Start with a BANGIt's all about PACE
By Jordan Dane
My DisclaimerThere are no rules here!!!
No matter what you read or hear me say, I am not a big believer in specific rules to the creative process. How boring would that be? So what you see here are only guidelines to provoke thought. Add what makes sense or embellish to bring your own voice to the concepts. Start with a BANG!
There's many ways to start a story. It can introduce a character or group, introduce a circumstance, or it can center on building a world or describing a place or a thing. A strong start should capture your reader's imagination and hold it.
I often think of how a TV program or a movie starts. (See the craft topic of the 9-Act Screenplay Structure for plotting ideasthe big blockbuster movie format.)
From page one and through the next three chapters or so, an author should build the foundation and set the tone of the story, introducing the key characters and presenting the conflict. Every one loves a good drama. Reality TV thrives on this belief.
How do I begin my story?
Although the above description still works, the narrative reads like an inventory of the room and not from inside the character's POV. It needs depth. By infusing your character and his opinions into the scene, you add distinctive color and voice. Plus, each word reflects not only the room, but the other characters as well AND gives insight into your protagonist (the words have double and triple duty effect). Also, place the reader into the scene with all their senses by digging deep into your own personal experiences (what I call free association in your mind). Trust your gut and draft whatever comes to mind initially, like brainstorming. Let it flow and see what comes out. It works and it's fun!
ExampleAFTERThe annoying generator outside masked the sounds of the night, but once Sam got inside, the quiet of McMurphy's shit hole closed in on himand the stench. Ammonia from cat piss took his breath away and the little fur balls peered out of their dingy hiding places like vultures spying fresh road kill.
At the far end of the Quonset hut, a rusty gas stove kept company with a beat up fridge and a cheap Formica tableeach vying for the most useless award. Close by, file cabinets flanked a battered metal desk and shredded armchair. McMurphy never threw anything out. The man operated and lived in filth.
A waste of skin like McMurphy would never make his Christmas card list.
Ever thought about building an onion from the inside out?
(Come on. Humor me!!)
This little exercise of writing the dialogue first came from having to split my time between my day job and writing. On my special writing days, I'd grab lunch by myself and take a notepad with me. (I wasn't really alone. Like Sybil, writers never are. Oh, I just scared myself.)
People would always comment that my scenes jumped right into the action with sharp concise dialogue. In trying to explain to another writer how I do this, I had to understand it myself. That's when I began to understand how much my little lunchtime exercise had trained my brain to think this way.
I had broken apart the dialogue from the rest of the narrative as a more efficient use of my time before I got home that night to finish the scene. Consequently, the dialogue got my full attention. And I usually tend to visualize the scene in my head as a TV program or movie.
In the following scene of LegacyThe Will of the Raven, I wanted to create a character that would be my take of a modern Scarlett O'Hara of Gone with the Wind. At the first part of that story, Scarlett was self-centered and not very appealing as a classic heroine of the day. But of course, we all know how her journey ended. To this day, she endeared the name of Scarlett to people around the world.
My character of Justine Perry starts out with a little larceny on her mind and is not the traditional romantic heroine at all. (Like I said, I like challenges.) But I deliberately infused other aspects into the scene to manipulate the reader into liking heror maybenot hating her as much. If I could have written in a dog into this scene, I'd be golden. (Maybe I'll add her taking home a doggie bag from the pricey restaurant, but you get the idea.) Look for the attributes I'm about to highlight as you read the excerpt below. See how she starts out a bit rocky, then her `likeable' factor builds until the reader crosses the line over to her side.
Below are the key attributes to watch for. Can you find others?
ExcerptLegacy: the Will of the Ravenby Jordan Dane
The Herbfarm RestaurantWoodinville, Washington
In the flickering light of the candles, Justine Perry found the glint of passion in his eyes. Not hard to spot this close. The man hadn't stopped touching her since his greeting at the front door to the restaurant. If it hadn't been for the coarse dark hair that distinguished his hands from hers, Justine would have thought she sprouted a couple of extra arms.
But her dinner companion, Rudolfo Santini, wasn't completely to blame.
Justine had fueled his behavior by wearing a strapless burgundy chiffon gown from Donna Karan with matching stilettos that made her bare legs appear impossibly long, a recipe for passion. With her auburn hair pulled off her neck and enough makeup to accentuate smoky green eyes, she looked like a cross between a super model and a low rent Parisian hooker. Fashionably chic with a dash of tawdry had been her goal and she had succeeded. A far cry from the designer business suits he'd seen her in before. Flaunting her assets was all part of the game.
Men were so predictable.
"You look lovely, my dear."
"Why thank you, Rudolfo." She forced a smile.
