Monday, December 28, 2009

Skip The Starting Line

Having my characters start to do something has always been a habit of mine, and I know from some comments here that at least some of you suffer from the same thing:

Anton started to climb the hill before noticing that his boots were untied. He started to bend over to tie them when the red-speckled warbler started to call out for its lost young.

For me, having my characters start something comes naturally whenever I include an interruption. The character doesn't have the opportunity to finish whatever it was he or she was doing, so he or she was only able to start to do it.

I don't think this is a major problem, but I find that when I go back and read my prose, the "starts" often feel like extra words.

The solution I've found is that I have to be more precise about the actions my characters carry out. Instead of starting to climb the hill, Anton can step up to the trailhead, or pass the trail marker. In other words, the bigger action of climbing the hill can be broken up into smaller, more specific actions that bypass those sometimes-annoying starts.

In general, sharpening your characters' actions as precisely as you can makes for far more powerful writing.

My favorite painting in the world is Jan Vermeer's "Girl With The Pearl Earring." At first glance, this work might appear to be like any other portrait. After all, it's a depiction of a girl cropped in a rather typical way. But, as we look closer, we notice that the girl is turning back slightly, like she has been caught off guard. Vermeer seems to have crept up on her. A bit of white on her lower lip implies that she was drooling over something, perhaps an erotic thought, something she might be embarrassed about. This painting has not only captured the portrait of a girl, it has captured her in an extremely precise moment in time, and one has the impression that waiting too long or starting too early to paint her would have missed at least some of the information we are able to extract.

As we write, we have the same opportunity to maximally reveal our characters by catching them in perfect spots. It's not enough to have vague ideas of what our characters are doing. We need to focus, study them thoroughly, analyze all of the potential details and record what matters most.


  1. Great advice, Davin. I think the reason we all use those "starting to" lines is to follow the natural linear progression of actions. But I don't think we necessarily always have to be linear, do we?

    When problem I'm having, and maybe it isn't a problem, is for my character's actions coming out as lists. ...

    "He walked in, folded his arms across his chest, beleched, and dropped his hands to his hips."

    Any thoughts on how to avoid this?

  2. This is so very true. I find the word "start" a lot in my first drafts, and almost always manage to cut out at least a majority of the occurrences when I go through it.

    And easily for the reason you stated too -- "to start" is too vague of a term to add power in most instances -- but it's an easy way to describe things remaining unfinished when something else interrupts.

    The juggling of this is an important aspect to add power to stories. As is pretty much everything else you folks mention here. :)

  3. Some of this decision making can be guided by the "enter late, leave early" practice of scene building. We don't necessarily need to see a character in the minutia of preparation. However, if it can be written in a compelling manner and used to reveal layers of the character, then it becomes necessary (or at least beneficial).

    When putting on his hiking boots, does he tie a loose knot or a tight double-knot? Does he forget something in his backpack, or double-check its contents? Such things can not only give depth to the character, but also be used to foreshadow future events such as a twisted ankle and the need for a forgotten ace bandage.

    Scott- Adding other characters to the action can help. Have someone react to the belch:

    He walked in and folded his arms across his chest. A loud belch earned an evil eye from his wife, and he dropped his hands to his hips.

    Of course, if your character is not married this makes no sense, so take with a grain of salt ;-)

    I use the word "started" many times in FATE'S GUARDIAN. I'll re-think them during my next read-through. I'm sure some are valid and some are unnecessary.

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  5. Love this advice. It's something I do as well. I'm going to search in my WIP on "start" (and "begin") and figure out ways to change them.

  6. I think I usually catch the "starts" and try to eliminate them early on, but now I'm curious and must go do a search in my document. Hmmm...

    I love that painting, too, Davin. I bought the movie based on the painting or some short story someone did, I can't remember. I love the actors in that movie, which is part of why I like it so much. That, and the fact that every shot is like a painting. I don't think you liked it much, did you? I can't remember.

    Great post!

  7. Yeah, 'begins' are my PITA -- though I've definitely gotten better. Specificity helps, as does Rick's method of scene entrance.

  8. I started--ha!--to become aware of this problem recently. Davin, I love your suggestion to focus on surroundings and actions that depict the scene more powerfully.
    Rick: great idea to add detail that reveal character layers.
    Thanks, as always, for good advice.

  9. Scott, very good point about not having to be linear. That has been a slow-coming lesson for me, and only recently have I felt that I've been able to break out of that linearity. I actually think this same sort of thinking can apply to your action lists. Again these lists are determined by a linear progression, and in my experience, some of the steps of the progression can be skipped. More and more I avoid the list of threes because it feels like a common sentence structure that everyone else is using.

