Monday, August 15, 2011

In a Story…(Part One)

In a story, things happen. They happen immediately, or at least PDQ. Things that have happened are frequently revealed in dialogue, or, often with less effectiveness, in summarized form in what is called an info dump. Talented writers, in certain types of stories, can have action happening in the dialogue itself, although it’s a rare story that can get along with dialogue alone.

The first line of this essay came in a fit of irritation as I was reading a book from a mainstream SF publisher. It came because this particular book did not illustrate the principle that ‘in a story, things happen.’ By thirty-five pages in, we’d had a dozen characters introduced and had “hints” that a major crisis was threatening earth. (I already knew from the back cover that we were looking at a first contact scenario.) We’d learned a few things about the characters, almost none of it very interesting. We’d also had a nine page conversation in a jeep with a flat tire in the rain, about nothing. Starting with page 35, we got a page and a half info dump about a specific character, including pretty much the character’s whole military service and the honors he’d received. That was it for me. I closed the book and uploaded it to bookmooch. I was irritated enough to vow never to read another of this author’s books again.

The worst thing, from my point of view, is that the first book I read by this author was absolutely wonderful. It was also an alien contact story, but the action began in the first paragraph as a research lab at a major university blew up and opened a gateway to another dimension. The action seldom slacked off after that, although a lot of characters were introduced as the book went on. I was so impressed that I immediately bought two more books by the author. The second one I read was written with a coauthor and was horribly slow with a lot of character description that ended up going nowhere. I blamed it on the co-writer so I still came to the current novel with high hopes. Dashed hopes, as it turned out. If this had been the first book I read by this author I would never have gotten to the one that was really good.

Things happen in a story. Or else it’s not a story. No matter how many characters a writer introduces, it’s not a story until things happen between those characters. No matter how much a writer hints at big things to come, it’s not a story until some of those things actually begin to occur. I think most writers have to learn this fact. I don’t believe it comes naturally for most of us. It didn’t for me, although I never took 35 pages to get to some big happening. Swords of Talera is my slowest starting book. There’s a five page introduction that reveals Ruenn Maclang’s character and sets up a mystery about Ruenn and where he’s been. Then comes Chapter 1, with three and half pages of rather mundane activity until the screams begin and the story is fully launched. Wings over Talera has a three page introduction with a battle happening by page 2 of the book itself. Witch of Talera has a two “paragraph” introduction and an assassination attempt on the first page.

Here’s my plea to writers. Make things happen. Make them happen quickly. I don’t want to put your book down any more than you want me to.


Anonymous said...

I always try to do this. Not saying I'm perfect or always successful, but I try.

Chapter One: Something must happen, generally something that will get the ball rolling or is at least related to the action in the rest of the story.

I have talking scenes, but I never start a novel with one. For one thing, I don't think I'm that great at dialogue. If I could write prose as well as Quinton Tarrantino rights dialogue, then I might have a talking scene in a first chapter. But I can't, so I don't. Reservoir Dogs, anyone? That ain't me.

nephite blood spartan heart said...

Great advice Charles, ever onward.

Charles Gramlich said...

Ty, I actually don't 'like' dialogue much. I think that's why I struggle with it. I've gotten a lot better than I used to be but am still nowhere near as good as I'd like.

David J., thankee!

Drizel said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Drizel said...

Sorry deleted my comment, had a bit of a brain fart there :).....let me start again.
Sometimes when you write you forget that readers don't want to read your thoughts on the story. Get to the story and keep them interested.... GREAT Advice...thanks.

Deka Black said...

Slow books are boring. tht's my idea. Dialogues can be goodif the make advance the story. Sort of like a radio drama

Lisa said...

very interesting Charles, thank you.

G. B. Miller said...

Definitely good advice.

It's a fine line (at least for me) when you're trying to get things jumping with dialogue right off the bat.

If you do it right, it's good. Do it wrong, you turn off the reader.

I know with the book I'm shopping around, I have it starting off with a short conversation, but by the fifth paragraph I do have some action taking place.

Here's a question for you: would you state that your advice is more relevant for writing a novel than it would be writing a short story, or would it be about the same?

Tom Doolan said...

I'm starting to get a grasp of this myself. However, the opposite can be true too. That was always my problem. I would start with some action, but would stumble on how to put it in context for the reader and create a good story from it. But that may have more to do with my lack of plotting ability. Either way, good advice.

Oh, and I suck at dialogue. But, I think I'm getting beter. :)

Ron Scheer said...

This issue relates to a truism of technical writing and why it's better for a user than an engineer to write the user's manual. The engineer will want to describe a thing from the inside out - how it works rather than how to work it. Users approach the thing from the outside in, and want only what they NEED to know to get them going. Not all the nice-to-know stuff.

On the matter of something happening, for me it's important that what happens is not just ODTAA, one darn thing after another. I'm reading an early western now with that problem. Good, thoughtful post, Charles. Thanks.

Paul R. McNamee said...

You're right.

I find it easiest to tie early action with the inciting incident.

Every story needs one, and it should happen as early in the tale as possible.

It's not always action - clearly in a simple drama it wouldn't be - but it is "action" in relation to the plot.

You need to fire that off as early in the work as possible. Heck, in some cases, it can take place off-page (off-screen) before the prose has started. You hit the ground with your characters running, in media res.

I am reading Glen Cook's Sung in Blood. In the first two pages, there is an assassination, and then the main cast of characters are in knee deep, chasing after the villains. Descriptions and backgrounds revealed on the go.

