Monday, October 10, 2005

Follow-up Questions

Happy Monday, BGs.

Well, we kinda got dual tracks doing on. Gina C. had a follow-up question regarding her wip. Then others chimed in with their own questions/comments about beginning a story. I’m going to deal with this subject for today, then tomorrow, I’ll address the questions from Friday that came in about branding.

From Gina C.: Thanks for addressing my question. I have a lot of rethinking to do. You mentioned in the archives that “the inciting incident is the first big conflict that kicks off the story,” something that “rocks your characters world.” I’m trying to get a handle on this inciting incident thing because I think my WIP has two. One is the meeting of my character’s ex-fiancĂ© which rocks his world and the second is the discovery someone he’s worked with has been kidnapped. If I introduce my character in chapter one with the person who gets kidnapped, then in chapter two have his world rocked by his ex, is that enough of an inciting incident?

Gina, what is the main conflict in your story? Is it the kidnapping? If so, the scene of the kidnapping is the inciting incident (I.I.) for that main plot. Perhaps the ex fiancĂ©e thing is a subplot. Subplots often have their own inciting incidents, especially if they’re pretty big subplots. Your character seeing his ex after a number of years would be that inciting incident.

Typically a suspense would be started with the I.I. for the main plot. However, reasons can arise for doing the subplot’s I.I. first. As I mentioned awhile back, I did this for Dead of Night, with the I.I. for the subplot in chapter one, and the I.I. for the main plot in chapter two. I did this for two reasons: (1) The subplot was a big one and would play into the main story in a major way, (2) I really couldn’t have done them the other way around, because once the I.I. for the serial killer main plot occurred, the circumstances wouldn’t be in place for the I.I. of the subplot to unfold as I wanted it to.

Bottom line, I suggest you work out in your own mind what your main plot is and what your subplots are. (There may be more than one subplot.) Then plot each one to flow in and out of the main story, having the subplot(s) eventually affect the main plot in some major way. I think once you get a clearer picture of your story in its totality, you’ll better know what I.I. to start with.

Question from Jason: Well, you've opened up a can of worms I'm afraid! I read your comment about prologues, and I have to ask about my situation. My WIP has a throw-away character (a Thai fisherman) discovering the body of the protag's brother. Initially my next scene was introducing the protag (a medical student) in the midst of chaos in the ER. After things calm down a bit, she gets a call that her brother was killed. I was told by a critique friend I needed more time in the protag's world to set up the changes she'll go through, but that delays finding out about her brother's death. Any thoughts?

Jason, you have the classic two-part inciting incident of a suspense or crime novel. (1) Crime occurs, (2) protagonist becomes entangled in it.

It’s hard for me to answer this without reading these chapters, but here’s my gut reaction. As I’ve often said, in suspense, you don’t want to take a lot of time with set-up. Something better happen pretty quickly that’s a major attention-getter. You gotta do whatever you gotta do to keep those pages turning. Is taking a whole scene—or at least a number of pages—setting up your protagonist’s world going to be compelling? I’d argue that you don’t need much time to show her real world. You’re quickly going to get bogged down in backstory of this character if you’re not careful.

But here’s another way to look at it. How compelling is the prologue? You show a “throw-away” character finding the body. I’m a little worried by this. If you mean that we never see that character again, I’m not sure I’d use such precious pages as the opening of your story on a “throw-away.” But that issue aside, how compelling is this “find?” If it’s really a page-turner, you might have a little more time in the first chapter—like maybe one page, or two—to set your character’s world. Because the reader is already on the high momentum of your prologue and is gonna be willing to give you a page or two. It’s like a roller coaster coming down a hill, and its riders having a quick breather as it goes up the next. Therefore, the more time you take to set your character’s world in chapter one, the more compelling your prologue had better be. If you need that extra time in chapter one, you might look at changing the prologue. What if, instead of the body being found, we see the crime take place? You can obfuscate details like exactly how it happens, or who does it, if you don’t want to reveal those things right away.

