Monday, July 18, 2011

"Danger, Will Robinson!" pt. 5: Starting in the Middle

Okay, it's time for a little bit of controversy!
Maybe, a lot bit.

My educational experience was not typical. Of course, at the time, I didn't realize how not typical it was since it was all public education. I went through this thing called the Gateway Program for Gifted and Talented children (starting in elementary school). To complicate matters, I also went to a (public) high school for smart kids (middle school, too). As my brother used to say, not only did I go to Nerd school, but I was one of the top nerds at Nerd school since the Gateway program had specially accelerated classes in a school that was already accelerated. I only bring all of this up because I was exposed to some things in school that, evidently, are not generally taught.

Like plot structure.

As early as 5th grade, I was learning the details of plot structure in my English classes. As far as I can tell, this is not something that's generally taught in the regular public school system (anywhere). I asked my about-to-be-a-sophomore about this the other day, and he told me they learned that stories should have a beginning, a middle, and an ending. From what I've gathered, I'm almost surprised they went into that much detail, since it seems to be a topic that isn't really discussed before college level. And not much in college. I have a BA in English, and I covered more on the aspects of writing before I got to college than I ever did while I was there.

For just a moment, before we get into the heart of all of this, take a little ride with me. It's a roller coaster ride, so get yourself ready.

Since you're all my VIP guests, we're going to skip the line. This time. This is the stuff you should leave out of your plot. Although there can be some entertaining stuff during the wait in line, you spend most of the time saying, "this line is sooo long," "this is so boring," and "how much longer is the wait?" You don't want the riders on your roller coaster saying these kinds of things about your work. Let me put this another way, this is stuff that's not essential to the story.

So we're getting on the roller coaster having skipped the line. Getting our seats, getting strapped in, and waiting for everyone else to get strapped in. This is the exposition of our ride. Here's the thing, many people consider this part boring, too, but this is the time we establish the essentials of our plot. Characters. Setting. Conflict. This is the basis for our ride. It prepares us for the journey and keeps the riders safe. You don't, after all, want any one to fall out. Remember, we may be required to sit for a few moments while the operator checks everything and gets the coaster going, but this time is important. This is when you start anticipating the ride. What will it be like? Will it be scary? Will the person in front of me puke? This is stuff that is essential to your story.

Eventually, the coaster begins to move, and we enter the rising action. During this phase of our journey, our anticipation builds. Sometimes, there are unexpected turns. Sometimes, there are sudden dips, and we race down for a moment, but we know we haven't reached the "big one," yet, because we can still see that high hill rising above us. Sometimes, we're plunged into darkness by entering a tunnel, and we don't have any idea what's going on around us (for those of you that like to keep your readers in the dark). Still, through all of this, we continue to go up and up.

The ride's been fun, but, finally, we are on that last ascent. The rest of the track fades away beneath us. We grip tight to the hand bar, or, possibly, raise our hands, depending upon how brave (or foolhardy) we are. We begin to hear the screams of the people at the front, and we clamp our jaws in final anticipation as we arrive at the climax. Our stomachs lurch as the coaster drops beneath us, dragging us into a rushing descent of falling action.

The coaster glides through it's final approach, our denouement (or resolution), slowing us down until we reach the point of departure and get off. We begin to talk about how great the ride was or, possibly, how lame it was. "Did you see that second turn coming? I totally did!" "I was completely caught off guard by that dip into the tunnel." "That last turn before the last hill was so cool!" Things like that. Hopefully, no one is saying "the whole thing sucked."

Where, in all of this, is the problem? The controversy?

We have a culture, here in the States, of instant gratification. Maybe that attitude is everywhere, at this point; I don't know (I don't live everywhere). We don't want to wait for anything. Why should we? Like Veruca Salt, we want it NOW! All of us. All the time. This is destroying the way books are written. Yes, I'm saying it. It's destroying the way books are written. The one thing I see most repeated blog after blog is this "rule" of writing. I see it on agent blogs everywhere. Constantly. Most unfortunately, I see unpublished writers pummeling each other over the head with this all the time. The holy mantra of the writing community: Start in the middle of the action.

