Archive for writing

writing

Endings

I’m done with a lot of travel and can get back to writing posts — but then I just looked at the calendar and saw how quickly the holidays are approaching, so I think this may be the last “official” writing post this year. I’ll take a bit of a hiatus and come back in January with a lot of new ideas (I hope!). But I do hope to be better about blogging about other things. I’m just trying to avoid having scheduled obligations.

So, to conclude the series on parts of the story, let’s talk about endings. I’ve heard it said that the beginning is what sells this book and the ending is what sells the next book. The ending has to take care of a lot of things. That’s where the climax of the story goes — the peak action, where all seems lost until the hero prevails (or fails entirely). It’s also the culmination of the hero’s character arc, when he has to make some kind of change in order to prevail or perhaps because he prevailed. It’s when the loose ends are tied up, relationships secured (or ended), and we see just enough of the new normal in the aftermath to know how things are going to look for the hero going forward. If there’s a sequel, the seeds for the sequel may be planted to tease readers into coming back for more.

At the end of the middle, our characters have recovered from whatever their big midpoint ordeal/midterm exam was. Now they need to gear up to deal with things once and for all. They may have to return to the point of their failure to try again, they may have to race against the villains to get somewhere first in order to take care of business, or they may have to go where they will confront the villains. However it goes, it needs to be (at least figuratively) do or die. If this attempt fails, all is lost. There may not be another chance. This is also a moment of truth for our hero, who’s been resisting the kind of internal change she/he needs to make. If she doesn’t make this change, she probably won’t be able to succeed, but making that change is scary and leaves her feeling vulnerable. There may also be a moral choice — do things the right way and there’s a chance you won’t win, do things the wrong way and you might win, but there will be a huge personal cost. Making the right choice is a leap of faith. This is when the hero will be tested again on whatever he might have failed in the middle of the book — if he failed because he was too impulsive before, now he has to be able to wait for the right moment. If he failed before because he wanted to go it alone, now he has to trust in his team. It works best if whatever the hero needs to learn is closely tied to what he has to do to win.

Even though in genre fiction we’re pretty sure the hero is going to win, you have to trick the reader into wondering if maybe this time is going to be the exception and the hero will lose. The odds have to look bad, and there needs to be a good chance for failure. Victory should come at some cost. Secondary characters who are important to the hero may die. How far you go with this depends on the tone of the book you’re writing.

And then, victory! It’s best to end the book as soon as possible after that climax so there’s not a huge letdown, but you do need some winding down because readers want to savor that victory and see how it affects the characters. There may be celebration or mourning. We need to see at least a glimpse of what our hero is going to be like now that she’s been transformed. How will that affect her relationships with other characters? What do other characters think of her now? How have these actions and events changed the world of the story? You probably don’t want more than a chapter or so of aftermath, but you need enough to reassure readers that everything’s okay and all is right with the world (at least, until the sequel, and then you need to leave just a little bit that’s not entirely right). How you wrap things up depends on the effect you want to have — do you want to leave readers sobbing or sighing?

One common way of showing how things have changed is to reflect the beginning. In a quest, the character may have returned home, and we see the contrast between the hero and his surroundings. How is he different from the person who left? How has his view of his home changed? Will he be happy there? Or you can reflect an incident from the beginning and show the changes. In my Enchanted, Inc., the book opens with the heroine seeing strange things on the subway that no one else seems to notice, and it bothers her. At the end, she’s on the subway seeing strange things again, but now she understands them and is part of their world. You could do something similar with an encounter between two characters that goes differently or by showing the character facing a similar challenge in a different way. Or the character may have embarked on an entirely new life, so we need a glimpse of how she fits into that new life and new world and how it’s different from her old life.

Some genres have specific expectations of what happens in the end. A mystery requires the hero to find and unmask the killer, who’s brought to justice, and there often isn’t much aftermath wrap-up, unless there are relationship subplots to be addressed. A romance requires some kind of emotional commitment between the characters, so that you know they’ll be in a relationship going forward.

One of the best ways to learn to write a good ending is to look at the books whose endings have stuck with you and see if you can analyze why you like those endings. How many pages are left after the climax and main plot resolution? What events happen? What emotional tone is struck? That will help you figure out what you need to do.

In general, it’s a good idea to leave readers wanting a little more — give enough to be satisfying, but not enough to start to get boring. It’s better for readers to wish for just one more page than to have them flipping ahead.

And with that ending, I’ll close out the writing posts for the year.

writing

Middles, Part 3

I’ve been talking about the various parts of a story, and now we’re getting close to the end. I’m not even sure I’d call the next part of the story part of the end. Maybe part three of the middle?

After we’ve had the big semi-climactic moment in the middle of the story, the audience and the characters need a chance to recover and catch their breath so they’ll be ready for the end. There’s usually some kind of quieter interlude after that big middle part. On a chart, this would be falling action. You need some less intense times so that the intense times will be a contrast, but that doesn’t mean this part of the story is allowed to be boring.

