Thursday, April 27, 2006

How Convenient

* Prologues are big, bad no-nos
* Begin the story when the action and/or change occurs
* Avoid backstory and infodumping like the bubonic plague

The following three writing guidelines brought to you by every thing I've ever read on how to get published.

If you want the reader to get hooked, you need to drop him or her right in the heart of the action so they feel a part of the story rather than just an observer. No set ups allowed; any critical bits of history need to be sprinkled carefully throughout the remainder of the story in such a way that the reader absorbs them subliminally. No quicker way to turn your manuscript into a form-letter rejection than to include the phrase "when she was young" anywhere within the first 100 pages or so.

I understand the rationale. Really, I do. I've been known to skim or skip many a passages that go on and on about the hero's evil mother and her shenanigans, shenaningans that have nothing to do with the hero's story other than making him such a roguish, rakish, devilish sort of guy.

Problem is, sometimes lack of set-up or backstory can turn an otherwise good book into a real wallbanger for me. Sometimes, if I'm not supplied with a key bit of history, what happens in the story comes across as a whole lot of contrivance and/or convenience.

This is especially true in the paranormal subgenre, but not limited to it. For example, my current read - which will remain nameless to protect the innocent - has me rolling my eyes nearly every other page because so many things are just so darned convenient. The heroine has been locked in a room, with the only escape a hatch in the ceiling. Dang good thing she once went rock climbing in the Rockies. Hero needs to get out of Dodge fast because the bad guys have surrounded him. Wow, what a relief that he just remembered that he has the ability to turn himself into a hedgehog and can scamper right between their legs. The heroine has just encountered some bizarre fantastical creature that no-one's every heard of and she'd always thought was only a myth. Just so happens she knows all about this creature because her relative is a professor in mythical creature studies.

Granted, it's impossible to set up all the parameters of an imaginary world or to list all the available abilities of the characters up front, like some sort of Dungeons and Dragons inventory. Little aspects about the people in the book and the world they live in need to be woven into the tapestry of the story in such a way as to create a pleasing picture.

But if some form of set up doesn't occur - some sense of planning ahead - what ends up happening is a tapestry that looks more like a picture colored with only the 8-count box of Crayons. Need to add an eggplant into that still life but don't have the proper color of aubergine to pull it off? Somehow whipping out the standard purple and hoping no-one will notice it's glaring obviousness just won't cut it.

I need to be made to believe that what happens is possible, not because I all of the sudden learn a new fact about something that just so happens to come at the most convenient time. The dreaded "oh, yeah, I just remembered that I know how to pick locks and happen to have a lock picking set here in my purse" phenomenon.

Too, there comes a point when jumping into the story mid-action makes me feel left out. Like I missed some of the party or have been left out of the in-joke. Diana Peterfreund summed the whole deal up quite nicely in her RTB article, Post Medias Res. I'm one of those people who needs a little bit of forplay before the big moment, and if you skip straight away to the good stuff, the experience loses a lot of intensity.

I suppose you've figured out I'm a fan of prologues. Or rather, I'm a fan of prologues that add something to the story by helping me understand a certain situation or some key aspect of a character's background. I have a story in which the hero is emotionally scarred when, as a teenager, the woman he loves and who he believes loves him betrays him in a brutal, cruel way. The scene is intense and emotional and explains why he is so unable to trust women or allow himself to love anyone at all. And including this in the story brings about a lot of showing how and why he is who he is instead of relying on telling the readers that something in his past has made this guy slightly mysogenistic and hoping that they believe it enough to give him a pass rather than just think him a big, fat jerk.

However, the story begins many years later, so that scene is 90% backstory with about 10% character introduction, since the villianess comes into play much later. It's what I consider prologue material.

Prologues can set up a world in such a way that I'm not grimacing when a character pulls off some feat to solve some problem in what appears to be a total deus ex machina on a personal scale.

Suzanne Brockmann has a nice way of using prologues to such an advantage. In her Troubleshooter titles, she always begins with a prologue showing her hero on a mission so we can get an idea of what he does, how he operates, and any key information we might need to set up the story premise. In The Unsung Hero, the prologue shows hero Tom Paoletti on the mission that nearly killed him and left him in a coma, suffering from severe head injuries. So when the story opens with a Tom who's being forced to take a month leave in order to make sure he's mentally stable, we have no problem believing his fears when he thinks he sees a wanted terrorist in his tiny hometown and isn't sure if what he's seeing is real or some sort of paranoia.

All of this comes about because I'm in the midst of some serious world building, and I feel compelled to plan for any contigency my characters might encounter. Faced with drowning in a submerged car? I need to know before hand if my people can swim or have had survival training rather than having them recall as the car fills with water that summer they spent as a life guard at Lake Schaeffer Beach. And I need to work this fact in early enough in the story that it doesn't come as a convenience when I need it.

Because, dang, nothing more annoying than finding out your girl-next-door heroine is actually a superhero who can do everything with a hair pin when you were led to believe she was normal. Somehow your fears for her safety and the outcome of the story fall really flat when you know she'll pull out just the skill needed to get her out of any mess.

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