Thursday, December 22, 2005

PH: It All Started in the Middle of Mayhem

At a Christmas party one year, a friend of mine asked a new acquaintance how he and his wife met. I knew their romance had formed across continents so I stuck around, interested in hearing how this couple had battled foreign agencies and government red tape to finally confess their nuptials and begin a life here in the states. An hour later, this man was still expounding on the tiniest details even remembering what strangers said to him in the subway and what he had eaten for breakfast. I politely moved away realizing that I was going to miss the details of how he and his bride had finally made it into America as man and wife. But he had gotten so bogged down in the details of the days and minutes leading up to their eventual reunion that I lost interest and so did everyone standing around him. He needed a little insight for knowing where to start his story.

In a cinematic age, we have come to expect that when we sit down to an engrossing film that we are plunged into the middle of the character’s life that is already ongoing. The same is true for a character in a novel. To engage the reader immediately, instead of beginning at the beginning, I’ve learned to start the story right smack in the middle of mayhem.

In Anna Quindlen’s book One True Thing, she pens the opening lines: “Jail is not as bad as you imagine. When I say jail, I don’t mean prison.”

We’re hooked from the start because she is taking us straight into the fire of the young journalist’s upset life. In my current WIP, In the Cathedral of Grasshoppers, I open with a newspaper clipping informing us that a woman pilot has crash-landed a plane into a Wal-mart. I wish I could tell you that I was insightful enough to start the book this way, but the truth is that I wrote six chapters of the first draft, all eliminated now, so that I could bring the heroine into the hotseat. When I wrote Katrina’s Wings, what is now chapter one, was originally chapter eight. So when I say I’ve learned, what I mean is that I’ve learned what to eliminate. What this exercise in elimination has taught me is that the meat of the story comes alive well into the hero/heroine’s plight rather than in the events leading up to it. The details of those mile markers are good information for the writer to know as backstory. But tension is what causes the reader to keep turning the pages. I used to worry that if I started at this crisis point that I would have used up all of the good crises in the opening and there would be none left for the big finale. But just as life keeps throwing those curve balls at us humans, it’s just as true for our book characters. The crisis that seemed so paramount in the story’s opening only serves to reveal character in the same manner that problems reveal our character. As the story builds to the big climax, we’ve already watched the character responding under fire, being changed by it never to be the same again. Character is revealed in this manner. And it is in the revelation that our readers can connect with our characters and feel as though they know them.

Patricia Hickman has been writing “stories that stay with you forever” for thirteen years and is currently writing her sixteenth book for Random House/WaterBrook. Her latest release is Whisper Town (Warner Books).


At 6:13 PM, Blogger C.J. Darlington said...

Thanks for sharing this, Patricia!

At 11:56 PM, Blogger JSB said...

Right on, Patty. When I teach writing, I love to do the "Chapter Two Switch Trick." Throw out Chapter One, and all the exposition the young writer thinks is necessary to understand the characters, and see if Chapter Two hooks us any better. It almost always does. And little light bulbs pop on over the heads in the room. So your lesson is quite apt. Thanks for putting it so well!


Post a Comment

<< Home