Monday, March 10, 2008

Rules, Rules, Rules--Starting With Action

We've gone through the four "writing rules" I listed in my first post on this subject. However, I invited you readers to add some "rules" of your own you'd like to see covered. We'll go through those this week.

The first one--noted by two people: Start in the middle of action.

The other rules we discussed last week focus more on individual sentences. This rule deals with story structure. Where to start the story? As one reader asked--how do you start in the middle of the action when readers don't even know who your character is yet? Why should they care what's happening if they don't yet care about the character?

Very good questions. And something that could be taught on for months. Actually, I already have. There are two series in the archives here on Forensics and Faith that speak to this issue. The first is the teaching on "Backstory." The second is an eleven-part series on "Creating Character Empathy."

The backstory series teaches you how to drop in bits of information without slowing the action. The Creating Character Empathy series discusses ten techniques to help readers connect with your character right away, with an example from a novel for each technique.

It does matter to a degree what genre you're writing in. Suspense readers are notoriously impatient and want action immediately. Women's fiction readers tend to be more relaxed about seeing some backstory up front. Still, the tendency for writers is to "information dump" in the first chapter. So no matter what genre you're writing in, the lessons on backstory may be helpful to you. As with the other rules we discussed last week, when you use backstory, it should be purposeful, for the best telling of the story. Too many times backstory is just thrown in because the writer thinks it has to be there--when it doesn't.

If you're having problems with where to start your story, I urge you to revisit both of these series. The end of each part links to the next one.

Tomorrow we'll look at the rule on action/reaction sequences.

Read Part 9


Timothy Fish said...

One suggestion I’ve seen is to write the story, then go back and chop off the first chapter. If there’s anything there that the story can’t do without then work it into some later sections. Stereotypes can be helpful in acclimating the reader and interesting when the reader learns later that the character doesn’t match the stereotype, but there is more to this than the question of how to set the scene for the reader.

Many people confuse beginning in the middle of the action with beginning in the middle of the story. One of my favorite examples of beginning with action is the opening scene of Men in Black. The audience gets to see a highway from a bug’s point of view, until he goes splat on a windshield. The bug gives context to the villain, and the opening action is exciting, but it is just part of the setup for the story.

The beginning of a story tells the reader the state of the characters before transition begins to occur. It introduces the problem. An example, a rich man who has everything, except he has no children. The action at the beginning, such as the man yelling at his neighbor’s kids for being too loud, will help to show that this is a real problem, but this action is different from the action in the middle of the story where he tries to find someone to take his nieces after his brother dies. It is also different from the finale in which the man takes action to get his nieces back after he thinks he has lost them.

Jason said...

I wanted to throw in a comment that I'm really enjoying this series, and it is good to see you back in the teaching vein. We hear these "rules", and people decry them at times, but the value in you showing us how the rules work is very practical.

I can't usually comment because I'm reading this at 5:20 am while tying my shoes getting ready to catch the work bus - but it is the first thing I open on the web each day!

Lianne said...

Thanks so much, Brandilyn. I will definitely be looking up your archives lessons on this subject. Guess I should have done that already. :)

Have a great day.