I’m writing this as a series. When it’s done I’ll compile it, clean it up and put it up for download in a few formats, for something like $3.99. Might throw it on Amazon, too, if it looks worth it. Needless to say if you want to hit the donate button instead, and make a note on the paypal field
that it’s for May You Write Interesting Books, I’ll send you a copy when cleaned/compiled. Oh, btw, I’ll also be taking suggestions for other seminars on writing. I’ve considered doing something like a “self directed workshop” with suggested exercises you can do on your own or with your writing group.
Jump In The Middle
Wouldn’t you know it? The minute I start talking about ridding the beginning of your book of boring, everyone jumps in to tell me about In Media Res, which is starting in the middle of the story, of course.
I’m rather proud of having invented this concept myself in or around fourth grade. Not that this prevented me from failing at using it several times when I should have, as a fledgeling writer. In fourth grade I had very important reasons to invent it. You see, student composition in Portugal was prefaced with the words “Once upon a time” in the same way that some invariable law of nature makes every folk song be prefaced with a long, plaintive note, and for the same reason (Pratchett being the one who figured out the reason for folk songs) – to give anyone within hearshot/reading shot a chance to get clear away. Having figured this, I thought I’d ambush my teacher by starting in the middle of the story, so she was totally wrapped in it by the time she thought to get away.
The degree of success of the technique varied, by which I mean it might have worked had my spelling been even mildly understandable, my punctuation following any degree of rationality and had I not dropped more blots than shaped letters. (I did tell you I wrote with a quill in elementary school, right? No, not joking. It was believed permanent ink pens or heaven forbid, ball point pens would forever ruin our caligraphy. I wasn’t allowed to use a permanent ink pen until I was in fifth grade. Yes, I was brought up in Elizabethan England and next door to Hades, why?)
Anyway – coff – resuming the thread of our interrupted thought, here it goes: though your prose might not be (I hope it isn’t) as bad as mine at ten, the principle still applies. Beyond the fact that most of what you would drop into a long disquisition on the world, your character’s back story or whatever else you think is needed to get on with this, is in fact totally unecessary and probably the greatest soporiphic ever written (since war and peace) there is the fact that it gives your reader time to get away.
In an ideal world (and now I sound like Scott Edelman’s rejections when he edited SF age) your reader would be so invested in your book when he starts reading that nothing, not even your including a dictionary for your invented language, can make him/her give up and go find some thing more interesting to do.
In the real world, people not only have computer games and movies that they can turn to, which require far less effort, not to mention books that don’t require them to memorize stuff, but they have real lives. I read for entertainment by preference (meaning a movie or game needs to be amazing to get my attention) but I – and everyone else I know between the ages of thirty and sixty or later – am insanely busy.
Time spent with a book is either snatched as a guilty pleasure, which only happens for people on my “drop everything and read” list, (and these days, often, note even for them, which is why I LISTENED to the latest Pratchett rather than read him, because I could do so while walking) or is read while I’m doing under stuff, ranging from cooking to ironing.
This means if by the end of the first page I’m not riveted to the story, the character or the situation, your chances of my reading the full book are getting slimmer. By the end of the tenth page, if all you’ve dropped on me is back story and worldbuilding (UNLESS you do it in a very amusing way) I’m going to wonder off in search of something more fun, or just give my full attention to the task at hand, instead.
So, start in media res, that is, in the middle of the action. This doesn’t mean necessarilly starting in the middle of the story (though it often does.) For an example of starting at the beginning in media res read Larry Correia’s Monster Hunter International.
And if you’re going to say “But Larry doesn’t have to build the world before that. He starts in our world, when his character first becomes aware that it is not as ordinary and non-supernatural as he’s been led to believe.” This is true. And a lot of other books that start in media res have this exception built in. Perhaps most of them.
But not all of them, and certainly not any science fiction book set more than a few years in the future or any science fiction book set in a parallel universe. Or any fantasy book set in a parallel universe, for that matter. (I’m sure I could do it better now, but if you stumble on a copy of my Soul of Fire, read it. It starts in the middle of the action, in a world with a completely different history, and I never stop to explain it, though I give you a line here and there. Also, Soul of Fire is the middle book, but if I did my job right – I think I did – you don’t need the first or the last book to follow along.
Of course, I recommend that all of you – even those who thinks the man has cooties – find a copy of Robert A. Heinlein’s Friday and read the first five or six pages for the consummate in media res start in a world that’s as different from ours as humanly possible and a character who is very different. Again, he never stops to explain, but everything is there to build your picture as you go along.
I also often hear C J Cherryh’s Alien series cited as an example of this. I’m passing it along for free, which is the price I got it at. Myself, I could never get into it, so her technique for drawing you in failed with at least one reader. But I’m a lazy reader and not willing to work even medium-hard. Your milleage may and clearly does vary, considering how many people give this series as an example.
