Thursday, October 17, 2013

Unexpected Applause: "My Killbot Buddy"

I've made no secret of my general dislike of "starting in the middle of the action" as a way to begin stories. Usually, "starting in the middle of the action" is just a cover for a weak beginning (at least "weak" in the eyes of some TV producer (because it's TV where we find this most often used)) and, after starting as near to the climax as possible, we get the inevitable "48 hours earlier." I just hate that. Seriously. Ask my wife. Any show that uses that tactic as a regular opener holds no real credibility for me. [Only very occasionally does this work for me, like that episode of Firefly that opens with Mal naked and stranded. However, if you're about to show me your characters handcuffed to pipe in a room filling with water for the 7th time this season, please, just don't.]

There are ways of starting a story in media res that do work. For instance, A New Hope opens with a prologue scene of of the battle above Tatooine in which Leia is captured and the droids escape to the planet. The actual exposition of the story does not begin until we switch to the introduction of Luke. That kind of thing works. It gives us background while immediately hooking us. Imagine that story starting in the trash compactor, though, and, then, flashing back to the events leading up to that. That would be horrible. Harry Potter opens the same way, by the way, with a prologue of the baby being taken to the Dursleys; the exposition begins when we switch to about to have a birthday Harry. [I think I read somewhere that Rowling actually wrote that first bit as a prologue, but the publisher made her shift it to "chapter one."]

Another way to start a story in the middle of the action is to open with a character who doesn't know what's going on. For whatever reason. Part of the point of these types of stories is to go along with the character and figure out what's happening and why. Rusty Carl does a pretty great job of that in "My Killbot Buddy."
[And, man, that's one killer (no pun intended) cover Rusty whipped up. I think it's my favorite piece by him yet.] Not only does the protagonist wake up with no memory (for very good reason (which, yes, is important (because I hate the whole "oh, let's have our character have amnesia" thing))), but he wakes up as... old. He doesn't remember getting old, and, man, what a shock that would be. Oh, and, yeah, he's the most hated man in the world. How the heck did that happen?

And that's what we have to find out, what our character is trying to figure out. It's an interesting discovery and the story is wide open at the end. Which is not to say that the story doesn't end, because it does. But it ends in the way you would enter an airlock: one door shuts and another one opens. We're in the airlock with this story, so, when the other door opens, you can see that there is a whole world to be explored out there, but Carl doesn't take us through. What lies through that door is only what we can see with our minds.

But I do hope that he comes back to this and gives us more than a peek as to what's on the other side of that door.

This is a good strong "A" of a story, possibly my favorite by Carl, thus far. It has robots. Which is not why, but... well, it has robots.


  1. I think the problem isn't so much with the whole idea of starting in the middle of the action, it's that people take it way too literally (and this seems to be a theme when it comes to the writing 'rules', doesn't it?). And people are at least partly conditioned by what they see on TV and in movies, where the technique of starting with car chases, explosions, and the like does work better.

  2. It's next on my reading list once I finish with Tyrean's book. And everything I've read of Rusty's is pure genius.

  3. I loved it. It's too bad it's just a short story; I'm thinking it could easily be a novel if the author chose to make it so.

    And the title always makes me think of those "My Buddy" commercials for those dolls from the 80s--and also the Robot Chicken parody of those commercials.

  4. I love when an author lets us decide how a story ends. Sometimes it's good to not have such a definite ending.

  5. Rusty is so talented. I need to make time to read his newest book.

    I don't mind flashbacks. But I watch a lot of t.v. Most people I know don't care for television at all.

  6. I hate in media res in a story. It's about as cliche a way to hook readers/viewers as it gets. I once suggested to a writer that she change her IMR opening. Her reaction was...not receptive.

  7. JeffO: It works better as long you as you're not hinging it on the whole "48 hours earlier" thing.

    Alex: But can you slice it?

    GP: Yeah, I would love to see that story continue with the last thought of the character. That would be an interesting story.

