“Once Upon A Time…”
By Lea Schizas
Fairy tales continue to have a glamour and grip on readers, whether young or old. The ‘Once Upon A Time’ beginnings told you some moral and dilemma would unfold. Nowadays, a writer needs to cut right into the core of their book. Readers aren’t apt anymore to read page after page of descriptive prose to get to the meat of a book. They need to connect with the theme and character from the start. Although such classics as ‘Lord of the Rings’ continue entertaining readers, the ‘now’ generation prefer to know immediately who the character is and what they will be facing.
The beginning of a story needs to capture either the essence of your character or the theme of the book. In many mysteries, a scene may open up with the onslaught of a murder in progress or the detectives on the scene after the fact. This gives the reader the premise of the book.
The best tip is to start at a point where the character’s ‘problem’ comes to surface. For example:
Jane hates heights but is an avid swimmer and has taken the challenge to join the diving team. Her first attempt at the low board causes a panic attack.
This tells the reader Jane will have to face these ‘height’ demons at some point in the book. It’s fleshing out a part of her personality readers will ‘dive’ right into to understand her obstacle. In the above scene you can begin with the teacher calling out her name and then describe her inner emotions as she is walking and staring at the diving board, as she climbs the ladder looking down at the increasing level of height. Eventually, by the time she hits the board she is so overcome by emotion she might hyperventilate, throw-up, or run back down humiliated. The secondary characters around her are now tossed into the game plan for some ridicule at some point in the book. You’ve now established her obstacle to overcome.
These types of beginnings bring the character’s dilemma and the reader to a connecting factor – a sympathetic involvement to see what is going to happen. Engaging the reader like this motivates them to continue reading to find out the outcome: who might help her, who stands in her way/ridicules her, how she overcomes. You are creating ‘conflict’, the problem area in her/his life the character needs to face and conquer. The worse thing a writer can do is to have someone else solve her dilemma. This cheats a reader and reads like a ‘quick fix’ to the conflict. Imagine yourself reading a few hundred pages only to discover the main character never changes because he/she never gets the opportunity to prove they can do it. I, for one, would never pick up a book written by that author again.
However, having a secondary character involved adds extra dimension to the conflict because now we are offered more possible questions to add spark and interest to the story:
Will this character continue to support the protagonist?
Will this character place the protagonist in a face-to-face moment with her dilemma?
Will this character heighten and add to the protagonist’s obstacle?
Another interesting area with the ‘Once upon a time’ fairy tale theme is using fairy tales to come up with interesting storylines. For example, let’s take The Three Little Pigs:
3 little pigs = 3 upcoming musicians
wolf = their agent who swindles them at some point of their earnings
straw hut = their small apartment
brick house = their mansion when they make it big
You’ve now used a fairy tale to come up with your own storyline by altering the characters, their setting, and added a motive for a conflict with the antagonist-the agent. Let’s dig deeper.
The three musicians are childhood friends or brothers a la ‘three pig’ theme. They’ve been playing as a band since high school. During college an agent signs them up and takes them on a tour. The boys are inexperienced in finances and trust their agent explicitly. During the story, however, seeds are dropped that this agent is a bit on the shady side prompting the readers to wait for the bomb to drop eventually on the boys. Although the readers have an inkling what’s going to happen, the questions keeping them posted to the book are:
- How will the boys react?
- What will they do?
- What’s going to happen to the agent?
- What’s going to happen to their musical careers?
- Will the band ever make it?
Readers love drama, action, happenings that take protagonists to a lower level of no return, especially when they can identify with a crisis relevant to their own life. That’s not to say we need to be musicians to understand the characters plight, but as general people we’ve had someone who may have disappointed us in one way or the other. When you can connect a social issue or relevant emotional event to a reader, enough so they can place themselves in your character’s shoes, then they are drawn deeper into your story world.
Using the same fairy tale above, you can come up with literally tons of good storylines to expand and use.
*-3 spinsters on a road trip to get away from the stress of work
-1 man comes into their lives
-1 cheap hotel fling with one of them causes a rift between the ladies
-1 secret the man is guarding will have these women on the run
*3 lawyers defending 3 men for the same crime
-1 lawyer bribes a witness to lie for his client
-1 house holds the key to this crime
-1 twist near the end will have the witness charged with the crime
As you can see from the examples above, one simple fairy tale has now the potential for three different storylines, characters, and settings.
So…Once upon a time when I had nothing to write about, I sat down and remembered my childhood fairy tales…
And my page filled with story ideas…
And my Muse lived happily ever after.