October 4, 2009

WRITING ADVICE: Jack McDevitt 4: Get the Narrative off to a Slow Start…

(The Twelve Blunders are used with permission of Jack McDevitt, from his webpage: http://jackmcdevitt.com/Writers.aspx)

This bit offers the subtitle: “But I have to introduce my characters first, set the scene, and establish the mood.”


I will be the first to admit that I am not a huge fan of fantasy. I’m picky about what I read and it has to totally engage me if it wants to carry me to the end. Few books or series have done that: THE CHRONICLES OF THOMAS COVENANT, UNBELIEVER; THE LORD OF THE RINGS; the first nine DERYNI books; THE CHRONICLES OF NARNIA; JONATHAN STRANGE AND MR. NORRELL; the BARTIMAEUS trilogy; WAR FOR THE OAKS…this pretty much covers it for me.

My love for series science fiction is also limited: the PERN books; David Brin’s UPLIFT; all three of Julie Czerneda’s series TRADE PACT, WEB SHIFTERS, and STRATIFICATION; DUNE (Frank Herbert’s original six); and Asimov’s FOUNDATION books.

All of these series have one thing in common: they start the “real” story line immediately and with a bang, they don’t let up – and all of the fascinating history and relevant past experiences are woven into the forward-moving narrative. None of them takes any time as they begin to “take me on a tour” so-to-speak, of their nifty, authorial creations.

That is both as it should be and what Jack McDevitt is talking about.

If these multi-book series made of hundreds of thousands (perhaps even a million) words don’t take the time to wander around in the author’s painstakingly constructed worlds before launching into the story, then anything SHORTER has absolutely no time or call whatsoever to start with “history”.

I’ve experienced this meandering walk through fictional histories; the character who lovingly peers over the parapet of the castle at the magical land or through the forcescreened observation post at the alien world; the description of the magical sword or the newly designed laser death dealing flesh liquefying light saber of blaster beam destructo gun of doom too often and then found out that my investment in the story was for naught because ABSOLUTELY NOTHING HAPPENED AFTER THAT…

I won’t endure it again. So when “The writer babbles on, instead of getting to the action”, I put the book down and move on to the next.

I also stopped doing that in my own writing about three years ago. I still don’t have the concept down, though, as several critiques I’ve received recently have read in whole or part: “This is a fascinating world…but the story didn’t grip me”.

Jack McDevitt puts it succinctly this way: “Does that mean we have to start every story with an explosion? Or a gunfight? The answer is a ringing ‘YES!’ Not a literal detonation, of course. But something to pique the interest.”

HOWEVER, please note that just because you start with the end of the world (or its beginning), doesn’t mean you’ve captured the reader. The rest of the story has to be there too: goals, obstacles and emotions.

But more on that later!

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