Posts Tagged ‘novel openings’

So what

I’m back on it again, the subject of heart. I seem to blog a lot about finding the emotional core of story. Maybe because so many stories I’ve read lately just don’t have a heart.

Oh sure, they have moving scenes, a concept, maybe even a theme. They have a character who is likable and at risk. So what’s missing?

The missing link

Caring is missing. I may be very interested in a story because the plot is good. But I just do not care what the plot does to the main character (MC). Another way of saying it is that there is no link between the story problem and the internal story. The risks to the character don’t matter much, even if the MC’s life is at stake. Because the author did not bother to establish, in Act I, the universal hopes and fears that are at stake for this particular character.

It’s as though the author had a list of elements and ticked them off one by one–but didn’t bother to make them interrelated.

I am reading an urban fantasy by a new UK writer. The plot is a little belabored. A little too end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it, but hey, I could get into that one. It’s what Tolkien did in Lord of the Rings, so those plot stakes have a noble history. So, with the big threat in hand, in the first third of the story the MC fends off many threats to his world-view and personal safety. But it escalates too fast. The author essentially has no Act 1, in which the context is established, along with character, relationships and internal stakes.

When to start the plot

Start the plot when you have completed story set up. This could well be about a quarter of the way in, ideally with the inciting incident, the moment when the MC takes upon herself the journey to solve, save, escape, understand. This cannot be on page one or page twenty or even page forty. It must come when we have begun to care.

The story structure recommended to us by screenwriters is a marvelous tool for understanding the power of first acts, set-up, and status-quo. Look up Robert McKee, Larry Brooks, Robert Ray.

Don’t take too seriously the advice to “start the story as close to the onset of the action as possible.” Before you put the MC at mortal risk, show us why he matters, and what besides life will be lost. (And please, don’t assume that family is enough. It’s not enough, because it’s so over used it has become generic. Not that you shouldn’t threaten kids and spouses–by all means do!–but have something else that is particular to this MC, some back story that adds meaning to generic love of family.)

Saving Act I

The set-up function of Act I does not give license for boring openings.

It seems that all the fantasy I’m reading lately either starts too fast (with life-threatening action) or too slowly with endless world-building and wandering seekers.

How, then, to save Act I?

Well, it’s hard, but here are some tips:

  • Create interest and a sense of forward motion with bridging conflict, so that you create tension from the start.
  • Have a strong cast of characters whose agendas are on display.
  • Establish motivations that clash in small but significant ways. This may foreshadow how such clashes will turn the tide later.
  • Bring us into the heart of your MC by showing what his life is about; what his life means to him; perhaps a meaning that he is afraid to admit. Make him a character with competing wants, choices that are mutually exclusive. Help the reader to empathize by tapping into something both universal and unique to your MC.
  • Establish your world with a combination of clarity and mystery. In other words, lovely, telling details and unexplained anomalies.

That’s a lot to do in the first few chapters. It will keep us reading, I promise you, even without dire peril, bodily harm and explicit violence.

Without this set up, we cannot care. Without context, we cannot understand why all this action matters. Well. We may understand. But we will not care.

All right, back to the novel!  I’m rooting for you. We’re all in this together.


Sometimes a great nudge

I was listening to Bob Mayer give a workshop on writing the novel and I heard the voice of God. Now, I like Bob Mayer very much, but it wasn’t his voice I heard, it was something coming from the ceiling of my mind, and it said: Hey, dimwit, rewrite the opening scene of your novel.

Bob Mayer was on the subject of kernel ideas for stories, opening lines (“I told him I loved him and he killed me anyway”), and how the original idea should be worked and reworked until people light up when you tell them the story premise. I was thinking that this was all great advice, and I wrote it down, but I didn’t exactly need to hear it. What I needed to hear was what he said next. “Your opening scene often mirrors your climactic scene.”

Oh boy. Read More…

Fiction Myths

Not everything you read on writing blogs is true. It kills me to admit it, but sometimes I’m just dead wrong. Blogs, even by seasoned professionals are laced with personal opinion. And sometimes writing teachers repeat in an unquestioning manner delivered “truths” that don’t hold up.

Here are five pieces of bad writing advice, and why they lead you astray.  You’ll see some of these items expounded upon in upcoming posts. But for now, the slightly annotated list:

1. Start the plot as close to the beginning as possible.

In other words, “the moment the world changed” for that character should be close to the beginning. No, really not. Because you spend the first part of the novel with set up and showing the mundane world so that when the world changes we have reason to care. Novel openings are so tricky. That’s why your favorite author may use an action-filled prologue–useful, but often abused. The true action of the plot starts at what screenwriters call plot point one. So how to open? Watch for my blog on bridging conflict.

2. “Keep throwing rocks at your protagonist.”

This advice, meant to remind writers to keep the protagonist under pressure is responsible for tons and tons of episodic writing, wherein the major character trudging through your plot is confronted, one after the other, by different obstacles at the same level of intensity. But conflict must escalate (in emotional intensity if nothing else.) You don’t keep playing the same tonal plot chords over and over. The tension escalates because the forces of opposition grow more determined and the major character moves from willing to passionately involved.

3. End chapters with a cliffhanger.

Personally, I hate chapters that end this way. If I’m loving the story, I’m coming back to your book the next time I sit down to read. You don’t need to gimmick me into reading on. Read More…