Friday, April 15, 2011

(Don't!) Start at the Beginning-Part 3

On the 15th of each month I’ll be chatting about writing craft.

Welcome to part 3 of my first 3-part series here on NN, where we have been exploring the beginning of a novel—and why you might not want to start your story there.

In the last two parts of this series, we talked about ways to hook readers by cutting out back story and launching into Chapter One in media res. Today let’s explore why introducing characters can undo all that hard work spent firing up that hook-tacular chapter.

Part 3: Never Introduce a Character

I can practically see your wide-eyed—or possibly narrowed—expression at this notion. How can there be a book without characters? There can’t be, of course. I’m not suggesting that you don’t have characters, just that you don’t “introduce” them. Introductions are where the story stops completely to give a head-to-foot overview of the character that just stepped onstage, complete with a fashion review and a psychological profile. Introductions can last a couple of paragraphs or a couple of pages, but in either case it can pop the reader out of their immersion in the scene unless it’s done properly.

So how do new characters join a scene already-in-progress if they can’t be introduced? The answer depends on the type of scene, the book genre, and the viewpoint character.

Let’s look at an example:

Joy is on the run from a wild tornado. As she zig-zags through a field to avoid rocks, debris, etc., she almost crashes into a man who is also intent on escaping the twister. They take off together in search of shelter.

Do we halt the escape and introduce this guy? Should they stop and shake hands in front of the tornado, hair whipping so wildly that they can’t even see one another while hollering names and cataloging vital statistics? Does the heroine segue into a slow motion mental recap of Mr. Hottie’s attributes?

Hardly! Joy barely has time to notice one or two quick things about the new guy. Later, when they are hunkered down in a rickety old barn, she'll pick up on strong arms and the intoxicating, male scent that is a legal requirement for all romance heroes. His reactions and clipped dialogue reveal something about his personality under fire, too. When it’s all over, they find out each other’s names, but it's not until they’ve gone separate ways that Joy finally has time to process just who was shielding her with that hot, powerful body.

Another example:

Joy and Blythe, the hot ski instructor she just met, are holed up in a tiny shack that is buried in snow after an unexpected avalanche thwarts her first skiing lesson. (Yes, Joy’s a vixen who’s always getting herself in a fix.) They are stranded for many hours while covered head to toe in ski gear. With all that spare time, do we do a full, expository reveal on Blythe?

Yes and no. Sure, romantic heroines have an uncanny knack to think with their libidos even when in dire peril, but just how attractive can two people be when their only exposed features are red, runny noses and chapped lips? How much can she fathom about his gorgeous bod when it’s encased in all that puffy, quilted nylon? And while I expect things might really heat up for the sake of shared body heat, she won’t take advantage of their quality time to query Blythe about his childhood or ab workout routine—their brains aren’t functioning on that level while they’re busy freezing to death.

On the other hand, let’s say Joy and Blythe are sitting around a mesmerizing campfire. It’s been a long, sweaty day of watching him flex and tease her during a cattle roundup on her western ranch holiday. We need a little break from the action and a gradual buildup of sexual tension to the crescendo that finds them shedding clothes and inhibitions in the dirt. Do we stop and “introduce” him? Not quite, because by now readers have picked up quite a few tidbits about Blythe. Still, it’s a good time to add personal details and history to boost the emotional connection that will ignite their established chemistry.

Romance writing practically demands full disclosure of characters--from the angle of their jaw to the length of their toenails. As such, the heroine cataloging attributes while she gawks at the hot guy who just walked into the bar definitely has its place! But just like spooning out back story instead of “introducing” it up front, readers don’t need to know all about a character up front to appreciate the story—in fact, it can take some of the fun out of discovery. Leave some mystery to keep pages turning. Knowing when and where to dole out tidbits is a clever tool you can use to intensify or lighten the tone of a scene. So the next time a character is gazing in a mirror or checking out the newcomer, ask yourself whether you're "introducing" them. Resist the urge to drown folks in the details all at once. Your readers will love you for it.

I hope you found this three-part series helpful. Next month, I’ll be starting a new series—on Feng Shui for writers. Until then, here’s my question for you: what do you prefer? Knowing everything about a character up front, or finding out juicy little tidbits along the way?


Penelope said...

Juicy tidbits along the way.
Great article!

Sheri Fredricks said...

Doling out the character specs a little at a time is my favorite type of read. Knowing the length of their toenails (LOL) is too much! Looking forward to your feng shui post.

Brenda said...

Excellent post!