Tension

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If you’ve read any of Donald Maass’ work, you may be familiar with the idea of “bridging conflict.” It’s a small bit of conflict before the inciting incident (the event that launches the plot) comes along. I want to talk about it in a little bit more detail.

But first, some empathizing. Writers are bombarded with advice (guilty as charged here, I know I’ve definitely contributed to this). Jump right into the action. Don’t just right in. Let’s have the inciting incident within the first 10 pages. You’re rushing into it! We need a physical description of your protagonist on the first page. You’re focusing on details that don’t matter! Don’t tell, show! Don’t show, tell! AAAH! It’s crazymaking.

And I’m seeing the effects of this confusion on writers who are trying to check all the boxes that they may have read about on well-meaning blogs and in helpful books. One symptom of this that I want to discuss today is starting too big. Yes. This is going to be one of those bits of advice that is controversial, because it seems contradictory.

Everywhere you look, you see blogs telling you to start with action, start big, and get readers hooked right away. And there’s a lot of good to this advice. It’s a great kick in the rear for writers who like to begin with twenty pages of chit-chat and backstory before anything actually happens. This is telling upon telling, and it’s likely your readers aren’t sticking around until your first plot point.

So is the natural antidote to this an explosion on page two? That might seem like a good idea. And I’m seeing it more and more. But let me tell you why it’s a well-meaning thought gone awry. I liken this situation to a first date. You meet a guy or gal at a restaurant after chatting online for a bit. In this situation, you’re very much like a fiction reader. You liked the cute cover, you liked the interesting blurb, you want to give this book a shot and devote a few hours of your time to it. You start some small talk, and, if you’re on a date with one of those slow-starting manuscripts, your date is likely to talk for the entire duration of dinner, filling you in on their entire life up until this point. That’s undesirable, right? Well, let’s talk about the flip side. What if your date suddenly has a massive episode and flops to the floor, seizing, before the first round of drinks arrives?

How do you feel (other than, you know, horrified because you’re a nice person)? It’s bizarre to imagine. Why? Because it’s too big. It’s an event but it’s too high stakes, too dangerous, too sudden. You don’t even know the guy. If he were to be hauled off in an ambulance, you wouldn’t know who to call because you just met him!

In opening a novel, it’s all about balance. You don’t want to blab for three hours, but you also don’t want to open with “Hey guess what, there’s a prophecy and you’re the chosen one to save the world. So, you know, get to it, kiddo.” One is too small on plot, one is too big. That’s why smart people like Donald Maass advocate for “bridging conflict” to start. You want to start with some action to get tension brewing. Maybe a conversation with one’s crush, or anxiety about an upcoming test, or a sibling getting in trouble and asking for help. Let that be the focus of the first chapter. And if this conflict is related to the main plot, even better. But it’s not the main plot, not yet. Because we have to care about the character before we’ll follow them through a really rigorous plot full of stakes, ups, and downs. Just like we should probably get to know our unlucky date a bit more before we’ll hop into the ambulance and follow him to the hospital.

Because before we have established a connection using some smaller, more manageable conflict, the protagonist is just a kid. The reader hasn’t bonded yet. The intricate relationship between the fictional entity and the audience is still too new, too tenuous. But once we get to know the hero a little bit, we start to invest. Just like if the date goes horribly wrong near the end of the night, it’s not just some guy who’s having an attack, it’s Pete! Who grew up three blocks away from you! And he’s allergic to peanuts! And why, oh why, did you order pad thai for the table?! And you’re that much more likely to care, to feel, to buy in. Keep it manageable at first, then ramp up the stakes and really get rolling on your main conflict.

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I Hate Nice

I know what you’re probably thinking, “But, Mary, I’m nice and you’re nice and nice is so…nice! Why do you hate it, especially now that you live in the state of ‘Minnesota nice’?” Don’t worry, I think you’re perfectly nice, and this isn’t a veiled complaint about moving to Minnesota. As for me being nice, sure, I have my moments. Thanks for falling for my Internet persona. :)

What I really hate, though, is when a manuscript has a lot of nice in it. The character is succeeding. Things are going their way. We end a chapter on a cozy moment when they curl into their reading nook and all is right with the world.