This may be an emotionally intense part of the story, even if there’s not a lot of action. You see a lot of love scenes in this part of a story. Think about The Terminator — after Sarah and Kyle escape from the police station and have a big car chase, they make it to safety in a remote motel. There, they talk and get to know each other a little better. He tells her about the future he came from and her role in it as the mother of the leader who’s helping humans fight back against the machines, and he tells her that he came through time because he’s always loved her — at least, the idea of her. They make love. This scene may seem slow in comparison to the rest of the movie with all the car chases and gun battles but, in a sense, it’s the most critical scene in the story, since it’s when that future leader is conceived.

Another example would be the scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark in which they’ve made it safely to the ship with the ark after that big chase and fight scene, and Marian tends to Indy’s wounds, trying to find a place where it’s safe to kiss him without hurting him.

If someone — usually the mentor figure — got killed during the midpoint semi-climax/ordeal sequence, this is when the surviving characters mourn that person. If they weren’t very successful in what they tried to do in the midpoint, they may regroup here. There may be planning sessions or an analysis of where they went wrong.

This may be a time when the hero has some doubts. If he failed in the midpoint, he might fear that he’s not up to the task. He might question the goal. Sometimes he might even try to sneak away, feeling everyone else is better off without him.

Or, if everything went right, they may think they’ve won. They may have obtained the quest object and are celebrating. Because they don’t know they’re characters in a story, they don’t know that the story isn’t over yet. They may think everything’s okay or that the rest of it will be easy. Surely the most difficult part of the quest was getting the charmed amulet out of the evil wizard’s secret base. Now all they have to do is get home and use it to save their land.

But, of course, the story isn’t over yet. That knowledge allows the writer to maintain some tension even in this quieter part of the story. Readers can see that there are still a lot of pages left, so it’s not over. There won’t be a hundred pages of celebrating. The villain is still out there and not ready to give up. That cyborg will track them down and continue trying to carry out its mission. The Nazis aren’t going to give up on the ark, and they have a lot of resources. The evil wizard is going to try to get his amulet back. The hero can’t just give up and walk away. We know this, and that makes any celebrating, bonding, or rejoicing bittersweet. We enjoy seeing the characters get to be happy for a little while, but there’s a sense of dread about what they’ll face next.

writing

Middles, Part 2

I skipped a week on writing posts because I was sick last week, and I’m not sure that anything I wrote would have made much sense. But now I’m back in action and ready to tackle the topic of part two of story middles. As I mentioned in the previous post, the first part of the middle is about the hero getting to know the “new” world of the story. It’s Dorothy arriving in Oz and setting out on the Yellow Brick Road, where she encounters the Wicked Witch and gathers her traveling companions on her way to the Emerald City.

And then part two of the middle happens, and things start to get serious. This is when the hero has to go from learning about things to really doing things. You might say that the hero is entering the special world within the story’s special world. The hero’s journey calls this “the approach to the inmost cave,” and there is often some kind of cave-like imagery. There’s a sense of the world closing in. The hero’s options are becoming more limited. If you look at it like a decision tree, at the beginning of the story the hero has virtually unlimited options, but by making one choice, all the other potential options are cut off, and he’s down to only those that stem from that choice. The next choice narrows things still further. Now he may only have a few possible options as he moves forward.

The hero may get a new assignment — like the Wizard telling Dorothy she needs to get the Wicked Witch’s broom — or there may be a briefing scene in a cop or action movie. The hero might get the specific weapons needed for this task. Sometimes you find a bonding scene at this time, something bringing the team closer together. If there’s a romantic element, this may be when the couple expresses emotions or has a love scene. That’s a nifty emotional trick for raising the stakes. It gives the hero something to fight for, and it makes us care about those other characters as we go into some danger. This is when Dorothy and her friends head toward the witch’s castle through the scary forest, or when the Millennium Falcon gets pulled into the Death Star. The characters are in a new, unfamiliar place, and they’ll have to accomplish a goal in order to survive and escape.

This is all building up to what you can think of as the secondary climax of the story. The real climax happens later, but this one is almost as intense and may even take up more time in the story. It’s a bigger set piece. You can think of it as the midterm exam of the story. It tests the heroes on what they’ve already learned, but it’s not the final exam. The heroes can’t have ultimate victory here, or the story would be over. At best, it’s a partial victory. They may get what they need, but they still haven’t accomplished their story goal. In a classic quest story, the hero may obtain the quest object, but he still has to get it back home to use it to heal his land, and the bad guys are going to do everything they can to stop him. Dorothy obtains the witch’s broom, but she still needs to get the Wizard to send her home. Luke and the others rescue the princess and escape from the Death Star, but the Death star is tracking them and will soon be in position to destroy their secret base.

