Wednesday, April 1, 2015

The Inactive Beginning

If you’ve read my post on the purpose of the Story Polisher, then you know that I like to divide writing into three categories: Prose, Plotting, and Creativity. My posts here generally focus on Prose; this is in part because your prose will be the first thing an editor notices about your work (poor prose is the number one reason most stories get rejected, in my experience) and in part because it is difficult to teach people to write clear prose in any setting other than a classroom or one-on-one instruction. There are an abundance of resources out there to help new writers improve their Plotting and Creativity, but not many focused on Prose.

However, today I’m going to set Prose aside for a moment to focus on an element of Plotting. I do this in the interest of highlighting a common error that gets stories rejected by editors on a frequent basis. And that error is the inactive story beginning.

This error is easy to describe: a story begins, and nothing happens. More specifically, the protagonist and other characters aren’t doing anything, or the amount of activity on their part is miniscule compared to the number of pages it takes to describe it all.

This is almost always the consequence of heavy worldbuilding, backstory-telling, and other forms of info-dumping. Most stories have a fair amount of background information that the audience will need to know in order for the story to make sense, and it is tempting to try to get all of that pesky background information out of the way right at the start.

But here’s the thing: background information tends to be boring if your audience isn’t already emotionally or intellectually invested in your world and your characters. The most effective way to engage readers at the beginning of the story is to have something interesting happening at an efficient pace.

Here’s an example of how I’ve seen this done poorly (or rather, a summation of an example, since an actual example lifted from an actual manuscript would be far too long):

     The book begins with the protagonist in the back seat of an SUV, sandwiched between a pair of burly guards. He is being escorted into the dangerous jungles of Juduun, home of the dangerous and violent ape-snakes that guard the ancient ruins of a lost civilization. The various horrors that the ape-snakes have perpetrated upon humans are described. The ruins are described, along with the few little facts that are known about the ancient civilization and what happened to cause its downfall.

     Our protagonist is nervous and tries not to tremble, not wanting to show weakness in front of his captors. He reflects upon the unfortunate series of events that brought him here, how he was orphaned at a young age and stole to help feed his sister. He managed to find her good work and a place to live, but then everything went wrong when she caught the eye of a lecherous nobleman. Various things happened, our protagonist was charged with a crime that he either didn’t commit or was forced to commit even though he’s really a good guy.

     The jungles come into sight up ahead, covered in early-morning mist. The protagonist is being sent into the jungles to retrieve an artifact of the lost civilization as punishment for his crime. He will have no supplies or help; even worse, no one is even sure whether or not the artifact that he’s supposed to find is even real. He believes it’s just a myth and that he’s simply being sent to his death.

     They arrive at the jungles, and the guards throw him to the ground beside the trees. He pleads with them to give him some equipment, anything that might help him. The dangers of the jungle are described. He’s afraid of them.

Now, my summation of this example was four paragraphs long. The actual examples that the summation is based on, however, tend to be anywhere from ten to fifteen or even twenty pages long. That’s ten to twenty pages where our protagonist:

     1. Sits in a car
     2. Sits in a car and tries not to tremble
     3. Sits in a car and sees the jungle up ahead
     4. Is tossed from the car and pleads for help

See the problem? That’s nothing. Nothing happened in over a dozen pages of story. It was all just backstory and worldbuilding—one long infodump. It doesn’t matter how you frame all the backstory; if your protagonist is reminiscing about it, describing it to someone, or having it described to him or her, it’s all the same. Which is to say, it’s boring. It doesn’t matter how action-packed or interesting the backstory is—it will still be boring if it’s a flashback given while your protagonist does nothing. If all of that backstory is so interesting and eventful, then just go back and start the story there!

The pure-backstory prologue gets criticized often (with good reason), but even that would be better than watering down the action of the beginning of your story with infodumps.
Picture what the introduction to a movie would be like if it were done in this manner. Try the original Star Wars movie: after the opening crawl (which is itself a backstory infodump, but it’s traditional and deliberately evoking old pulp action films and comics—not to mention short—and is therefore somewhat justified), we see a star destroyer capturing Leia’s ship. C-3PO and R2 discuss how serious this is and the things the empire is likely to do to all of them. The imperials board the ship, and C-3PO reflects on how brutal the empire has gotten over the years and how hopeless the situation of the rebels seems. Vader comes on board, all menacing, and we’re shown a long introductory flashback depicting some of his history of brutality and his position relative to the Emperor. Jump back to the present, where Princess Leia records a long message explaining her position in the rebellion, what her goals were for her present mission, how she obtained the stolen plans for the Death Star, and then paused to reflect upon what type of droid R2 was and what his normal functions were.

"Ah, we've captured you, senator. Now I will explain the lengthy process by which we uncovered the fact that you are part of the Rebel Alliance and a traitor!"
Slow, ponderous, and boring, right? And that’s with actual action going on in the background—the imperials capturing and boarding Leia’s ship, fighting in the corridors, ominous villains arriving, and our heroine hurrying to get the plans off the ship. If that’s not enough to counter the effect of excessive infodumping, then nothing will be.

Don’t let this problem happen to your story! The inactive story beginning is the most common reason—after poor prose—that I’ve seen stories rejected. So remember: reflecting, reminiscing, explaining, and flashbacking are not action. There’s nothing wrong with introspection in reasonable doses, but introspection does not an interesting story introduction make. Get your characters out there and get them doing things right from the start.

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