The Maligned Prologue

A striking cover induces a reader to open a book to page 1. In a literary novel the narrator’s voice alone will draw the reader forward from the first sentence, intrigued by the idiosyncratic point of view. Authors who are first learning the craft, however, cannot rely on this advantage. They instead must rely on a more blunt instrument: forward momentum. In terms of plot dynamics, action propels a story forward. That’s why so many novels employ a prologue—an exciting scene that captures the reader’s attention right away.

Of course, for every good idea in fiction, you can find a school of critics that decries it. I don’t advocate prologues as an axiom—many times they are mishandled—but the impulse behind using one is not wrong-headed. The novel’s opening scene does the job it’s supposed to—lure the reader further into the book.

Far worse is the alternative: a dull opening. Say you have an opening chapter that describes a character engaged in a fairly mundane crisis, strewn with bits and pieces of character description and background. The ending of the chapter trails off, usually inside the lead character’s mind. So a reader is left with the question: Why should I bother turning the page to Chapter 2?

While you must have confidence in yourself as an author, you cannot make the mistake of thinking that advice suitable for an Iowa MFA candidate will work for you. If your protagonist does not have an instantly captivating point of view, you should rely on plot to help you. Lead with action, draw the reader into the book.

If you’re not sure, the best advice I can give you is: read other books. What type of novel do you think you’re writing? Go out and read an author that is regarded as best in class. Read the first page of that novel. Now read your first page. Are you matching up with that wonderful voice? Or do you still have more to learn before you can dominate the page? Don’t be depressed. Just be smart about what you can deliver to the reader.

Exercise: One way to start with a strong pull is moving a scene from later in the book up front. You feature a central crime first, then backtrack to the beginning to unfold why the crime took place. This is a very common narrative structure even for a literary novel. Just make sure you don’t divulge all the great details. Tell a portion of the scene—and tell the rest when you reach the scene again in its chronological place.

“If you would not be forgotten as soon as you are dead, either write things worth reading or do things worth writing.”
—Benjamin Franklin

 Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


The Groundplan

Most Americans who emerge from college think they know it all. That brashness stems partly from the natural exuberance of youth and partly from the general excellence of our institutions of higher education. I often find, however, a strange gap in that all-encompassing knowledge: an ignorance of basic grammar rules. That cause might be attributed to another dominant American trait: the desire to rebel. Grammar belongs to the hoary old days of junior high; it tries to confine your freedom of expression. Rules are made to be broken, right?

Throughout my twenties, when I was primarily a writer, I paid not the slightest attention to grammar. I knew all that stuff—because I basically knew everything. I was blazing new frontiers. I should add that I have since edited authors who are much older but still retain the same loathing for those days of main stems and subordinate clauses.

Like a chameleon, we all change our skin to suit new circumstances. When I first joined publishing, I became a copy editor. That is the person below the rank of an editor, tasked with correcting a manuscript’s spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Many authors hate these creatures. Alice Kahn famously remarked, “It is wonderful that our society can find a place for  the criminally literal-minded.” While I certainly saw extreme pettifogging when I reviewed the work of other copy editors, I was surprised by how often I agreed with them.

What happened to my youthful dreams of freedom? Absolutely nothing. What I came to realize was that grammar rules are ever mutable. Although they can be applied rigidly, they were (and are) developed in the first place as a means to enable people to communicate effectively with others. Why should you use active verbs? Because they most effectively propel your sentence forward. Why should you avoid adverbs? Because you should first examine the sentence to see if you can employ a stronger active verb. All of these tiny calculations are a wonderful aid in helping writers get the maximum force out of every sentence. In the case of grammar, knowledge truly will set you free.

Exercise: How well do you know your grammar? What was the last time you looked at a grammar book? For that matter, what was the last time you looked at Strunk and White? Rather than regarding grammar as a set of rules, you can take their principles as a roadmap as you become more fluent in your writing. Sure, rules are made to be broken, but you should know what they are first. What you may find is that you’ve been following many of the “rules” of grammar all along.

