Don’t begin at the beginning. How to write a novel–part 18

Dollarphotoclub_67370554cabinI blame biographies. And “education.” As schoolkids in America, we aren’t allowed to read about Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States, unless we first read through umpteen tedious chapters recounting in excruciating detail his upbringing in a log cabin in Illinois, or Kentucky, or somewhere in Indianastan.

If you grew up in the UK, you probably learned all about Winston Churchill’s connection to the House of Marlborough before you read anything about him extracting Britain’s collective chestnuts from the blitz-fed bonfires of World War Two.

Why is that? Because there’s damned little fiction in school! “Educators” have no time for it, and because they learned everything they know in linear fashion, then by Gawd so will every little Bobby, Sue and Malik who wanders into the building. Thus we come to equate studying by candlelight with emancipating slaves–at least as far as storytelling goes.Stoopid

Which, for fiction writers, is just plain dumb!

The “beginning” doesn’t refer to the happy collision of sperm and egg which led to the hero’s conception. The “beginning” happens at the exact moment where bad shit overcomes everything else; where status quo becomes status crunch; where the rubber meets the rabbit on the road, or where the hero loses his horse, his house, and his grip on reality.

mean dog

A beginning: Fido has your homework.

Technically, it’s called in media res, which is fancy schmancy Latin for “Holy crap!” (Or, for you scholars out there, “in the middle of things,” which may be more accurate, but is way less fun.)

What puzzles me, is why so many beginning writers don’t get it. ‘Cause the great hulking majority of readers have no trouble with it at all. They’ve already learned all they want to know about Abe’s humble origins. They weren’t wild about it in school, and they sure as hell don’t care about it now. They want to see the Ol’ Rail Splitter being chased by the vampire he intended to skewer with a two-foot long wooden kabob. In-Media-Freakin’-Res, baby!kaboomIt wasn’t always this way. There was a time, somewhere in the 19th century probably, when we didn’t think of everything in terms of sound bites, MTV, and/or elevator pitches. These things, among others, have bludgeoned us into demanding double shots of espresso laden action from the get go. It ain’t fair, and it ain’t normal, but it’s the way it is. If you want to write popular fiction, you’ve gotta follow the popfic “rules” or whatever it is that passes for ’em.

Once you’ve proven your mastery of the form, and built an audience willing to forgive you, and deposited your first gazillion bucks in royalties, you can start your stories anyway you please. Or, if you’re too impatient for that, you can just self-publish. All those big name 19th century writers did it. You can, too.

For now, however, you’ve got to snag the reader’s attention, and you’d best do it in the first paragraph. The first sentence of the first paragraph would be nice, but we haven’t gone that far off into the deep end, yet. What you don’t want to do is haul in a dump truck load of backstory and deposit it at ground zero.

It may seem logical to explain little Filbert’s fascination with small breed wild dogs before he wanders off into the woods with a pack of pygmy werewolves, but experience has shown–over and over again–that readers prefer to skip the history and jump into the action. They don’t have to know why it’s logical just now. If you make it real, and make Filbert sympathetic, readers will be perfectly happy.

Next time: Go ahead, sweat the little stuff.


About joshlangston

Grateful and well-loved husband, happy grandparent, novelist, editor, and teacher. My life plate is full, and I couldn't be happier. Anything else I might add would be anticlimactic. Cheers!
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