How nice. How abysmally nice for them.

The problem with “nice,” though, is that it doesn’t keep our attention. You know how people sometimes say, when they’re being dismissive of something, “Oh, that’s nice, dear”? Nice doesn’t really force us to sit up and take notice, and nice certainly doesn’t create tension within us, pulling us to the edge of our seats.

Sure, we don’t want a character to be dragged through the wringer. Nice things do have to happen on occasion. But last week I was preparing for a workshop that I gave on Saturday at the Loft, and I was going over a story theory that I cover extensively in my book, which I call the Emotional Plot.

emotional plot

The gist is a little hard to explain in one blog post (thought I try to do it here, in a 2009 blog post that contains the seeds of what I would extrapolate on in the 2012 book). Basically, what we’re looking at above is the standard three-act structure but instead of tracking how the plot rises and then falls, we are tracking how the character feels during each step of the process.

And if you’re seeing this graph, you’ll notice that the “Fall” is a HUGE part of it. And it ends in something called the “Rock Bottom.” That doesn’t exactly sound too nice, now does it. Basically, for the majority of your story, your job is to put your character through internally or externally uncomfortable or dangerous situations to get the most possible tension out of your work.

The “Fall” shouldn’t be a complete slide into misery. Like a good snow tubing hill (Am I from Minnesota now or what?!), it should have a few bumps to keep things exciting before plunging again. Allow your character small victories and moments of contentment, then yank the rug out from under them again.

If your plot seems thick, or your story is lacking momentum, or you feel like wandering away for a nap when reading your revision for the Xth time, think, “Am I being too nice? Are too many nice things happening to this character?” Take an especially close look at your chapter endings. Do they mostly end at the resolution of a scene or problem? If so, there’s too much “nice” and not enough tension to carry the reader across the vast expanse of the white at the end of the page and past the mountain of your next chapter heading.

Not everything can be life-or-death in your story, that’s not sustainable, and your reader will learn to ignore that level of tension like the body ignores a dull pain. But if you find that you’re running into a lot of “more tension, please!” comments, think of the nicest, coziest moments in your story, and really focus on a way to either cut them down or insert an especially shocking twist after then that turns “nice” on its ear.

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I am back from Europe and ready to rumble. And by rumble, I mean edit manuscripts. When I work with my editorial clients, I work a lot with interiority, which I define as thoughts, feelings, reactions. Emotions are a big part of getting to know a character. Often, a protagonist’s (or other POV character’s) emotions are the reader’s guide for their own feelings. If Chris is getting anxious about X, we will also feel that tension mounting. If Amy can’t wait for Y, the audience will (ideally) sit a little straighter in anticipation of it.

One thing I’ve been thinking about a lot is this idea of anticipation. Tension rises best when it builds gradually, in my opinion. Think about it. The most (wonderfully) painful horror movies are the ones where the doomed character searches the entire house for the murderer who we know is there. The first few opened closets (complete with musical crescendo) are painful. The part where they peek into the attic is worse. But by the time they’ve searched every room and they’re about to open the final door, I’m on the very edge of sanity, eyes half-closed, rocking in my seat. It’s an altogether different thrill when the first door they open is the one hiding the killer. It works, and it’s shocking, but the build-up is missing. After all, a lot of ink is spilled in dating advice columns reminding readers that seduction starts long before you reach the bedroom.

Tension and anticipation.

The same principles apply, I think, when working with character emotions. Imagine that your character is nervous about an event that’s a big part of your plot. You would be squandering the chance to develop emotion by hiding that from readers until the minute before the event. Instead, build tension. And layers of it. Not just “I’m nervous” but “I’m nervous that… (insert specific fear here)” and “If X doesn’t happen, then I’m afraid of Y” or “I can’t imagine my life without a successful outcome here.”