I'm here to tell you, right now, that rule is wrong. That rule says that we should not only get to skip the line to the roller coaster but that we should also get to skip the exposition and much if not all of the rising action. We should be dropped suddenly into our seats just moments before the we get to that last climb. It's wrong. But we have a whole generation of writers who are listening to this bad advice.

In my last Danger post (read it here), I talked about the whole "flash forward" thing that's been happening in TV shows (and, to a lesser extent, movies). This is a direct response to the whole "start in the middle of the action" thing. It doesn't breed better TV shows. It's completely about catching the viewers interest so they'll sit and watch. In short, it's about the money. That's what the whole "rule" is about. Money. Publishers know that when people are flipping through books trying to decide what to buy, they often glance at the first few pages. They're trying to hook the reader into buying regardless of the quality of the story. It's a short term view of writing, and it's bad.

Don't get me wrong, it sounds so logical. When I first started doing my blogging thing and started seeing this idea thrown around, I was initially taken in, too. I mean, sure, yeah, start in the middle of the action. Leave out the boring stuff. It sounds so reasonable. Just give readers the stuff they want to read. At this point, though, that comes across to me as "give the readers junk food." Seriously, if we let kids eat what they want to eat, how many of them would ever eat veggies? And based on the growing numbers of childhood obesity cases, how many parents are really doing the work of making sure their kids are eating right?

I hear what you're saying. But reading is good! Shouldn't we promote reading at all costs? Even if it means starting in the middle of the action? At least, they're reading, right? Sure, yeah, that's true. To an extent. However, I'm going to point at two of the most beloved series of all time: The Chronicles of Narnia and Harry Potter. Neither of these series resorts to "starting in the middle of the action." They both have a very significant exposition stage which moves smoothly into rising action. I would say it's that quality that causes us to love those books so much. Sure, we enjoy other books. Books that jump right into it. But we go back again and again to Potter and the Pevensies.

The problem in all of this is that we, as unpublished writers, tend to listen to agents. Agents listen to publishers. The publishers, at least the big ones, only listen to money. Especially right now while the publishing world is in such chaos. They want books that will grab the readers right there on the first page and make them want to buy it just like those TV shows that start at the end and then flash "48 hours earlier" on the screen. I hate it. All of it. This manipulation of writers and readers for the monetary gain of the publisher. It doesn't promote good reading, and it certainly doesn't promote good writing. In fact, it forces the writer to sacrifice the integrity of his/her story for the gain of the publisher.

Here's what brought this all home for me and opened my eyes to the extent of this problem:

We have required reading in our family. Before you say anything, that's a topic for another time. It's like getting kids to eat their vegetables. At first, you have to make them do it. At this point, we're still working on my daughter, but that's beside the point. Although, my boys love to read, they are pretty satisfied to just read what they like. However, I think it's good for them to try new things. A few months ago, I came across my old copy of Treasure Island. It's a great book. I loved that book when I was a kid, and it's a classic, so I thought it would be a good book for my younger boy (middle child) to try out (because the oldest is reading The Lord of the Rings (his choice, not a parent suggestion)). We struggled with that book for weeks. Seriously, it took him, like, two weeks to get to the second chapter. I just couldn't understand it.

I did what I could. I encouraged him to keep working on it while he was reading other stuff. I told him how much I had enjoyed the book as a kid. I also explained to him that he needed to give the book a chance. Just because a book doesn't grab you on  the first page, or, even, in the first chapter, doesn't mean it's a bad book. We also had several long talks about trying new things, which is a conversation we have to have frequently (several times a week) in dealing with food, and expanding horizons.

It took him a while, but, by chapter four, I found him picking up Treasure Island without any prompting. When he finished it, he actually  thanked me for making him read it after grudgingly acknowledging that he'd really enjoyed it. (He hates admitting to liking something that he has sworn is gross. You should see him trying to figure out how to ask for more of some food that he's spent the previous half hour declaring that he hates.) That was the moment, the moment when he said, "Thanks for making me read that, Dad," that I realized what a wrong thing we are doing in climbing on the bandwagon with all the "start in  the middle of the action" supporters.

