(Note--I see now that I've already tackled this criterion--several months ago! A little bit of this material is repeated; my apologies. There's lots of new stuff, too...)
The 4th criterion that the Writing Challenge judges are asked to consider is the following: Does the entry start well? I actually did a presentation at the 2009 FW conference on writing good beginnings, so I’ll borrow a lot of this lesson from that presentation. I’ll write mostly about writing short fiction for the challenge, since that’s what typically does the best, but I’ll touch on non-fiction and poetry, too. And please keep in mind that the Challenge judging criteria have been designed to be pretty good measures of excellent non-Challenge writing, too.
This particular lesson (starting well) will probably be two or three sessions, so that I can keep them short-ish.
In the exposition of your story (in flash fiction, the first paragraph or two—not much more than that), you should familiarize your readers with either 1) the setting (both time and place) or 2) the main character…or both.
Which of these two passages do you think does this best?
It was November of 1861, and 89-year-old Wilma Clemson was feeling very cold. It was going to be a long winter in Vermont.
Wilma Clemson struggled to light the kerosene lamp, her knobbed fingers trembling, aching with cold. Her threadbare quilt would not be sufficient this winter.
The passages have nearly the same number of words, but the second one is far better. You might argue that the first one gives more information: The month and year, the specific location, Wilma’s age…and you’d be right. However, that sort of specific information is rarely vital to the storyline, and if it is, it can be incorporated in some more interesting way.
The second passage, however, shows the reader that Wilma is old (her fingers are ‘knobbed’), that the story is set some time in the past (the kerosene lamp), and somewhere where the winters are quite cold. In addition, the reader is given a hint about Wilma’s circumstances: she’s probably not a wealthy woman (the ‘threadbare’ quilt).
***A SIDE NOTE: In Challenge entries, I rarely state the ages of my characters. With so few words to work with, I don't want to waste any words on people's ages, which are not particularly interesting writing. I'd far rather show my characters' ages by their actions, their clothing, their speech, their relationships...almost anything but the number of years they've lived. It's very rarely important to know someone's exact age, anyway.***
So I’d advise this for the first few paragraphs of your short fiction:
a. Introduce a character—preferably by name. Show
your readers something about that character.
b. IF your story is set in any other time period but NOW, clue your readers in right away. Again, you don’t have to tell them—find a way to show them. If it’s set in the past, have your MC adjusting her hoop skirts, or dipping her quill in an inkwell (or something equally appropriate for your time period). If it’s set in the future, have a holographic robot fly by. You get the idea. There have been many times when I’ve had to do a mental realignment when halfway through a story, a horse-and-buggy trots by.
c. IF your story is set in some exotic setting, clue your readers in fairly quickly. You don’t necessarily have to give the city, state, and postal code—but if the MC is in Madagascar, or Saturn, or Lapland, it’d be great if you’d show us a bit of scenery. You don’t have to describe a 360-degree panorama—but I’ll feel disoriented if I start reading, assuming a familiar setting, and in paragraph 5, I find the MC walking down a water buffalo path to get to work.
Here’s the caveat: writing is an art, not a science, and all of these rules can be broken by good writers, and the story will still work. Some people like to be cagier about their setting, or to use pronouns all the way through, never naming their MCs or letting the readers know the setting, for literary effect. That’s fine, too. As with most of what I’ve included in these lessons, this is general, basic advice—once you’ve learned the rules, feel free to break them!
I’ll write more about good beginnings next week, with 5 or 6 tips for really great opening sentences. Poets, hang in there, I’ll get to you, too. In the meantime, here’s your homework:
1. Go through old Challenge entries and find one that you think has a great exposition. It might not have all 3 elements (character, place, time), but it should be an exposition that you think does a great job of showing readers something about at least one of those elements. Copy and paste the passage AND TELL WHY YOU THINK IT WORKS. (This could be yours, or someone else’s that you admire). No more than 100 words, please.
2. Find a piece of published writing that you think has a great exposition (as in #1) Type it out for us, AND TELL WHY YOU THINK IT WORKS. No more than 100 words, please.
3. Try writing a sample like I did, above: one passage that doesn’t work, and one that does. TELL WHY YOU THINK IT WORKS. No more than100 words, please.
4. Comment, ask a question, respond to, disagree with, or elaborate on something that I’ve said in this post.
A few reminders:
1. Please tell others about this lesson, especially those in Levels 1 and 2, or those new to FW or the forums.
2. Please post a comment. Even if you’re too shy to do the homework, I’d love to hear from you.
3. Refer to this post for a discussion on all of the Judging Criteria.