Sunday, October 5, 2008

Conflict at the start

One of the first how-to books for writers that I read, which was Dean Koontz’s How to Write Best-Selling Fiction, offered some simple advice. Start with a character in trouble or conflict.

I took this to heart, and starting with conflict is good advice – as long as the conflict is convincing and well-presented. Here are a few examples of what doesn’t work for me in this regard.

1. The Grey Room

This is where the character wakes up in a locked room and has to escape from it. It’s not a bad opening per se - there can be plenty of conflict in such a situation – but one drawback is that there’s no sense of what the character’s life was like before the imprisonment. And one grey room looks very much like another (we won’t get into whether or not it’s a good idea to start with the character waking up).

I ran into this problem when I started The Mark of Vurth with the protagonist waking up in a mud-walled jail cell. The mud walls were the only clue to the fact that this was set in an Africa-esque land. After a discussion, I realized that starting the story with the protagonist’s kidnapping would give readers a chance to connect with him as a character, see that Africa-esque land for themselves and still have conflict.

(Named after the room in which half of Cage a Man by F. M. Busby is set.)

2. The Family Argument

Or anything which starts with spouses separating, children coming out of the closet, children being locked in the closet, etc. Without knowing any of these people as characters, it’s difficult for readers to be fully involved with their struggles and setbacks – and if the story immediately leaps to people shouting or weeping, this can come off as melodramatic.

It might be better to start with a small, simple problem and then realistically escalate this to a major one. For instance, in the one where the spouses separate, perhaps they start with a minor quarrel over a missing handbag. Wanting to patch things up, the husband searches the house again once his wife leaves for work, and finds the bag… except there’s a letter from another man in it.

3. The Amnesiac

IMO, this is one of the most difficult openings to pull off (and one reason I needed to rewrite Redemption). With partial amnesia, the writer might be able to tell us the character’s name; with total amnesia, either someone else will have to do it or the character will be “he” and “him” for a while, which doesn’t really aid reader identification. There’s conflict inherent in such a situation, but the very premise can get in the way of it.

Even someone with partial amnesia can be difficult to relate to, since if they don’t remember their past, they can be too much of a tabula rasa.

4. Jack London Inspired

I love The Call of the Wild, but it’s not easy to start a story with a character against the environment or a sociopolitical situation. The antagonists in London’s novel are all secondary to the protagonist’s struggle to survive and then dominate the new world in which he finds himself. Half of the time, he’s fighting himself – or his past – as much as he is them.

The London novel works because he was writing about something intrinsically interesting – the Gold Rush, from the point of view of one of the dogs used in it - and his omniscient POV works well in this context. I’m not sure that would work as well today as it did in 1903, and a writer would have to be pretty good to pull off something similar.

I’ve found that all of my manuscripts start with the protagonist quickly plunging into a tense or dangerous situation. This always involves a hostile character to whom the protagonist will be attracted eventually, providing sexual tension as well. So far this has worked, but I’ll vary this pattern in the future. There are other ways to start out with conflict, and I’d like to try more of them.

1 comment:

JH said...

I recently read a chapter of a work in progress by a friend, and it's actually pretty promising... once you get to the actual protagonist and plot. But the chapter seems to spend about three pages describing the boredom of waiting on line at the bank on pay day. I guess this is supposed to "set the scene," but at a certain point I basically started skimming until I saw what looked like a protagonist entering the scene.

(As an aside, this other work is definitely second on line for commentary!)

My point is just a re-iteration of the need to grab a reader early on. I'm making it here because a direct conflict, whether physical, emotional or intellectual, is a really good way of doing that. But for Christ's sake, don't spend your first page and several subsequent onces describing the scenery unless it's some damn interesting scenery!