How Driving to the Story Creates Accidents
By Wulf Moon

How do you start your day? Well, if you're not a vampire or a werebeastie, you probably wake up at dawn after a couple slaps to the snooze button on your alarm. You pad over to the bathroom, relieve yourself, brush your teeth (you do brush your teeth, don't you?), and check the mirror to make sure your golden locks are all in place and not looking like Einstein with his finger in a light socket. All good? Wonderful! Then you're ready to go forth and meet your public! Um, you might want to put some clothes on. And don't forget breakfast is the most important meal of the day, as every cereal commercial will tell you.
These are the things we do at the start of our day, so we think the heroes of our stories must do the same as well. We start our day waking up, so we believe our heroine Suzy must start her day waking up. Plus, having her walk into the bathroom gives us a bonus no writer has ever thought of before! If we take advantage of that bathroom mirror, we'll get the perfect opportunity to describe what Suzy looks like! "Mirror, mirror, on the wall, tell readers if Suzy is large or small. Does she have dimples, freckles, and baby-blue eyes? Does she have wrinkles that makes her frown and sigh? And long flowing locks, please don't forget those! Can we get a mirror that shows her from the head to her toes?"  
And it doesn't end there, oh nooo. There's the selection of the day's ensemble, the making of the bed, the cooking of the breakfast, the feeding of the cat, the locking of the door, the walking to the speeder (praise the celestials, something different from our normal world!), the five-page description of how the speeder's propulsion system works (curse the celestials, I'm reading a Chilton's manual!), the flight to the geostationary space station while contemplating the mathematical equations of the force of gravity and centripetal force that make the station stay in orbit, the landing, the parking, the entering of the space station (while cleverly making Suzy catch her reflection in a window to reveal even more of her facial details), and the final swipe of her palm over a scanner to clock in for her nine to five! At last, Space Station Suzie's terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day in space is about to begin! Our reward for wading through twenty eye-straining pages with zero dialogue to get to the actual story is about to begin! Yay! Oh, wait. Suzy has to go to the restroom one last time to check herself in the mirror. A girl's gotta look good, after all.    
The Magic Word
What's your favorite Star Trek series? TOS? DS9? DSC? Mine is TNG, The Next Generation . Jean Luc Picard was the greatest Star Trek captain of all time. Don't argue with me. You will lose
Yes, yes, I know I promised you the magic word. Wait for it, it's coming. But first, here’s a little opening of a Star Trek: TNG episode I wrote that, sadly, never made it into production ...
Captain Picard is in his ready room sipping a nice cup of Earl Grey, hot, when the red alert sounds and he strides to the bridge, says "Report," and takes over the captain's chair. Some klingon Bird-of-Prey just swooped out of cloak, fired their transporters, and stole the Enterprise's entire payload of Twinkies destined for a rescue mission to planet HomeAlone and the resident Latchkid race. Twinkies just happen to be the only food these diminutive aliens can digest. The Bird-of-Prey vanishes before Picard's eyes, and now those Latchkids are going to starve if Picard can’t get those Twinkies back. He really doesn’t want to chase klingons all across the galaxy, his tea is getting cold, but Latchkids WILL DIE! (If this were TOS, insert dramatic music here, then cut to commercial, where a sweet mom will tell you how wholesome Hostess Cupcakes are for your kids as she places an overflowing plate of these sugar bombs before hers.) 
Aaaaaand, we're back! Latchkids WILL DIE! So Picard makes the call: lay in a course of pursuit, warp factor nine; calculate a transporter frequency that will beam back a Twinkie payload from a cloaked klingon vessel; somebody get me my tea before it goes cold; and then? Does Picard go into a rant about the chemical composition of Twinkies and their rate of decay? Does he give us the entire history of the Latchkids and how they arose from the primordial stew to become the most petulant psionic race in the galaxy? No. He sits in that captain’s chair, raises his hand with forefinger extended, swings it down and utters one word: Engage
That's the magic word. Engage. When you heard Picard say it, you knew the setup was done, the adventure had begun. It was a thing of beauty to watch how swiftly each show could establish characters, setting, and problem so that Picard could make the call and plunge his problem-solving crew into the unknown. To this day, I get a tingle when I hear Picard say engage , and I bet you do too. Why? It's the point in the story where the adventure begins .
Engage is actually a code word, a marker for a critical story element, one that you should know. When you understand this element and why it's essential to every story, you'll know exactly where to begin yours. It's the secret to cutting pages of needless material out of your opening that slows the pacing down, keeping readers on the edge of their seat instead of putting them to sleep. Want to learn this Super Secret? To do so, we're going to need to gather every tale told by our ancestors throughout time and distill them down into one. 