Or, the hero may even fail at this point. He hasn’t learned his lessons, is still trying to do things his way, disregarding advice, and when he faces the villain, he loses, barely escaping with his life. He’ll have to make some changes before he can face the villain again and win. If you look at the original Star Wars trilogy as one story, that would be Luke facing Vader in The Empire Strikes Back. He loses that battle because he wasn’t properly prepared for it. He rushed into it impulsively without knowing for certain what he was doing, and he failed. There’s often a death of one of the team members during this segment, which shows how serious and dangerous this task is. Quite often, this is when the mentor figure dies, leaving the hero on his own to figure things out for the rest of the story. Or we lose one of the team members the hero just bonded with, which gives him added motivation for the rest of the story. Be careful using that trope, though. You don’t want to use a character’s suffering as nothing more than giving motivation to the hero. It’s particularly cliched for something to happen to the love interest to motivate the hero.

While there are all kinds of hero’s journey mythological reasons for this phase in the story, from a practical standpoint, it mostly serves to keep things exciting between the initiating incident and the resolution. Something needs to happen in the middle of the story. The next time you watch a movie on TV/cable/DVD/streaming, look for the length of the movie, figure out what the middle of the movie would be, and take note of what’s happening at that point in the movie. If it’s an action movie, there’s probably some big action sequence. If it’s not an action movie, there’s probably some big, intense, emotional sequence, like a confrontation between characters, a love scene, or a big dilemma. Open a book to the middle and see what’s going on, and you may find the same thing.

I find that this is the part that tends to be skipped by beginning writers, and it was learning this trick that taught me how to really plot a story. We tend to think in terms of what happens to kick off a story and what happens to resolve a story, and it’s easy to look at the rest as filler. By making sure you’ve got some important event midway through that doesn’t resolve the story but that tests your characters, your story will become a lot more interesting.

writing

Middles: Part One

I just did a whole series of writing posts about beginnings, and now it’s time to move on to middles. While beginnings are important for snagging the interest of editors, agents, and readers, the middle has a lot to do with whether a book sinks or swims. A strong beginning doesn’t help if the middle sags. Many authors find the middle to be the most difficult part of the book to write. It’s tricky keeping the pacing and tension going without resolving everything too soon but also while having very good reasons that things can’t yet be resolved.

You can generally divide the middle — the part that comes after the hero has chosen (or been forced) to take on the story goal and before the build-up to the resolution — into two parts. There’s the getting used to new circumstances, meeting new people, and figuring out the situation part, and then there’s the setup for the climax.

If you’re thinking about it in terms of the Hero’s Journey, the first part would be Tests, Enemies, and Allies. In a way, this is the “ordinary world” of the special world of the story. You probably don’t want to spend a lot of time in the beginning showing the ordinary parts of the ordinary world, but this is where you can play with your worldbuilding, showing how things are different now that the hero has taken up the challenge. The hero really may travel to a different place — going to Oz, Narnia, or some other fantasy world, or possibly just leaving the familiar to go on a journey or quest within his or her own world. Or the hero may stay in the same place but encounter different people and situations. It may be a new job with new co-workers, a new home in a new neighborhood, or a new group of friends or colleagues. The hero has to learn the rules of this new situation, how it all works, and who to trust. The protagonists will learn more about the villain, more about what they have to do to achieve their goal, and may pick up skills and weapons that they’ll need later.

In his book Save the Cat, Blake Snyder calls this part of the story “the promise of the premise.” It’s when the things you expect to happen in this kind of story happen. In a fantasy quest story, it’s when the questing party really comes together, and they may have a few lower-stakes adventures and encounters in which they learn what the dangers of their quest are likely to be. In a space opera, this is life on the spaceship and meeting the crew, maybe having a minor space battle that shows off the skills of the various crew members. In a romantic comedy, it’s the part where the hero and heroine are stuck in a situation together, with witty banter, and we meet their various friends.

Think of some familiar stories: In The Wizard of Oz, it’s when Dorothy has arrived in Oz and been given her quest by Glinda, and she sets off down the Yellow Brick Road, picking up her traveling companions along the way and having a few encounters with the Wicked Witch and flying monkeys. In Star Wars, Luke goes with Obi-Wan to the cantina, where he gets a glimpse of what Obi-Wan is capable of and meets Han and Chewbacca, and then they escape in the Millennium Falcon — a sequence in which we learn the capabilities of Han and the ship — and Luke starts his Jedi training.

The challenge is keeping readers interested after the beginning. There is a natural slowdown after the big bang of the opening, but you can’t let the pace or the energy lag. Things need to happen. There need to be some stakes, even if it’s not entirely do-or-die at this point in the story. This is a good place to set up the things you’ll need for the climax and resolution — the hero learning or gaining things, trying and failing at something he’ll later need to do properly to save the day, encountering the villain and surviving but not winning. The conflict that keeps the story going through this part needs to be real, not contrived. If the story would end if two characters who are capable of having a conversation just had a conversation, you need more going on. If the story would end if the characters just figured out a rather obvious thing, you need very good reasons for them not to know about or notice that very obvious thing.