It might not be his best work, but even that is more exciting than many openings I've read.

laughingwolf said...

good advice, as always!

i did a book review a while ago wherein there were some 40+ CHAPTERS of info dump, BEFORE the story began!

she was, supposedly, a nyt best-selling author!

best advice i got: a screenwriting instructor said - grab em by the throat, early, and don't let go til you type your final period, indicating the story's over... works in ANY form of storytelling

Charles Gramlich said...

Drizel, that's true. A writer is generally more excited about every element of a story than the reader is going to be. It does take some sculpting.

Deka Black, I see dialogue used poorly so much, but it can be delightful if used right and is necessary for any long story.

oceangirl, and thanks for coming by. I'm still having trouble at times posting comments on your blog. Some days the comment box won't appear even when I reload several times.

G, I think for commercial fiction it's about the same for both novels and stories. However, I think it applies even more to commercial short stories. You really don't have a lot of time to waste there. Many folks will give novels a chance to start at a slightly more leisurely pace. By commercial fiction I mean work that you want to sell to the general reader instead of to some smaller group who might like experimental stuff.

Tom Doolan, It is often hard to figure out how to work in backstory after you begin with some slam bang action. But I think the reader will be more likely to forgive a writer for shorting the backstory than for shorting the ongoing action of the immediate tale.

Ron Scheer, I think you're exactly right that it equates to the consumers of technical manuals who just want what they have to know. I don't mind a little ODTAA, but the majority of the things that happen should not be "asides." They should directly be related to the plot lines as they move forward. I have one of those ODTAA moments in Swords of Talera, when the ship is attacked by the Cenboth on the ocean. There's really nothing related to the plot in that attack. It was just me throwing in something. A little of that can go a long way.

Paul R. McNamee, the second half of this piece is going to address just the issue you brought up. The "action" doesn't have to be an explosion or a battle or something like that. But it has to be something that starts the story rolling, something that other things occur as a result of.

laughingwolf, yep, definitely. I see what you're talking about with the multiple chapters of info dump too much. It's like the writer setting up a room full of dominoes before tipping the first one. You should start with tipping the dominoes.

the walking man said...

How does someone do it right the first time and then forget how to dance right after that? Has it come to the point that when someone hits their first pitch out of the park their ego or wallet tells them every time they swing it will fly at least to the cheap seats.

I guess this is why the bargain bins are so full all the time.

Golden Eagle said...

Great advice!

I used to have a lot of info dumps at the beginning of stories I started--and still tend to pack in too much during first drafts. I try to avoid that more and focus on action/dialogue to reveal things, so readers don't get hopelessly bored.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Making things happen, Sir!

BernardL said...

Amen. No matter how you look at it, a novel with scenery and characters is still just a bunch of words and names without a story. Get to it and get to it fast.

Oscar Case said...

Thanks for the good advice.

Charles Gramlich said...

Mark, I don't know. It's definitely weird. Part of it is ego, I imagine. and part of it is trying to write too fast and not giving it enough thought maybe.

The Golden Eagle, I think we all start out like that. Or most of us. It's very tempting to want to give the reader everything they need at the beginning but that generally doesn't seem to be the best way to go.

Alex J. Cavanaugh, "make it so."

BernardL, yes yes yes.

Charles Gramlich said...

Oscar, thanks for reading.

Paul R. McNamee said...

Speaking of grabbing your reader and not letting go;

Erik Donald France said...

Shaken or stirred or you will be deterred.

For me it depends on what bends or upends.

Steve Malley said...

Well said, sir. Well said!

Charles Gramlich said...

Paul, yes indeed.

Erik, bends or upends sounds like something happening to me. :)

Steve Malley, thankee, man.

Jessica Ferguson said...

Really good post and thanks for the reminder. This is something I'm trying to remember as I revise my novel. Sometimes these info dumps slip in and I have to go back and cut. One of my pet peeves is dialogue that is nothing but small talk.

Charles Gramlich said...

Jess, I think sometimes short info dumps are not much of a problem. It's when they carry on and on and there are just too many of them.

Liane Spicer said...

Excellent advice. I want to be pulled in, if not from the very first page, at least in the first few. People are getting more and more impatient and have immediate access to innumerable books. They will not wait around to long your book to get going.

That said, some slow books can be exquisite.

As far as dialogue is concerned, there can be too much of it. There's one famous author who irritates me with her pages and pages of dialogue. She also hardly ever uses dialogue tags, so by the time I've had to go back up the page a second or third time to try and figure out who's speaking, I'm ready to throw the book at the wall.

Liane Spicer said...

"They will not wait around TOO long FOR your book to get going."

Sheesh. Too quick to hit that 'publish' button, moi.

Travis Cody said...

Good advice. I sometimes struggle with getting to the "things happen" part.

laughingwolf said...

exactly so...

Charles Gramlich said...

Liane, I know exactly what you mean. I see a fair number of literary writers who seem to think it makes them literary to make it hard on the reader. I can't agree with that.

Travis Cody, I do a lot of that "preparing for something to happen too," but I try to do it almost all in my head and only put the stuff on paper when things start to happen. I don't always succeed.

Laughingwolf, thankee, man.

Greg said...

Great post. When nothing happens, it really makes you not care about the story, so that when something does happen, it isn't very exciting. Or it makes you stop reading. Either way, not good for the author.

Chris said...

Along the same vein, I also hate endless hints that something happened in the past that links characters, or is the reason for a particular character quirk, but we just keep getting strung along as to what it's all about. That drives me up a freaking wall.