clues at the scene

clues at the scene

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Starting an Expedition

At left, from the Smithsonian a picture of Teddy in expedition garb. He's prepared. He's probably dressed to write.

Like all presidents, he's completely harmless when out of office. They're a tricky species to handle when still in office. Avoid them on their native ground.

Notice the pathetic plant in the background behind his left foot. It does balance the image.

The first chapter: the expedition begins.

What do we need in the first chapter?

(1) We need to make the reader care. She needs to care about the protagonist and his problems. Sure, we have to introduce a protagonist. We better introduce a conflict too even if it is a strawman.

But when the chapter is over, we writers must have made the reader care. We have to make them want to spend the next 20 pages in a tent with the protagonist late at night.

If your opening doesn't make a reader want to stay up and read for twenty pages while camping on vacation, you haven't done the job yet.

(2)  We need to show the protagonist desires something. It doesn't have to be explicit and it doesn't have to be stated to the reader. It has to fit with the protagonist's actions and words, however.

Strong characters need strong drives. You don't have to tell the reader what those are but by providing actions and words in communion with those desires, you make a complete and whole image of the protagonist believable.

"My character is in tumult and doesn't know what he wants! That's the point of the story."

Really? Hemingway did this all the time. His characters frequently didn't know what it was they wanted but they did want to know what it was they wanted.

Tumult is easy. Remove a desire and replace it with a desire to know any desire. Alternately, give them two contradictory desires and lock them in a Buick for a weekend.

You think this is flippant. I'm telling you it is the easy path to turmoil.

ex. I want Lucy. I want heroin. One is going to win. Show me the horse race. [ Yes, I know. -ed.]

(3) We have to show the world in which our story will take place clearly. Edwardian England? Great. New York in 1975? Works. New York in 2075? Lovely.

You cannot however take us to the land of "WTF?" and expect us to follow. You want purple trees: fine. Tells us something about the trees and why they're purple.

Don't leave us guessing that the Army of My Pretty Pony won the revolution.

Ground us in the world of the story. Science Fiction? Ground us in the otherworld of the story.

(4) We need to withhold safety, comfort, security, and complacency. Pick any two. It works out great if what the character desires is what we authors withhold.

There is a special name for writing that effectively thwarts complacency on every page: published.

Characters cannot stop. Problems cannot stop. In chapter one, there has to be something dangerously unresolved.

She doesn't love me anymore. I can't stay here. I need to go over there and the river is flooded. The cops are after me. My brother-in-law is dead on the bathroom floor and I think I did it. I'm all out of alien-B-gone and Zoltrivi the Destoryer just cloud-warped into my living room.

Of all the things to do in chapter one, destroying the complacency of a character is a strong first choice. If every novel you write destroys complacency, you'll do fine.

Inspector Rex thought it was his last day on the force with cake and punch in the conference room. Too bad his partner is John McClain. Look, the chief's car just blew up outside the station from the helicopter crashing into it. Guess there is something left Rex has to do.

Take the character's security blanket and throw it in the fire. The bigger and better you make the fire, the more you can heighten the contrast shadows of the character's desire.

You cannot get a strong story out of  an inner conflict over a Barbie Doll unless the lost Barbie was filled with cocaine and PitBull the neighborhood Drug Lord is at the door asking if you have anything for him that your uncle gave you outside the mall.

Not enough?

You cannot find Barbie around the house - your daughter's favorite Barbie - and your sister calls to ask how the visit with the doctor went. Is it early onset Alzheimer's? [ Prediction: next new overused dramatic element: Alzheimer's]

Short version:

Make me care. Make the character desire. Remove the ability to obtain the object of desire.

There is a piece of  advice that states over the course of a book you slowly remove all of a character's support and coping mechanisms. You remove every available crutch until he only has a dog left.

Then you shoot the dog and see what happens. Sometimes, that's the point in time where your book begins.

Characters we remember are people pushed over the edge of their ability to cope. We can't look away from the collision before us.

Are there other types of characters? Sure.  If you know them, then go write the tale with those sorts instead.

But to sell that book, make me care for all 322 pages. I'll endure a lot of abuse if you do that one job supremely well.

Now, saddle up. We've miles to cover and the emotional landscape we're going through is pretty harsh and wild.

It is as if we're on an emotional safari. It's as if we're writing a novel.

Hope you dressed for adventure.

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