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.


6 Responses

  1. I agree with absolutely everything here except the notion that books can start too fast, and that there shouldn’t be action right up front (and I mean that in the broadest definition of the word “action”).

    Too many years reading “slush pile” submissions that begin with weather report/fashion report/traffic report (detailed description of roiling gray clouds, the hero’s long blond hair blowing in the wind, and all about his long horseback ride from there to here) has left me wanting every story to begin in media res, then come back over the course of the first quarter or so of the book and make us care about the scary bit of action that hooked us in on page one.

  2. Kay says:

    OK, that’s one aspect I didn’t cover, but an opening hook is one way of introducing action early (understanding that we still don’t Really care, but our interest is Hooked)
    Also, now that you mention long rides with hair blowing in the wind… I have nothing against action even after the opening hook as long as it isn’t the main plot being forced in early, but rather great bridging conflict.
    Thanks, Phil.

  3. Andrew says:

    I disagree with Philip. As a reader, I am very much annoyed with stories starting in media res. I don’t like feeling lost for the first quarter+ of the novel trying to figure out who this mc is, what their abilities are, and how the world works. It makes me feel as if I missed a book or two somewhere. Were there short stories or novellas about this mc that I needed to read first? Was all this stuff explained in them? I don’t know, and it irks the heck out of me.

    When a book says book 1 (or is a standalone), I want it to be book one. And, I want the world laid out before me before the plot kicks in. I want to know about the people in it. I want to know how they ended up where they are. And, as Kay referenced, I want to know the motivations for why they do what they do.

    Basically, I like linearity. It makes for a much more enjoyable read. Unfortunately, I have a feeling I’m in the minority.

  4. Kay says:

    This discussion reminds me how very tricky openings of novels are. It is a finely-tuned balance. I have gotten to the point where, instead of looking forward to a new read, I brace myself to be lost and annoyed at the start of a novel. I hang in there, hoping that it is just me being cranky and not the author losing control of his/her material. By page 60 if all is not well on this score of knowing and interest and beginning to care — I quit reading.

    How’s that for cranky?

  5. Debra Young says:

    Excellent post, and I wholeheartedly agree with Andrew. Too often as I start reading a new novel written in medias res, I have that feeling of having missed something. And what about the oft-quoted instruction that writers should avoid backfill as much as possible?

  6. Kay says:

    Point taken, Debra, but actually I’m not familiar with the precept to “avoid backfill.” There’s always backfill to plots and characters, since they didn’t spring to life on page one but had a life. I believe the advice is to weave it in as unobtrusively as possible.

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