Tuesday, September 04, 2018

Getting it all correct at the beginning

by Rick Blechta

Stories, or plots if you will, are funny things. The correct balance must be struck at the beginning or the darn things won’t stick their hooks into readers (or listeners) and one’s audience, and well, then the writer has blown it. It’s not much good either to have a reader get to, say, page 50 in a novel and think, I’ll give this another 25 pages, and if I still don’t like it, I’ll toss the book. Talk about damning with faint praise!

So in last week’s post I revealed that I’m still having trouble with the beginning of my work-in-progress. I’d reworked it three times and at 12,500 words — where I normally stop to take a good long think about how it’s all going — something still doesn’t feel right.

The issue is a thorny one. I’ve got to introduce the two protagonists and a side character, another character who looks as if she’s going to be one of the plot’s main drivers, and of course, lay out what I hope are intriguing indications as to the excitement that’s going to follow.

After reading Tom’s most recent post, I suspected that my nascent novel might be suffering from the same situation — that the plot really wasn’t going anywhere — and if I ever wanted this to be the first book of a projected series, or even have a publisher agree to give me a contract for just this one book, I had to be on my A-game.

I read through what I had and formed a conclusion, but I also wanted someone else’s opinion before I went back to the beginning yet again. That night, I passed my laptop over to my wife and said, “Could you please read this?” It wasn’t all of what I’ve written, just those crucial first 12,500 words.

I took a walk around the block while she read. When I returned, she was back to the book she was reading when I interrupted her.

“So what did you think?”

“Overall, not bad. Was that a flashback in the first chapter? It wasn’t quite clear.”

I looked at the first chapter and because of a page break, the fact that this was a separate scene had no visual cue. Easily fixed.

“Would you keep reading this story? Were you looking for more when you got to the end of what I gave you?”

Long pause while she thought. “I’m not sure. I like the main character, at least I hope he is the main character, the retired detective?”

“Yes, but the pacing, the hints of the story to come, were they compelling?”

“There wasn’t a lot of that there as far as I could tell. It was more talk, talk, talk than action. I supposed you needed to explain who everyone is before the story can really get going.”

Bingo! I failed.

Here’s what I’d realized when I’d read it over: Is there any reason I need to explain character background and motivation right at the beginning? As long as the important things are revealed somewhere along the line before the story concludes, if the information is worked in well, who cares?

I went back to the first Nero Wolfe book Rex Stout wrote. The Nero Wolfe/Archie Goodwin was pretty well complete and ticking along. We really knew nothing about Wolfe’s amazingly varied background, ditto for Archie. And that lack of knowledge didn’t hinder the story one bit. We just go with what we’re being told with little thought to character motivation. At least that’s the way my wife and I (we both recently re-read Fer de Lance) responded to the story. Rex Stout just plops the reader down in the middle of his characters’ universe and tells us an intriguing story. As we go along, we get more and more engrossed in the finer details of character and place.

So I was left thinking about my own novel, why don’t I just do the same thing. I need to trust my creations, put them into the middle of an intriguing plot and let them do their own thing.

I’m now back to word number 12,500 and things are feeling a lot better. I’m also on Chapter 5 rather than Chapter 3, that’s how much I’ve cut out. Did I throw all that excess away, though? Absolutely not! The writing is good and it explains a lot about the characters. I’ll simply dole that information out at other places in the story, or maybe even keep it for another novel where it can be dressed in different clothes to fit the different production.

I sure wish it hadn’t taken me four tries to get to this point, however…

1 comment:

Eileen Goudge said...

Good strategy, Rick!