Nearly twenty-seven years older, Rudolfo believed himself to be a player. With his money, the man had every right to step up to the plate and take a swing. And in the pale light, if she squinted real hard, the age lines across his face faded, barely noticeable. Who was she to argue? Especially if she got what she wanted.
From the start, Justine had seen signs of his personal interest. And she had used it to her advantage. Tonight, she would seal the deal.
Located just outside Seattle, the trendy Herbfarm restaurant was one of the premiere establishments in the country with its lavish nine-course cuisine and extensive wine cellar. She'd secured a very private dining room with a floral print decor, fresh flowers, and exquisite goldware table settings. The ambience was to die for.
But somewhere between 'soup to nuts', she'd cut to the chase. No sense in paying for the full meal if she didn't have to. The outcome would be the same whether she broke the news as they knoshed on Vichyssoise or swooned over Souffle. After what she came to say, Justine had no doubt she'd be left with the tab and a quiet ride home, alone.
BBrrrrr... Brrrrr. Set on vibrate, her cell phone made an obscene noise. It sprang to life in her evening bag. Justine retrieved it to look at the number. Nothing important. The number displayed was the office, her voice mail paging system. She deleted the message and tossed the cell into her purse.
"I trust it is nothing of importance." He ran a finger down her forearm.
"What could possibly be more important than our time together?" She scored big with the rhetorical question. Justine saw it in his eyes. Or maybe another part of his anatomy could take credit for that look.
"So, have you conceded, my dear?"
Holding the stem of a cut crystal glass, Santini swirled his white winea Le Montrachet offering courtesy of Vintner Joseph Drouhin. The candlelight refracted through crystal and cast rainbow prisms on the white linen tablecloth. If it were possible, a wicked smile shone brighter on his face.
"Perhaps you have come to realize, my energy company can not be bought. It has been privately held by my family for generations."
Through a half-lidded gaze, she smiled her best Mona Lisa. In a practiced maneuver, Justine leaned to reveal her ample cleavage. Rudolfo took full advantage.
"Let's not mince words. Koch Energy Resources has been in your wife's family for years. You just happen to have controlling interest. Isn't that more to the point?"
Slowly, she reached for a fresh homegrown strawberry and held the stem between her fingers. Justine knew how to draw attention to her mouth. Biting into the berry, she let the juice moisten her lips. Rudolfo came to her rescue with his napkin, but instead of dabbing at her mouth, he moved closer, intending a kiss. She placed a finger to his lips.
"We haven't even gotten to the first course, Rudolfo. Patience."
"Your idea of foreplay is worlds apart from mine. Perhaps you would allow me the pleasure of being your teacher."
Justine raised her chin and held his gaze before she reached for her evening bag.
"Nice segue, Rudolfo. Funny you should mention the word 'teacher'." With a raised eyebrow, Justine pulled out a small stack of photos and tossed them onto the table. "I believe this might be one of your more recent pupils. How old would you say sweet Jessica is?"
Santini's face blanched. His eyes grew wide in shock. The man grappled for the photographs, clutching them in his hand. Justine leaned closer, taking a peek at images she knew well. After all, she paid a hefty price to acquire them from a local private investigator. A small expense considering what was at stake.
"I almost didn't recognize you with your eyes rolled up in your head like that. But by the look on your face, it appears she's at the head of your class, so to speak."
"Where did you get these?" he spat. Rage darkened his face. "She's a grown" He stopped, hurling hateful daggers from his eyes.
"You see? Even you can't bring yourself to call her a woman." She shrugged with a tilt of her head. "Would it interest you to know the girl is fifteen? Shame on you, Rudy. Perhaps your wife would care to place a wager on Jessica's ageor maybe your conservative board of directors? Then again, this might be your idea of a firm year end projection?"
Rudolfo gasped, looking every one of his fifty-seven years.
"This is highly inappropriate and against the law. Why, this is extortion!"
"You won't get an argument from me. If I were you, I'd seriously consider reporting me." She lowered her tone, keeping an eye out for the wait staff. "But you know? It'd turn into one of those messy finger-pointing games, your word against mine. And I doubt you can afford to press charges. The authorities have some ridiculous notion about digging for the truth. Not to mention the terms of your prenuptial agreement with your wife."
"How did you find out about"
"Is that really important?" Justine narrowed her eyes, careful not to look too smug. "If memory serves, the fidelity clause stipulates that your interest in Koch Energy Resources would revert back to your wife in its entirety if you break it. You'd be out in the cold, just the way you came into the marriage. As I see it, you have no choice."
"I am a-appalled," he sputtered.
