Blocking Out Initial Places

A common problem inexperienced authors have stems from their lack of thinking through where their characters should be positioned at the start of the book. Life before novel might as well be a tabula rasa—before the Lord created Time. Or perhaps a better analogy is a marionette that only takes shape when the author decides to pick her up and make her dance.

Think about it: your characters have lived for a number of years before the curtain rises. Most authors recognize that fact, and provide back stories—narrative summaries that convey key events in their past. Yet I am often surprised by how poorly positioned the characters are to enact or react to the plot’s events.

A vital first step in novel planning is initial positioning. In other words, what are the relationships of the main characters status quo ante (before the book begins)? What I usually find is that the author knows where the plot begins. A signal event occurs, and the story is set in motion. Yet stop to consider what contributes to a novel’s tension besides the galvanizing plot event. It’s the friction between characters. You don’t have to wait for a plot to develop to foment that friction.

Given your plot, what would be the best positions for your main characters as the book opens? What antagonistic event happened two weeks before it started? Two days before it started? Look at all of your 5-6 major characters. Could you set up each one so that their very first scene has a crackling edge?

When you sketch out these pre-book events—or better yet, write them—you create a matrix of facts that you then can refer to in an early scene. If Mason is angry because he was fired unfairly a week before the book begins, all he has to do is say, “Someone should have told that to my jerkoff boss before he fired my ass,” and the reader understands the feeling immediately. We all have had similar disappointments. You can always supply the context of the firing later on. But its main purpose has been achieved: it interests us in Mason right away.

Exercise: Check the first scenes of all of your major characters. Is everything hunky-dory at the beginning? Why would that be interesting to the reader? Make up reasons why, for instance, a couple is not getting along. Could their marriage be strained by the worst fight in a series of fights about how much the husband travels for work? Could the wife be yearning for something beyond the monotony of Friday night sex?

“Often I'll find clues to where the story might go by figuring out where the characters would rather not go.”
—Doug Lawson

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine

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