Ok, after last week, you now have a more specific outline. You’ve followed all your story beats all the way through, and imagined the most compelling order of events through which to tell your story. So now you’re ready to dive into the rewrite of your beginning.
This week, you address the material from your first sentence to the “inciting incident,” the event that drives your heroine into action to solve the story problem.
Goal-Tending Your Rewrite
Personally, I’m a fan of goal-tending. I like to set goals, and then mark my progress against those milestones.
So what I do at this stage is take my total page-count and divide it by twelve (the number of weeks ahead of me at this stage). In the case of my own present Work-in-Progress, that’s 338 / 12 = 28 (rounded down). This is the number of pages I’ll be revising in Week Two, or four pages per day.
By doing this, I can set dates and goals on the calendar, and keep track of progress. It also makes the work seem more manageable on a day-to-day basis.
If you’re playing along at home, from the date of this post’s publication, you should expect to finish your rewrite on or about April 13, 2017. Go ahead, mark it on the calendar. Trust me, it will feel like forever from your view in the trenches, but it’s not really so far away as it looks. Now take a few more minutes and mark down your goals on the calendar: X pages per day, Y pages per week.
Back to the Beginning
Good, now that the bookkeeping’s out of the way, we can really get started.
The opening of your book sets up everything that follows. Although it may appear that it could begin in a hundred different ways, if you start asking yourself the right questions, you’ll start to clarify what the most effective opening for your story really is.
The key word to remember is tension. The opening sentence should introduce the reader to your protagonist or another major character, tell us that person’s driving goal, and set up a situation that seeks resolution. In other words: immediate tension. Present the reader with a charged situation that demands a resolution.
As your book opens, you’re not only setting up the action to follow, you’re also providing a context for that action. The action is taking place for a reason. Your plot is in service to your theme, to reveal a universal truth like, “love conquers all,” “pride goes before a fall,” or “money is the root of all evil.” Your theme is explored through conflict, and that conflict is revealed through the plight of your protagonist.
My Hero Isn’t Playing Nice
Early in your story, you might notice that your protagonist is struggling. Explore your protagonist’s desire, and you’ll cut straight to the heart of that struggle. Though the theme of your story should be universal, it is presented in your story through the very personal plight of your hero. Through our experience of that hero’s struggle, we as readers are led back to the universal theme and its meaning in our own lives.
The Fashionably Late Hero
You might be wondering what to do if your protagonist doesn’t appear until later in the story. This might be true if you’re working on an historical fiction project, or a story that spans generations, or the second (or more) book in a series. Whatever the case, remember that the theme is universal, and so it applies as much to the other characters in the story as it does to your heroine. The plight of the story is alive and kicking in all of the characters, right from the beginning. They all have a relationship to the story-plight as it relates to your theme.
Don’t Think Yourself into a Corner
Lastly, don’t think too much about these questions. Don’t try to “science the shit out of this,” as a certain well-known fictional space explorer has been heard to say. You don’t need to figure it all out! It’s much more important that you take the time to interrogate the story than it is to find all the answers. The answers will emerge over time, but only if you’re asking the questions. Explore the plight, move in the direction of conflict, and through that plight-in-conflict your work will become more specific.
The First Question of the Rewrite
The most basic question at the beginning of any story is: “Why is today unlike every other day?” That question needn’t be answered on page one, but everything that precedes this inciting incident is in service to that question. Everything that happens in your story before you come to that question must provide the context for that question. This is the period in the story that I refer to as, “the average day.” It’s the part of the story that Stephen King is talking about when he says, “I try to create sympathy for my characters, then turn the monsters loose.” Turning the monsters loose is the inciting incident; it’s the reason why today is unlike every other day, when there aren’t usually monsters on the loose. Creating sympathy for the characters is what everything up to that point is about. It’s not the moment in and of itself that’s so compelling. It’s the meaning ascribed by everything that’s gone before it that makes that moment compelling.
This inciting incident, this moment when the monsters are turned loose, is the next story point that follows the establishment of your story-plight. In your first draft, you may have had a sense of your inciting incident, but in the rewrite, you’re going to use all of your tools to illustrate to your reader precisely why that day is unlike every other day. Your secondary goal is to notice how your inciting incident is directly linked to the plight of the heroine set up earlier.
Go Back to Go Forward
If you sense that some part of your story isn’t working, you might find that your characters are veering away from the central conflict. If a scene’s conflict isn’t pertinent to the theme, then it’s extraneous. The sneaky thing is that in your opening, you’re setting up your story, and so it’s not always easy to see until later where your story might have gone off the track. The solution is to keep tracking the story back to the core plight, as this is what keeps you connected to your theme.
Good luck with your rewrite this week! See you again next week!