“Nervous” is a blunt instrument. Specific manifestations of how someone is nervous, why, and with what consequences, now that’s a more human and personal interpretation of the emotion. And it doesn’t come online right before the event, either.

Personally, I hate flying. I do it all the time, and I love the adventure that awaits me once I land, but I hate the act itself. There’s certainly the acute fear of flying that takes over once we’re roaring down the runway (take-off is my least favorite part). That’s definitely a nervous feeling. But there are many different shades to my fear of flying. Every time I book a plane ticket, for example, I get a little twinge in my gut of, “I can’t wait for my trip but, ugh, I have to fly.” A few weeks before the trip, I’m invariably hit with, “Ugh, maybe I can just call the whole thing off and stay home. Besides, it’s unfair to leave the dogs for so long.” As I’m packing my toiletries in the TSA-required zip bag, “Should I write a living will?” (Yes, I really am this irrational.) At the airport, “Uuuuughhhhh, dread dread dread dread dread.” And on and on. And on. Trust me when I say that I’m really no fun to travel with until that double bell goes off signalling that we’ve reached 10,000 feet.

This is perhaps a bad example because all of this tension and anticipation has been leading up to an event that, I hope, is perfectly anticlimactic. In fiction, the emotional groundwork you’re building should lead to things that are a big deal. Plot points. Turning points. Shifts in relationship dynamics. Etc.

Imagine an on-topic example, then. Eileen is angry. Her best friend blew her off because of a “bad cold,” only to post pictures on Instagram from a mall outing that includes new, more popular people. People who, Eileen thinks, are trying to steal her best friend from the second grade. Eileen feels betrayed. She has a sick, anxious feeling in her gut that she’s about to be replaced. Or worse, that the switch has already happened. Now who will she turn to? Self-pity enters the mix, making the existing anger boil. Maybe uncertainty: perhaps the picture was from before, and she’s blowing this whole thing out of proportion. Self-doubt flexes its muscles.

When should we hear about this toxic cocktail of emotion? When Eileen explodes at her best friend, maybe thrusting a phone open to the damning pics in her face? That’s just part of a much bigger story that’s been unfolding inside Eileen since she was hurt. All of this is to explain a very simple concept that I hope more writers take to heart:

Especially when you’re writing a scene that calls for big emotions, focus less on the scene itself, and more on peppering in the lead-up to it, which usually happens in interiority. Tension and anticipation. The power you have to build something up shouldn’t be taken for granted.

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This first line comes by way of a freelance editorial client and is used with her permission. It’s not often that I showcase client work but I just had to talk about this line and what makes it such a grabber:

If a tree falls in the woods…Zeke backed his bike into a stand of mountain laurel… and no one hears it….He stood motionless…is it still a crime?

First, some context. This is a MG story dealing with some environmental topics. In this scene, the main character, Zeke, witnesses some vandals felling a very old tree with an active eagle’s nest on top. You get some of this in the line itself, but since you don’t have the benefit of a query or synopsis, I wanted to fill in the rest. Also, for the sake of clarity, italics indicate verbatim thoughts. You can see here that we’re in third person but we’re still getting interiority (thoughts, feelings, reactions) from Zeke because the writer has chosen to interject them. The italics keep everything from running together.

What works here for me? First lines need to grab. One way to do that is to turn something familiar on its head. This is done here with the old “If a tree falls in the forest” phrase. Instead of being a serene mind puzzle, this cliché becomes new and edgy by introducing the idea of a crime happening. Great!

There’s also tension in what Zeke is doing. It’s obvious from how he backs away from the scene and stands motionless that he’s not supposed to be there. Whether he’s a participant regretting his involvement and attempting to run or whether he’s a passerby stumbling onto something sinister, we don’t know yet, but there’s certainly an element of added danger: He is not like the people committing the crime, and that makes him vulnerable. The stakes rise.

