I haven’t written a craft post in a long time, it feels like. Actually, I wonder if craft posts annoy a lot of the Murderati readers. Sometimes you all seem much more interested in the angst posts. I like that about this place; it’s better than therapy. Notheless, I’m all out of angst for the moment and am reverting to craft.
As I’ve posted here before, I’m not one of those readers who feels any obligation to finish a book I’ve started. In fact, I very often sit down to read with ten or twelve books in front of me, and read the first few chapters of each before I settle on the one to read. Much like an agent or editor, I’m sure. If I like the opening, or the plot description, I’ll give it a few chapters. If not – discard. On to the next.
This is a great way to get through that pesky TBR pile, as you can imagine.
Now, this is a useful exercise for authors and aspiring authors, on a whole lot of levels.
First, it really does put you in the shoes, or chair, and mindset, of an editor or agent. Do you really think an editor or agent, with their hundreds of TBRs a week, is giving anything their full attention (unless it’s an auction, and their job depends on making the right decision about a particular book)?
Of course they’re not. They’ll start giving a book their full attention for the very same reasons YOU would – because it’s their genre, it’s a subject or arena that they’re interested in personally, and it’s well-written enough to suck them into the story. The first two reasons are completely subjective, nothing you can do about that. The third is completely within your control.
But – it’s important for aspiring authors who are in the midst of the submission process to remember that a lot of book choice is purely, completely subjective. And if you keep in mind that a lot, in fact most, editors and agents will discard your book simply because it doesn’t appeal to them personally, you can both detach yourself from the trauma of being rejected (which you will be, repeatedly) and understand why you almost always have to make SO many submissions to score an agent and a publishing deal.
This read-and-discard exercise is also good for published authors. It reminds me that all over the world people are doing the same thing with MY books – I get a few seconds to win them, minutes if I’m lucky, and am just as likely to be discarded as not. More likely, actually. For me, it’s a big reminder that my most likely readers are going to be my REPEAT readers – the ones who will give me more than a few cursory seconds, who are actually looking for my books because they already know they like the genre I write in, the characters and story worlds I create, and the themes I explore. That’s a good thing to remember in a marketing sense, too, I think: Serve your core audience first.
And of course a main reason to do this is to remind yourself what hooks you about a book. Which is going to be different for different people. But what hooks YOU is likely to be what hooks the agent and editor you end up with, and subsequently your readers.
It can be style, it can be suspense, it can be sex, it can be action, it can be narrative voice, it can be a character’s voice… for some people it’s a first line (that would not be me, I couldn’t care less about the first line of a book, and in fact have been known to discard books on the basis of a too-cute or trying-too-hard first line. I do care about the opening IMAGE.).
But if I’m liking the way a book goes enough to keep going through a chapter or two, I’ll tell you the next thing that is absolutely crucial to keep me reading.
I need to know pretty quickly where the plot is going. I want to know the author knows, and I want the author one way or another to tell me, so that I know there’s a direction to all this, and I can relax and let the author take me there. If I don’t get that within the first few chapters, I get uneasy that the author has no idea where the story is going, and I toss the book. It makes me crazy.
When I teach writing workshops, I find this is one of the hardest things for new writer to grasp. In fact it is very, very often nearly impossible to get a new writer to describe the overall action of their story in a sentence or two. Sometimes this is because there IS no driving action, which – in genre fiction, anyway – is a huge problem. But sometimes there’s a perfectly clear action of the storyline, the writer just hasn’t realized what it is. Once they are able to identify it, a whole lot of extraneous scenes often can get cut, or brought into line with the action of the story, creating much more tension and suspense.
So this is why I use movies so much to teach these concepts – first because they’re a more common frame of reference; there are almost always so many more movies that everyone in a room has seen than books that they have read in common. But also because movies are a stripped-down form of storytelling and it’s easier to remember and identify the main plot actions.
Last week I ended up watching 2012 (okay, so I’m a little behind).
Now, I’m sure in a theater this movie delivered on its primary objective, which was a rollercoaster ride as only Hollywood special effects can provide. I was watching it primarly because I love apocalypse settings and John Cusack, not necessarily in that order. But this is a movie I most likely would have walked out on in a theater, I’m definitely not recommending it, just found it a good illustration of some concepts I am always talking about.
I’m not going to be critical (except to say I was shocked and disturbed at some of the overt cruelty that went on in what was supposedly a family movie), because whether we like it or not, there is obviously a MASSIVE worldwide audience for movies that are primarily about delivering pure sensation. Story isn’t important, nor, apparently, is basic logic. As long as people keep buying enough tickets to these movies to make them profitable, it’s the business of Hollywood to keep churning them out.
But even in this rollercoaster ride of special effects and sensations, there was a clear central PLAN for an audience to hook into, a CENTRAL ACTION that drove the story. Without that plan, 2012 really would have been nothing but a chaos of special effects – as a lot of movies these days are.
If you’ve seen this movie (and I know some of you have…), there is a point in the first act where a truly over-the-top Woody Harrelson as an Art Bell-like conspiracy pirate radio commentator rants to protagonist John Cusack about having a map that shows the location of “spaceships” that the government is stocking to abandon planet when the prophesied end of the world commences.
