Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Beginnings (And G.I. Joe)

Every writer, by now, has heard the adage to start a novel in the middle of the story. It's an easy concept to grasp, but can be a much harder one to put in practice. (I pretty much cut the first chapter--and a lot of the second one--from Shattered in my first round of edits because it was all background info.)

It's easy to fill the first pages/chapters with background information about the main characters--I mean, come on! How else is a reader supposed to get to know and identify with them, right?

Wrong. That's backwards actually. A reader isn't going to care about the background information, the stuff that makes our characters tick, UNTIL they know and identify with them.

Think about it. When I'm first introduced to MC Bob in a novel, I don't care about his heart being broken a few years ago. I don't care about his allergy to cinnamon. Okay? So don't tell me that stuff. Throw me straight into the action - capture me immediately.  Because once I've seen Bob in action--or at least in some sort of tense situation, I'm much more likely to be interested in smaller details. 

Once we're past the beginning, tell me what I need to know. If Bob just can't connect with his girlfriend, Steph, I'll be curious about past heartbreaks. When Steph can't handle his intimacy issues, and adds cinnamon to a homecooked meal in retaliation - THAT'S when I care about Bob's allergy.  See what I'm saying?

Don't begin with your MC planning to murder someone. Begin with the MC having just completed the murder.

Over the weekend I watched G.I.Joe: The Rise of Cobra. (Um, hello... Channing Tatum anyone? Yes please!) And I must say--the movie starts exactly the way I'm trying to describe with this post.  Without giving away anything too significant, here's how the movie begins:

1st: Channing's (character Duke's) Army unit is transporting extremely dangerous warheads. (Enter tension & hook.)
2nd: The unit is attacked by a super stealthy opposing force and a lot of people are killed. The bad guys steal the warhead. And the kicker? The woman who steals it is someone Channing knows. (Expand tension & major hook!)
3rd: Before the bad woman can get away with the warhead a different team shows up and takes it back. This new team is full of good guys, but Channing has no idea who they are. He travels with them and learns about the G.I. Joe program. And he joins them, temporarily, to keep the warhead safe and complete his mission. (BAM. Thrown straight into the story.)

All three things happen in the VERY beginning. I was completely hooked. (Okay, Channing could hook me in a movie of him staring at a wall for two hours, but still...)  Throughout the movie, I found out more about his connection with the woman. I learned more about his past and who he was. And at the points I learned those things, I wanted to know them! Had I learned them all in the beginning, I would have been really bored.

For your my viewing pleasure - here are two pics of Channing. (Don't we make SUCH a cute couple? The second pic was taken, of course, before I met my husband...)

♥ me


  1. Hahaha. He is super fun to look at. Although in books, I actually have the opposite reaction. If you throw me into action Im like, so why should I care? I'm not invested yet enough to follow the characters through and because its page 1 I automatically assume that nothing bad can really happen to the main character or if something bad does happen, then we aren't starting with the main character but someone else. (Now this is not a hard rule, there are exceptions, but usually that's my taste and how I feel). But in movies, usually I do like more action up front. Wierd, huh?

    But you're right a lot of background info isn't always helpful either. Usually I like to see my character in a relationship, seeing how they relate to people is a good way to get hooked and get to know them or introduce tension or show them wanting something that they cant get or is difficult to get a hold of-that invokes immediate sympathy and then you can do whatever you want with the character, I will follow!

    Cool post!

  2. Yup. In media res. In the middle of things. Backstory comes later.

    Of course, it's a guideline, not a rule. Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment doesn't start with the murder, but with the planning of it. It's all in how elegant the writer is with the preliminary info.

    Current tastes, though, demand immediate action, so your injunction still stands when writing for today's audience. :)

  3. Mmmm, love me some Channing. AND he can dance which makes him MY soulmate, so we might have to fight for him. Maybe we can collaborate and write a novel about us fighting for Channing. We can have bombs, warheads, cool armor etc. ;)

  4. You know, I just saw G.I. Joe last weekend. Loved it, too! This movie is a great example of starting a story in the middle of things and sprinkling backstory as it fits. Now I'm jealous that I didn't think of doing a post about it:)

  5. HA! Oh, Channing. Did you know he's from Alabama? Yep. He and I have so much in common.

    And YES! I totally love it when a book starts right in the middle of a conflict. I actually did that for the first time with this current manuscript that I've got out with editors right now. My opening scene is a girl sitting in her math class, and this other girl - who you later learn is a big fat bully - has stolen a pair of her Christmas panties and is just about to make a scene with them in front of the whole class. I know. Weird. But it gets you into it, I think!

  6. Frankie - I definitely think there’s no hard rule. By action, I don’t necessarily mean major fighting or anything huge, necessarily, but I mean to make sure something happens. Conversation, some sort of change, etc.

    However, the post was really inspired bc I was reading three people’s submitted first chapters for my creative writing workshop class. And I could BARELY get through any of them!! (For example: Lindsay was raised in New Jersey, but moved to Maine when she was fifteen. She has brown hair and brown eyes and is generally thought of as a 6 on a scale of 1 to 10. She doesn’t like peas or cauliflower, or pretty much any type of vegetables. Her favorite book is.... FOR PAGES and PAGES. Total information dump.)