Finally, there’s the simple idea of starting in action. We’re right there in the moment. We get the character’s thoughts (internal conflict) and the character’s physical situation (external conflict) in one sentence. There’s no introduction, no easing into the moment. (“Zeke did what he always did when he couldn’t sleep: he snuck away to visit the eagle’s nest. But this early morning, something was different. He drew nearer and heard a peculiar sound. Chainsaws. He peeked through the underbrush to find…” blah blah blah blah blah) Instead we are thrust into things and we have to catch up but–and this is important–without being disoriented. There’s a mystery (Who is doing this? Why? What’s he doing there?) but we have enough information still that we can attach ourselves to an instant story.

Great stuff, overall! There’s one way this misses, though, and it’s in the follow-up. I use the next line in the manuscript with the author’s permission as well:

But he’d heard it. The sounds of the ruckus – the chainsaw, the muffled cheers, and the thud of the tree – still sent reverberations from his brain to his spine.

If a tree falls in the woods, let us actually hear it in the moment instead of introducing the event, skipping past it, and giving us the protagonist recalling it in compressed narration. Instead of The Event that we’ve been primed to expect, the tree falling is reduced to a list of fleeting images. The reaction to the event is till there but…no event. You should never make a big deal about something (making it the subject of your first line is an Automatic Big Deal) only to discount it soon after. This client doesn’t lose all the tension she created for herself but there’s an automatic deflation when we go from “in the moment” to “wow, that moment was intense but we skipped right over it.”

The bottom line: Grab the reader but make sure you have the follow-through to capitalize on what you’ve created. Otherwise, it’s like setting the stage and turning the lights on only to have the curtain fall. My thanks to Debbie for letting me use her as a guinea pig. A lot to unpack in two short sentences!

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An editor friend of mine recently wrote to me and said, loosely paraphrased, “Can you please write something about why asking lots of questions in interiority to make the reader wonder those things is lazy so that I can point writers there and let YOU be the bad guy? I’m sick of giving the same note over and over again!” I love my friends. They are more than happy to let ME fall on the sword. :P No problem!

Honestly, I’m happy to write this post because it’s an extension of one of my favorite topics: WHY things like “show, don’t tell” are a writing adage. If you’re still confused about the editor’s request, let me give you an example of what my brilliant friend means. She’s referring specifically to this technique in interiority:

I stared longingly across the bleachers at Paul. For a second, it almost seemed like he was looking back. A sly, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it smile later, though, his eyes had moved on. What if he liked me? He had completely broken character earlier and talked to me during lunch. A shiver worked its way through me but ended on an icy note. I reminded myself that I had to be careful. Catelynn’s killer was still out there. The police that came to the school had reminded us that cold-blooded murderers often lurk where we’d least expect. Especially in small towns like Dalebrook. A family friend. A seemingly friendly pastor. The cute guy at school. My heart squeezed painfully. What did I know about Paul, anyway? Where had his family moved from, again? Despite that dashing smile and those soulful brown eyes, could I actually trust him?

CAN YOU SEE WHERE I’M GOING WITH THIS? ARE YOU SUSPICIOUS OF PAUL YET? Whoa, sorry. I should probably put away my Obvious Megaphone. Because that’s really the effect when you start to weave too many questions into your character’s interiority. It’s basically the same as telling, though you’d like to think you’re not telling because of that ingenious little question mark at the end of the sentence. Writers are wonderful at telling themselves they’re not telling (telling to the negative degree?). They will put things they want told into dialogue to avoid long passages of backstory. They will sneak information into letters. They will overdose on flashbacks. All of these techniques are okay within reason, but let me remind you what’s harmful about telling to begin with…

Telling takes the initiative out of the story for the reader. It depletes that sense of discovery that always accompanies working your way through a good book. These questions are meant to lead the character down a certain path. Rather than luring them with bread crumbs, this is the equivalent of clubbing an audience and dragging them back to your cave. Readers like to participate in a story, that’s what gets and keeps them engaged. We’d much rather formulate our own opinions about Paul and brew our own suspicions. Maybe as a reaction to something Paul has done that’s a little shady. Maybe because we’ve read one too many “hottie bad boy” plots. Whatever the reason, we want to be suspicious of Paul on our own, and that’s something the reader is bringing to the page, rather than the author.