As an aside, I’d like to make an important point, as illustrated by the above. Many times, when we’re at a problematic point in our story, the answer doesn’t lie in changing that part. The answer lies in changing something before it that will better prepare the reader for that part. I can’t say for certain if that’s the case here, Jason. But it’s something to keep in mind as you’re weighing your critique partner’s opinion against mine. If you decide your critique partner is right, and you give extra time to setting up your protagonist’s world, take a second look at your prologue and make sure it’s as strong as it can be.

Grady had this comment: Starting off a story with action or a main event IS completely effective, but doesn't work for some stories. Lots of sci-fi starts out with the characters going about their normal business before the action starts. It gives time to introduce the bizarre setting and impossible abilities.

I agree with this. Sci-fi and suspense are very different, and readers’ expectations are very different. I think a big part of sci-fi is that the readers are looking for a unique and fascinating world. Even so, I still say be careful not to add too much backstory that the opening drags. Readers start a book waiting for that I.I. Don’t make them wait too long.

Pammer asked: I was also going to ask where to drop in on the story. I start with the heroine getting the first note, which I hope grabs the attention, then normal life intrudes but she sees it differently because of the note, everything has changed and she has lost her security.I was told that I needed more time in her ordinary existence to state her GOAL (which I do in the first chapter as it is) and to get the reader to care about the heroine, but I'm afraid it will bore them. Any advice for romantic suspense writers?

Again it’s so hard to answer questions without reading these pages. The best I can do is bring up things that might get you looking at the issue in a new way, and then you can better decide what to do.

In general, if you’re writing romantic suspense, I’d say get to the I.I. as quickly as you can. There are plenty ways to show a person’s “normal world” in the midst of the chaos created by the I.I. You simply weave that backstory into the current action. Pam, you might look at the beginning of my Brink of Death for an example. The opening scene jolts immediately into an intruder in the house, but in the midst of that crime, you get a pretty good picture of the young girl’s normal world. (You can read this prologue on my Web site.) Then in chapter one, the protagonist is pulled into this crime immediately, but again you see bits of her normal world in the midst of the chaos.

On the other hand, if you need to take a couple of pages to set up your character, do it. But do it only if you really have to. Think of that 30-second browser in the bookstore, reading your first page as she decides whether or not to buy your book. Is there enough on that page to pull her into your story?

I’ll return to branding tomorrow, unless we’re pre-empted by a lot of follow-up questions on this topic. If so, we’ll do it the day after. But don’t worry. We’ll get there.


Camy Tang said...

Taking into account that I'm a suspense reader and not a sci-fi, historical romance, or women's fiction fan, I personally only give a book a couple pages before I decide if it's interesting enough to continue. If nothing exciting or different or intriguing happens in those first two pages, I'm not buying the book.

That's the way I write. But is there such a thing as too little time devoted to help the reader understand and empathize with your character?

Some sorts of characters are easier to empathize with--a child in jeopardy, say, like in Brink of Death. In that prologue, I immediately cared about Erin because she was a young girl in danger. She could have been a brat at school and a terror to the neighborhood, but I didn't care in those first pages--just knowing she was a child and threatened was enough to pull at my emotions for her.

But what about other types of characters? How do you determine the fine line between too much information and too little info to gain reader sympathy?

D. Gudger said...

If the I.I. happens apart from the main character who becomes entangled later on, is it okay to start the first chapter/paragraph/sentence with the character's entanglement with the I.I. and then sprinkle the I.I. in as back-story throughout the novel?

Gina said...

I think my two plots are so tightly intertwined I'm having trouble figuring out which is a subplot. I know the kidnapping is the external conflict and the ex is the internal conflict. But the ex becomes a target in the kidnapping, so the two plots seem to merge into one. I guess I should have started with a less complicated plot :)

Bonnie Calhoun said...

Auh, I have almost the same question as D. Grudger. In the Prologue, the I.I. is using another country as a guinea pig, and the success of this test propels us into the attack on the US. But that doesn't happen till several chapters later????

One more question please! I haven't been on your site that long. Have you addressed synopsis?

Pammer said...

Thank you for addressing my question. I think I have done about the best I can with the beginning because it is the note that turns her normal boring world on it's ear. I then show her going about her normal life and trying to deal with the escalating danger.
Don't you know, after the creaking stairs incident...your suspense books are on my reference shelf? :0)
A Gun-Toting BG