Wednesday, November 03, 2010

But Don't Start Here

What I'm reading: Pirate Latitudes, by Michael Crichton

Thanks, Carolyn for your post yesterday. I admire someone who can write historical fiction.

(and a brief commercial message - I recently discovered many of my titles are now available for the iPad and iTouch. If you have one of these gizmos, you can find my books in the Apple iBookstore by searching on my name.)

On Monday, I talked about starting a book in the wrong place by dumping too much back story about the characters. So, it's better to start with action, right? Maybe. Maybe not. Again, it's a matter of what kind of action and how much. What's more exciting than a battle scene? Or a car chase? Or a hostage situation? Well, if you don't have a vested interest in the characters—those scenes can be as enticing as watching paint dry.

Hubster and I watched the first episode of "Hawaii Five-O". The show opened with a crisis situation—but not knowing the players, it was hard to worry too much about the outcome, because I had no clue who were the good guys, who were the bad guys, or even where the opening took place—other than it clearly wasn’t in Hawaii. Once we got past that opening gambit, it was still challenging to empathize with the characters, although it was clear that the writers were making the attempt to show more about their individual goals and motivations.

However, for me, the show was littered with too many "action" scenes. Car chases, gunfights and explosions seemed to take up at least half the limited air time, and again, since I didn't have a vested interest in the characters yet, it was hard to feel the 'edge of the seat, hold your breath' excitement the writers undoubtedly were trying to create. Car chases aren't "story." To me, too many of them come across as "we can't think of anything to write, so let's add a chase/explosion/fight." It's comparable to the gratuitous sex scenes that show up more to fill page time than advance the plot.

Sadly for the producers, Hubster (despite the bikini shots) and I were not impressed enough to watch any more of this series. So, whereas my sample 'wrong' chapter on Monday was full of character back story and void of much "action", opening a book with clashing swords and flowing blood isn't going to hook a reader either. Not unless they know whose swords are clashing and whether the blood flowing is a good thing or a bad thing.

There's a delicate balance between introducing characters and bogging down the story either with back story or "action" that the reader doesn't understand, because they don't know who's who. It's one thing to open with an action scene; it's another to give the reader enough information to know who the good guys are, and why they should care about the outcome. In my Blackthorne, Inc. series, I have opened with action scenes. But I hope there's enough character empathy to hook a reader.

I will give props to the way the Hawaii Five-O folks introduced the cast of characters—rather than dump everyone into one scene, they brought them in one at a time. Which is yet another topic for another day.

Photo from "The Rookie" starring Clint Eastwood


Carol Kilgore said...

I didn't watch the first episode, but came in on about #3 or so. I have to say that I'm much more impressed than I thought I would be. There is action, of course, but I think there's a good blend between it, the main plot, and the characters' stories in the episodes I've seen. If you're not glued to another show in that time frame, give it another shot.

Linda Leszczuk said...

Terry, thank you. I've had discussions with people on character vs. action but you've expressed it perfectly. I recently gave up in the middle of a 'discussion group' book that had a rather interesting plot and good action but I just couldn't connect with any of the characters. There's not much point in reading what happends if you don't care who it's happening to.

Terry Odell said...

Carol, I'm sure we'll take another look - and as someone who almost always finishes a book I start, I'm quite forgiving. However, as an example of overdoing the 'open with a bang' approach, that show was a perfect (for me) example.

Linda - so glad, especially to hear you think I did anything "perfectly" Appreciate it.

Sheila Deeth said...

Nice illustration of that balance. Thank you.

Terry Odell said...

Sheila, you're welcome.

Marisa Birns said...

That is exactly why I don't like seeing those action movies where there are car crashes, shoot-outs, etc. from the opening credits onward.

Contrary to what I'm assuming the directors believe, it is boring!

You're so right. Not knowing anything about the characters makes one not care about the why, when, where, why.

Terry Odell said...

Marina - unless you're The Hubster who simply enjoys watching things blow up!

Terry Odell said...

Sorry about the typo Marisa - shouldn't type before coffee

kawi said...

I don't know, after the show has had a few episodes out, I think the characters are falling into their own - at least the main ones are. I still can't get over it that Kono is now a twiggy girl - do you remember how big and intimidating the Hawaiian Kono was in the original? Peace. Kawi.

Terry Odell said...

Kawi - I remember the original. I'm sure the writers are developing the characters, and I'll probably catch up on episodes in reruns. But the beginning still asked the viewer to "have faith, it'll get better" which isn't the smartest way to hook someone when you're writing a novel--especially when you're in the submission phase, because an agent isn't going to keep reading.