So You Want to Be a Writer, Lesson 4: Beginning the Journey

Lesson the Fourth: The Beginning of the Journey


So you've tried half a dozen times to start your opus and have ended up with half a dozen (or more) openings that lead you nowhere, or that you've abandoned (see Lesson 2). You have this great idea, but what are you going to do with it? How do you get a character from point A to B and keep it interesting? Why can't you get him to leave his cozy home and the lovely apartment you spent six hours writing him into?

And you thought writing was supposed to be easy!

The writer's journey--and the hero's journey--is like any other trip you'll take.

  1. You need to know what your destination is.
  2. You need to plan how you're going to get there.
  3. You need to know what and who you're taking with you.
  4. You should have an idea of how long it's going to take to get there.
  5. You'll want to dress appropriately.

The five points above should be your basic guideline on what you want to achieve and how you're going to achieve it. Sounds simple, right? Well, maybe not so much. There are all kinds of things that make a story compelling, GOAL, MOTIVATION, and CONFLICT being the three driving forces behind your tale. But since we're still pretty early in the game, we'll get into that later.

Using the outline above, I'm going to plan your typical trip out and compare it to J.R.R. Tolkien's epic The Lord of the Rings.

1. Where are you headed?

You in real life:
To the grocery store. I'm out of milk and I need it for my bowl of cereal tomorrow morning. I have to have my bowl of cereal or else I'll be cranky all day.

Frodo in LOTR:
To Mordor. I have to destroy the One Ring and keep it from Sauron or risk Middle Earth's doom.

You can't (or at least, you shouldn't) jump into a story without at least having some idea of where you want to go with it. Even if all you know is "I want a happy ending with puppies," that's a destination. Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz wants to go home; Luke Skywalker in Star Wars wants to join the Rebellion and end Imperial rule; George Bailey in It's a Wonderful Life wants a happy ending for his impoverished family.

Without a destination, or at least an inkling of one, you end up meandering, wandering aimlessly and achieving nothing.

2. How are you going to get there?

You:
I was going to walk, but it looks like rain. Maybe I'll take the bus. I have a bus pass.

Frodo:
By foot through the woods, along back trails to avoid Ring Wraiths. No, I don't have a horse, or a pony, or a giant eagle. Do I look like I'm made of money? Sheesh.

The "vehicle" by which you get to your destination sets the parameters of your tale. In this case you are going to take a bus. Things happen on buses: just think about Sandra Bullock in Speed. Frodo has to journey across an enormous continent, bypassing fantastic dangers, all by foot. Imagine how difficult that is and the challenges he'll face.

Ask yourself: Is this a journey of the mind? A physical journey? A gritty tale of intellect? Dorothy follows the yellow-brick road through Oz; Luke Skywalker flies through space to save the princess; George Bailey's guardian angel takes him to a world where he doesn't exist.

A few more examples: CSI's "vehicle" is exactly what the title implies: crime scene investigation. They don't need to get to a physical place, but to a set goal. They must use technology and detective work to find the culprits of heinous crimes. Law dramas use similar investigative storytelling to ferret out suspects, collect evidence and testimony to convict criminals.

Once you know how you're going to get to your destination, you'll have some idea of the things that can happen along the way.

3. What and who are you taking with you?

You:
My trusty umbrella, my wallet, my keys...oh, and my faithful dog, Sam. He could use a walk and I could use the company.

Frodo:
The One Ring, my sack of supplies, this walking stick...oh, and my faithful sidekick, Sam. He could use a walk and I could use the company.

Be prepared! Plan ahead! If you know you want something particular to happen, then remember to write those details down. You might get into your head that you're going to take your dog to the park after you pick up your milk, but if you do that, then you're probably going to want to take his ball. And don't forget that bus pass, otherwise you're going to have to walk!

Frodo wouldn't leave home without the One Ring--he'd feel pretty foolish if he forgot it at home; and he wouldn't have been able to make the journey without Sam or his eight companions.

Dorothy had to take Toto and the ruby slippers with her, and she made friends along the way who were helpful, too; Luke had his father's lightsaber, acquired knowledge of the Force to help him along the way, and met a hermit, rogues and a princess; and George Bailey brought with him the overwhelming sense of guilt and despair as he began his journey to that George Bailey-less universe, and had Clarence as a guide and mentor.

What you take with you--tools, enemies, allies, emotional baggage, and more--will give your journey points of interest to visit, if you will; highlights that make your trip out a not-too-typical trip.

4. How long is it going to take to get there?

You:
Maybe fifteen minutes. Maybe half an hour, at most.

Frodo:
Months. Years. I've never traveled out of the Shire! Oh, Gandalf, how will we ever make it?

Short tale or epic saga? There's an expectation that goes along with every journey you partake in. But what starts off as a simple-seeming task can end up to be an epic journey. Dorothy thinks she just has to reach the Emerald City in order to get home; Luke Skywalker chases a wayward droid out into the desert only to discover it's the tragic beginning of his ordeal; George Bailey goes out for a drive one night and ends up perched on a bridge, trying to decide whether he should end his miserable life.

Here's the thing: when you set out on a journey to tell a story, THINGS NEVER GO THE WAY YOU EXPECT THEM TO. That's what your story is about! Otherwise, who wants to read, "So Dorothy got to the Emerald City and they sent her home without a hitch. The end." Or, "And the police caught the bad guy and it was easy."

So like any good trip, pad around it: if you're planning to get swept away by aliens, is it a forever thing? An overnight ordeal? A three-month trip? Have some sense of when the trip ends.

5. Dress appropriately!

You:
Darn tootin'. It's cold and wet out there. I'm going to put my galoshes on.

Frodo:
I've got this handy magic cape. No need for shoes--we Hobbits have tough feet.

This section is misleading: it's not the same as the third point. This is about setting, tone, voice and genre. Know the world you're heading out into so that you can write appropriately. Frodo's heading out into Middle Earth, a fantasy world full of ancient and mystic cultures, monsters, magic, and who knows what else. So of course you're going to write a fantasy, and you're going to use the language and techniques appropriate for the genre.

You heading out for milk with your dog Sam, on the other hand, could go ANYWHERE. It's cold and wet out there... Maybe because the earth is spinning away from the sun and it's getting progressively colder. Or maybe that cold, wet weather is going to cause a car to spin out of control and hit poor Sam. Or maybe it'll hit you and you'll discover you've been in a coma for the past ten years. Or maybe you're about to get hit and the love of your life jumps in to save you.... You can see the possibilities are endless.

To summarize: treat your story like a trip out to the grocery store. Plan, and prepare for the unexpected. With any luck, you'll get to come home with your jug of milk...and a story to tell.

More on all these points to come!

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