“Don't use words too big for the subject. Don't say ‘infinitely’ when you mean ‘very’. Otherwise you'll have no word left when you want to talk about something really infinite.”  
—C. S. Lewis

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Beginning, Not End

If a “chapter” in a novel was renamed “story unit,” an author’s conception of its construction would be clarified. A story unit implies that the chapter must make forward progress by the time it ends. Judged in this light, where is the best place for a background story?

At the beginning of a new chapter, you have momentum cresting over the previous chapter break. Yet, in terms of a story unit, the beginning is the chapter’s low point. The reader is catching his breath after the previous chapter. Since background material does not drive a story forward as hard as present action, it is best inserted at this point.

The reader does want to find out more about what makes the book’s main characters tick. While she is catching her breath, she’ll enjoy the greater breadth that background material provides. Plus, she knows that you have the rest of the chapter to create another story obstacle that will provide new plot propulsion.

By contrast, back stories don’t function well as endings of chapters. That means you’re back-stroking the paddle just when you want to position the canoe to jump over the chapter break. One horrible mistake occurs when an author doesn’t know where to put a back story. So he sees an action scene to which the back story relates loosely—and dumps it in after the action. That casts all that fine action into the shade of less exciting material.

I’ve even seen back stories about another subject entirely dumped at the end of a chapter. Yet that means you’re telling us that the entire chapter wasn’t really that important, because now you’ve segued onto some other subject as its ending. The reader is left puzzled—and now that chapter break looks like a good excuse to put the book down. That’s because she doesn’t feel any need to turn to the next chapter. You’ve left her unmoored at the end of a story unit.

Exercise: Look for where your back stories are placed within a chapter. In particular, judge them purely in terms of story momentum. Is the background material competing with the present-day story line? Try lifting the back story out of the chapter and judge the momentum now. Do you see where it’s really starting to catch fire? Place the back story before that point.

“A critic is a man who knows the way but can’t drive the car.”
—Kenneth Tynan

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Using Others as a Yardstick

The changes that lead to a character’s turning point stem mainly from how he reacts within, but the progression can also be gauged by how others react to him. That’s because a reader is swayed by the opinions of a third party. Unless we are given a reason otherwise, we tend to believe what is written on the page. For example, we can be thinking, as we’re reading, that the protagonist sure likes to spend money, and if another character remarks on it, we feel that our guess is confirmed. That supporting character’s reaction has given us an insight into the lead character.

A friend of the protagonist works well as a gauge in a character arc. After all, who knows how much a person changes better than someone who knows where she started from? The observations made by the friend need not be passive remarks, like commenting on a new haircut. The friend can be upset because the heroine is changing, and they can fight about why she hasn’t stayed in the old-shoe place that the friend found comfortable. A number of these fights can lead to a total break, whether temporary or permanent, which can disturb both the protagonist and the reader.

A stranger that the protagonist gets to know can perform the same function. Although his remarks, or looks, operate on a less-informed level, a stranger also is less encumbered by the preconceptions of a longtime friendship. So if your hero finds himself trying to solve the murder of his sister, a private detective he hires can show progressive reactions to the increasingly bold things that the hero says. “Whoa, slow down, Junior.” A half dozen of these remarks over the course of the book can be very useful markers for the reader.

Such work can be overdone. If you’re trying to explain how Clark Kent transformed into Superman, remarks about how amazing the new Superman is can be distrusted by the reader. That’s the equivalent of a character’s continuing to be somehow fascinated by a speech that utterly bores the reader. Understatement works better, slipping in subtle hints that the heroine we thought we had pegged is blossoming into someone unexpected.

Exercise: Review the manuscript with an eye out for supporting characters that appear in a number of scenes with your protagonist. What is the supporting character’s original view? As you keep flipping through pages, keep track of your protagonist’s arc. How could the supporting character help us understand the evolution? See if you can insert a dozen reactions that chart the changes.