It all comes down to trusting the reader. We tell because we desperately want that information out there in black and white instead of leaving it as a delicious little gray area clue for the reader to find. There’s tension in the latter, though, there’s intrigue, there are even higher stakes, because if we’re not sure about something, we are more likely to care about where it goes. My suggestion is to try and bury the obvious until it’s less so. Make it a game. Don’t give away the answer in the questions.

(BTW, the title of this post is meant to be clever rather than political!)

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This post relates to notes I’ve found myself giving to writers and it’s along the lines of my Pimp Your Premise post last month. The theme is the same: You’ve done all this work, created this thing, so why not get the most out of it?

The note that originally elicited this response was a scene with high emotional potential that, for some reason, didn’t live up to its potential. Rather than becoming a sensitive life wire of emotion, the character drifted through, basically, the climax of the story with all of the interiority and sensitivity of a crash test dummy. (For all those who are new to my story theory rhetoric, I define interiority as having access to your character’s thoughts, feelings, and reactions. This is possible to accomplish in either first or third person.) The emotions were definitely possible in this intense scene, but the writer wasn’t going there.

More and more, my advice to writers can be summed up as: GO THERE. If you set up a premise with a really unique element, exploit that element to the fullest and design as many plot points around it. If you’re writing a grief story and there’s a lot of potential for your protagonist to hit rock bottom, have them crash into it at high speeds. If you’re writing a love story, give us that moment when he loses himself in her eyes entirely and becomes vulnerable for the first time ever. There are a million story opportunities for your characters to become a raw nerve.

As a group, writers–and don’t think I’m insulting writers here, this sentence could just as easily read “humans”–like to play it safe. They have their pet storytelling techniques, their favorite plot twists, their go-to phrases, their easy physical clichés that they deploy instead of having to write about the messy world of emotions. But the writer’s role job isn’t to play it safe. It isn’t to tread the familiar path, because the familiar path isn’t going to electrify readers. Artists in general search for the truth of the human condition by getting out of their comfort zones…and by taking their audiences with them.

If you yourself are unwilling to GO THERE, your reader’s potential to suffer, triumph, and understand diminishes. I’m constantly impressed by how many manuscripts scratch the surface in precisely those moments when they should be plunging in. Interiority flourishes during a boring classroom scene but is oddly silent when it’s time to visit Dad in the hospice, for example. Or we spend a lot of time on happy emotions but completely sidestep anything negative. (Reverse this dynamic for a dystopian manuscript!)

Let me get down to it: The scene that feels the hollowest in your manuscript should either be cut or you should screw your courage to the sticking place and GO THERE with it. Especially when the events transpiring call for high, noble, intense, painful, or otherwise uncomfortable emotions.

To call upon a book outside the kidlit canon, this was my biggest problem with THE MEMORY KEEPER’S DAUGHTER, an insanely successful adult novel by Kim Edwards that came out in 2005 and was incredibly successful. (SPOILERS) While it is a very emotional story, there is one glaring missed opportunity, a moment begging the author to GO THERE that was never realized. Briefly, the story is about a husband who immediately realizes that one of his newborn twins has Down’s syndrome. This is another era and he quickly spirits the girl away to a nurse, then lies to his wife, saying the second child died. Flash forward many years and the secret is close to coming out. Just as I was expecting the BLISTERING reveal and ensuing confrontation between husband and wife, the husband dies suddenly. The wife finds out another way and rages at his memory.

I know plenty of people who loved this book. But I really, really, really would’ve loved to see the scene where husband and wife stand naked before the truth. It’s one thing to rage at someone’s memory, it’s another to confront him in the flesh. And not just him, but the pastand the future. I would never call this author a coward, but I wondered what kept her from GOING THERE and giving us this highly emotional scene using both characters, not just one.

