Friday, September 15, 2006

Great Beginnings

As I'm writing the early portions of Enoch's Ghost, the second book in the Oracles of Fire series, I'm once again reminded of how difficult writing the beginning of a book, especially a sequel, can be. I have no idea how long it has been since a reader has finished the previous book, so I have to reintroduce characters, bring in reminders of the old storyline, and create a new stage for an engaging story. This problem isn't exclusive to sequels. In most first books there is an important backstory, so the story acts as a sequel to whatever set up the events of the first chapter.

Here are some of the potential pitfalls:

Contrived dialogue - This happens when the author makes characters say things to each other they normally wouldn't say in order to inform the reader of what's going on. It usually results in experienced readers grimacing at how stilted the characters are.

Backstory information dump - This usually occurs in narrative or interior monologue where the author informs the reader of what has happened in the past. I see it most often with a primary character thinking about what recently happened. This is similar to contrived dialogue. When it's done in narrative, it is usually boring, and it certainly slows down the story.

Sketchy characterization - In order to get the story going and hook the reader, the author jumps right into the action. Sure, it might be exciting, but if the characters aren't developed, the reader won't have an emotional investment in the outcome. The action won't evoke the kind of edge-of-your-seat response the author is looking for. This isn't as difficult to avoid in a sequel, because most readers will be familiar with the characters and only need a brief refresher.

Boring introduction - Sometimes an author will try to avoid the previous problem by introducing the characters slowly in their normal everyday environments. This develops characters well, but it can lose readers because the story just doesn't grab them. If a reader puts the book down, the author has lost. The author won't be there to scream, "at least get to chapter four! That's where it really gets moving!"

Are there other pitfalls? Please share them with me. Then, I'll try to relate some potential solutions.


pam halter said...

Introducing too many characters at one time. It can be very confusing.

Also, giving your characters similar names. Also confusing.

What's really frustrating to me as an intermediate writer is reading books that are written by "great" writers and seeing the first seven pages as backstory narrative. If I wasn't so persistant, I would have put the book down. As it was, I kept saying to myself, come on, come on, get to the action!

A good lesson for me.

Clefspeare said...

Thank you for the contribution, Pam. That's a good one.

I'll get back to this topic soon.

Galactic Overlord-In-Chief said...

Too late for me, Pam. I already gave some of my characters similar names..heh heh.

I suppose the general answer to this problem is just be creative. I'm planning a longer series of books with a core cast of about twelve, so I defintely have to keep this in mind when I'm writing. I think I'm best at holding off contrived dialogue and boring introduction. Backstory info dump, I may need to watch out for that.

pam halter said...

I think it also depends on what age you are writing for.

Galactic Overlord-In-Chief said...

My story, middle school level, though I imagine upper elementary school kids could read it too. Probably slightly younger than DIOM reaches.

pam halter said...

Well, then, if you don't have too many subplots, an editor may let you get away with it, if it's excellently written. Upper middle grade includes ages 12-15, right? Using 12 characters and a couple subplots isn't too much, but if you're shooting for lower middle grade, like ages 9-12, you have to be real careful.

At least, that's what I've been taught. Personally, I like to think that kids are smarter than we give them credit for.

Galactic Overlord-In-Chief said...

I agree they're smarter than people may think. I think kids, if they love a book (or any other property like a tv show) will dive into it. If they love the cast, they'll delight in dissecting them, figuring out which is their favorite, etc. My twelve are actually all pre-teens or early teens, so the audience won't have a problem identifying with them.

Dan T Davis said...

My take - just tell a good story. Pretend it's the first one! So, sure you have to introduce characters and such, but act as if no other book exists. If this book can stand alone - it will work.

And the fact that there happen to be books about the before and after - that's ok - they will all work if you follow that guideline.

The only thing that bothers me is writers who deliberately end a book knowing you have to buy the next one. A book should have a beginning and and end - all to itself.