Starting in the right place

I’ve been struggling with the first chapter of my story for some time, not the prologue, but the first-chapter proper. Part of the reason for this is that it was a breakthrough chapter for me when I wrote it, although it took me a long time to realize that. It had initially been a part of a different character’s back-story, and when I made it the starting point for my story, a lot of stuff started clicking into place. As a result, I was rather married to the first iteration of it. Then, I asked some friends to read it, they all said the same thing: It really doesn’t work with the rest of the story. It wasn’t that it didn’t fit the plot, it was the tone and direction that first chapter seemed to set out that wasn’t working. So, I revised it. The feedback I got on that was better, more along the lines of, this works way better, but it needs a lot of polishing. That felt better in terms of review and ego, but the chapter still doesn’t, in fact, work with the rest of the story. There are a lot of reasons for this, it still has vestigial bits and pieces from the original chapter so it has an uneven tone. The main character is still also not defined well enough, of course this causes other problems moving forward, there’s also a bit of that plausibility issue as well. So, I’ve decided to make another crack at it. This is largely because having that chapter so rough bothers me. I want it to be the best chapter of the book. It really needs to be if I expect anyone to actually pick it up.

I spent a lot of time today avoiding writing, not because I didn’t want to, but because I was letting this problem stew in my mind. Finally, I spent an hour working on the first couple of paragraphs (this is almost always a bad sign for me, unless there’s another real distraction in the room). After re-reading what I’d puked out, my conclusion: It’s worse than what I started with, hardly fixes the original plausibility problems, and really doesn’t even read well. So what am I going to do?

I have come to the conclusion the story starts in the wrong place. I’m actually not far, I think, I just need to step back to events fifteen minutes before the original start. At the beginning, I’ve got my character running through the woods, which I think is a really good idea, but it makes life difficult for establishing the setting properly, because I’m neck deep in action. I mean, this can be done, but I’m not quite skilled enough to pull it off. What this is going to do is give me a couple of sentences for setting, which is relevant to the larger story, though quite subtle, and then launch into the action more naturally. It will also stretch the action out a little so that when the main character has to give up the chase, it’ll feel less jarring. I’m super-optimistic about this change, so hopefully it’s what I need to help me launch chapter 1 so it’s every bit as great as I expect it to be.


The Hobbit movie

I went to the Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies with my family today. In spite of all of the bad things I heard about it, the largest complaint being the 40+ minute battle of 5 armies, I enjoyed it. In fact, I think that the battle was done really pretty well, considering more than half the movie was centered around that one event. The question, I suppose, is what did I like about it? First off, I’m looking at the movie as a story in the same way I think about a novel. What I liked was that the action was broken up by other less intense events, yes some of that was contrived and thoroughly unnecessary from the standpoint of plot (Every scene containing Alfred the assistant to the master of Lake Town could have been removed with no impact to the story), however those breaks in the action were essential for the story-telling part. They kept the intensity in check to prevent the viewer from getting burned out on all the action. (This seems to have been Alfred’s sole purpose in the movie)

I am a firm believer that if you’ve got a long action sequence in any story there needs to be a break from whatever that action was – really this applies to any sort of intense situation in a story. Your characters, and reader,, need a bit of a breather. A moment where things aren’t really okay, but everyone can stop and take a breath before the action/intensity begins to rise again. I’ve read some books where this is not done well (in my opinion) and I found them difficult to enjoy. It seems to me that some critics might bang-on about those breaks in the action as unnecessary diversions, however you’ve got to keep the audience from becoming burned out. The audience is, after all, a huge part of the story-telling experience. The barrel escape scene from the last hobbit movie is a great example of action that hasn’t been broken well enough. I think it really mucked-up the story-telling. It was long, and didn’t contain any breaks from the action. The director’s attempt to do this was though humor, and that can work, but it felt out of place in the context. By the end of that barrel scene, I had become soured story overall because the scene had just seemed to become absurd after a while. If it had been shorter, or at least broken up better, I likely wouldn’t have had formed that opinion.

I feel like the book that sticks out in my mind as having tackled this nearly perfectly was Jurassic Park. There were parts so intense that I had to put the book down for a few minutes, but the next chapter almost always started with a minute to catch your breath before the action began intensifying again. It made the book gripping to the end without burning me out, as so often happens for me when the characters can’t stop long enough to take a breath.

I think my point here is that if you break up your intense action properly, you really can get away with a lot, and I think make your action much more intense, without experiencing audience burnout. Anyhow, this is how I prefer to read, and that’s my two cents.

Are my characters digging latrines?

Once I was reading a book where, after a chapter or two, the characters were forced to go on the run from some evil thing. The intensity of the chase was high, they were constantly on the move, separated from their defenders without a friendly soul to ask for help. However, during this bit of story, the writer went into what I considered a lot of unnecessary detail about what they were up to during this chase. I can’t remember exactly what the scene was, but it put me in mind of reading, in some detail, about how the characters were digging latrines along the way. It was as if the author had to account for all of their various actions and bodily functions. I’m pretty sure this wasn’t really how it went, but it felt that way. The small section of the book covered by this turned me off of the whole story. Loads of people loved this story, so maybe it’s just me, but I’ve read other stories with seemingly similar chase situations and liked them just fine. Either way, I spent quite a bit of time thinking about what it was that I didn’t like, you know to avoid it for myself. In the end I came to the conclusion what I really didn’t like was the pacing. The intensity of the action seemed completely at odds with the pace of the writing. Perhaps the author achieved what he set out to do, but I didn’t like it.

Back to my project: I’ve buttoned up a section of sub-plot, at least for the moment, and I’m back to the main character again. Before launching into that sub-plot, with a secondary character, I left the main character sitting in the middle of the woods. Now, I’m asking myself about pacing and action. I’m well over half-way into the book, and the main character is still lolly-gagging in the forest. I feel like at this point there should be some rising action or pressing problem bearing down on the him, and I even worked an additional, short chapter in to try and get there, yet it still feels flat. Things will pick back up as the chapter progresses, but I don’t want the beginning of it to seem boring or pointless. I guess the rubber-duck question of the day is: At what point does detail become latrine digging? The rubber duck’s answer for now: The main plot isn’t going to change for the details I’m working on and I’m already going to have to revise it to suck less later anyhow, so keep going and don’t get hung up on this.