    Matthew, I have a feeling this is a common thing that many writers do. I used to think I was the only one until some readers here mentioned the same thing. I cut out a lot of my starts now, but I do occasionally still leave some.

    Rick, excellent point about entering late. I think that's something I still need to work on within my stories. I can start a story close to where the action begins, but sometimes I still feel pinned down to keep connections in the middle of stories. I think readers are more willing to accept jumps, and I need to trust in that.

    writerspost, thanks for the tweet and the information! I'll stop by!

    MG, I hope this is helpful to you. So often I find that if I just talk about my own problems, someone else can relate to them.

    Michelle, I saw that movie in the theaters and liked it a lot. From what I remember, it was a quiet movie, subtle, which I often appreciate it. :)

  10. Oh, cool! I'm glad you liked it a lot. It's one of my favorites. One of those that I can put on in the background and write to. I also loved that I learned more about how artists made their own paints back then. Totally fascinating.

  11. Great post, Davin. And I'm guilty of "starting" things everywhere in my manuscript. Another bad one I use is "watched." He watched the man walk across the street, instead of just saying the man walked across the street. Really bad example, but it works. :D

  12. You're a writer with an artist's eye.

  13. Great post. I try to just have my characters 'do' things rather than 'start' to do things.

    For me, started usually implies a pause in action. He started to climb the stairs, but stopped because he noticed his shoe was untied. He started to reach for the margarita, but stopped because . . .

    Now, it's different if . . . He started the car and put it into gear.

    It's all in the use (maybe intent) of the word started.


  14. Excellent advise. I've been having a hard time with my current WIP (one of three I am juggling). It hit me this weekend that I did not like how the book started or where I planted the characters. So, I have two new chaps and need to write about two more chaps which will lead into what I have already written. I simply started their story too late the first time.

  15. Bane of Anubis, that's great that you have gotten better at this. This is a new revelation for me, so I'm still trying to get a handle on it.

    Tricia, glad this advice is helpful to you. And, thanks to you for stopping by!

    B.J., that "watched" thing is something I also get hung up on. I think it has to do with continuity and POV. I feel like my main character has to be activated in the scene, so I have him watching things happen. Sometimes when I cut that out, I feel like the jump is too abrupt, so it's problematic for me both ways.

    jbchicoine, I was actually a painter/drawer for several years before I ever started writing fiction. It's one of my passions for sure--and your work is quite exquisite!

    Scott, I thought you were unplugged! Thanks for stopping by. Yes, my starts usually are connected with stops, interruptions. But, I think there are more graceful ways of dealing with that.

    Amy, the big start is important. Good luck with figuring it out! It sounds like you have already. :)

  16. Davin,
    I wondered if perhaps you might have an artistic bent—not too many people pick up on the nuances of lighting and timing. Those subtle details add a whole ‘nother dimension to how we write. Ever since I started writing in earnest, I look at artwork from the writerly standpoint of ‘how can I convey the depth of what I’m looking at.’

  17. I realized this about my own writing last spring and have been working on ways to avovid it. To me it has boiled down the old axiom of showing not telling. It's a different way of describing the same thing you're doing.

    I started to tie my shoes. That's telling.

    I crossed my right leg over my left and fumbled with the laces. That's showing.

    For me, at least, "starting" and "beginning" constructions were really ways of being a lazy writer while still being able to pat myself on the back for being precise and detailed.

    "But that's what happened. He only got started on it. That's an eye for detail, baby."

    (cough) Right.

  18. Great advice here. I think another stumbling block that causes this same issue with me is having characters "look" at people/things too frequently. That's one area I immediately begin searching for upon editing. Daley's advice to enter late/leave early rids a work of this error too. :)

  19. I'm thinking of skipping the first three pages of my latest manuscript as a sort of kill my darling in order to have a leaner more urgent start. I'll have it up on my blog on new years day and I would be honoured if you came by to see if yoy agree.
    Every happiness in the new year,

  20. Michelle: The movie was based on the book 'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Tracy Chevalier, who has written a bunch of books inspred by famous works of art. You made me watch the movie, after which I tracked down the book at the library, and for both I thank you! :)

  21. Becca, did I watch the movie with you? I don't remember that. See, having a kid has completely wiped my memory. Still, I'm glad you liked both!

  22. "Detail is the lifeblood of fiction." I know you know who said that. And that is one of my favorite books.

    Good post. Thanks.


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