If you’re struggling with a story that feels like it’s sagging at this point, look at the conflict. Is anything stopping the heroes from achieving their goals? Are there any intermediate goals on the way to achieving the story goal, and what’s getting in the way of those goals? Finding a good reason for the heroes to struggle will usually fix a sagging early middle. You can also have conflicts among the characters, like Han Solo’s disdain for Jedi ways and Luke’s disdain at Han’s greed.

Next time, I’ll look at the second part of the story middle.

writing

What Makes a Good Beginning?

I’ve been talking about writing beginnings in my writing posts. Beginnings really are difficult, but there’s only one absolute rule: your beginning must make people want to read more. If it does that, nothing else really matters.

But how do you do that?

  • You can write a real grabber of an opening line that makes readers want to know more — a killer first line.
  • Show just enough of your story world to keep readers intrigued — enough to give them a sense of place and what’s going on, but don’t answer all the questions up front, and don’t give an infodump near the beginning of the book.
  • Show the protagonist’s potential — whether you’re writing a true hero or an antihero, your main character is probably going to change and grow during the story. The antihero may have a redemption arc. The hero may learn some valuable lessons. Let readers get a sense of what the protagonist’s strengths and weaknesses are, what their goals are, and what they’re going to have to overcome. But, again, don’t tell everything. Questions and curiosity help keep pages turning.
  • Present the story question the plot will hinge upon — will they beat the villain/complete the quest/save the day?
  • Show the stakes if the protagonist fails

The job of the story’s beginning is to:

  • Introduce the main characters — preferably one or two at a time so readers have a chance to get to know each one instead of being hit with all of them at once. When you go to a party, are you more likely to remember names and something about the people you meet when you’re introduced one-on-one or when you’re brought to a group and quickly given all their names?
  • Set the stage — show us just enough of the world to allow us to understand where/when we are and what’s different from our world, but leave us curious about seeing more.
  • Set up and then show the inciting incident that kicks the story into motion.
  • Define the story goal that comes out of the inciting incident and the stakes.

The lovely thing about writing a novel is that you don’t have to get the beginning right from the start. You can always go back and revise it. Don’t get hung up on getting the opening just perfect before you move on. Chances are, as you get deeper into the story, you’ll learn a lot about your characters and world, and that knowledge will help you go back and improve your beginning. Making the beginning perfect before you’ve written the rest of the story may even be a waste of time. The things you figure out along the way may lead to you changing the way you start your story. What you write as an ending may give you better ideas for how to begin. The ending will show you what your characters really needed to learn, which will allow you to hint at that need in the opening. You’ll know from the ending how the world will change, so you’ll have a better sense of what you need to show in the beginning. You may even find that the opening scene as you’ve written it is entirely unnecessary, and the story really begins later. Writing the rest of the book may give you ideas for that brilliant opening line.

So, don’t fret about your beginning until after you’ve written the book — especially for a first novel. More experienced writers may start writing proposals to sell books, so they only write a few chapters, but that usually comes after you’ve written some complete books. For an early novel, just worry about starting in a way that sets the stage and gets your characters going. You can make it better later, and that will be better than if you sweat over it before writing anything else.

writing, TV

The Supersonic Raven Fallacy

I’ve noticed that some writers have a tendency to get defensive when they’re called out about something that doesn’t quite work. There’s a particular tendency among some writers of fantasy to question “nitpicks” in a fantasy work — if you can believe in magic, why can’t you accept these other things? It seems to be more of a trend in TV writers than among novelists, which may have something to do with the way novelists approach worldbuilding. At any rate, this arose again this week, thanks to events on Game of Thrones, and I have now dubbed this particular argument the Supersonic Ravens Fallacy.

The argument goes: “You can believe in X, but you can’t believe in Y?” where X is “big fantasy element” and Y is “mundane thing that doesn’t quite work the way it does in the real world.” For example, “You can believe in dragons, but you can’t believe in ravens that had to have flown faster than the speed of sound in order to deliver a message in that amount of time?”

The defensive writers blame the audience for being nitpicky or unwilling to suspend disbelief, but I think it’s the writers’ fault. If the audience doesn’t believe in Y, it’s because the writers didn’t make them believe in it. They believed in X because the writers built it into the world. The disbelief comes when the writers fail at building something into their world or portray it inconsistently. The audience wouldn’t believe in X, either, if it was written inconsistently.