Although Cusack doesn’t believe it at the time, this is the PLANT (sort of camouflaged by the fact that Woody is a nutjob), that gives the audience the idea of what the PLAN OF ACTION will be: Cusack will have to go back for the map in the midst of all the cataclysm, then somehow get his family to these “spaceships” in order for all of them to survive the end of the world.
The PLAN is reiterated, in dialogue, when Cusack gets back to his family and tells his wife basically exactly what I just said above.
And lo and behold, that’s exactly what happens – it’s not only Cusack’s PLAN, but the central action of the story, that can be summed up as a CENTRAL QUESTION: Will Cusack be able to get his family to the spaceships before the world ends? Or put another way, the CENTRAL STORY ACTION: John Cusack must get his family to the spaceships before the world ends.
Note the ticking clock, there, as well. As if the end of the world weren’t enough, the movie also starts a literal “Twenty-nine minutes to the end of the world!” ticking computer clock at, yes, 29 minutes before the end of the movie.
(Remember, I’ve said ticking clocks are dangerous because of the huge cliché factor. We all need to study structure to know what NOT to do, as well. Did I talk about the clock in WHEN HARRY MET SALLY, yet? Great example of how to turn a cliche into a legitimate urgency.)
A reader/audience really needs to know what the overall PLAN is, even if they only get in a subconscious way. Otherwise they are left floundering, wondering where the hell all of this is going.
In 2012, even in the midst of all the buildings crumbling and crevasses opening and fires booming and planes crashing, we understand on some level what is going on:
– What does the protagonist want? (OUTER DESIRE) To save his family.
– How is he going to do it? (PLAN) By getting the map from the nutjob and getting his family to the secret spaceships (that aren’t really spaceships).
– What’s standing in his way? (FORCES OF OPPOSITION) About a billion natural disasters as the planet caves in, an evil politician who has put a billion dollar pricetag on tickets for the spaceship, a Russian Mafioso who keeps being in the same place at the same time as Cusack, and sometimes ends up helping, and sometimes ends up hurting. (Was I the only one queased out by the way all the Russian characters were killed off, leaving only the most obnoxious kids on the planet?)
Here’s another example, from a classic movie:
At the end of the first sequence of RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK (which is arguably two sequences in itself, first the action sequence in the cave in South America, then the university sequence back in the US), Indy has just taught his archeology class when his mentor, Marcus, comes to meet him with a couple of government agents who have a job for him (CALL TO ADVENTURE). The agents explain that Hitler has become obsessed with collecting occult artifacts from all over the world, and is currently trying to find the legendary Lost Ark of the Covenant, which is rumored to make any army in possession of it invincible in battle.
So there’s the MACGUFFIN – the object that everyone wants, and the STAKES – if Hitler’s minions (THE ANTAGONISTS) get this Ark before Indy does, the Nazi army will be invincible.
And then Indy explains his PLAN to find the Ark – his old mentor, Abner Ravenwood, was an expert on the Ark and had an ancient Egyptian medallion on which was inscribed the instructions for using the medallion to find the hidden location of the Ark.
So when Indy packs his bags for Nepal, we understand the entire OVERALL ACTION of the story: Indy is going to find Abner (his mentor) to get the medallion, then use the medallion to find the Ark before Hitler’s minions can get it.
And even though there are lots of twists along the way, that’s really it: the basic action of the story.
The PLAN and CENTRAL QUESTION – or CENTRAL ACTION, if it helps to call it that instead, is almost always set up – and spelled out – by the end of the first act. Can it be later? Well, anything’s possible, but the sooner a reader or audience understands the overall thrust of the story action, the sooner they can relax and let the story take them where it’s going to go. So much of storytelling is about you, the author, reassuring your reader or audience that you know what you’re doing, so they can relax and let you drive.
So here’s a craft exercise, if you want to play along. For practice take a favorite movie or book (or two or three) and identify the CENTRAL ACTION – describe it in a few sentences. Then try it with your own story.
For example, in my new book, BOOK OF SHADOWS, here’s the set up: the protagonist, Homicide detective Adam Garrett, is called on to investigate a murder of a college girl which looks like a Satanic killing. Garrett and his partner make a quick arrest of a classmate of the girl’s, a troubled Goth musician. But Garrett is not convinced of the boy’s guilt, and when a practicing witch from nearby Salem insists the boy is innocent and there have been other murders, he is compelled to investigate further.
So the CENTRAL ACTION of the story is Garrett using the witch and her specialized knowledge of magical practices to investigate the murder on his own, all the while knowing that she is using him for her own purposes and may well be involved in the killing.
If you’re working on a story now, at what point in your book does the reader have a clear idea of where the story is going? If you can’t identify that, is it maybe a good idea to layer that in so the reader will have an idea where the story is going?
And for extra credit – give us some examples of movies or books that didn’t seem to have any central action or plan at all. Those negative examples are sometimes the best way to learn!
Or just tell us today – What hooks YOU about a book? What will make you toss it across the room and go on to the next?
(And Happy Solstice on Monday, everyone… use the Force.)