Writing 101: Writing In

Hello again, intrepid wordsmiths.


We’re coming to you today with an interesting concept and trick that I picked up a year or two ago. When I was talking to a fellow writer, I was telling him that sometimes, I just don’t know how to start a story right. I’m obsessed with a killer opening (as a lot of writers are), and I always want that first line to hit home like a freight train. So, how can we make that happen ninety nine times out of a hundred?


We can write in.


I'll huff, and I'll puff, and I'll blow your house in.

So what is this mysterious premise? It’s aimless writing with the forbearing knowledge that it’s all going to be cut out. It’s one of the first exercises I run when I’m helping out with workshops at the college. They recently scrapped their creative writing courses, so I go in and help the English teachers run creative writing exercises. At sixteen or seventeen, you love nothing more than the sound of your own voice, and writing in to a story lets you exercise all of that creative fluff, getting it out of your system before the real writing starts.


My brief for the students is always this:


Your character is in a building. It could be a house, it could be a school, a cabin, a government research facility. It could be a spaceship. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that they’re faced with a door. And beyond that door, something is waiting for them. I don’t care what it is, but they have to open it to face that thing. Go.


And they all look at me like I’m crazy. But, eventually, they start to write, unknowingly doing the thing that I’m there to teach them how to do. Usually, their writing looks like this:


My hands shake. I’m sweating a lot and my clothes cling to my body. The hairs on the back of my neck stand on end and my throat has gone drier than a desert sandstorm. What’s out there? I think, listening to the scrape of razor sharp claws or something else equally as sinister on the wood of the frame. It looks like oak but sounds like butter under the grip of that monster. The cabin door shakes in its frame, a low growl like jangling chains seeping through the gaps in the wood.


I swallow hard, my hand twitching as I reach out. The room around me feels smaller than it did a minute ago. The bed, covered in furs seems like it's right next to me. The tiny window looks no bigger than a grape. The tiny hearth accommodates a meagre flame. The pokers next to it look like cocktail sticks. Nowhere near big enough to tackle whatever awaits me.


The brass door knob is cold to the touch. What are you doing!? screams a voice in my head. But I have to. I have to face it! I open the door and step through it.


It stares at me with cold yellow eyes, the door swinging limply shut behind me.


Sometimes, it’s pretty good. But most of the time it looks like that. Overwritten, fraught with cliches. Slow. So I go around the class, one by one, and do something that makes them hate me. I do this:


My hands shake. I’m sweating a lot and my clothes cling to my body. The hairs on the back of my neck stand on end and my throat has gone drier than a desert sandstorm. What’s out there? I think, listening to the scrape of razor sharp claws or something else equally as sinister on the wood of the frame. It looks like oak but sounds like butter under the grip of that monster. The cabin door shakes in its frame, a low growl like jangling chains seeping through the gaps in the wood.


I swallow hard, my hand twitching as I reach out. The room around me feels smaller than it did a minute ago. The bed, covered in furs seems like it's right next to me. The tiny window looks no bigger than a grape. The tiny hearth accommodates a meagre flame. The pokers next to it look like cocktail sticks. Nowhere near big enough to tackle whatever awaits me.


The brass door knob is cold to the touch. What are you doing!? screams a voice in my head. But I have to. I have to face it! I open the door and step through it.


It stares at me with cold yellow eyes, the door swinging limply shut behind me.


Because everything else is exposition. It is. It may be well written, or poorly written, but it’s exposition nonetheless. The last line is the first shred of plot we see, and it tells us everything we need to know. We just stepped through a door. Some heartless monster is looking at us. The contextual weight of the ‘cold yellow eyes’ and the ‘door swinging limply shut behind me’ tell us all the things we need to know to get off to a running start. Your gran doesn’t stare with cold yellow eyes if she’s delivering a muffin basket.


As writers, we deal in the unsaid, as much as we do the said. Try to say more with less.

So, as a challenge, from us to you (exciting, I know); we want you to go back and find a piece of fiction you wrote some time ago. Something old, discarded, and without purpose. Go through the beginning, and find the part where you actually start the plot. It may not look a lot like a above, but it just might. There’s time for exposition and description later. But, for the first line, we want something plot driven. Something bold. Something that grabs the attention. Something that lets us know we’re in for a ride.


Try it. Let us know what you think.


Once you’re used to spotting it, apply it to your current writing. Write something knowing that it’s exposition, and when you run out, you’ll be left with plot. Then, discard the rest and start there.

So many of the stories we read shoot themselves in the foot by going on needlessly at the beginning. If we can’t tell what the story is going to be about from the get-go, then how the heck do we know if we want to read on? Huge paragraphs of exposition are taxing at the best of times - and mostly they’re just tedious.


Catch us with a plot-right-hook first, then funnel us the exposition as you go. Let the story tell itself. That’s a great piece of advice I was given once, and it’s never done me wrong.


Until next time,

Dan

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Grindstone Literary Ltd is based in the United Kingdom.