"God, yes. Me too. And if I were in your shoes, I'd be absolutely mortified. But face it, you've got an Achilles heel that you can't keep in your pants." She reached for her purse and retrieved a document and a pen. "Sign this and the photos and any digital file copies will be destroyed after the sale is final and the acquisition compliance filings are approved. You have my word."
"This coming from a blackmailer?"
Santini stood, shoving back his chair. At first, Justine thought he would storm out of the restaurant, without signing the sale contract she'd prepared in advance. But something held him in his place, stunned. Eventually, he slumped back into his chair.
"Look, Santini. Just think of this as an early retirement. You'll still be a wealthy man and no one has to know about your nasty little secret. You've got a chance to change your life. Don't blow it."
The man did a double take, unsure if her pun had been intended. It had, but that was beside the point.
Painstakingly, he read through the agreement, as waiters came and went. Justine held her breath while she watched him. She thrived on the thrill of the hunt. And this was the big payoff. Eventually, he grabbed the pen and scrawled his name, unable to look her in the eye.
"What do you intend to do with my.with Koch Energy Resources?"
"The sum value of its parts is greater than the whole. I plan to sell it off, piece by piece."
She knew her words stung. His face grew stern with controlled rage.
On paper, the Seattle-based energy company had a lot to offer with its liquidity, rich in reserves and cashhighly unusual for an exploration company. But with its operations in Alaska competing head-to-head with Kensington's Exploration Division, the main reason for her interest was to buy out the opposition. Without an easy means to export natural gas out of the state, energy markets were limited in Alaska. The smaller company had grown into a tenacious and resilient competitor.
In more ways than one, Santini had become a real pain in her corporate ass. And with a new lease opening up in the region, an aggressive competitor would be eliminated. Kensington would absorb Koch's Alaskan operations, but sell off the divisions of the company that held the most risk with the least revenue potential. It made perfect sense to her.
But, of course, Santini wouldn't see it that way.
"Your parents must be very proud." His sarcasm duly noted.
Justine swallowed, hard. She never knew her parents, having been raised in a series of foster homes, a headstrong troubled kid. Apparently, her DNA donors knew when to cut their losses. She'd been dumped faster than a remake of the movie Gigli, but it had taught her a valuable lesson. Justine learned to fend for herself and she'd gotten damned good at it. No man required. And being a realist, she didn't believe in good luck, magic or unseen things that went bump in the night. Her fate would be determined by her alone. She was living proof, having worked two or three jobs to finance her college tuition. Justine had parlayed money and the right image into opportunitya self-made woman succeeding in a man's world.
Who was Santini to judge her?
"I'd say those who live in glass houses should be wary of the stones they sling. The offer I've made is more than fair."
"Fair? Since when do you care about being fair?"
BBrrrrrr... Brrrrr. Once again, her vibrating cell jumpstarted her heart, making it perform a crazed mambo in her chest. Dammit! What now? She yanked the phone from her bag and read the display.
A text message this time. Call me. Office. Now.
The message could only be from one person. Her assistant, Graham Edward, never bothered with the formalities of 'please' or 'thank you', a policy she initiated by her own behavior. But he also would never bother her unless it was urgent. She forced a grin and grabbed the signed contract, folding it in her bag.
"I know this is very bad timing, but I have to take this call. Would you excuse me for a moment?"
"Oh, please. By all means, let's add rudeness to your list of indiscretions." He waved her off to take the call.
With purse in hand, Justine stepped into the next room, keeping an eye on Santini. But as a waiter neared, loaded down with cocktails, she grabbed a glass from his tray as he walked by. Justine took an unladylike guzzle, then hit the speed dial for Graham.
He answered on the second ring, "Well, it's about time"
She didn't let him finish. "You working overtime again? I hope I pay you enough for the hours you keep."
"Yeah, I've been meaning to talk to you about that."
"Not to change the subject, but are you sitting down, my friend?" She couldn't keep the smile from her voice. "Santini's had a sudden change of heart. I've got a signed contract in hand."
After an extensive due diligence phase into legal, financial, and human resources implications of the acquisition, Justine and Graham had stalked the CEO for months, looking for a way into his good graces, legitimate or otherwise. Justine tried a head on approach, more her style. But the man turned her down flatat least on the business angle. He left her no choice but to concoct and implement an out-of-the-box Plan B.
"I sure thought any change of heart would involve a coronary. How did Santini take the news that the girl was only fifteen?"
"Did I actually say Jessica was underage? Oops. Sorry, my bad." Justine scrunched her face. "If I had said such a thing, that would be an outright lie. And I don't condone that kind of behavior."
"What?" Graham bellowed so loudly, she had to remove the phone from her ear while the boy continued his tirade, "You mean she's not fifteen? You've got to be kidding me. I thought you" He stopped mid-sentence when he realized, "You've acquired Santini's company on a damned bluff?"