So if you’ve got a premise that’s locked and loaded with the high-stakes potential for emotion, don’t just skirt around it or do the next best thing. It’s going to be challenging, because you have a lot wrapped up in these characters and part of you probably wants to protect them, but you have to think of the most emotional points in your plot as an invitation to unleash those feelings without holding back. GO THERE.

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One of my favorite ways of getting really good stakes going is by establishing ramifications for an action way before (ideally) that action takes place. The most obvious example of this that I can cite is the opening to The Hunger Games. Please excuse me of using such an obvious example, but I wanted to pick something that people had a good chance of having read. Suzanne Collins masterfully establishes what “the reaping” ceremony is from the first paragraph on. The ramifications of getting chosen at the reaping are very clear: you will go to the Hunger Games, and you will probably die.

We learn all about the reaping ceremony, and its risks. We hear in detail the lengths that people go to in order to avoid getting reaped. We start to fear the reaping–and, by extension, the Hunger Games–because Katniss fears the reaping and the Hunger Games. (We also start to love Katniss as a protagonist despite her thorny exterior because she fears the reaping and the Hunger Games for her little sister more than she fears it for herself. There’s that compassionate core to her that we see again and again with Peeta and Rue in the arena.)

So by the time the reaping ceremony arrives, we are extremely anxious about it. Not just because the narrator is extremely anxious, but because Suzanne Collins has established the ramifications of getting chosen. She has done her job right and the reader knows exactly what will happen: an Everdeen sister will be chosen in the reaping. Even though we are able to sense and call this inevitable plot twist very early on, I hesitate to call it predictable. Since the stakes our so high and our anxiety is so high, we dread the reaping and yet can’t wait to see how the characters will react and, eventually, get themselves out of this horrifying situation. When Prim is chosen and when Katniss volunteers, our initial anxiety (knowing what’s coming and knowing the ramifications of this plot event) is resolved, because something the author has built up has finally come to fruition, but then we’re shot into a whole new stratosphere of anxiety because now those ramifications are about to happen. Reading the opening to The Hunger Games is a thrill ride precisely because Collins has prepared us so well for the reaping.

Think about establishing ramifications when it comes to your own work. If your character is going to get kicked out of their house should they bring home anything less than a perfect grades (an exaggerated example, perhaps), the anxiety of this ramification has to be in place LONG BEFORE report card day. Then it is your responsibility to make sure the plot takes a turn in the direction of a bad grade. The stakes will be high as a result because the readers knows exactly what to expect, fears it, and is now worried about what will happen. And–it should go without saying–the consequence you established must come to pass. Sure, it may not be nice, and it may not be fun to do to your character, but that’s how you keep that all-important tension high!

If you have a bad report card or a reaping in your story, make sure the ramifications are established long, long before, and then play your reader’s anxieties for all they’re worth!

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This has a lot to do with Monday’s post about guiding the reader emotionally. It also has to do with ending a chapter. Whenever you plunge your reader into white space (the white space at the end of a chapter, for example), you run the risk of losing them. So a lot of writers employ some smart tactics to keep this from happening.

I always recommend that you end on a cliffhanger, or introduce a new character, piece of information, or plot complication. Anything that will add tension and make your reader compulsively turn the page and start reading your next chapter. In essence, you never want to end a chapter with the character thinking about how tranquil everything is, or the reader will close the book and go play Xbox.

Well, sometimes you do use something drastic, like a cliffhanger, at the end of a chapter, but there’s the potential for a missed opportunity there, as well. Take this example:

And her father–right there in the flesh, after she thought he’d been dead all these years–walked right through the door.

Wow! Cool! I want to find out what happens, don’t you? Well, this could also be very abrupt if it’s the last sentence of your chapter. And if you tend to do this over and over, it will start to feel like your reader hitting a brick wall with each successive instance. Per the Law of Diminishing Returns, the cliffhanger tactic will also start to lose its tension-rich effectiveness.