It’s a false equivalence because the big fantasy element and the mundane thing that don’t work right aren’t on the same level. The suspension of disbelief that allows the audience to buy into the big fantasy element isn’t transferable. It only applies to that big fantasy element. Writers have to make the audience believe in every single aspect of the story, and it’s usually the easy stuff that trips them up. You don’t have to explain “ordinary” things to the audience. They take those things as a given. If you don’t show us that these things aren’t the ordinary things we’re used to, then we’re going to assume they work the way things in the real world work. We get annoyed when they don’t work the way they work in the real world.

So, say there’s magic in your fantasy world. You’ll show us that magic is a part of this world, suggest who can use it and who can’t, show how it works and what it can do, and give an indication of what people in this world think about magic — do they know it exists? Do they like it? Fear it? If a character suddenly uses magic to get out of trouble when you haven’t established that magic exists, then that surprise needs to fit into your world. You can’t have a character with no magical powers in a world with no suggestion of magic just suddenly use magic to get out of trouble without that being a big deal — “OMG! I have magic powers! How did this happen? What do I do now?”

Meanwhile, if you have horses in this world and haven’t given us any indication that they’re different from horses in our world, then they have to act like horses in our world and have the same needs, abilities, and limitations. We’re going to assume they need to eat, have to have rest and water every so often, and they walk on land. If a horse suddenly flies when your plot requires it and you’ve given no indication that horses in your world can fly or are at all different from what we know of as a horse, then we’re not going to believe it, even if we believe that there’s magic in your world. You’d better have a good explanation, like the horse ate enchanted hay or someone did a horse levitating spell, and people better be surprised about the horse flying. Otherwise, if you need the horse to fly to get your character out of trouble, you’d better establish previously that horses in this world can fly, and you need to show how that affects your world — people carry really sturdy umbrellas, there aren’t as many roads, etc.

Basically, it comes down to the fact that you can’t change the rules of your world to fit your plot —especially not to get your characters out of trouble — whether it’s the magical elements or the mundane elements. If you can set up the fact that ravens serve as the messenger system, then you can set up the fact that maybe there are special ravens to be only used in dire emergencies or there are spells to be cast on ravens to make them fly faster, or there’s a special supercharged raven food. But if the ravens have acted like our ravens, other than the fact that they work as the Internet, then they need to keep acting like our ravens and not flying thousands of miles in a few hours.

writing

Bad Beginnings

I’ve been talking about writing beginnings. It’s hard to say what kinds of opening scenes you should write because a lot of that depends on the story you’re telling. It’s a lot easier to list the kinds of scenes you should avoid. Yes, you can probably point to successful examples of each of these kinds of scenes, but generally you’ll find that those are done by bestselling authors who could probably publish their grocery lists and hit a bestseller list (and, usually, those authors have learned how to do even these kinds of scenes well), are examples from decades ago when there were different expectations, or are done so skillfully that they work. If you’re just starting out and trying to break in, starting a book with these kinds of scenes is really risky.

1) The main character wakes up in the morning and starts the day
You’re better off starting the story when the action begins, not when the character’s day begins. There are exceptions, such as the character waking to a frightening situation, coming out of a coma, etc., if the normal daily routine is an important part of worldbuilding (in a fantasy, say, if a flock of fairies washes and dresses the main character that might be different enough from the normal to be interesting), or if there’s something about that “normal” that will very soon provide a stark contrast with the rest of the world. But you have to know what you’re doing to pull off those exceptions. If your story starts with a character waking up in the morning, look at where the action in the story actually starts. Would your story lose anything if you skip to that point and let the reader assume that the character woke up, got out of bed, and dressed that morning?

2) The story opens with an exciting action sequence with the character in peril — and then the character wakes up in the morning and realizes it was just a dream
This is a cheat — a way to open the story with a bang and then go back to that “normal” life beginning. Most editors and agents are well aware of the tactic and will eye it with suspicion. Again, there are ways you could possibly make this work, such as if the fact that the character has that dream actually is the inciting incident, but it’s a risky move for a beginner. Unless it’s handled really, really well, the action of the dream may seem like a bait and switch for the reader, especially if it leads into the waking up in the morning and getting dressed kind of scene. In a way, it makes the start of the book even slower because that action fake-out further delays the real start of the story. As before, look for where the story really begins. What do you lose if you cut the dream and the waking up part?

3) The story opens with an exciting action sequence with the character in peril, ending on a cliffhanger — and then cuts to “3 days ago” (or whatever time period)
Again, it’s a cheat, a way of squeezing in something exciting in the beginning. It’s like admitting that you don’t have a lot of faith in the opening of your story. This device is frequently used on TV series, and I think it’s a cheat there, too. At least with TV series, they can play with audience expectations because they have established characters and situations, and the opening is usually some action or situation that’s unusual for the show, with the flashback working to explain how these characters came to do something they’d never do. You don’t have that with a novel unless it’s a later book in an established series. Readers won’t know that this opening situation was odd, so they won’t care about how it came to be. This opening gives the same effect as the dream, in that it may open with a bang, but then there’s a big letdown, so it affects pacing and delays getting to the start of the real story. With a book there’s also the problem that readers can just flip ahead to the part of the book that opening scene comes from and see the resolution of the cliffhanger. You’re better off finding an interesting way of starting your story rather than turning your whole book into a flashback.

