Monday, November 19, 2007

Plot/structure series part IV

Today's topic is the beginning and working in back story. You need to accomplish two things at the beginning: ground the reader in what is "normal" for your story/characters so that they have a sense of meaning when something truly different happens. At the same time, you need to present unsolved problems that suck the reader deeper into the story.

The overwhelming tendency is to put in way too much introductory material in the beginning. No matter how quirky your characters are, if they don't start doing something in the right-now of the story, you are going to lose your readers. We don't need to know about the dog they had when they were six, or how their dad used to make pancakes when they were small, or all the details of the fight that means the family isn't talking any more. We only need to know enough to follow the current action of the story. Give out your information on a need to know basis. Especially in the beginning, you are establishing What This Book is All About, and if you veer too far off with unnecessary background info, you mislead the reader into placing too much importance on something that doesn't bear fruit within the novel itself.

Less common is the problem of too much action, too soon, and we don't get enough of a sense of the character and setting to know how to interpret the action or feel for the character. I still say you need to do this briefly. Agent Rachel Vater has a little bit to say about this here--basically, that whatever action you start out with needs to come through the filter of emotion. So add that emotion to everything--your setting (are the clouds restrictive, chaining the MC with darkness and not letting them see the sun, or are they warm, protective, comforting?) , your character descriptions (snarky introductions, fearful, etc.), and the situation. My husband says that a few piercingly accurate details go a lot further than a lot of bland words.

Going back to only giving what the reader needs to know: this is not only a factor of keeping the beginning from being too slow. It's also an element that's important for drawing the reader through the whole book. If you always leave just one more question in the reader's mind, they'll be compelled to keep reading until they get that answer. This keeps your pacing tight and keeps your reader wanting more. Three excellent books that illustrate this are Speak, by Laurie Halse Anderson, Dairy Queen, by Catherine Murdock, and Twilight, by Stephenie Meyer. In Speak, you know something horrible happened, something more than the other classmates know, and you stick with the MC until she's ready to confront that. In Dairy Queen, you know something's not right with the family, but she doesn't tell you what happened until you're already invested in the story enough to make it mean something. If Murdock had just said to start out with that there was a fight, it wouldn't carry the weight it does when all is finally revealed later in the book. And Twilight is a series of questions (why does Edward react so strongly to Bella? Can he balance his conflicting desires? How will they ever work out the huge obstacles between them?)

Assignment: Look at these three books (or any other beginning you feel is particularly effective) and list the unanswered questions that arise in the first chapter. Now look at your own first chapter. Do you have enough unanswered questions? Do you have information in there that doesn't lead on to real-time events in the book, that you could delete?

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