I’ve done a bit of screenwriting here and there between my day job of writing novels, and let me tell you, it’s been an education. That’s not to say I know much more about making movies today than I did before spending time in Los Angeles, only that I’ve heard a number of phrases tossed around in meetings with producers and other seasoned screenwriters there that were new to me, and whose meanings were at first either ambiguous or questionable in their usefulness. “A hat on a hat.” “Kick the dog.” “Bumping.” There’s a whole glossary of screenwriting lingo that’s alien to the fiction writer, and for the most part, it’s better it stays that way. But the one phrase commonly thrown around in Script World that I have found myself repeating in Book World (and thinking harder about than I did before) concerns finding the “Way in.”
You may think that the “way in” to your story is the simple matter of beginning at the beginning, turning the key in the ignition of the “Once upon a time” of things. But finding the best way in is a more complicated matter. Too often, we can assume we know where to start our stories, that the question is so obviously answered there’s no point in lingering on it. We tend to get attached to our beginnings with a stubbornness far greater than our attachments to our middles or ends.
Yet when you “beat out” (more script-speak) your story in its most basic form and start to ask yourself “What if I started here instead of there?” you might see how you’ve been wrong about your beginning from the beginning.
Our reflex is to think sequentially. This happened, then this, then this. Cause and effect. One damn thing after another. But sometimes this ordering can fail to engage when an event that happens later in the story would be more likely to grab us and not let go. Chronology be damned! Play your ace! Start at the middle, or the end – whenever the main reason to keep reading happens. The reader would rather be excited by the first forty pages than clear about what time it is. Let her play catch-up. Remember that, as readers, it can be fun to figure out what’s happening in the story, where we are, how the characters found themselves in this dramatic or thrilling situation in the first place. (Having said that, you can’t take too long in bringing us up to speed on these details – your way in can’t be too far out. Brief disorientation off the top can challenge your readers. Outright confusion can alienate them).
Another crucial aspect to finding the right “way in” lies in who is showing us that way in. If we have secondary characters carrying the action at the outset, do we risk muddying our readers’ sympathies (caring more for one character when we’d rather they’d care for someone else)? Human nature inclines us to place our interest in whomever we meet first. To change tracks isn’t impossible, of course. But the longer we’re made to wait before meeting the protagonist, the more likely we are to not care about him or her.
I think of the “way in” as a kind of relay race, where different runners carry the baton, trading off at certain points. But in a story, unlike a race team, the runners can’t all be equal. We want our protagonist to run with the baton most of the time, and in the most interesting way relative to others. Should that protagonist start out holding the baton, or have it handed to her down the track? It depends. But whoever holds the baton at the beginning is your way in, and there has to be a reason they’re holding it on page one.
Choosing the event, narrative sequence, baton-holding character, setting and hook for your “way in” is always specific to the story you want to tell. Without changing anything but the way a novel begins – telling the same story, broadly speaking – can lead to one version being unputdownable, and another be all-too-putdownable. Hollywood has always known this, and it’s one priority to screenwriting that, as novelists, we’d be wise to pay more attention to.
ANDREW PYPER is the author of six bestselling novels, most recently The Demonologist, which is being developed for feature film by ImageMovers (Robert Zemckis’ production company) and Universal Pictures. Follow Andrew on Twitter: @andrewpyper.