To bring together an article that feels rather scattered (and I apologize, and yes, this is one of those that will get edited before being collected) let’s take the plus factors of a media-res start:
1 – It drops you in the middle of the action. If your action is riveting enough, we will stick around even if we only understand part of what is going on. Don’t believe me? Have you ever experienced a rubber-necking induced back up? Yeah, when people see an accident, or some interesting enough event, they’ll look on. Part of the attraction is speculating about what happened. Same with your book.
2- It doesn’t give people an excuse to run away. Oh, you can get away with glossaries, long prologues or even business meetings if you are an established writer. You’ve delivered for the reader in the past, and the reader will give you time and space now to establish your world and start booking. But as a newby, anything that seems like work will get your book set down and more or less forgotten.
3 – It might make you realize you only need minimal info anyway. This type of mind game is important, since you’re essentially pretending to be the reader you tell the story to. So if you’re stuck in “but there’s so much more to that world” you might not figure out how NOT to put it all in.
Disadvantages, or things you have to work around:
1 – But I don’t like flash backs!
Sometimes when you start in media res you need a flash back to bring you back to the point you started at. And many people with good reason dislike flashbacks.
Now, the reason most people dislike flashbacks is that those tend to be LONG detours from the story, and a concentrated dose of the boring.
Most of the time flash backs are not needed (see below.) IF they are needed there are ways to do it that are not heart-stopping dull. I had to do a flashback in Darkship Renegade, because trying to Heinlein it distorted the narrative and made it dull. So… What I did – and recommend – is: make it sassy. Or angsty of course, or whatever your character voice is. Thena is sassy (and homicidal) so that’s what the flashback is. Also, make it short. I recap the RELEVANT parts of Darkship Thieves in a page and a half double spaced. You don’t need to know as much as you think you do, and besides I still want people to buy Darkship Thieves, with no undue spoilers. (And for my betas, no, that is NOT the version you read. That is what ate the first five days of this month.)
Another common use of flashbacks is to make the story a circle which if done badly reads like the entire novel is a boring flash back. Start at the climax battle (not AFTER, particularly if your hero loses! And yes, I made that mistake too. See Pre-Minoan fantasy) and wind the narrative around to take us there again at the end. This stops being a problem if you don’t spoiler yourself with the starting scene AND if – like Heinlein – your story involves something like coming of age that requires starting with a young protagonist. The media-res start allows you to indicate this will NOT be YA, and then you start with the young protagonist. Normally I don’t recommend these for novels, unless you are very, very good. Perhaps I’m biased, though, since the only time I did it, I did EVERYTHING wrong.
2 – But then how will the reader know my wonderful world?
Keep in mind your reader only needs to know those parts of your world that allow him/her to interact with the characters/understand the action. For instance, with Darkship Thieves, half the people got the “future history” it’s based on just about bass ackwards. Does this mean they didn’t enjoy the story? Well, no. Most of them became rabid fans. Do I care if they think the seacities came about because of Climate Change? Pffff. No. Why should I? As they read more in the series they’ll change their minds. Or not. Do I care?
3 – But then I’ll have characters acting in fog, doing things for reasons no one understands.
No, you won’t. There’s this thing called Heinleining. Think of it as “just in time” supply for details. For examples see beginning of Friday, Puppet Masters or The Door Into Summer. In fact, I recommend you get a note pad and read over those while making note of the things you’re being “told” without stopping the narrative. Alternately, try Pol Anderson’s Operation Chaos.
4 – But my world is too complicated!
Yeah? Well, again, read Operation Chaos. Again, your reader doesn’t need to know everything about your world to follow the story. He might need it to appreciate how much of a genius you are, but if you don’t get them to read this book and the next and the next, and the next, then you won’t ever be a “sung” genius. So, don’t bore them, okay?
5 – But I AM an unsung genius!
Good for you. From living with one of those, this probably means you have absolutely no clue how normal people work (well, our own pet genius is getting better, but it took very careful upbringing) so if you wish to write only for people like you, carry on. If not, consider writing for normal people who are the vast majority. Unless, of course, you’re in this for the accolades and not the cash. In which case I hope you’re the right age, ethnicity and political color all of which are needed to be considered a “genius” these days. If not, again, learn to entertain.
Tomorrow we’ll take on “when you absolutely DO have to give them the info” ways to make that info less boring, including but not limited to: dissension, disaster & danger, pope in the swimming pool, the ironic narrator, etc.
I’m blogging today over at Mad Genius Club. Different post. Celebrating the Solstice. Drop by for doughnuts and coffee!