Sunday, October 20, 2013

Getting off the Ground

Planes taxi plenty before liftoff. Add a scheduling or weather problem, and they idle in their spot on the runway as passengers grow increasingly irritated. The passengers are stuck. Readers, however, are not.

Unless you get underway swiftly, readers might simply opt for a different journey. They don’t want to wait to hear the safety instructions or weather report at their destination. They simply want to be en route to it. Yet writers sometimes treat readers like trapped passengers.

Why not let readers feel they achieved altitude without all those preliminaries?

~ Establish what’s at stake.
Immediately. Infuse that opening trouble/conflict/problem with as much tension and emotion as you can muster--because it has to be big enough to build a book on.
~ Start with a straightforward event.
Self-explanatory incidents generate the greatest suspense. Avoid situations that necessitate lots of complicated set up.
~ Limit backstory.
Explain what you must. Stop there. As Don Maass once put it at a conference in Madison, “Once you’re 70% of the way through your novel, you can have as much backstory as you want.” Not before, though.
~ Make things move.
Not every novel includes adventure, or needs to. But contrast spilling the contents of a shopping cart with worry over some sort of trouble occurring in the supermarket. Big difference between those.
~ Add context.
But limit yourself to who, what, where, when, why. No one likes to be lost. But no one’s reading your novel to get directions, either.
~ Emphasize the physical.
Commenting on the protagonist’s problems is the equivalent of “telling.” Focus on what happens both to build scene and eliminate everything interfering with it.
~ Watch the metaphors.
Even if yours are great, don’t overwhelm at the start. The opening is a place to connect with characters and empathize with their troubles. Make that the focus.
~ Set the tone.
Don’t mislead by promising humor, sex, or adventure that never reappears after page two.

No one likes waiting.

Tip: Don’t request patience at your novel’s beginning. Instead? Just begin.

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