Thursday, June 24, 2021

Two Days Earlier...

A couple weeks ago I talked about a certain kind of opening that shows up in a lot of books and movies. It’s when that prologue or first chapter or first scene has some stuff happen (computer virus is stolen, monster lands on earth, vampire comes out of the earth, etc) and then it jumps forward in time four day, five weeks, six months, or more. It can be a problematic opening, and the fact that I feel the need to point out that time gap—how separated these events are—should usually be a sign to take a serious look at how important that opening chapter or scene really is.

Today I wanted to talk about the reverse of that opening. It’s another one you’re probably familiar with, and I’d guess it should probably be an even bigger red flag. It’s not always a sign I’m doing something wrong... but I think it’s really leaning that way.

What I’m talking about, of course, is the infamous opening scene of high action, desperate people, severe crisis, screams, shouts, gunfire, exclamations, and then—

Thirty Six Hours Earlier...

You’ve seen this, yes?

Now, on a casual first glance, this opening seems great, right? We’re diving right into the action at the start. We’ve got tension. Strong character moments. And then—usually—a following scene that shows these characters in very different circumstances, leaving us with the mystery of “how do they end up there?”

Thing is, the more we look at it, the more this opening tends to falls apart.

First, it’s dropping us deep into the action. Sounds good on the surface, but as we’ve talked about before, a lot of folks who do this misunderstand what “starting with action”  really means. By its very nature this opening is out of context, and there’s a good chance I don’t know any of the characters involved, so this “action” opening has superficial stakes at best.

Think about it. Me telling you Wakko has a knife to Dot’s throat is... bad? Good? Bad for Wakko?  Without context, there’s a drastically different way to view almost any scene any of us can imagine. Seriously. Kids on the playground, people fooling around on the couch, someone reading a book in the library—in the right context, any one of these can be funny, sexy, sinister, or right out creepy.

Ah-hah! Says random internet guy #108. That’s the whole point! Like you said above, it’s creating a sense of mystery!

Funny you should mention that...

Second, this opening’s trying to build mystery by showing me an out of context piece of my story. But, a lot like the straight action, this opening mystery is a mystery without any stakes. If I need another six or seven scenes to establish “no, it’s really weird that Wakko would have Dot at knifepoint,” well... doesn’t needing another seven scenes to explain it kind of hint my opening isn’t that powerful?

Plus... this isn’t really a mystery. It’s just withheld information. We expect things are going to be different at the end of my story. The tension level should be higher. My characters should be in a different place, on several levels. It’s sort of like if I said “Wait, he’s Spider-Man at the end of the movie, but he’s just Miles Morales at the beginning?? Whoa! How could that possibly happen?”

The point of the story, quite literally, is to tell us how we get to the end of the story.

Third, it sucks a lot of tension out of my story. One way or another, I’m telling people who makes it to the end. Nothing that happens to Wakko until then is going to be a real threat, because I know he needs to be there at the end to hold a knife to Dot’s throat. Likewise, Dot’s got to be there to be knife-helden. Anyone standing around watching this? Well, we know they’re going to make it, too. This may sound silly, but if I tell people what happens at the end of my story... they’re going to know what happens at the end of my story.

Small note—if I’m gambling on my readers/audience forgetting that opening bit and being surprised when the plot guides us back to it, well... does that sound like a great opening? One I’m hoping my readers forget?

Fourth and finally, I think when I use this kind of beginning, it’s me admitting I just don’t have a great beginning for my story.

Y’know how I’ve suggested cutting off some prologues and seeing how the story works without them? I’d bet three out of four times, if I cut this “One Week Earlier” opening off my story, I’ll find the one I’m left with is kind of weak. Nothing really happens. The characters aren’t that interesting. It kind of meanders a bit before it gets back to the plot.

Y’see, Timmy, if I’ve started my story at the wrong point, the “Two Days Earlier” opening can seem like a quick fix. It’s me pasting on a more interesting beginning. But odds are it hits a lot of those problems I just mentioned. That’s why I think it’s such a big red flag.

