(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to The Lightning Thief (Percy Jackson and the Olympians Book 1), although we’re only really talking about the beginning.)
Anyone who reads heavily–be they agent, scholar, or just passionate bibliophile–is going to go through a lot of openings. You’ll inevitably start to spot patterns, and just as inevitably, start to hate some of them. One early-page tic I’ve been noticing, one that’s really started getting on my tits, is what TV Tropes calls Little Did I Know. You know the one: “Had I only known what happened next, I would never have gone in there.” I note that TV Tropes calls it a discredited trope. From my recent reading, TV Tropes is a liar, because it’s definitely still out there.
I most recently encountered this in the first Percy Jackson book, which I feel safe using to discuss a device that I detest because 1) it’s a pretty good book despite that, and 2) I’m sure that Rick Riordan can bury any despair over the criticisms of a random Internet plebe under his piles of bestseller and movie deal cash. The novel starts with a fourth wall breaking aside about the danger that lies ahead, and then twice in the next two pages stops to comment on how things are about to go wrong.
This is a sister trope in annoyance to the “teaser” prologue that flashes forward to the climax: both use a somewhat meta alteration of chronology to inject some excitement and intrigue, and thus both seem like a tacit admission on the part of the author that the opening pages are too boring to stand on their own. (Note that this isn’t the same as the intercutting style I discussed yesterday; here we’re talking about cases where the timehopping is never revisited again.) It’s classic “show, don’t tell”: rather than making the opening pages, you know, not boring, the author directly implores the reader to tough it out because better stuff is coming. It’s as subtle as a shovel to the prostate.
The thing that makes this so frustrating in The Lightning Thief in particular is that it’s so bloody unnecessary. In the first chapter, Percy throws a bully into a fountain and then kills a Fury with a magic sword. It is, in technical terms, fricking sweet. This might just be a factor of me not being the target audience, but I think I can survive a few pages of exposition without constant breathless reassurances that no seriously shit is about to get so real you just have no idea. I would say that perhaps things need to get spelled out a little more clearly in middle grade fiction, except this trope is the reason I gave up on the decidedly not kid-friendly John Dies at the End, which spent so much time telling me how fucked up things were going to get that I finally despaired of them ever actually getting there. A cheap tactic is a cheap tactic, regardless of category, and self-aggrandizement is pretty much always off-putting. No one likes the guy who does nothing but talk himself up.
Look, I get it. Openings are hard. First impressions count for a lot, and the overwhelming glut of books on the market means that readers are increasingly likely to abandon books that don’t grab them and move onto greener pastures. But I’d implore authors to trust their readers and have confidence in their pages. I promise that I don’t need to be reminded that your story has an inciting incident and/or climax just like 98% of things that have ever been written.
Don’t waste my time telling me that this is going to be awesome.
Just be awesome.
(Standard spoiler warning applies to Vicious by V.E. Schwab.)
Backstory can be a real bugbear for authors. You’ve built up all this history, the rich and complex details that have come together to make this world and this tale, but how to get it across? After all, readers aren’t here for the backstory, they’re here for the front story. And if you’ve got a plot that spans a long period of time, crafting it into something that feels like a single tale instead of several connected ones becomes a tricky juggling act.
It’s tempting in our post-modern world to eschew normal chronological progression to solve these problems, but this is basically trading out your juggling pins for chainsaws: a spectacularly impressive trick if you can pull it off, but if your execution isn’t flawless, the result is going to be a big mess and lots of screaming. This is where it pays to study someone who’s juggled the chainsaws and come out with all their limbs and digits. Vicious, the story of two superpowered rivals, can seem rather disorientingly unhinged in time, but there are several important points to consider that make the whole thing work.
The first third or so of the novel bounces primarily between the early stages of Victor’s plans to confront Eli and their college experiments ten years earlier. The chapter headers throughout identify where and when the chapter occurs, but rather than using concrete days and dates, scenes are described as taking place “last night,” “five years ago,” and so on. You see, dates can be difficult to keep straight, especially when a reader is also trying to orient themselves to a brand new world, but relative positioning is easier to parse.
These chronological headings aren’t relative to just anything, though. Once we get to “today,” the headers are broken down even further: “this morning,” “this afternoon,” and then “six hours until midnight” and going from there. That midnight countdown is where this tactic reveals itself most clearly, because midnight is when Victor and Eli finally face each other. Once the timeline has caught up to itself, it could easily switch to concrete times, but we still get “five hours until midnight” instead of “seven p.m.,” which gives us a rather literal ticking clock. The entire novel is building up to that final confrontation, and these relative chapter headers propel us there.
Consistent chapter headings also help emphasize the consistent pattern of the overall narrative. The primary conflict of the story is between Victor and Eli, but just as important is the relationship between the Clarke sisters, Sydney and Serena, who find themselves on opposite sides of the battle. While the novel could easily open with the two young men pursuing their joint thesis, the event that drives the sisters apart comes much later, and only really makes sense once you understand how far over the edge Eli’s gone. By making the fluid chronology a core structural component, Schwab can easily slip back to that key history of the Clarkes without breaking the narrative flow; indeed, the alternation between past and present develops its own rhythm, and having two distinct backstories to relate provides enough past material for that back-and-forth to carry us all the way to the climax.
Really, it’s that steady progression toward the finale that makes the whole thing work, giving us a solid core to build around, one defined not by chronology, but by tension. Thus, Sydney’s discovery of the extent of Victor’s powers unfolds in parallel to Victor’s acquisition of those powers, both reaching crescendo simultaneously. Frequently the issue with strict chronology is that it gives us the answer to a question we didn’t even know we needed to ask, which can lead to frustration as we’re laden with information that seems irritatingly tangential and irrelevant. By intercutting the backstory rather than dumping it all at once, that information has context. Reversing the cause and effect removes a bit of the “and then what happens” tension from the scenes in the past, so the point of those scenes becomes the character study and thematic development.
