Getting Out of the Circle: How to Keep Your Book from Bogging Down at the Start

A writing professor of mine once told me something that a writing professor of his once told him: “Stories are always about one of two things,” he said. “Someone comes into town, or someone leaves town.”

Now, I don’t subscribe to the idea that there are set in stone rules about stories, or about writing in general. Come and argue with me about the Oxford comma sometime, for example — I’ll tell you that I find plenty of times where sentences are better off without one for the sake of flow and/or emphasis. No, really. I don’t care what anybody who self-describes as a loathsome “grammar-Nazi” tells you: you don’t always need one. Hell, you don’t always want one (here come the angry letters.)

In the same vein, I’m also opposed to the supposed universality of writing advice. A good example of this is the idea that the only way to be successful at writing (whatever “successful” means; in many contexts it just seems to mean “traditionally published and making bank from it) means that you must “write every day.” Write until your fingers bleed, they tell you, and then use your own blood to keep writing! To be honest, this is a pretty damaging attitude, especially for fledgling writers. Daniel Jose Older, over at SevenScribes.com, does a fantastic job of explaining why. Not every piece of advice will work for every writer, and that’s okay. You have to find your own patterns, your own rhythms and methods. (See? No Oxford comma. Fight me if you must.)

With that in mind, I do have some advice to share. As with all writing advice, this approach may not be functional for you, and it may not make sense to the way you view the process of story writing. But I do feel that it’s a pretty wide advice-net, so to speak — the idea is vague enough that maybe you can tailor it to suit your needs.

This advice concerns an issue I see my friends and fellow writers having pretty constantly, and it’s one I have myself: the problem of the slow opening.

Now, I get it. You’re setting up a new world, new circumstances. You want to open your book in a way that’ll give your reader access to your new world as soon as possible. You want people to know what your character looks like, why they’re important enough to read a whole book about. So you start out something like this:

Anastasia awoke, opening her bright blue-green eyes. She was in her room at the palace, nestled in the heavy silks and fabrics that made up her bed. She sighed and got up, and went to look at herself in the mirror. This gave her a great opportunity to tell the reader what she looks like exactly, and also her very sexy and appealing bodily attributes. She put on her fancy clothes and went out to do the things she usually did, and nothing different really happened for pages and pages except that the reader is now informed that this is the generic Kingdom, Anastasia is kind of a bratty princess, and also magic exists.

I’m being kind of hyperbolic in my example, but it’s something I do wrong all the time. Opening with your character going through their usual routine, explaining all the steps and details of it as they go, can get really boring, really fast. We also don’t really know who Anastasia is — only what she is, in very exact descriptive words. We know the name of the Kingdom, but not really what it’s like as a culture, not what it smells or even tastes like. We have a bunch of facts lined up with no real emotional investment.

Of course this kind of intro can be made to work under some circumstances, but most of the time, in my experience, such an opening is like dumping molasses all over your pages. Things slow to a crawl, and your reader sits there, trying to decide if they want to keep slogging through it in hopes of seeing some explosions soon, or if it’s time to give up on it. You don’t want that, so here’s what I’d advise you to try.

I call it “Leaving the Circle.” The “Circle” can be a number of things: a physical place (a kingdom, a city, a house, a cave) an emotional situation (a relationship) or a social. It can be a combination of the two, or all three. The Circle is where your character is established — it’s their comfort zone. Anastasia’s Circle is clearly her palace and her royal status. So long as she remains in her Circle, she won’t change, or really do much that’s interesting; she doesn’t have to. Her Circle is complete and secure, and there’s no reason for her to leave it, or to build a new one. And in that Circle, she’s boring.

So what you need to do is get her out of the Circle, somehow.

This can be done in as many ways as you can imagine. Here’s one:

Anastasia awoke. She was in her room at the palace, nestled in the heavy silks and fabrics that made up her bed. She got up and padded across the chilly stone floor to the bathing chamber, where the maid had already made up her morning bath. Steam clouded the room, thick and smoke-like. With a grateful sigh, Ana shrugged off her night dress, and sank into the hot water, closing her eyes in pleasure. 

“Good morning, Princess,” a strange voice said. Anastasia gave a little shriek of surprise, her eyes flying open: there before her, one booted foot propped on the edge of her tub, was a woman in a dirty leather jerkin and leggings. She was grinning, rakish and more than a little menacing; she had a small, compact crossbow aimed directly at Anastasia’s heart. “We need to talk.” 

Now that’s a little more interesting, right? Anastasia’s usual Circle has never included strange rakish women threatening her in her bathtub — it’s going to get some new behavior out of her, while also showing — not telling — your reader what kind of person Anastasia is. How does she react? Does she scream, and cower? Does she bluster, grow imperious and commanding? Does she attack this woman? Does she already know her?

This is the kind of character and story introduction that can really grab an audience. Drop your characters directly into a situation, and see what they do to get out of it, if getting out of it is even their goal at all. Here’s another fine example: the introduction of Etta Place in the classic film Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. We know nothing of Etta before this scene; it is the first time we’ve seen her. All we know about Sundance is that he’s an outlaw, and kind of a ruthless one. The scene is tense and heat-filled; it would not be if it were made clear from the start that Etta is Sundance’s lover. The tension is lost, and the scene grows boring (as boring as Robert Redford and Katharine Ross’s beautiful faces can be, anyway.)

Don’t tell the reader all about the Circle your characters inhabit. Push them out of the Circle. You’ll learn more about them, and about their Circles, as you do so. Have your spoiled princes kidnapped by lady pirates. Open your novel in the middle of a palace revolt. Put two characters in a common conversation between them, and then set off a bomb — metaphorical or physical, it doesn’t matter. If you give the reader the barest of bones, and then upset the whole thing, you’ll have their attention. It’s up to you to keep it after that.

And now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to go and get married.

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