I should consider starting my story now instead of at the end. I'm not saying this never, ever works, but if now feels like such a lousy place to start my story... well, that might be my subconscious telling me something.

And maybe I should listen to it.

Next time, I’d like to tell you why you should delete all your dating apps and meet someone the old fashioned way.

Oh! And a shameless self-plug. NPR is doing their summer reading lists and is looking for sci-fi and fantasy books that you loved from the past ten years. And while I’d never stoop so low as telling you how to vote on such a thing, I’m not above reminding you how much you liked Paradox Bound and how it’s a wonderful stand-alone novel that would appeal to most anyone. Just something to have in mind. While you vote.

Anyway, until next time, go write...

Thursday, June 17, 2021

Experience Points

I’ve mentioned experience once or thrice over the past few posts, and I figured it might not be a bad thing to blather on about. It’s one of those things we all talk about and acknowledge, but also all like to believe we’ve got enough and don’t need any more. Mostly because... well, how much is enough? How do you even measure experience? Are there real-world units of experience?

Anyway, let me toss out a few things we can all think about. Like this story you may remember. It’s funny and I’ve told it before.

As it says in the little bio over on the right, I’ve got really old New England roots. I mostly grew up in Maine, but I spent my high school years down in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Yes, with the Rock and the Mayflower and all that. One of the big tourist attractions there is Plimoth Plantation, a sort of ongoing LARP museum/interactive show of the original colony in the year 1627. Likewise, all the actors there are playing specific, actual historical figures from that year. You can walk in, talk to the different “residents,” and they’ll answer questions about what they’re doing at the moment or “current events.” Sometimes, depending, they’ll also ask about your odd and extremely improper clothing (young lady, are you showing your shoulders?!? In public?!?)

(weird fun fact—if you’ve ever seen that late ‘80s movie Warlock, the whole “Boston Colony” sequence they show at the beginning with the little town is actually Plimoth Plantation)

Anyway... a friend of mine from high school worked at the Plantation. They assigned her an age-appropriate historical role, and part of that role was getting married at the end of the summer to another character, Experience Mitchell (ahhh, Puritan names). The thing was, my friend kinda had a behind-the-scenes thing for another Pilgrim. So on the big day, she told me one of her co-workers gave her a “wedding gift” in the changing room, a t-shirt that said...

            Experience is what you get when you don’t get what you want.

It was a clever pun, yeah, but the phrase stuck with me because... well, it’s true.  If you talk to anyone who’s considered experienced, it’s because they failed or screwed up. Probably a lot.

Now—somewhat back on track—in one of the Sandman books, I remember someone (I think it was Eve?) told Matthew the Raven that everyone has at least three great stories in them. This is true, but I think there’s also an unspoken corollary there which is just as important. And it gets ignored a lot.

Yes, we all have at least three great stories in us, but we also have all have lots and lots of bad stories in us. Dozens of them. Maybe even hundreds. We have awful characters, contrived plots, cringe-worthy dialogue, and some incomprehensible structure. We’re not even going to talk about those horrible twists or the very awkward sex scene.

Yes, I’m saying we. I’ve written sooooooo much bad stuff none of you are ever going to see. My third grade attempt at a novel, Lizard Men From the Center of the Earth.  My middle-school sci-fi novel.  My Boba Fett and Doctor Who fan-fiction. My junior high fantasy novel.  My high school werewolf-detective novel.  My college novel, The Trinity.  My after-college-moved-to-California novel, The Suffering Map. And mixed in there are a ton of comic scripts, short stories, screenplays, and I think even one solid attempts at a stage play. Thousands of pages.  Thousands of hours of work.

And pretty much across the board, all that work sucks.

It sucks on different levels, for different reasons, but don’t doubt that most of it sucks hard. I spent weeks and months and years in one case writing stuff that should never again see the light of day. I’ve got no problem admitting it. In fact, being able to admit it let me move from being a random dabbler to a serious writer. I spent about twenty years digging through all those bad stories and found the good ones underneath.  Maybe even one or two great ones.