The biggest danger with backstory is overindulgence, including things because they’re cool or interesting rather than because they add to the story. Not so with Vicious, where every pop back in time serves some larger purpose. A good example is Mitch, who is a major character but whose personal history only gets about four pages. See, as I’ve touched on before, a major theme of the book is loyalty. So while Mitch’s life has certainly been interesting and colorful, all we really need is to understand his connection to Victor, so we get the Cliff’s Notes with that in mind. A different book might get into the histories of its side characters, but that’s eschewed here in favor of tighter narrative focus.
It’s a common refrain with me and something that will come up more than once this month: In order to employ a storytelling tool effectively, you have to know what effect you’re trying to have. You need an understanding of your story that is both broad and deep (which is why a lot of this stuff will only come into focus most of the time with the help of perspective and good critique/editing partners). Backstory should provide a purpose in the narrative beyond merely imparting information. When deciding whether or how to include a particular bit of backstory, ask yourself why the reader needs to know this, and you’ll probably have your answer.
(Standard spoiler disclaimer applies to The Rocketeer.)
Howdy, new people! Let’s give this A-Z Challenge a shot, shall we? I try not to blog unless I’ve actually got something to say, so I don’t update all that often… normally. But I’m going to do this daily thing if it kills me.
My philosophy, and also the basis for most of my posts, is that the best way to understand the rules and conventions of writing is to see them in action, to analyze stories and figure out what makes them work and why. So to kick things off, let’s look at the different ways you can reveal the identity of your antagonist, and at The Rocketeer, which conveniently features all three.
When you talk about imparting information in a story, there are actually two groups that need to get clued in: the audience and the protagonists. So, we have three potential combinations for how we start:
- Established Villain: Both the audience and the characters know the bad guy
- Dramatic Irony: The audience knows who the bad guy is, but the characters don’t
- Big Reveal: Neither the audience nor the characters know the bad guy
(There is a fourth combo, where the characters know something the audience doesn’t, but that one doesn’t often apply to the identity of the antagonist. And it would kind of ruin my thesis here, so shh.)
The Feds in The Rocketeer know from the outset that the rocket thief is working for gangster Eddie Valentine, and as we learn around the second act break, they also know that Valentine has been hired by an unidentified Nazi spy. In general, you see this one mostly in retellings where the audience is already familiar with the story, or in series and serials where characters reappear frequently.
Benefits: There’s not a lot of mucking about with setup. Nazis frequently get used in this capacity (though not in The Rocketeer, funnily enough) for exactly that reason. You don’t need to spend a lot of time establishing who they are, what they want, or just how nasty they can be. Both the audience and the heroes say, “Oh shit, Nazis!” and we can get on with things.
Drawbacks: Our current storytelling culture tends to favor novelty, originality, and surprise, and the identity of the bad guy is a frequent source of that mystery. As such, you don’t see this one much anymore.
Our first introduction to Neville Sinclair is when he’s chewing out Valentine for fucking up the robbery. Though we don’t yet know why he wants the rocket, there’s no question that he’s up to no good. Tends to be common in kids’ movies where the “sides” are clearly delineated.
Benefits: Easy source of tension. The audience is on edge from the moment Sinclair sets his sights on Jenny, although she doesn’t realize the danger she’s in until much later. If you didn’t suspect Sinclair from the start, the only emotional investment we’d have in his seduction of Jenny is pity for Cliff that he’s going to get dumped.
Drawbacks: Be careful to keep track of who knows what, or of treating something as a reveal when the audience already knows. It’s also easy to fall prey to accusations, fair or not, that a character is carrying the Idiot Ball. After all, we may know a character is in a horror movie, but they don’t.
Oh shit, Nazis! We actually get the reveal in two consecutive scenes demonstrating the two different flavors: Jenny stumbles upon information that solves the mystery for both her and the audience, while Cliff puts the pieces together for himself when he’s told about the Hollywood spy, and then explains his conclusions to the group.
Benefits: The aforementioned suspense and surprise! We all live under the shadow of the spoiler now, so it’s rare to find a story these days that doesn’t have a reveal of some sort. Throwing this sort of curveball at the characters can also force them to reevaluate and change tactics, as when the reveal to Valentine prompts him to betray Sinclair. (As a side note, I always thought that development was kind of cheesy, but rather awesomely, it’s Truth in Television: prominent gangsters worked with the government during WWII to aid in the war effort.)
Drawbacks: Setting up a good reveal is a tricky balancing act: too much information and the audience will figure it out early, but too little and it feels like an ass pull. Also, a lot of times you end up with a reveal for the sake of the reveal, which is something I’ll discuss later this month.
As demonstrated here, the different ways that the antagonist’s identity can be revealed aren’t necessarily better or worse than each other; they just do different things. Which one is best for your story depends on what you’re trying to accomplish.
Today, the people participating in the A-Z Challenge are sharing with the world their theme for the month. So, here’s mine…
Literary analysis of books, movies, and other media with an eye toward advice for writers!
Eagle-eyed regular readers will recognize that this is otherwise known as the theme for every other month on this blog, and you would be correct. However, regular readers will also know that my usual posting schedule is “Mondays when I can be arsed,” so daily posts are going to make life a little interesting.
So howdy, new people! You may want to check out the Blog Disclaimers page, which tells a little about what I do hereabouts. Posts will be long, occasionally sweary, and spoilery as balls. Or you can wander through some of my older posts, where I’ve discussed topics like Captain America, ultra-violent fairy tales, and why I hate the phrase “strong female characters.” And if you like what you see, be sure to hit up the subscription options on the sidebar so you can get notified when the schedule goes back to normal.