Monday, July 07, 2008

Backstory vs Buildup

You all know the in media res rule: start your novel in the middle of an action sequence, throw the reader in the deep end, make your first sentence, your first page, your first chapter as gripping as possible and fill in the details as you go along.

I know the rule too, but I have one or two problems with it.

First, I think it's relevant when you're trying to hook an agent or a publisher. You need to stand out from the crowd, and the attention-grabbing opening does that. Of course, if you DO secure a publishing deal there's plenty of time for rewrites ;-)

It's also relevant if you're trying to hook new readers (and who isn't?) If someone is scanning the first page of your novel in a bookstore, deciding whether to buy, don't you want to hook them in?

Well yes, but I have to confess I've never stood around in a bookstore reading the first page of anything. I'm drawn to new books by the spine (maybe the author's name rings a bell, or the title sounds promising), the front cover if it's face-out (title & author again, the cover art & any visible blurbs), or the fact the bookshop staff have just pressed the thing into my hands.

Once I'm holding the book I'm only interested in two things: the back cover teaser, and blurbs. These can be on the back or printed inside, but they DO influence my decision to buy. If there aren't any blurbs but the teaser is good, I'm in. If there are lots of positive blurbs from authors or reviewers I'm familiar with, that's also a plus but I won't buy a heavily-blurbed book if the teaser doesn't interest me.

You'll notice that none of my purchase decisions are based on the quality or style of the writing - for that I put my trust in the author, their editor, and the publisher.

The second problem I have with the 'action opening' is this: The author now has to fit in all that lovely backstory, and since it's already happened, it often boils down to characters telling each other things they already know just to bring the reader up to speed. Alternatively you get a flashback or three, sometimes lasting the entire novel, and you wonder why the author didn't just set the novel in the flashback era so the thing could play out in real time.

The third problem I have with in media res? It can play havoc with pacing and tension: You get a big BANG and then pages & pages setting up the hissing fuse. Me, I like to start with the hiss.

I'm not blogging about the problems with big openings because I think they're always the wrong choice ... hell, no. It's just that I like it when things start perfectly normal and gradually go wonky, so that by the end of chapter one (or perhaps chapter two), the freight train is rushing towards the rockfall or the helpless spaceship is drifting towards the asteroid field. Ideally you want the reader spotting things before the characters do, which not only has them anticipating problems but also willing the characters to spot them, discuss them and deal with them.

So, what prompted this blog post?

A couple of weeks ago I began plotting Hal 5 in my usual fashion, introducing the characters, the location and the setting before piling bigger and bigger problems onto the hapless characters. The plot grew and grew, until the spiderweb covered many pages.

Then, just this morning, I decided to play with it. I took a copy of the plot and started dragging & editing branches in Freemind to see how it would look if I started the book further in than usual. And, having made all those changes, I've ended up with a ton of stuff filed under 'backstory' which would normally be the first chapter or two of the novel. That's why I'm here, posting about it, because I'm weighing up the pros and cons, and trying to decide whether to stick with it or fall back on my comfortable opening chapter or two.

Simon Haynes is the author of the Hal Spacejock and Hal Junior series (Amazon / Smashwords / other formats)


Kerryn Angell said...

Tabitha Olson was talking about this over on her blog Writer Musings.

I hope you figure out where to start the first draft. :)

Simon Haynes said...

Thanks for reminding me it's the first draft! You're right, there's no harm if I start on the thing, because if it doesn't work out I can just write the chapter or two which lead up to the action bits and plug them into the start of the book.

Tabitha said...

What's the heart of your story? What's the thing that's going to be resolved at the end? Where that "thing" becomes a problem for the main character is usually where the story begins.

But that doesn't mean you can't rearrange everything, include some backstory, etc, if that helps you get the first draft down. First drafts are wonderful, because you can experiment all you want. And then go back and prune/edit where needed. :)

Thanks for stopping by my blog! And Kerryn, thanks for the plug!

Simon Haynes said...

Both of the jobs they're involved with are integral to the ending, and I'm just debating whether to show the boulder starting to move at the top of the hill, or smashing through the town at the bottom. I like the former approach better.

Pedro said...

Rules for writing are not rules. They're guidelines. They are especially useful for beginners. Rules help artists (not just writers) easily eliminate options that probably are bad by showing them the road that is most likely turn out to have results. But an artist needs two things: he needs to know how to make the stuff, and he needs to be competent at evaluating its quality, i.e. judging whether what he did is good or bad and being able to decide whether to dump it or keep it. If you have a good judgement, and you know that what the rule indicates doesn't work, then go ahead, break the rule. It's not really a rule. It's a guideline. It's something that helps you move along when you are disoriented. It's like the sonata form classical composers used in symphonies and romantic composers got rid of. It turned out quite well, didn't it? Still, if you were to compose a symphony for the first time, it would probably be a good idea to use the sonata form for some of the movements. This is the same. And, like you said, this is a first draft. I doubt you will keep the beginning, or keep the scene of the beginning in the beginning. So, go ahead. Do you know what was Debussy's criterion to decide what notes should go in a chord? It was this: whatever sounds right. Of course, a beginner wouldn't be able to do that and get away with it, unless he was Mozart. But you're not a beginner. And I never buy a book because of the first chapter either.

Tabitha said...

As Pedro says, if it's working, go with it. :)

"Hang the code! They're more like guidelines anyway." :)

Seth Chamberlin said...

I was just speaking to some fellow writers in our MySpace Fantasy Writers Club. I really see your point about how books are purchased and I follow similar practices when making my decisions.

I try to start with action peppered with plot elements that create questions the reader must answer. It's a formula that I follow through the book where every answer creates more questions. My first (unpublished) novel is to be the beginning of a series. While this style doesn't lend itself to the initial purchase, hopefully it will create some anticipation for the following books.