4) The story starts with the main character thinking about her backstory and how she came to be in her present situation
This is a deadly way to begin a story. For one thing, there’s not much happening if the character is able to just sit (or stand, walk, etc.) and think. For another, it tends to be an infodump — a block of information dumped on the reader, who doesn’t yet know enough about the world and the characters to know what parts might be relevant. You’re better off revealing that information by showing the character interacting with her world. She can have thoughts along the way as they’re relevant. Is there something in the character’s thoughts that you can dramatize? For example, if she’s thinking about how she doesn’t really fit in, instead of her thinking that, show her trying and failing to fit in — she can’t find a place to sit in the cafeteria because everyone turns their backs to her or glares at her, so she goes to sit outside, where she has a thought about it being like this every day. It doesn’t improve matters if the character has a conversation about the backstory instead of just thinking, especially if the person the character is talking to already knows the story and there’s no real story reason for the character to be telling the story.

5) The story starts with a character traveling to the destination where the story will take place
This gets even worse when combined with the thinking about the backstory, so the character is traveling, thinking about where she came from and where she’s going and why. Unless something happens on the journey, you’re better off starting with the arrival in the place where events will happen, or even when the character is already there and things are happening. As always, there are exceptions. Things can happen on the journey that are important to the story. The last time I wrote about this, I came up with a snarky example about masked bandits robbing the coach where the heroine was sitting and thinking about why she was making the journey. I ended up getting a book out of it (though Rebel Mechanics starts with a train robbery, not a coach robbery).

6) The story starts with two characters discussing the history of their world
This one was really big with epic fantasy novels in the 1970s-80s, but it’s hard to make it work now. Even if it’s a conversation, it’s still an infodump, and readers have no reason to care about this history until they know some of the characters. Chances are, readers won’t retain much of this information, if they even read it instead of skimming. Talking heads — two characters just talking, without anything else going on around them — are also dull. And you have to have a reason for these people to be having this discussion at this time. How often do you sit around and talk to your friends about the history of your city or state? When it happens, it might be in a more contentious political discussion, not, “As you know, the railroad came through here, and several farming communities formed into a larger city as more people came through with the railroad.” Before you try writing characters giving us backstory in a conversation, think about how people really talk about these sorts of things.

writing

Action Openings

It’s time for another Writing Wednesday post, and I’m following up on my previous discussion of beginnings.

One good way to start a book off with a bang is with some kind of action. This sort of beginning is called “in media res,” which just means starting in the middle of action. You don’t really know what’s going on, just that something is happening, and the combination of action and curiosity about what the action is about serves to hook readers. But it doesn’t always work that way. I’ve heard agents complain about getting too many submissions that start with the protagonist running through the streets, being chased. The problem is that if you don’t know who this character is and have no reason to sympathize with him, why should you care if he gets caught? Reading about a random person running through the streets isn’t actually all that entertaining. We’re pretty certain that the main character in the story isn’t going to get caught and thrown in jail in the first scene, or there’s not going to be much of a story — unless the story is about him in prison or this is a prologue and the story is about what happens after he gets out of prison — so there isn’t a lot of suspense about whether or not he gets caught.

So, how do you make this kind of opening work? (And, really, these tricks apply to any opening, but if you can make them work with running through the streets, you can apply them anywhere.)

First, the character whose viewpoint we’re in needs a goal. It may not be the story goal at this point, but there needs to be something the character wants — other than not getting caught — and a reason for him to want it. Something needs to be at stake, and not just his freedom. Is he a thief escaping the police? What did he steal, why did he steal it, and what will happen if he gets caught? Will his daughter/mother/wife not be able to get medicine if he doesn’t get the money from this theft? Was he stealing a magical amulet from the evil wizard? Reclaiming his family’s heirloom that was stolen by a more powerful person? This goal gives us some suspense — we’re pretty sure the hero won’t get caught, but will he succeed in what he’s trying to do? Will he get into some other kind of trouble? It may not be the story goal and main plot at this point, but it should lead into the main plot in some way — say, the person who helps the hero evade the police then demands that the hero take on some other mission as paypack for the help, and he won’t be able to carry out his initial mission until that’s done.

There also needs to be some kind of context that draws us into the story. A chase scene is a good way of showing what the world looks like — is it a futuristic world with robot cops on flying motorbikes, a fantasy world with guards armed with swords, a contemporary world? Is it an unjust world with the rich and powerful not answering to laws while poor people are oppressed? Is crime common or unheard of? Is it an oppressive regime, and the hero is being chased just for being a rebel?