The Hero's Journey
Fortunately, somebody already did the work for us! We turn to Joseph Campbell, an American professor of literature in the 20th century that worked in comparative mythology and religion. He analyzed global myths and legends spanning the ages and discovered repeating archetypes and story elements. He named the summation of these recurring universal patterns the monomyth. It’s also known as the hero’s journey. I'm not here to parrot Campbell's teachings —there are many excellent stories that don't employ all aspects of the monomyth— but that doesn't mean we can't learn from his brilliant model.  
To keep it simple, we're going to single out one element in the hero’s journey known as Crossing the Threshold . What is it? It's the moment when heroes decide they’re going to do something about the thorny problem that just dropped into their peaceful world. Something they desperately love or desire has been taken from them, and if they want it back, they've got to get off their butts and go do something about it. In our example, when Picard says, "Engage," he's telling the viewer, "I've made up my mind. I'm going on this journey into the unknown to get my Twinkies back." It's the point in the episode when Picard takes his crew from their ordinary world of duties on the Starship Enterprise and steps across the threshold into the unknown, the beyond, the other world where the adventure awaits. 
You see, a story is about someone that wants something, and someone or something else is trying to take it from them. Your job is to swiftly establish a setting, place your hero in it, tell us what their heart's desire is, and then rip it from them. The moment when the problem enters into the hero's ordinary world to screw everything up? I call it the Inciting Incident ; Campbell named it the Call to Adventure . You can just call it THE PROBLEM. Your adventure begins when your hero can't live with the problem any longer and decides to go do something about it.
But wait, you say. A hero's got to eat first, doesn't he? What about my detailed breakfast scene? And second breakfast! Elevenses? Luncheon? Afternoon tea? Dinner? 
What are you, a hobbit? Here, have a Twinkie. We've got to get going.
The Method
Before you write your story, I'm betting you know exactly what the problem facing your hero is going to be. In fact, I bet you know exactly when and where that giant combat boot is going to fall from the heavens and stomp all over your hero's dreams. From there, it's just a quick hop, skip, and a jump to make them decide to go do something about it. You know the point they're going to go off on their adventure. You're smart. I bet that's how you end your opening scene. Setup is over, your hero chooses to set out, your story has begun. And since that's where all the fun begins, why start with brushing the teeth and making the bed and cooking the lumpy oatmeal and all the other mundane stuff? It's not important. Nobody cares. It's boring! 
But kleptomaniac klingons in a cloaked Bird-of-Prey munching on stolen Twinkies, with Captain Picard sipping Earl Grey tea in hot pursuit? That story's got some teeth! Albeit, crooked ones, but it still bites! Trekkies and Trekkers expect the show to set up quickly and then cut to the chase. And that's what you must do if you hope to write a professional story that will sell in today's market. You must cut to the chase.
The secret to effective, modern-day openings? Here it is. Start your story as close to the inciting incident as you possibly can. Find the point where the problem first collides with your protagonist's cozy life. Got it? Good. Now all you have to do is backtrack just a little. What was your hero engaged in moments before that earthquake rocked their world? Write that! Not putting on their socks. Not combing their locks. Not cooking their ham hocks (sorry, bacon didn't rhyme). Cut to the chase!
Think back to Space Station Suzy in our opening. Instead of waking her up, getting her showered and dressed, and detailing every move she makes up to the space station, couldn't she already be dressed and pet the cat as she walks out the door? And as she slides into her skimmer, what if a slimy green alien rises up from the back seat, puts a plasma pistol to her head and shouts, "Drive, you carbon-based oxygen sucking life form!" Granted, that opening won't win many awards, but having done my turn at reading slush, I can tell you it's got more promise than ninety percent of the stories in the queue.     
Don't get me wrong. We still need to open with an interesting character that has hero potential. We still need to provide a clear setting that tells readers a little about the protagonist's world and their life in it and the things they hold dear. We can still do that — gasp — even at the breakfast table. But we're doing this quickly . If we're not setting up the character, setting, heart's desire, problem, and that moment of crossing the threshold in the first five pages or so of a short story, we're probably doing it wrong. Because our readers have already gone. They were looking for an adventure, and we gave them a laundry list of daily routine instead. They get that at home. Every day. They chose to read escape fiction —and I know this is going to sound shocking— to escape
Personally, I like calling it transport fiction. Our job is to transport the reader from their mundane life to some place special, some place they've never seen before, or at least give them a slice of the world they live in from a fresh new angle. We need to hook them quickly, and then carry them off to the thrills of our page-turner plot in our brave new world. Suzies being kidnapped by aliens, hobbits choosing to trek to Mordor, klingons being chased by wily starship captains.   
Stop driving to the story. Start where the action begins. It's called an adventure
Make it so.
DreamForge Anvil © 2021 DreamForge Press
Driving to the Story Creates Accidents © 2021 Wulf Moon