I recently was at a con where I gave advice to an aspiring writer based on a short work he submitted. A few months ago I did the same thing at another con for several writers in a workshop. i was thinking about the experience and wondering if there was anything that could be distilled from the experience as a sort of “universal” piece of advice. (Universal is great until it’s not–basically rules are there to be broken. With a a Price Tag. See Edmund’s post on just that. ) While these writers shared a number of common issues, I think the most important was a combo of two issues–the first is beginning in the middle of the acction (en medias rez) and the other is too much backstory/worldbuilding crap before it’s needed.
This one from the other day repeated what several of the earlier stories had. They began with a character and then putzed around for a few too many pages before they got on with the story. Essentially they didn’t get to the problem or the conflict of this story until they were halfway through or more. Frequently that leads me to the question of–what’s this story about? Sometimes they can tell me; most often they can’t. When I ask that question, I’m not looking for something vague, like: it’s about a girl who is forced to do something she doesn’t want to do. That doesn’t tell me anything except the setup. The real issue and the real story is about how that girl comes to terms with it–what choices does she make? Does she change? Grow? What happens? You see, stories aren’t about the action or the plot. The action and plot tell the story. So if you have a lot of action, but no real characters or no real character investment in the situation, then you don’t have a story.
So what does that have to do with beginning in the action and too much worldbuilding crap? (I love worldbuilding. I just smacked the crap out of my hand on a doorjamb today and have a knot the size of a plum on the back of my hand and so am a little surly. Sorry.) Anyhow, you begin in the middle of the action because that means you are beginning in the middle of the character’s conflict. The action might not really be action. It might be someone cringing in her seat because Professor Snape is standing over her, pointing in face and calling her all sorts of names. Or it might be tripping over a dead body. Or it might be chasing down the kidnappers of your child. Whatever it is, it has to matter to your character and be something that precipitates him or her into doing something. If someone is beating your character up for the 12th time and your character does nothing but let it happen, there’s no story there. Your story should start at a pivotal point–where conflict explodes.
It used to be, and frequently more literary styles of stories still do this, that you would develop the character for chapters before you actually threw the major conflict at them (hello, Henry James). Commercial fiction readers won’t put up with that (generally, that is–see Price Tags). They are smart readers and will put together clues and understand that you will reveal your character as you go, which means you’d better do just that. But they want the pacing and the conflict to come quickly. Which leads me to the too much worldbuilding crap.
Frequently when you start a book or story, you tell everything about the world you know. Pros often do this too. It’s a mechanism of sorting through your world and figuring out how things work. Later you come back and decide what’s important and then you “prune generously” to quote one of my editors. You go back and ruthlessly cut anything that doesn’t impact this story. You give things only on a need-to-know basis. Don’t give things they don’t need, especially early on in the book when the reader is still figuring things out. Give them everything they do need, and nothing else.
I love worldbuilding and I love reading about a world. But I realize that I can drown a reader’s interest quickly if I overload them, especially if I’m already giving them a lot of necessary information. Plus it leads to infodumping and again, that kills pacing. You want to get readers hooked into your world fast and don’t push them off the path or let them wander away. Too many details or too much of characters doing little without conflict does exactly that. We’ll talk about what constitutes conflict next time.