In the first two emails, we developed the setting of your story. First we explored the area where you live.
Then we introduced a weird or magical strange part of the landscape, a strange place.
Today, we’re going to introduce a character to that landscape.
Now, this part of the sequence can go a couple of different ways.
People write in very different styles, and I want to accommodate how you write, how you’ve been responding to these challenges so far.
The protagonist can be you, or a fictional version of you.
The protagonist can also be a completely made up person.
The only rule is: this protagonist arrives in the story having just experienced a significant set back or defeat.
He wants something, this protagonist, and he has been trying very hard to get it. However, just before the story begins, he has suffered what seems like a final defeat.
If you already know what that goal is, and that defeat is, great. That’s awesome.
But if you don’t yet know, don’t worry. We can develop and explain that defeat in the next day’s challenge (day four).
The key is just that the character wants something and — right now — hasn’t been able to get it, and feels terrible about that.
Also — some of the people taking this course have been responded to challenges one and two in full fictional prose.
By this, I simply mean that they have been writing paragraphs that could be parts of real stories.
Those people may want to use the material they wrote for challenges one and two in the final story we are creating.
That’s completely fine.
If that’s you, you can simply combine what you wrote for challenge one and two into a kind of preamble for the story.
Day One: The place where you live
I love my street when the air turns cold and the leaves fall. We are high, here, and our street hugs the height of the long ridge. At the end of the year, you can look down, to the north, and see homes lit up on the next hill. With no leaves to block my sight, more homes show up, streets that were closed off from sight all year...
Day Two: The strange place
On one of the apartment blocks on our road, there’s a man who is always out grilling on a huge, ornate grill. He is a heavy fellow, usually bare-chested, despite the freezing cold air, with a hairy body and a bristling face.
His huge grill takes up most of the porch, and I don’t think the other people on that floor like him. Once, I saw a wife demand that her husband do something about this grilling man — my Spanish is not good enough to know exactly what she said — but the husband refused. He looked afraid. And, to be honest, I find the bare-chested man a little odd, too.
You see, there’s something weird about his grill. At night, it seems to…
Day Three: The desperate person
I never thought I would inherit that strange man’s grill.
Here’s how it happened.
The day after I was fired, I took my dogs on a long walk.
As I passed the apartment where the strange grilling man lived, he closed the lid of his huge grill — I thought I heard an odd sound emerge from it, like a scream.
He waved to me. I waved back. I felt empty inside. I was unemployed. I had failed in the most public way possible. My wife kept asking how we were going to survive without my job.
So I had gone out, taking the dogs. Just walking. I had no idea what else to do.
I was about to go on, keep going away from my house, but something told me to look across the street. From the porch, the bare-chested man seemed to be staring at me, staring, full of hate and fear.
As I watched, he clutched at his chest, and staggered. He tried to grab the handle of his grill for support, but he missed, and fell backwards. I heard a hard thump as he collapsed.
I ran with my dogs to help.
That’s one way you could do it. Maybe the three sections will line up nicely, or maybe they’ll need a bit of adjustment later.
If so, you’ll simply need to do a bit of fine-tuning, later, but that’s not a big problem. After all, this is just the first draft.
Alternatively, if you have simply been sketching ideas out, and haven’t been writing “real” fiction, that’s completely fine as well. You can simply begin here, with your protagonist arriving on the scene.
That might be easier, in fact!
Start the story now: just open with your protagonist feeling terrible, and standing on the edge of the strange place.
Day Three: The Set Up
Whatever you decide, the goal here is to begin quickly. We want to meet our protagonist when she is already in a state of desperation.
Our story begins with our protagonist already motivated to take extreme action.
When readers begin reading your short story or novel, they unconsciously expect the basic premises of the tale to be laid out quickly.
Just like with baking, there is a point where you have put the story “in the oven.” At that point, the ingredients are kind of settled, and good or bad, you have to let it rise on its own: you can’t go back and add in something major.
If all the characters in your novel are magical ponies, for instance, we probably (probably) need to know this before the book’s second chapter.
It would be weird if the narrator never mentioned a swishing tail or sparkling hooves, for instance, for the first hundred pages.
Hold on. Let me give you a better example.
The Great Gatsby is rightly acclaimed as one of the greatest American novels.
One thing about Gatsby: it moves quickly.
By the end of the first chapter of The Great Gatsby, for instance, we know the following things:
- The present day Nick (the narrator) has experienced something awful, and wants to tell us how it happened. He also lets us know that, once we begin reading the story of that terrible thing, we should probably see “Gatsby” as the best, most admirable part of the tale.
- At the start of the actual story, the description of this bad experience, the Nick from the past (the protagonist) is in New York, trying to make money in bonds.
- He is unsatisfied with his life, and looks upon himself wryly and pityingly.
- He meets Tom, Daisy, and Jordan, all of whom he finds engaging, attractive, and morally dubious.
- He has learned Tom is having an affair — this “off screen” conversation will lead us (in the next chapter) to meet the only other group of significant characters, Tom’s mistress and her husband.
- Nick’s wealthy next-door neighbour is a man called Gatsby who throws crazy parties, and there is something strange about Daisy’s reaction to the name.
- After the party, Nick goes home, and sees Gatsby standing alone, arms upraised, staring off into the night — Gatsby seems a mysterious spiritual, enigmatic figure.
Wow. That’s a lot of information for one chapter.
When a rapid set up is done well, it just seems amazing.
The goal today is to introduce your main character.
Just before the story begins, something bad has just happened. Progress has been hard, much harder than expected, and just before the story begins, the character has received a crushing setback.
She has been rejected, refused, denied.
The blow to her confidence has been immense. She is still shaken, dazed.
But rather than give up, she moves towards the strange or mysterious thing you invented in email #2.
Why? Maybe she already believes this strange place or thing can help her. Maybe it’s just an intuition, a weird feeling.
Or maybe your dude is simply lost.
Whatever you choose — the end result is that a frustrated, desperate person has arrived at the place of strangeness.
Therefore, in this initial paragraph or two, you need to:
- Introduce the main character, so we understand who this person is and what sort of resources, experiences, interests this person has. (Narrating in either first or third person is fine.)
Sketch out or hint at the awful setback that has just occurred.
Describe the scene. Where is she? What does the border of the strange place look like, sound like? What’s the temperature? Scents? Sounds?
Hint at something odd, magical, mystical, curious, or weird about the strange place. Right now, the protagonist doesn’t know much about it. But she probably senses that it’s an odd kind of place.
P.S. I encourage you to narrate this opening section from a distance, with the kind of rapid, confident exposition that we find in fairy tales. There’s no need to limit yourself to the character’s eyes and what he sees (“I stared at my hands. They looked like my hands.”).
After all, this isn’t one of those computer games where you run around with a plasma riftle shooting everyone.
This is narrative fiction, and the narrator can say anything.
You might begin: “Six years ago, I found myself at the edge of…” or you might begin:
“On a warm April night in one of the most expensive suburbs of Atlanta, Melanie Jones, an intelligent and ambitious woman with a remarkable amount of credit card debt, whose face was reddened from an hour of crying and cursing, found herself at the edge of a strange estate, a grand old manor, where…”
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