    Elsie: Well, the story has a definitive ending, but it opens for so much more.

    Michael: I don't mind "flashbacks," but I hate when the whole thing is a flashback.

    Jeanne: It's almost always just used as a writing trick these days, and I'm just not down with tricking the audience.

  8. I agree, I hate backflashes. I once read a book which had a backflash and then whilst reading that, there was another backflash. Grrrr

  9. Another place where beginning with lots of action works well is in the James Bond series. Think of all those massive set pieces that start off each movie. We've gotten used to them, and they work, they set up what's to come. It's part of the JB formula now.
    This book sounds fascinating. If my TBR pile wasn't already impossibly huge, I'd add it in a heart beat.
    Tina @ Life is Good

  10. Horror movies have used that "start two weeks form now" beginning a couple times, I think. I was trying to remember which one recently did it, but all I came up with was "Evil Dead," which didn't so much start in the middle of the action as have a very compelling opening scene that in the end had ALMOST NOTHING to do with the movie. I mean, it was good but it confused me in the long run because I kept waiting for them to tie the beginning into the rest of the story ("Is she his daughter? Is that the girl who was..." etc)

    So not the same thing, maybe, but close.

    I think the ONLY time to use that 'start in the middle of the action' is when it serves to create a sense of foreboding: you could start with the ending, or the middle, and let the viewer (or reader?) know that most of what they see is hopeless, because you know where the person will end up. If that's what you're going for.

    Rusty's story is brilliant. I liked that by having his main character be amnesiatic (?), we were slowly introduced to the story; I read somewhere that every scifi story has an outsider, newbie, or dumb guy in it so that other characters can explain to him what is going on, and then the reader gets it, too.

    (Luke Skywalker is that outsider in Star Wars.)

    So the amnesia served the purpose of Rusty telling us what happened while moving the plot along, and I liked that, a lot.

    PLUS, when... it ended, I won't spoil it... the way it ended was to me a revelation that the main character really WAS what everyone thought he was -- because once he regains his memory he decides to essentially do it all again.

    That was as vague as I could make it, but probably still spoilery. I took that as a commentary on the morality of the main character.

    I'd like to see more Killbot stories, too, but I'm holding out for more Dead God. COME ON, RUSTY.

    PS: I just realized that I'm 1 or 2 episodes behind on your book. I've had a rough month, so I'll get to it.

  11. I never thought of the beginning of Star Wars as in medias res. I see it more as a glimpse of the story Luke's about to get caught up in, only he doesn't know it yet. As you say, though, it does not play the flashback card which is definitely good.

  12. Jo: I don't always hate them, but I do hate them when the whole story is a flashback.

    Tina: The thing with James Bond is those action sequences are not part of the story (except in the latest one). Basically, they are endings to a story we're not seeing. That makes it okay.

    Read Rusty's thing. It's not very long.

    Briane: I know how rough months go.

    Cathy: frequently, yes

    TAS: Well, it is generally considered such. It can depend upon how you're viewing it. From a plot perspective (which is the perspective I generally take), it's prologue, so not in media res. However, from a popular perspective (because it's what people see), it starts in the middle of a bunch of action.

  13. Yeah, I hate it when movies and TV shows do the 48 hours ago or 3 years from now or whatever gimmick. I don't mind starting in the middle of the story if that how the story is best told, but I can get really confused when the storyline starts jumping all over the place. Especially when they have multiple storylines and a lot of characters.

    Tossing It Out

  14. Lee: Yeah, see, that's when I hate it, when it's a gimmick. And it is, like, 90% of the time. That's a guess. I bet it's more than 90%.

  15. Okay, I see what you mean. It starts in the middle of a story - still in medias res even though it doesn't go back to the beginning as one would usually expect.

  16. In media res doesn't require the flashback; it just means starting within the action. I'm trying to think of other good examples, but I'm not coming up with anything right now.