Treasure Island is not a book that would find publication today. At least, not in  the form that it's currently in. I imagine publishers today would want to skip right to boarding the ship or, possibly, even to the point where Jim is in the apple barrel.  We would never meet the Captain, the spectral figure of old blind Pew (who forms the basis for more characters in modern fiction than I can count), or witness the horrifying delivery of the Black Spot. Well, maybe in flashback, but that just wouldn't deliver the same impact. Kidnapped, also by Robert Louis Stevenson, is more action packed than Treasure Island, and I remember loving it. Loving it way more than Island. However, I can't remember anything else about Kidnapped, just that I loved it. The images from Treasure Island have stayed with me my whole life so carefully crafted are they. Being his first novel, the fact that Treasure Island would be considered unpublishable would have likely killed his entire career. Can you imagine if he had never made it to the Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde?

The horrifying fact is that if we applied this idea of starting in the middle of the action to most of the books we consider classics, we would mangle them and diminish them. Harry Potter would likely lose chapters; my guess would be a beginning not before he is boarding the train to Hogwarts. The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe wouldn't start before all the children journeyed into Narnia together to immediately discover Tumnus' wrecked cave. And The Hobbit? Probably where he's racing to join the dwarves at the Green Dragon. Certainly not before that. I could go on, but I'm sure you get the idea.

There's nothing wrong, specifically, with starting a book in the middle of the action if that's how you, the author, want to do it. The problem is with the insistence that that is the way to do it. The insistence that that is how you write a better book. It's not how you write a better book. It may be how you sell more books (in the short run), but it's not how you get better books from authors. Good books have complete plots, and that includes an exposition.

The greatest danger, though, is that this style of writing, starting mid-action and making the reader sort of catch up as s/he goes, is teaching the current generation of young readers to live on the equivalent of literary fast food. It's quick. It's easy. There's no work required. There's no work, because there's no substance. Nothing to actually digest. It dissolves just like cotton candy. That's probably why I disliked the first Percy Jackson so much (the only one I've read). The book just has no substance. The movie had more substance to it than the book, which is an oddity, but it's probably why I enjoyed the movie. I kept expecting more from the book, but it never delivered.

Personally, I want my work to have substance. Cotton candy is great once a year at the fair, but I don't want to try and live off of it. I feel like we're allowing our kids to do so when we cave to the demands of agents and publishers to stick to just the portions of the story that move the plot forward. Keep to the action. Seriously? That would mean no Fred and George Weasley, who are my favorite characters from Harry Potter. They rarely move the plot forward, but they are a whole lot of fun. No Beorn. No Tom Bombadil. Again, I could go on.

Let's look back at our roller coaster for just a moment. The power of discernment, as the author, comes in knowing when we leave the line and board the roller coaster. Yes, you do want to cut out the sections that are just waiting in line, but you do want to keep the parts that are the beginning of the ride. Even if the ride starts slow. As the author, you get to choose that. Yes, this bit is slow moving, but it's essential to what's going to happen later. Even if it's only essential in  that it ties us to the characters, gives us a connection to them. There's nothing worse than a reader not having an emotional investment in your character(s), than just not caring what happens to them. That's what allows a reader to set your book down and say, "You know what? I just don't care." When you don't give the reader a chance to bond with your characters through a strong exposition, this is what you risk. At that point, your hope is to zip the reader through quickly enough that they never realize they didn't care what happened.

This is what it comes down to for me:
Francis Bacon said, "Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested."

I want to write books that need to be chewed and digested. That beg to be chewed and digested. Heck, I'd settle for writing books that just need to be swallowed. Publishers don't care about any of that. They just need books that will be tasted. Quick and easy. And forgotten. They want readers to keep tasting book after book. That's how they make their money. If that's all you want as a writer, though, agents (and publishers) give good advice, and you should certainly go that route. Being tasted is just not what I aspire to.

Or, maybe, I'm just contrary.
That's always a possibility.


  1. Andrew, I swear... If I could somehow type out a "clap, clap, clap" to convey how wonderfully written and well-said this post is, I certainly would. I was just telling my CP today--I'm supposed to be chopping, like, 30k words from my last completed novel. Just for publication. How far have I gotten in the re-re-re-re-editing process? 80 pages. Why is that? Sure, the list is likely long, full of possibilities. But I'm really beginning to believe it's that writerly voice inside my head saying, "But it's all important. Not a scene exists in this story that doesn't mean something. Something vital. Something, as you said, pertinent to the characters' development."