She smiled faintly, but when the other end of the line went silent, Justine knew what he was thinking even before he said it.
"You didn't even clue me in. What's up with that, Justine? I thought you trusted me. Or maybe you've reached such an all time low, you didn't want to"
She cut him off with her own objection, "He cheated on his wife, for cryin' out loud. And he didn't even know Jessica's age. I'd say he had it coming." Justine paced the floor, keeping an eye on Santini, who was getting restless. She tossed back the rest of her drink. Liquor burned her throat. Her own words conjured up images from her past she wanted to forget. Once she'd discovered the truth about Santini, her vendetta had become personal on so many levels. But she'd never explained this to Graham. It was too personal.
"Is that how you justify your part in this?"
Even though Graham knew nothing of her past, his accusation hit hard. She closed her eyes, letting the silence build. Justine prided herself on targeting her opponent's weaknesses with both barrels, guns blazing. No guilt. No fear. No looking back. Up until now, it had worked. But lately, she couldn't justify her behavior, even to herself. And she wouldn't drag Graham down with her if she got caught, her main reason for keeping him in the dark. Graham Edward had become the voice of her conscience and he was too good a friend to hang out to dry.
Ignoring his question, she asked, "Why did you call, Graham?"
"Yeah, I nearly" He sighed into the phone. "Everett Kensington called for you. The man, himself."
She nearly dropped the phone as she glanced at her watch. At this hour, why would the head of her company be looking for her? Her gut twisted into a wad of nervous knots.
"What did you tell him?" Her heart raced, compounded by the alcohol churning in her system.
"I told him where you were. But before I could explain you were with Santini, Mr. Kensington told me he knew the restaurant, then left me with nothing but dial tone. Justine, he's on his way to meet you. Something's mighty important."
"Damn. This could be a very good thing or the end of the world as I know it." Distracted, she ended the call without formality, giving her assistant a double dose of dial tone.
With shoulders back and chin raised, she headed back to the table. All Justine could think about was getting rid of Santiniand fast. Allowing someone she'd just blackmailed to meet the corporate head of Kensington International would be a bonehead mistake. Hell, in his frame of mind, Santini might even believe Kensington was part of her extortion scheme. Her bluff could backfire into a fireball of epic proportion. And as far as she knew, Donna Karan didn't make a snappy little cocktail dress in asbestos.
"Rudolfo? I hate to beat 'n run, but you are out of here," she muttered under her breath.
Santini didn't appreciate her bum's rush out of the restaurant. The invitation to dinner had been hers, accompanied by her not-so-subtle enticement of sex. But all things considered, she had made good on one of her offerings.
Rudolfo could saywith a great deal of convictionhe'd been royally screwed.
So, as the man stood on the curb outside the restaurant, waiting for his car to be brought around, he fumed. Justine was dumfounded. Cutting their evening short should have been a relief for the man. Had he actually intended for their evening to continue after she'd swindled him of his company? Men!
She glanced at her watch again. Where the hell was that valet? When outsmarted by a woman, some men got mean as junkyard dogs. Santini was no exception. She had to get rid of her belligerent dinner companionNow.
"The way I see it, you owe me, Justine. Accompany me to my car. We could find a dark corner of this parking lot, put that smart mouth of yours to better use." He stood far too close to her, liberally confiding his vulgar suggestions. For Santini, the gloves were off. No charm required. "Or join me at a nearby hotel, stay the night. All I'm asking for is a little reciprocity. You screwed me, now I'd like to f"
"No, thanks, Rudy," she interrupted. "Sealing our deal with sex would be way too ironic. Being called a blackmailer has so much more appeal." Justine crossed her arms in challenge.
"You're a piece of work." He narrowed his eyes. "I hope you learn what's it's like to be set up, Ms. Perry. I only wish I could witness that moment myself."
"You act like an innocent party to all this. A major case of denial. Face it. You got caught with your pants down, literally. You set yourself up and made it way too easy."
Santini's car pulled up. The headlights nearly blinded her. Even with his face back lit, cast in shadow, she saw anger seething in his eyes.
"Good night, Mr. Santini. Give my regards to your lovely wife."
The words were out of her mouth before she could bite her tongue. Even she had to admit it. Bringing up the man's wife hadn't been her shrewdest move, especially after Rudolfo polished off the wine. Now all she could do was watch the storm rise. His face distorted with renewed rage.
"If you were a man, I'd" He balled his hand into a fist and threatened to take a poke at her.
Well, enough already. His macho threat pushed her over the edge.
"Don't let the stilettos stop you," she dared, chin out and voice raised.
It was the last thing she remembered saying before the lights went out.
© Jordan Dane, 2007