The Letter of the Law

Posted: February 24, 2017 in Uncategorized
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This is one of those Life Lessons that pop up in the course of going about one’s day, which perfectly illustrates a concept you have difficulty explaining to others:

ALWAYS START YOUR BOOK WITH ACTION

The thing about cramming an entire concept as integral and complex as this into a six-word fortune cookie is that you loose the complexity. You loose the way the concept is meant to integrate into the rest of your story. So what you end up with is just a “rule” which inexperienced writers often treat like a law set in stone. Then, when they critique the work of other writers (which every writer should do as part of their education), they flag every instance when one of these “laws” is broken, without understanding how it is possible to break the rule and still write well.

Here’s an example: DON’T START YOUR BOOK WITH DIALOGUE. This is a good recommendation.  It often gets misquoted as “Never Start Your Book with Dialogue.”*  The reason for this advice is pretty compelling and common-sense, once you understand it. Without any reference or character description or setting established, your reader can’t hear whatever voice you are writing or hear whatever emotion is supposed to be there. Writers are engaged in a constant juggling act, balancing between describing details and leaving details for the reader to fill in. Its like creating a coloring book with hints built in letting your reader know what colors to use where.  When you describe a turbulent ocean, you don’t necessarily need to describe the whitecaps and the spray and the tang of salt in the air.  You can — many writers do, and more, but if you suggest them, the reader will visualize the parts you leave out. But if the first words in your book are: “Hi. How are you, today?” your reader won’t know if the speaker is male or female, young or old, pleasant or sarcastic.  You can tell them in the very next sentence, but by then your reader will have already tried to fill in the missing details, and more than likely, they will have gotten them wrong. When that happens and your reader is forced to revise their mental picture, it takes them out the moment. It is irritating to have to go back and read it again with the new information.

But that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to make dialogue-first work.  Here are some examples I came up with on the fly:

“Touch her again, señor, and you’re a dead man.”

“Ma’am,” the morgue officer prodded gently, “can you identify that little girl?”

“Take us to your fishing line!” The translation matrix was on the fritz again.

“I love you, Daddy,” she said for the last time, but the elevator doors had already closed.

“Grab the shotgun, Billy — that fox is creepin’ around the henhouse agin.”

“Play with me, Sarah,” said the ventriloquist dummy, even though I was the only one in the room.

“But Mommy, why do we have to slaughter Henrietta?”

“Tell your brother I—” The grenade exploded, taking half of my dad with it.

The reason these work (if, in fact, they do), it is because I made it clear how the voice should sound before the end of the first sentence. Thus, the coloring book has hints about what colors to use.  Robert Heinlein opened several of his very popular stories with dialogue (proving there are real-life exceptions to the “rule”):

“Lot ninety-seven,” the auctioneer announced. “A boy.” — Citizen of the Galaxy (1957)

“He’s a mad scientist and I’m his beautiful daughter.” — Number of the Beast (1980)

“We need you to kill a man.” — The Cat Who Walked Through Walls (1988)

Okay. So, rules can be broken if you understand the reasons behind them and follow the spirit of the rule. That first one I mentioned above, about starting with action. This is possibly the most misunderstood piece of advice.  The advice, ALWAYS START WITH ACTION does not mean there has to be a car chase, a shootout, or a sword fight in paragraph one.  In fact, all of those things are bad ideas (in general), for precisely the same reason starting with dialogue is generally a bad idea — you don’t know who the players are or who you are supposed to cheer for, and you don’t know what everyone is feeling.

No, by “action” they mean “activity.” Avoid beginning with long descriptions, backstory, or other set-up. Start with the main character doing something.  The action doesn’t have to be extra action-y, it just has to be activity, not description. The other part of the “rule” that often gets misinterpreted is the word “start.” This does not mean only the first paragraph or the first scene (here comes the learn-y part, where I discover something in my own writing that illustrates this point, hence the reason I’m writing about this in the first place). “Start” means the first part of your story, or your book.  That might mean the first three chapters.  That might mean everything up to the inciting incident. And it doesn’t mean you stop there.

In my daughter’s and my middle grade book, we did a pretty fair job of keeping the momentum going all the way to the end of chapter three, when our hero learns she must go on a quest. And then, inexplicably, we stopped pedaling.  The rest of the book is a quest, and yet our hero stumbles from one step to the next, and the adults she meets hand her whatever she is looking for. Well, in fact they give her just enough to make her move to the next step, which draws out the quest and drives the story. But what has been missing is that the hero is not active in accomplishing each step.  She just shows up.

We’re going to change that.

Another “rule” you may have run afoul of in your own writing is: ALWAYS USE ACTIVE VOICE, NEVER PASSIVE VOICE. Most new writers I’ve interacted with take that to mean just replace all of your passive verbs with active verbs. Nope.  I mean, sure, do that; it will make your book more interesting and stuff, but you don’t have to be obsessive about it, and you don’t have to become the verb police. What the suggestion actually means is make sure there are things going on in your story, that you move from one scene to the next through activity, rather than by telling us about activity.  “Show, don’t tell” means just that.  Rather than say, “They played basketball while they talked,” have them actually moving the ball around during their dialogue. That’s active voice.

But it isn’t always enough, as I’ve recently learned. You can have a very active voice and still not have your character doing anything. My point is this: you can’t just collect a stone tablet full of writing commandments and prop them up and look at them when you write. You need to understand the reason behind the advice and know when it is acceptable — or even appropriate — to ignore it. No “rule” is correct 100% of the time. Learn about that 2% when it’s not.


*Any advice that contains “never” or “always” is probably suspect. You will be able to find countless books where the author blatantly broke that rule, and did so successfully.  It’s like evolution; the ways in which we tell stories are always changing.

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Comments
  1. Bobbie says:

    Very well said! Excellent observations and examples.

    Liked by 1 person

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