I can start this story here or use later part of the story as a prologue.
Does this start make you want to read more? Orin shakes the fatigue from his head. Hearing footfalls out of step with his own, he looks up from watching the edge of the road seeing his daughter, Anne running ten yards ahead, his son, Ed is further up and not in sight having dropped into a dip in the road. Orin looks forward to the dip even knowing it is the last downhill he will see before the long climb to the finish line at Whitney Portal. Well, he thinks, it is only another five miles… all uphill. “Ha,” he says aloud thinking of the permit his wife has for him and working the math in his head. He still wants to summit Whitney and return adding another 20.8 miles after the official end of the 137-mile race. The number sounds impossible. 8,500 feet give or take, in under 15 miles. Glancing at his GPS tracker, he sees he has been running for 34
Hi Gregg. Can you shake fatigue from your head? I don't think that works for me. So, for me, I know exactly what happened, but I am not engaged yet. You are talking about mental fatigue?
Aren't all footfalls except his own going to be out of step?
As a start, it works for me. Great place to start -- an easily understood situation with conflict. You quickly personalize it (with family, extra long, he wants to run farther). There's nothing in the past to interest me, so maybe you will keep going in chronological order, which I like.
I would have left out the name of his daughter. That's you talking to the reader, right? But I would also have said "he" instead of "Orin", so maybe that's just me. But leaving her name out emphasizes that his family is running with him. I don't know who Ed is.
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The first line is in your viewpoint. You, a narrator who's not in the story or on the scene, are talking to the reader about the events, as though they already know the scene and what's happening in it. Shouldn't the protagonist be living them? Shouldn't we know the situation as he does, so we know what he knows?
Added to that, we don't know why he's so tired, or why he needs to be alert. And while you can push away the effects of fatigue, for a time, can you really "shake it out of your head?"
quote:Hearing footfalls out of step with his own, he looks up from watching the edge of the road seeing his daughter, Anne running ten yards ahead, his son, Ed is further up and not in sight having dropped into a dip in the road
This line has forty-four words, and four comma-delineated clauses. But what's the subject? What he sees? where the kids are in relation to him and each other? What he was focused on? In general, it's one sentence, one subject.
That aside, he's watching the road edge? Why? No idea. If we knew he was on a long distance run, and how long he's been on it, perhaps we might guess. But for all we know, at this point, he's a road inspector making his rounds. Where is he? No hint. What season, time of day, era in time? You didn't say. So as I read I lack context to make this more than a report of what could be seen, were this a film. It's data I haven't asked for, for which I can see no use. The trick is to make the reader want, and even feel they need the information each line provides. This works as you read, of course, but you cheat. It's all in your mind as you read the first line, so every line has context and works. But pity the poor reader, who has only what the words, to any given point suggest, based in their background, not your intent.
And without the context you have as you read, the reader has no reason to want what you give them. And unless the reader is actively interested in what you're saying—on every page—they won't have a need to turn the pages.
At the moment you're thinking in cinematic terms, focused on the visual rather than presenting the perceptions of the protagonist and noticing what matters to him. The problem with being an external observer, though, is you never notice it when you force the characters to do something because your plot calls for it, rather then the character doing it because it makes sense to him, and the reader:
1. Because he hears "footfalls." The reader will take that as him walking. But he's not. And we later learn that he's been running forever, which is the cause of his fatigue, so we were told the effect before we learn the cause. But in life cause always comes before effect. 2. The footfalls aren't in sync with his? Why would that matter? Given that they're from ahead, he won't confuse them with his own. 3. Seeing his daughter? Reads awkwardly. In any case, who cares what he sees if it doesn't grabe his attention enough to act on it. If we don't know if he expected to see her, and his reaction to it, it's an isolated fact—some visual data for which we have no context. 4. Etc. - - - - - I've been hitting you over the head with a 2x4 to be certain you got the idea that there are some basic problems with the opening, related to the approach you're taking to writing it. I wish there was a more gentle way of saying this, but it's important that you fully realize that you cannot tell a story by explaining the sequence of events that make it up.
The problem, and it's one you share with a lot of hopeful writers, is that you're writing exactly as you were taught in school. So it's not a matter of talent, or the story, or even how well you're writing. The problem lies in some things we miss in our schooling.
First is that for twelve years or more we wrote endless essays and reports, so as to make us proficient in the style of writing most employers expect us to know when we write essays and reports for them. But compare the number of stories you were assigned to the number of nonfiction assignments. Think back to how much time was spent on the nuance of viewpoint, handling tags and dialog, and even what makes up a scene on the page. Damn little, right?
And that leads to the other thing we universally miss: Professions are learned in addition to the skills we're given in our schooldays. And of course, writing fiction is a profession, one the universities offer a four year major in. So it's learned after we finish our public education years.
What we don't realize is that nonfiction has as its objective, informing the reader. And to do that well it's designed with techniques that are fact-based and author-centric, which is how you constructed this opening.
Fiction, though, wants to involve the reader emotionally. And for that, our schooldays skills, demonstrably, won't work. Instead, we need writing skills that are character-centric and emotion based—a style of writing that's not even mentioned during our school days.
So pretty much all hopeful writers, knowing that the skill we learned is called writing, and that the profession is called Writing, assume there's some connection between the skill and the profession. That's why fully 75% of what agents and editors see is viewed as unreadable (their term, not mine).
Bottom line? For all we know you have the most brilliant story of the century cooking in your brain, and be loaded with talent. But until that talent is trained in the techniques that readers and publishers expect to see in use, you're in the position Mark Twain defined with, “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” And if you don't recognize the problems as problems, how can you fix them?
