change.

Having realized this, you might want to make a second list, this one of ten changes that you think might make good opening threats in stories. It's perfectly all right to build upon some of your own real-life experiences here. It's equally okay to make up threatening changes.

In either case, I suggest that you keep this list, and the next time you catch yourself sensing that the opening of your current fiction project is bogging down or going too slowly, compare your problem opening with your list of ideas in terms of depth and seriousness of the change you're dealing with. Maybe you'll find that you've backslid into warming up your story engines instead of starting with that crucial moment of change that really gets the yarn under way.

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