Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Presto, Change-O!

Life is fast. Super fast. So fast that no one wants to slow down to read a tome like War and Peace anymore. Poll your average high school student about their take on Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, or The Great Gatsby. Their response? Blecch. They'd rather read Twilight and Harry Potter.

There are some obvious reasons for this, but according to Jack Bickham in Scene and Structure, readers today want condensation, speed, and punch. And they want it yesterday.

Bickham states that writers need to pick a late starting point and an early ending point to keep readers interested in the story. Why?

1. Readers are fascinated and threatened by a significant change.
2. Readers want the story to start with a change.
3. Readers want to have a story question to worry about.
4. Readers want the story question answered in the story ending.
5. Readers will quickly lose patience with everything but the material that relates to the story question.

Essentially, there's a change and a question. Humans don't like change. In fact, most of us avoid it like a case of septicemic plague (bad stuff, trust me). That's why it's so intriguing to read about.

And if there's no question, there's no book. The girl's already got the guy? Boring. We already know how the body got in the trunk? Yawn.

What about your MS? Do you have a question? Is there change at the beginning of your story?


Matthew Delman said...

My question at the beginning of CaN is related to a strange letter Moriah gets from her father (another one of the riddles I use in that story). The change is that she's coming home after two years to what she expects will be a very big argument.

And you're right about what readers want now. I also think that the pacing of our lives and the way we use language being what it is, something written for a slower-paced period in the language of that time doesn't have as much resonance for us today as it did then.

Rick Daley said...

I try to plant the seeds of suspense at the beginning of all my novels. This is often what prologues do, and although the use of a prologue is subject to vicious debates, I like them (reading and writing) but don't think they are always necessary.

Stephanie Thornton said...

Matt- I think you've definitely got a question right up front. And you're right about the language- I love Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights, and all of Thomas Hardy's books, but it takes me a few pages to get into the swing of things with the language.

Rick- I was just thinking about prologues the other day. When I'm the next Stephen King I plan to include prologues in all my books. I love them!

Joshua McCune said...

Kissing Dragons is chock full of questions -- perhaps too many, but I keep introducing more :)

Unknown said...

Is it bad that I don't even think about this kind of thing? Sometimes my story moves slow and sometimes it moves fast. Ultimately all the story questions are related to each other but there are also a lot of sub-questions with sub-questions of their own that then link to the other sub-questions in question and . . .and then I don't even answer half of them because some are just unanswerable.

L. T. Host said...

Open with a bang, and there's your question. I've heard story arcs described as 90% of the story is the MC falling apart and the last 10% is them putting themselves back together. Don't know how far I trust that, but it's a good descriptor of the change you're talking about.

I tend to write in a crucible; meaning to put the MC in a container, (plotline or problem) that they can't get out of without solving the story arc. Putting them in there is always a change. Getting them out is also always a change because THEY must change. Otherwise, you're right, people will put the book down.

Unknown said...

I have a quick few minutes before I need to run off, so I thought I'd post.

I start off with the question right in the first paragraph and before hand, I use the prologue to introduce the answers to the questions. However, as a reader you would n't know that until after reading the story.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

I didn't want to read The Great Gatsby when I was in high school either. And not really sure I want to read it now.

But that aside, I 100% agree you have to open with some kind of change or conflict. I read somewhere that the introduction of your story has to include a problem that the reader wants to see solved.

Libbie H. said...

The best advice I've ever heard about where to start a story is this: "Begin at the point where your main character's life goes pear-shaped." That doesn't necessarily mean action. It means significant change. It means the reader should be able to sense from very early on -- from the first paragraph, perhaps -- that whoever this character is, he's got a situation to deal with.

Here are the first two paragraphs of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, one of the finest novels in the English language. (I don't have a copy on hand, so I am typing the opening paragraph out from memory. I apologize for any errors, but this is the gist of it.)

Lolita. Light of my life, fire of my loins. My sin, my soul. Lolita. The tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth. Lo-lee-tah. She was Lo, plain Lo in the morning, standing four foot ten in one sock. She was Lola in slacks. She was Dolly in school. She was Dolores on the dotted line. But in my arms she was always Lolita.

Did she have a precursor? She did, indeed she did. In point of fact there might have been no Lolita at all had I not loved, one summer, a certain initial girl-child. In a princedom by the sea. Oh, when? About as many years before Lolita was born as my age was that summer. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, Exhibit One is what the seraphs, the simple, misinformed, noble-winged seraphs, envied. Look at this tangle of thorns.

Immediately, before you know the name of the narrator (you can surmise that he is male by the use of the word "princedom"), before you know the time or place where this is set, you know that he is preoccupied with the idea of "sin," that he calls himself a murderer, and that he has invited you to look at his "tangle of thorns." Quite a hook, all done without the aid of accidents, explosions, or fisticuffs.

And Lolita continues to sell more copies every year. It finds new readers all the time, including young readers -- I first read this book at the age of fourteen.

(more to follow -- clearly I feel strongly about this subject!)

Libbie H. said...

Like Lolita, The Great Gatsby and Wuthering Heights open with similar hints to coming trauma. The pear shape of the characters' lives is not yet clearly delineated, but is strongly suggested. I submit that these books DO start with action, and keep up the action. But they are literary novels, not genre novels, so the action is all within the characters' minds and hearts, not external.

No, I think the reason why so many young people don't like The Great Gatsby or Wuthering Heights (I've never read Jane Eyre so I can't speak to it) is because the huge majority of kids aren't able to connect with these characters yet. I read TGG in high school. I was a strong and very eager reader back then -- I thought it was just "okay." Well written, but I didn't care about the characters in the least. I'm re-reading it now for the first time in fifteen years, and it has instantly become one of the most important books in the world to me. I GET IT now. I'm an adult now, and I understand the significance of all the various forms of loss that are explored in that book. Ditto Wutherhing Heights. I'm an adult now, and I understand the fatality of obsession and the terribleness of abuse like I never could have understood as a kid.

I think kids need to be allowed to read kids' books. Kids SHOULD be taught Harry Potter in high school. It's not just fun and full of excitement, it's full of character change, internal dilemmas, and quiet moments of real beauty. It has lessons for us to learn, and they're lessons kids can relate to as teens or pre-teens.

Twilight? Not so sure. It's my personal opinion that Twilight has little truth or art in it, and though it's popular now, it won't stand the test of time the way Harry Potter will.

But other YA books -- sure! Teach those instead of the classics that were written for adult readers. No kid on Earth can "get" The Great Gatsby. A person is simply too young at that age to have gone through the kind of long-term, sustained pain that this book explores. It's schools that need to start assigning appropriate literature to their children for reading, not the children who are at fault for not being focused enough to connect with a story about adult longing and loss.

So yes, if you like to write genre fiction, and I do, the advice you quoted is quite sound. Keep the story short, keep it action-focused. If you like to write literary fiction, and I do, start with change, but don't think you need to put in explosions to keep the readers interested. Maybe you just need to read a lot of Nabokov and Fitzgerald, and observe how the masters keep you turning pages like a thing possessed, even though nobody is shooting rayguns or rappelling off skyskrapers. ;)