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.