    Simon - Oh man, that is one of my absolute FAVORITE books! I was the only kid in my English class in high school who liked it. I’ve been meaning to reread it for years =)

    Karen - girl, lemme tell ya. I saw Step Up the night it opened. You’d have a pretty MAYJAH battle on your hands, from one dancer to another ;-) (Although, if you threw Ryan Reynolds into the mix, I’d give you Channing without so much as a whisper)

  7. LOL Melissa - if you want to use it, be my guest :-) I'm sure there's more to glean from it (if even it's just an excuste to post more pictures!)

    Anne - I have to tell you, your Christmas panties idea just made me crack up SO hard!! Because my sisters and I always get pairs of Christmas panties in our stockings from my mom each year. hahahaha.

  8. Sara, excellent comparison! And another great blog post--and not just because of the delicious pictures either. I'm guessing the brunette stage was just a phase then? Haha! You crack me up.

    Although, I must say that I think Crime and Punishment kind of does start in the middle of things, because ultimately, the murder itself isn't the focal point, but rather the thought processes, actions and rationalizations both before and after the murder are sort of the point, I think. It's one of those books where the journey is the point, not the destination (in a twisted sort of way). But if I'm honest, I would tell you that I found the book to be a bit of a snooze. Maybe I'm weird like that.

  9. Really excellent post! I loved how you explained the necessity of not including that background info at the beginning of the story, as well as how later on in the story, the same info becomes significantly more interesting. I think this kind of thing is especially important in YA novels, where the wordcount has to be shorter, and the pacing faster. I've read a couple adult novels that got away with chapters of info dump before the story started. :-P A lot of skimming was involved.

  10. (the black on green is hard to read)

    In my latest WIP, I start with a (very short) prolog where the MMC rescues the Queen. Then when I start the main story, I start with my FMC who has decided to leave town...and is on her way out. Not agonizing about the decision, not thinking about all the pros and con. She immediately has to start dealing with the consequences of her decision (all the Threshold Guardians who are blocking her way out of town). That's when we find out a little about her, but more about her personality than all the details.

  11. Carol - I don't think you're weird for finding C&P boring... I think a LOT of ppl did (I really was the ONLY peson in my English class who liked it)!

    Thanks Alexandra :-) Good point about the skimming - I do the same with beginnings like that!

    Iapetuss999 - It sounds like the WIP is started just the way I like to read :-) Also, the blog should be a cranberry color (writing) against an almost olive background... Does it not come across that way to you? Maybe I need to change the background...

  12. I think it's important to start with the characters reacting to something, whether that be HUGE ACTION, or just in the middle of a quiet conversation - something that gives readers a sense of what they're like. Definitely no infodumps!

    And: mmm, Channing. (I'm also finding the cranberry-on-green a little hard to read, at least on this monitor. Maybe the green needs to be a little lighter?)

  13. Hm, not sure which I should compliment you on more-the genius post, or the genius way of turning the time you wasted watching GI Joe instead of editing into something writing related. :)

    And I agree with all your points. You have to make the character interesting before we want to learn about their back story, and the way to do that is to start their real story, then tell us the past. In film school there was a lot of info about pacing and beginnings, but I won't share it because I have to save it for my USC lessons (not sure if it'll be this week's lesson yet, I haven't thought of enough literary examples yet. But it's coming soon) :)

  14. I just found my way over here from Frankie's blog. Great advice--and I love the pics :D

  15. Still a little hard to read. The green names really pop out but the text is harder. :(

  16. Great advice :) The current trend is definitely towards opening in an action - makes for fun reading!

  17. Sam - excellent point! And hmmm... I wonder if it's different types of monitors that give different types of views. I've changed it though, hope this is easier!

    Shannon - thank you, thank you :-) I was pretty happy too about figuring out how to make the procrastination actually beneficial! I can't wait to read your lesson on beginnings :-)

  18. Thanks Rhiannon! Glad you liked the pics & post. Oh, and now I've found my way over to YOUR blog as well :-) Looking forward to reading more!

    Iapetus999 - how's this? Better?

    Jemi - thanks! Glad you enjoyed it... And I agree about making for fun reading <3

  19. Great post, great handsome guy, great fun as always - you rock, Sara! ;)

  20. Fabulous advice! I think you and Channing are going to have gorgeous children.

  21. Fantastic post, Sara! That's so the truth. It's very important to keep that action up! I think I might blog about that too sometime soon.

  22. I've been working on this, and ensuring all dialogue helps propel the plot. Sometimes, I realize I'm letting my MCs babble waaay too much about waaay too nothing. On an entirely unrelated note, I saw your comment on my blog and I was like, "What? Did I leave myself a comment? What?" Seriously, I contemplated this.

  23. Great advice, Sara. You're becoming a treasure trove of information.

    Nice pic :)


Yay! I love when you have things to add :)