Writing all those stories was my experience. I had to get them out. Whenever you hear about an overnight success or an amazing “first” novel, odds are that writer’s got a really long string of awful work behind them. Sure, there’s always a chance they really are an overnight success—sometimes those great stories are right on the surface, the way a prospector might kick over a rock and find a gold nugget just sitting there. But for the most part, becoming a good writer means a lot of, well, not getting what you want. Doing the work and then doing... more work.

Y’see, Timmy, there’s an all-too-common belief that just finishing something means it’s good. I mean, I made it all the way through to the end on my first try. That’s a lot of writing. That novel must be worth publishing and being read, right?

But the truth is, the vast majority of first novels are awful. And that's okay. The second ones are pretty bad, too. Ex-Heroes was my first published novel, yeah , but it was my seventh-and-a-half attempt at writing one. And, as I hinted above, I’m really glad it was the first one people saw.

Because that junior high fantasy novel... jeeez, less said about that one the better. So embarrassing. On so many levels.

Sometimes we pour our hearts into something, spend weeks or months or even years on it, and we still don’t get us what we want. But at least we get some experience. If we admit we need it.

Next time, I think I want to talk about what was happening a few days before this.

Until then... go write.

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Five Years Later

So, I talked about prologues recently, and I wanted to toss out one more thought on them. Well, y’know, one more for now. This one’s an easy warning flag to look for as I’m trying to figure out if my prologue is worth saving or not. It’s not a guaranteed catch, but I’d bet at least three out of four times, that flag’s popped up for a good reason.

If you’ve ever followed along with my Saturday geekery, you know a common B-movie complaint I have is the opening where everyone dies. A bunch of people show up, have some bare bones character development, maybe flash some skin... and then die horribly. Usually by monster, but sometimes it’s a serial killer. Or lava.

Anyway, there’s a slight offshoot to this, and I’ve seen it in book manuscripts too. It’s when our main story doesn’t start until

SIX WEEKS LATER

You’ve seen this, yes? I’d guess 83% of the time that opening scene’s about someone dying. Or doing something vague and “mysterious.” Or maybe it’s really clear what’s going on but it just feels irrelevant because, seriously, who are any of these people?

And then we flip the page and see that header right under “Chapter Two.” Or maybe it got a page of its own. In the movie, they probably did a fade-to-black and then maybe a little chyron at the bottom of the next shot—Two Years Later

Like I said, this isn’t a guaranteed problem. Not so much a red flag as maybe a safety orange one.

And also, just to be clear, the problem isn’t the timestamp (so to say) itself. Just like with prologues, the problem doesn’t magically vanish just by saying “Okay, I won’t tell the reader it’s four months later, I’ll just let them figure it out.” This isn’t going to take care of anything and it’s probably going to cause more problems.

Y’see, Timmy, that tag is a warning to my reader—and it should be to me. It’s making it clear just how disconnected this opening is from the actual story on the temporal measuring tape. And if it’s that set apart from my main story... how important is it?

Seriously, look at all the different rules and conditions we’ve talked about before when it comes to prologues. No, go look—I linked to most of them up above. I’d bet you four out of five times, if the story opens with a scene or chapter that gets followed with SIXTEEN DAYS LATER (or something similar, don’t get pedantic), it’s breaking a bunch of those rules. Which means I’ve probably got an unnecessary opening. Heck, my manuscript might be a lot stronger without it.

Sure, this isn’t an absolute. There are lots of examples of stories that start here and then jump days, weeks, or months ahead. But there’s also really solid reasons why those examples work with those stories. We can break down exactly why that separation between then and now is so important for this book or movie.

So if you find out you’ve added that flag, maybe take a moment and give that opening a good look. Does that separated beginning really add anything? What does the big distance between them bring to my story? What does pointing out that distance add to it?

So says the guy who just started a new book, and the only thing on page five is

ONE THOUSAND YEARS LATER 

Next time, there’ll be some more experience to share with you.

Until then, go write.