One way to mitigate this effect, retain the tension, and also give the reader a more complex emotion than just “surprise” is to always button on character. This means to go back to your protagonist for a reaction before abruptly ending the scene. We get the surprise (or whatever tactic you’re using here), but then we’ll also put it in context, get some emotional resonance, and refocus on the protagonist’s experience of the story. If done right, this packs more of a punch than just a shock. So don’t leave your protagonist and their emotional reaction hanging until the beginning of the next chapter every time. A strong character-focused button will still keep readers invested enough to turn the page.

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If you’ve ever listened to the trailer for an action movie, you know what I’m talking about. A guy with a deep and raspy voice (think Will Arnett) is narrating as the sun rises over a wasted landscape:

In a world of destruction, the danger of explosive secrets will bring one man to the edge.

Sounds great. Really juicy. Until you think about it and realize you have no idea what the movie’s about. Well, this is the kind of thing you want to avoid in your prose and in your pitches. I see this a lot with novel openings. Writers think that they can juice up the tension by making their first few paragraphs sound like action-trailer nonsense. They often do this in queries, also, where they give me even less of an inkling as to what their book is really about.

We get a lot of talk about danger and secrets and tension and action, but nothing is actually communicated and, since it has all been telling, the reader never feels the emotions that those volatile things are supposed to be stirring.

The antidote to this is specificity. I don’t want to hear about “danger,” I want to see it, and I want to know exactly what it is and what it means for the character. I don’t want to hear about “secrets,” I want to be blown out of the water by them and see their high-stakes ramifications play out on character and relationship. And if you find yourself writing one of those filler paragraphs to open your novel, delete it and start in scene, with specific action, with specific characters.

That pretty much does it for my daily “show, don’t tell” plug. Now, I’m off on my day of intrigue, excitement, and thrills!

(Translation: My day of reading a manuscript, taking a lunch meeting, and checking out my new gym. Sure, this line-up doesn’t exactly sound as flashy as “intrigue, excitement, and thrills,” but it is specific, and now you have a much clearer sense of my day.)

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I’ve been reading a lot of novel beginnings for webinar critiques lately, and I must applaud some of my students for diving right in there and starting with action. Some of these guys are just off to the races…we’re plunged into the middle of a scene, into a world, into new terminologies, into names and places that we haven’t encountered yet, etc. Kudos! Most novel beginnings have the opposite problem–they are too information-heavy, with lots of backstory or telling or explaining. Boo. I’ll take an action-packed opening that drops us into scene any day.

But!

Yes, there’s a “but.” It’s all about balance, actually. Because too much action and not enough information can be alienating to an audience that expects some grounding facts right at the beginning of the book. If we’re thrown into a story with no context or frames of reference, we are likely going to end up confused. And as I like to say, “If you confuse us, you lose us.” Especially at the beginning of the book. Nobody wants to pick up an object that they just paid $16.99 for and be frustrated or feel out of the loop. We want to be tickled, intrigued, our interest piqued. Think about a meaty mystery from a detective’s point of view: they have some clues, but not all most of them. And it’s that tantalizing yet puzzling amount of information that keeps them digging. That’s what you want to give readers right off the bat.

So, to repeat, some of these writers who do plunge the reader right in are taking a risk. They know that unanswered questions and tension and mystery are like catnip for readers (if readers were cats…though they often act like cats, curling up in various nooks, etc.). This is very true. If you start with action, you’ll most likely have tension or mystery working to your advantage, because the reader will want to follow and know more about what’s happening. It’s a natural instinct. But if you give us no grounding information at the beginning–if it’s all action and no context–you run the risk of confusing your reader with not enough information.

The best way to gauge where you fall on this spectrum is to run your opening by people who know nothing about your book (but who are writers or teachers and otherwise qualified to provide valid writing feedback). If they end up feeling like they get what’s going on at the beginning, or get it a little too much, you’ve got just enough or even a surplus of information to get the reader going. Maybe pare down some of the telling and work on increasing tension, action, and conflict to make it even more exciting. If your reader comes at you with lots of questions, on the other hand, or if they seem confused, maybe you should take a few well-placed pauses and slip in some context (without doing too much telling, of course).

Basic formula: Confusion, bad. Mystery, good. The two are not the same.

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