Monday, September 22, 2008

Pace and story

Back from a week at the beach, where I consumed mass quantities of food and books and salty ocean wind, twenty-five or thirty knots from north-north-east.

And as I struggle with the beginning of my next book I had an interesting idea. I've admitted before -- though this will come as no shock to anyone who's read one of my drafts -- that I have trouble with beginnings. It's hard to present characters, their relationships, their setting, etc. without putting readers to sleep or confusing them. My tendency is to go slow ... too slow. Thus when I trimmed 9000 words from my last draft, most of it came out of the tendentious first half.

But! Think about how many stories open with action. Then there's a pause for backstory, characterization, etc. Then back to action, but this time readers are armed with deeper knowledge of what's going on and so the action -- the sweeping movement of the story as it rolls to the climax -- can be that much more nuanced, deep, and resonant. Which is the goal.

Huh, I thought, pulling up to a light and frowning in a swashbuckling manner (Pirates of the Caribbean soundtrack; iPod), could this really be right? Because it seemed like a trick or a cheat to catch readers' attention with that opening action scene -- necessarily less deep than the rest of the book -- and then, once you have them, taking a breath to introduce them to the rest of the story. It seemed ... like cheating, somehow. Like a real author shouldn't have to resort to sleight-of-hand. Or appetizers.

Okay, I thought, trying a slightly different rakish sneer in the rearview mirror, let's test this.

Raiders of the Lost Ark starts with an independent action scene that has very little to do with the rest of the story, before slowing down into the story-building of Indy at college, meeting dubious Army guys who didn't go to Sunday School, etc.

Star Wars opens with Vader's ship overtaking and capturing the smaller Rebel ship. We have no idea what's going on, and the pace then slows once the Tatooine story opens.

Master and Commander: the curtain rises and we are in a concert hall watching two people in the crowd interact. It's not visual action, but it's very strong emotional action, and we don't know what's going on or who these people are (Aubrey and Maturin) until the scene ends and O'Brien treats us to a slower series of scenes sketching out each of them.

Lord of the Rings: A bit of a cheat since many readers had already gone through The Hobbit. Except remember that LOR is deeper and more complex. Tolkien had an introduction and we
still open with the bustle of a birthday party, planning, guest lists, etc. In fact, there are a couple of chapters of action -- Bilbo leaves, Gandalf vanishes to investigate things, and years (if I recall) go by before Gandalf returns and things pick up again.

Blackbringer: Noted here because I just re-read it and it's fresh in my mind. It opens with immediate action: Magpie and her crow compadres swing down from the sky to a deserted fishing boat. Mystery and the echoes of dark violence follow. But then things slow as we travel with the character back home ... at which point mystery trickles back in again.

Hey, wait a second. Pirates of the Caribbean: A little girl is on board a ship that comes across the flaming wreckage of a pirate attack ... and a half-drowned boy! The pace slows -- briefly -- as we see scenes of life in Tortuga or wherever they were. Then things pick up again.

Monster Blood Tattoo: Foundling. We first meet Rossamund literally in the middle of a fight. The names of weapons and moves, even of characters pass by in the blur of hand-to-hand combat. Never mind that it's a sparring session in school: the immediacy of the action hooks us and convinces us that it'll be okay to take a breath in the following section, where we more slowly learn the beginnings of the story.

What else? I 'll check the Odyssey and the Iliad when I get home. And for some reason -- post vacation mind-blank, most likely -- I can't remember any other books or movies. Any other instances of this?


Peter S said...

I have to add one of my favorites. A frontier woman kills a robber and would-be rapist by flicking a knife into his chest, then escapes the bastard's brothers after being rescued by a mysterious marksman on horseback.

Movie: Romancing the Stone

After this great into, the story introduces the character, Joan Wilder the romance novelist, and the stage is set.

Incidentally, knife-throwing and marksmanship IS how the west was won.

S R Wood said...

Peter -- You're exactly right, I'd forgotten that one. And while this may be a case of "just happening" to find what I'm looking for, I really am beginning to see it over and over again. Fascinating.

Samantha said...

I'm not convinced...I like how the Book Thief opens.. (if I remember). Not so much action, but just different: narrated by death. More of a deeply personal and descriptive introduction versus action (although then the intro of liesel, mom, etc.). I like that. WELCOME HOME!! Your blog keeps me alive on these slow clinic mornings...

S R Wood said...

Samantha - Interesting. I rushed home to check The Book Thief but got distracted reading it. Could it be that in this case the opening "action" is simply the unexpected and -- at first -- inexplicable realization that it's narrated by Death? The strangeness of that catches our attention and holds it until the story has enough momentum to hold us.

On the other hand, the whole book avoids formulaic structure, so it may simply be the exception. Hm, maybe I should re-read it to be extra sure....

D.M. Cornish said...

You know, had exactly the same thought when beginning Foundling - indeed, the very first incarnation (if I may use the word) of MBT is a slow bit of scene setting, and the thing is, I still think I like it better. Dare I admit it was editorial advice that bought about the existing introducing chapter.

I still worry that action openings are cheap tricks, problem is they work so well. The whole three times I have started a story (a wise old man of words - not), "the party of special magnificence" rings happily in my ear (that and "it was the best of times, it was the worst of times...").

I hope to write a memorable opening line one day. Is there a trick to this too, or just the play of fate?

"tendentious" - what a beautiful word.

D.M. Cornish said...

... and thank you for your kind words about my book. Very much appreciated.

S R Wood said...

D.M. Cornish -- Thanks for stopping by! I love the first two MBT books, and only wish I hadn't read them yet so the wait for the third one wouldn't be as long. May 2010? gnash gnash gnash....

I think with "fantasy" -- a term so broad it's almost meaningless, I admit -- we have the additional challenge of showing the world itself in a way that signals that it's not our world, but still is familiar enough to be compelling.

A familiar character in a strange place seems to work well -- such as a young boy struggling with a school bully(!) yet in a world clearly not our own.

Cristina said...

My first thought when reading this goes to the older James Bond movies. They always used to include a burst of action unrelated to the movie before the famous view down the barrel of the gun sequence. One of my favs is in Octopussy and it involves a fake horse rump and stealing a little plane with foldable wings. He runs out of fuel and ends up having to land this silly plane in a gas station in the mid-west somewhere and asks the stunned owner to "Fill 'er up, please." Good stuff :D