Beyond these plot-related things, you need to create empathy for the hero so that we care what happens to him as a person. There are some tried-and-true tricks that can be used here.

  • Make him an underdog — an ordinary guy fighting against forces that are far bigger than he is
  • Show him being extremely competent — he knows his way around the city, is able to hide, climb walls, or disguise himself
  • Give him a sense of humor — he tosses quips at the people chasing him or has an entertaining internal monologue during the chase
  • Show what other people think about him — the people in the city step up to help hide him or send the pursuers in the wrong direction, which shows us that people like him and are willing to take risks for him, so he must be a good person
  • Have him “save the cat” — that’s a Hollywood term for doing something we associate with being good and kind. This kind of action makes people quickly like a character. If our hero in the chase scene stops to help someone else in spite of his own danger we’re more likely to warm to him.

If you think about popular books and movies, you can probably think of examples of these. The opening of almost every James Bond movie has Bond being extremely competent and tossing off quips during an action sequence. When we first meet Indiana Jones, he’s expertly navigating an obstacle course, and the sequence is capped by the revelation of his fear of snakes, which humanizes him. The opening of the animated Disney version of Aladdin manages to include just about all of these. He’s an orphaned street rat being pursued by the city guards, so he’s an underdog. He clearly knows his way around the city and is clever at evading capture, so he’s competent. He does it all with wit and flair. He hands over the food he stole to a starving child, for a “save the cat” moment.

The action beginning can work if there’s a reason for the action and if you can very quickly make readers care about the character.

writing

Beginnings

After focusing on writing life for the last few writing posts, I thought I’d get back to craft, and what better place to start than at the beginning?

Beginnings are tricky because this is where you hook readers. It’s where you sell the book, whether to a publisher or to the reader. If the first few pages don’t suck someone into the story, readers will never know that the middle is engrossing or the ending is terrific.

The beginning also seems to be the part of a novel that changes the most over time. The openings of books published just twenty years ago are different from what’s being published now. The change is even more drastic if you go back farther than that. I’ve tried re-reading some of my favorite fantasy novels from the 1970s and early 80s, and I have a hard time getting into them. I’m not sure that some of them would be published today. There’s not a lot of room for the opening chapter being about peaceful life on the farm before the mysterious wizard shows up and tells the entire history of that world and then asking the farmboy to join him on a quest. Our entertainment landscape has changed so much that attention spans are getting shorter and people expect to get right into the story. There’s also so much competition for eyeballs. If your opening doesn’t grab people right away, it’s too easy for them to instantly get another book on an e-reader, or find something to watch on Netflix, or surf the Internet.

One thing that seems to be going by the wayside is what you could call the “ordinary world” part of the story. That’s the first stage in the hero’s journey, and too many writers interpret that to mean showing what a regular day is like. I’ve heard agents and editors talk about reading sample chapters that show the character getting up in the morning, getting dressed, going to work, etc., before the story kicks in. You might be able to get away with that in the movie if that’s what’s playing out during the opening credits while a catchy pop song is playing and if the character on the screen is played by a known and loved actor. In a novel, it’s deadly.

Not that we don’t need any “ordinary world” element. We do need to get a baseline so we can contrast it with how things change once the story kicks off. If it’s science fiction or fantasy, we need to see how that world works and how it’s different from ours. If the world is in danger, we need to see what’s at stake — what will be destroyed if the hero fails? We need to see what the hero is like in his initial surroundings to get a sense of how he’s changed by the events of the story.

The trick is to make this an exciting part of the story rather than just exposition. It helps if your hero has a life that’s already pretty exciting. The opening sequence of Raiders of the Lost Ark, in which Indiana Jones gets past all the booby traps into a tomb, outruns a boulder, and then flees angry tribesmen, is actually his ordinary world. It shows his skill set, what kind of work he usually does, and establishes his rivalry with the villain. That way, when we get to the actual inciting incident of him being asked to go get the medallion that can lead them to the Ark, we understand that this guy is up for the job.

Before the kids go to Narnia, they’re already in a strange world when they have to leave home and stay in a mysterious manor because they’re escaping the bombing during the war. That allows us to spend some time exploring the house before stumbling upon the wardrobe — but there would probably be a lot less of that if the book were published today.

Or you can contrast the hero’s ordinary life with a threat he or she doesn’t yet know about, but this only works if you have multiple viewpoints to work with. The Terminator opens with time travelers arriving in the present and a killer cyborg hunting down women named Sarah Connor. Then we watch a woman named Sarah Connor go about her ordinary day. Her ordinary day of going to work as a diner waitress becomes tense and frightening because we know what’s going on elsewhere that might affect her. But we probably wouldn’t be too interested if we spent pages and pages of her ordinary day before she realizes that people with her name are being killed. If it’s all in her perspective, she’d need to learn that really quickly. I think if I were writing that story as a novel entirely from her point of view, my opening line would be a coworker quipping to her about being murdered, and her seeing the report on TV. Then I could go back and show her boring ordinary life, contrasted with that fear of what’s happening to other women with her name, and build a sense of dread.