The solution? Simple. Add the tricks of the trade to your existing writing techniques and use them, instead. Unfortunately, like any other profession it takes time, study, and practice. But that's true of any field, so it's no big deal. And if you are meant to write you'll find the learning fun.
These days I'm recommending James Scott Bell's, Elements of Fiction Writing, to learn the nuts-and-bolts issues of creating scenes that will sing to the reader. There are others in the library system's fiction writing section. Once you've mastered the techniques, a book like Donald Mass's, Writing the Breakout Novel, and Sol Stein's, On Writing are great for issues of style. And there are others.
So dig in. But whatever you do, keep on writing
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The start of a story has two functions: to actually start the story, and to excite the reader’s imagination. The second of these two elements is the most important and is accomplished using the tools of the dramatist.
Anything can be made dramatic: a fly on the wall, paint drying or a piece of paper blowing down the street. However, not everything is dramatic. To quote Gustav Freytag from his book Techniques of the Drama: An action, in itself, is not dramatic. Passionate feeling, in itself, is not dramatic. Not the presentation of a passion for itself, but of a passion which leads to action is the business of dramatic art; not the presentation of an event for itself, but for its effect on a human soul is the dramatist's mission.
To be dramatic an opening must touch the emotions of the reader, whether it is only generating mild interest or, best of all, creating a sense of soul crushing pity for a character’s situation.
In my opinion, the submitted fragment is without drama for there is nothing at stake, no conflict, no tension, no hurdle to overcome and no prize to be won etc. As a result I am not engaged as a reader.
I thought about starting here, then flashing back the above start “Momma, may I have a glass of water?” Cyndi rolls over in bed, “hmm?” “Mamma,” her voice more insistent, “can I have a glass of water?” Cyndi’s eyes open as she reaches for the light switch. “Momma,” the voice now tinged with anger. Click. The first scream woke most of the camp. By the third scream, everyone was awake.
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For you, who knows the situation, it works. But...Who's the protagonist? No way to tell. Whose viewpoint is it told in? Yours. You're thinking visually, and reporting the events as if the reader can see the screen. But from start to finish, you, the narrator,are talking to the reader. So this is a told story. How can that seem real?
Look at it as a reader:
quote:“Momma, may I have a glass of water?”
Someone unknown, but presumably a child. in an unknown place, asks for water. Not an unreasonable opening, but fairly prosiac. But also, the impression is that they are in a house and she in a bed. Except...you later talk bout being in camp.
quote:Cyndi rolls over in bed, “hmm?”
This is a visual in a medium that doesn't bring the picture. Why do I care that she rolled over? Would the story change were she already facing in that direction? In the film we'd see it happen in a tenth the time it takes to read it, so you just slowed the read and diluted the impact of the story, to no purpose. With only Mom's response the same thing happens in a fraction of the time and the story moves faster. In short, unless it matters to the protagonist in her moment of now, it doesn't matter to the reader.
quote:“Mamma,” her voice more insistent, “can I have a glass of water?”
The request is mundane. every parent has heard it. Had she been saying, "I need help," or "Mama, I'm scared," you'd have the reader's interest. But calling for water? Who cares how insistent the kid is? Problem is, you know what's coming. So for you there is drama. But for the reader? A kid's being a pain in the neck.
quote:Cyndi’s eyes open as she reaches for the light switch.
This is detail, not story. Of course her eyes opened. She's awake and going to help the child. Never tell the reader what they already know. Instead, let implication work for you.
But...you've left out the most important part: Mom's reaction. You tell the reader what you visualize happening, but you're neither on the scene nor in the story. So how can you tell the reader anything, as yourself, without destroying any sense of realism?
As with the first example, you the storyteller are talking to the reader about the story. Changing to present tense doesn't change that. Nor would a change to first person.
Think about your protagonist. For that character, as in life, it's always in the moment we call now, which for us, is first person present tense. Only the narrator uses any tense other than that.
quote:“Momma,” the voice now tinged with anger.
At this point, we know only that the child is being a pain in the ass. That's not drama, or action.
Funny thing, that. None of the switches in my house make a sound. And lots of people have never heard a light switch click. So what's a click mean to me to me? Yes, I knew what you meant, but in general, you never use sound effects because the reader can't be depended on to hear them as you envision them. In this case, you already had her reach for the switch, so why define it further?
But that aside, I'm confused. It appears that they are in a house. So...
quote:The first scream woke most of the camp. By the third scream, everyone was awake.
You know what's meant by camp, but I sure don't.
But that aside, here's where the story falls apart. With no idea of what's causing it, who's screaming, or why, this piece of information can hold not a trace of emotion for the reader.
You're being dramatic, and have emotion in your voice as you lean toward the audience. But your reader can neither hear the emotion in your voice or see the drama in your body language.
In short: You're reporting a chronicle of events to the reader.
I know I'm upsetting you, and I wish there was some more gentle way of giving such lousy news. But bottom line is that unless you upgrade your writing to make use of emotion-based techniques, the words will change but not the approach. And the problems lie in the approach.
To give you an idea of how different the style of writing fiction is from the fact-based tricks we're given in school, try this article on one method of presenting the protagonist's viewpoint. It forces you to view the scene as the protagonist, and present that, while you move to the prompter's box.
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Context; there is no context. Without context there can be no drama, nothing at stake, nothing to loose. Without context there is no one to care about either.
“Click.” Click what? A light, as Jay suggests, or perhaps the cocking of a gun? Jay’s right when he says sound effects just don’t translate well into prose (the written word).
My advice? Find out where your story actually starts. Not where you want it to start, not where you think it should start, but where it actually does start. And, how do you find that elusive point? It isn’t easy. It can take weeks or months to divine what your own story is actually about as opposed to what you think it is about; then the starting point becomes quite obvious and you’ll feel the fool. I know, I have; quite often.