Lessons from the critiquing wars
I have participated in a critique group of four other extremely talented writers. They may not be published (yet!), but I’m predicting bright things for each of them. Every so often, however, they and I need reminding of how to build a great story. I’m going to include some of my suggestions to them as occasional posts.
One thing you’ll notice if you follow this blog: I am a huge fan of Suzanne Collins’s THE HUNGER GAMES trilogy. I have read those books–all of them–perhaps a dozen times, and each time I find new details of craft that escaped me before. I believe these books are destined to become absolute classics simply because of the quality of the writing.
Opening scene woes
The one thing I think all writers have to think about when considering the opening scene, is to make it BIG. Don’t settle for something small. That does NOT mean you give away the biggest surprise or twist in your story in chapter 1, but it does mean that just tweaking a slow or dull opening is NOT sufficient.
The opening scenes/chapter need to tell the reader a lot:
- Who the key characters the reader will be dealing with. Who are these characters?
- What is the main story conflict (or, at least, a smaller conflict that will DIRECTLY lead the character to become enmeshed with the main conflict).
- What is this world about? The reader does not have to know every detail of the world if it is not contemporary USA, but the reader needs to know enough to understand the conflict.
Learning from the best
The absolute best book I know in any genre for doing all this in the opening chapter is THE HUNGER GAMES. I recommend that writers study that chapter (the whole book, actually, because the story structure in that book is simply amazing—in fact, study the whole trilogy).
Notice what Suzanne Collins tells you and what she doesn’t in the opening chapter. Ask yourself:
- How specifically does she reveal character?
- How much background on the story world does she give you?
- How much story world explanation is presented?
- How is that presented?
Buy an inexpensive copy of the book, and take a highlighter to it. Highlight–maybe in different colors–the specific sentences and phrases that reveal character, or story world, or back story.
Revealing the story world
Remember that you’re still learning details about her story world in the third book of the trilogy, so do NOT think you have to tell the reader everything—just enough to understand. In fact, you don’t even have to explain what’s going on so much, but WHY it’s dangerous/important. In the opening chapter of THE HUNGER GAMES, for example, we learn that Panem’s Capital has not only kept District 12 under its thumb, but also has generated an ongoing set of child-killing “games” that torture the districts.
Most of all, we learn that the children from District 12 don’t survive the Games. It is a virtual death sentence to be chosen as tribute.
We also learn that Katniss, our heroine, doesn’t care for very many things, but she does have a deep, abiding love for one other person: Her baby sister, Prim, only 12, and just barely old enough to participate in this year’s Reaping, the ceremony that selects the children from District 12–one boy, and one girl–likely to end up dead in the Games.
Pay attention to the slow build of worry Collins creates throughout that opening chapter. Most of all, in your own story, see if you can come up with an amazing, boffo, knock-em-dead finale to your opening chapter. One that creates the same amazing impact as Katniss standing up and screaming,
What about the movie version?
Just as a side note, the movie version of THE HUNGER GAMES is also worth watching. Take note of the Reaping. They cut to the face of Katniss and Prim’s mom as she learns her youngest daughter is going to die in the arena. What’s fascinating about this is the passive, resigned acceptance on Mom’s face at that moment.
Not one of the adults in the crowd are willing to rise up and say, this is not right! The only rebels are Gale, still only 18 and in the reaping himself, and Katniss, who is the only person brave enough to take direct action to stop the slaughter, even if it is only by substituting herself for her baby sister.
Revealing the back story the right way
One other thing to notice is how we learn about the story world and back story of Katniss throughout the book. When Katniss reaches a crisis point, she tends to have little memory flashes that fill us in on her back story. The thing is, because she is in crisis at those moments, the reader will tolerate those little flashbacks—readers want to know what happens in the crisis-point.
The key thing that makes those elements work, however, is that the flashbacks are directly relevant to that crisis at that moment in time. She virtually never has them when the story is moving along all tickety-boo.
Back story must never stop the action of the story!
Back story is only used to enhance the story, build characterization. It also appears in brief little snippets, not “data dumps”!
In Chapter 1, for example, she’s facing a crisis of that Reaping. Gale has his name in 42 times; Katniss something like 20 times; she’s scared to death that either she will be chosen or, more likely, Gale. He’s her best—only?—friend in the world. What will happen to her if she loses him?
As the story opens, it is Reaping Day and this is a significant crisis, so of course she’s going to be thinking about the games, the Reaping, and how it got started.In fact, the Reaping is such a huge event, it’s almost the only thing she can think about on this fateful day.
Her knowledge of that past history of the Games at this point is pretty general, not super-specific. The specifics we learn as Katniss experiences her own Games and tries to use what she has learned and remembered from watching earlier games to survive.
Revealing the character of a true heroine
Readers love strong, dynamic, active heroes and heroines. Make sure your main character, whoever he or she is, is all of that. Again, it doesn’t mean they can’t be in a tough situation. But even if they’re temporarily down and out, they must NOT be someone who passively waits for other people to make decisions or take action.
You’re writing mass market popular fiction. Literary fiction characters can get away with being wussy. Popular fiction heroes must not be wusses, crybabies, or wimps. Most of all, they must NOT be passive!
So go to it! Make your opening chapter strong and dynamic and impossible for the reader to stop reading!
Featured image from freedigitalphotos.net