You don’t necessarily have to open with the ordinary world. You can dive right in with the inciting incident or call to adventure, and then while the hero is balking at that (in hero’s journey terms, “Refusal of the Call”) you can show what the ordinary world is like and why the hero is reluctant to leave that world. Or you can weave in bits of what might happen with the story world into the ordinary world. That’s how I opened my Enchanted, Inc. — the heroine is going about her ordinary day, taking the subway to work, but she sees strange things on the subway that no one else reacts to. She gets to work to find a strange job offer in her e-mail, and then we get scenes of what her normal job is like. I tried to weave in hints of the fantastic while also showing an ordinary life she might want to change.

But none of this does any good if we don’t care about the character, so that’s what I’ll tackle next time.

writing life, writing

Change vs. Persistence

In my last writing post, I talked about dealing with discouragement. One of the pieces of advice was to change what you’re doing. There’s the often quoted saying that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. If you don’t like the results you’re getting, it makes sense to change what you’re doing.

On the other hand, there’s something to be said for persistence. What you’re doing may not be wrong. It may just be a case of sticking with it and building up momentum. In the business book Good to Great, Jim Collins brings up the concept of the “flywheel.” In a factory, this is a large, heavy wheel that takes a lot of effort to get moving, but once it’s moving, it can be kept moving with minimal effort. The idea behind the metaphor is that in your career, it may feel like you’re not getting results at first, but if you stick with something long enough, you’ll eventually reach the point where it keeps turning on its own. If you keep starting and stopping or changing to something else when what you’re doing seems to be difficult, you’ll never build any momentum.

Which advice is right? It all depends on the situation.

In some cases, the need for change is pretty obvious. If you’re not selling enough stories, then it makes sense to write more stories and/or work to improve your writing. Sending out the same story over and over again, even after everyone’s rejected it, isn’t necessarily the good kind of persistence. The persistence there is continuing to write and submit rather than giving up at the first setback.

Other situations are more difficult — is it better to stick with a publisher and hope that you’ll gradually move up in the ranks and eventually have a book chosen to be a lead title, or is it better to move on and hope that you can find a publisher who’ll give you more attention now? Is the agent who launched your career the best fit for you when you want to move to another level? Should you continue with your current marketing efforts and hope that you can build an audience if you just let it build momentum, or should you drop some things and try some new things?

One thing to consider is how much you’ve sunk into doing things the way you’ve been doing them. Sometimes, that investment means you should stick with it, but that can also hold you back in making needed changes because you don’t want to lose that investment. Would starting over do you any good? Are there any opportunities waiting for you if you stick with where you are? Is there a potentially better use for the resources you’re currently devoting to what you’re doing now?

Have you given it enough time and opportunity to take off? If you’ve given what you’re doing a reasonable amount of time and aren’t seeing results, change makes sense. Are you seeing a positive trend? Are things getting better over time, even if you’re not yet where you’d like to be? If things aren’t improving even after you’ve given it some time, then change makes sense.

Here’s an example from my own career: I’ve been hitting science fiction conventions as an author since soon after my first fantasy novel was published, more than ten years ago. Travel to conventions was the biggest part of my marketing budget. Last year, I started thinking about whether that marketing strategy made sense for me. I realized that even that far down the road, I was still relatively unknown at the bigger conventions. I don’t seem to be making a name on the convention circuit or among that particular crowd. I’ve had one invitation to be a guest of honor at a convention. I mostly see the same faces in the audience when I do readings. I got a big boost from conventions early in my career when I went from being unknown to being slightly known, but I don’t seem to be growing beyond that level. I’ve given it more than ten years, which is long enough that if I were building momentum, I’d have seen it by now. The results seem to be tapering off. There are more effective ways I could use that time and money, so I decided to back off from conventions unless I’m an invited featured guest. Instead, I’m attending professional development and networking-oriented events and library and school events. I’ve used the travel budget on getting a new logo and website developed, and I’m working on other activities that I hope will get my name out in different ways. I’m also using the time I would have spent traveling to and recovering from conventions to write. I wasn’t feeling the momentum, so maybe I can build momentum in a different way that might allow me to hop back into conventions at a level where I can see more results, or at least do it for a different purpose, meeting fans instead of building a name.

If the answer is to stick with it, you may still need to make changes, like improving your writing, increasing your output, or finding new ways to build word of mouth. You can seldom get over any kind of slump by just continuing to do exactly what you’ve been doing all along. At the very least, changing something makes you feel more empowered and may help change your frame of mind, which makes it easier to weather the discouraging moments.