    You're right about so much here. The industry, how cutthroat it is, how all anyone cares about anymore is money, and tons of it. What happened to art? What happened to summer book lists featuring titles like Silas Marner, Treasure Island, Robinson Crusoe, and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea? We had to read at least 3 every summer, and the first day of school, we got tested. The first day! Most of these books the kids have today? Never heard of 'em. I'm not saying some aren't well-written, class-a stories; they are. But the depth isn't there. As you pointed out, almost every book on the market starts in media res, because that's what sells. Or so the industry tells us.

    This is a great topic.

  2. Hmmm... you rose way to many points here to really discuss them all. But I certainly agree that many classics, were they introduced to the world today, would never see publication.

    I don't have a great issue with that, I tried to read Jonathan Strange and Dr. Morrell when it came out a couple of years ago and just couldn't get through it. 300 pages in and I had no idea what this book was supposed to be about. I thought it was awful. Weird thing though, it's pacing reminded me of The Brother's Karamazov. One of the great novels of all time.

    So what gives? I don't know. Granted, Dostoyevsky wrote a novel jam packed with ideas about the nature of man, God, and evil. The other was about a wizard... I think.

    But still, my point isn't to compare what the books were about, but how they were written.

    I do think some genre's are paced very differently, fantasy seems to be a slower paced style of storytelling than, say, Thrillers, which are breakneck.

    I read Patrick Rothfuss' books recently and was amazed at how slowly paced the stories were, the same is true of George R.R. Martin, I haven't read any of Brandon Sanderson, but I'm told his books are full of exposition, description, and are slowly paced too. Those are three of the biggest names in fantasy right now and they seem to eschew that rapid fire style altogether.

    So it isn't all a lost cause. Although, come to think of it, the Rothfuss books are framed stories, with our hero looking back on his life, still, it feels like it could have been written 50 years ago.

    Okay, I need to stop posting before I go to bed. Take something useful out of that if you can, if not, ignore it. I'm not sure what point I was trying to make now, but I'm too tired to go back and start changing things now.

  3. I think other writers bludgeon each other over the head with rules because they are trying to understand why they are not getting published and refuse to look at the simple truth: you are not famous.

  4. Ooh, Michael--that's a VERY good point. I can't tell you how many fellow writers say, "Well, I'm taking this online class and reading this book and taking this course at my local community college and next week I'm traveling to Vermont to attend uber_author_01's seminar on characterization and..."

    Yeah. And then they point fingers at you and others, when they themselves haven't even put a toe into publication. I'm not saying you SHOULDN'T do these things, mind. By all means... network! But don't, as Michael pointed out, beat one another of the head with rule books just because you think your work's better or you're further along in this journey to publication, etc. I think everyone will get a lot further if they refrain from stepping on toes. ;)

  5. Hmm... I really sort of expected this post to generate more feedback. And to generate negative feedback of people telling me I'm off my gourd. Oh, well...

    Alyssia: I do have to say I'm not in favor of the shift in reading assignments being toward more current novels. Kids will choose to pick those up on their own. If they're readers. The point is teach kids about the things they will avoid all on their own. At least, that's what I thought the point was. It seemed to be the point 20 years ago.

    I'm glad you liked the post :)

    Rusty: I'm not trying to say classics are great for the sake of being classics. I can't stand (i.e. utterly hate) Hawthorne. And I tried to like him; really, I did. But there are people, many people, that adore Hawthorne. I'm pretty sure that Hawthorne would have a hard time getting published today.

    I appreciate the example of fantasy, but, really, most agents won't look at high fantasy at all. They don't believe the market wants it. Even with people like Martin out there.

    It's not really about writing like a particular time period, it's about being allowed to write. The fact that agents make a judgement on your work based on the first page is just... wrong.

    Michael: I agree with you. I'm not much of one for following the "rules," I suppose.

    Alyssia (again :): I'm not for slamming anyone's work for not following the "rules." We don't get anywhere when we just blindly follow the "rules." Why are these "rules" even out there? They're out these because publishers are saying "this is what we want" not because it makes for good writing.