 “It's a damn good story.  If you have any comments, write them on the back of a check.”
—Erle Stanley Gardner

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Lost in the Proceedings

When you create a character who will have a significant impact in your novel, one of the first considerations is when he should be introduced. Most authors give such a character an early start, mainly because he is needed to helm his associated plot line. Setting up your major players early also means we have time to get to know them during the course of the book. The longer the character arc, the more involved the reader becomes.

What happens, however, if you have a key character who by structural necessity cannot appear in the early going? This could happen, for instance, if she is a doctor in a remote village that others realize they must visit. That character runs the risk of being treated as an also-ran. After all, the author didn’t bother to introduce her until page 200, so why should the reader bother being interested in her?

In this case, proper positioning is vital. The biggest disservice a writer can do to this johnny-come-lately is to bury him within a scene populated by characters the reader already knows well. By this point we have likely settled on our favorites, who can easily elbow aside a new character. Often he gets lost among the multitude, and by the time I realize he is supposed to be important, I’m having a difficult time trying to remember how he fits within the web of the novel. Maybe the readers of your novel are more perspicacious, but I wouldn’t count on it.

The best way to point up a latecomer is introducing her at the start of a chapter. That placement is an announcement of sorts. We’re fresh off a chapter break, and some new person is leading a scene’s charge. She’s receiving quite a lot of attention . . . and now she’s linking up with a character I know pretty well . . . hey, I guess I should pay attention to her too.

Following up a strong beginning, you can have that character start off a few more chapters shortly afterward. The more he associates with players we know are important, the better he will recover from his late start. Over the course of the next 100 pages, that character can gradually assume his rightful stature.

Exercise: You can’t force love. Just because you know the character will be important later doesn’t mean the reader has the same assumption. Treat the new character first as an appendage off a main character. Use her association with that known quantity to get the reader interested in her—because we’re interested in any character who interacts with the people we’ve grown to know. Then the friend of our friend can become something more.

“Everywhere I go I’m asked if I think the university stifles writers. My opinion is that they don’t stifle enough of them.”
—Flannery O’Conner

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


Elevate Your Walk-ons

Part of a writer’s job consists of exploring ways to enhance the dramatic impact of a plot event. Depending on the type of novel you are writing, you may have a number of plot events that contain the potential for a very moving scene. The question is: who is impacted by the event?

To show how to use a logical train of thought to reap emotional rewards, I’ll use a single running example. Let’s say a ferry riding through a storm capsizes in the enormous waves. In this case, the author’s starting point is: crowds of people falling from the decks, the clamorous shouts for loved ones, and a number of other stirring details.

Yet who is at the center of this emotional turmoil? The story’s power would be increased exponentially if a character that we cared about was on that boat. It might be a child, call him Josh, placed on the ferry by a father, the book’s protagonist, desperate to get his son off an island. Right away the emotional import of the capsized ferry is drastically altered. Because Josh is important to the hero, he is important to the reader.

Now backtrack from that harrowing scene of capsizing. If Josh appears in a handful of scenes with his father before he boards the ferry, we get to know him. Josh matters to us, because the author has pushed him in front of us and made him matter. Plus, the benefits are dual-pronged. Not only do we sit on the edge of our seat as Josh thrashes about in the storm-whipped waves. We also empathize with the father once he learns the ferry has sunk. Back and forth, scene after scene in two plot lines are laden with emotional freight.

Once this change is made, the next issue is: how can Josh be sustained? In other words, once the boy is out on his own, he now is the leader of his own plot line. What should that mean to you, as the author? Immediately you have to start thinking: how can I elevate other walk-ons to support Josh? Granted, the boy could latch onto a spar and float by his lonesome, but it would be far easier to give Josh a companion via which to contrast his fear and/or bravery.

More than one might mean a lifeboat, and Josh is hauled up onto it by a few wind-tossed, soaked survivors. Now you need to give them names, so Josh can interact with them. After all, you elevated Josh from a crowd. Now you must elevate his supporting character(s). They have a key role to play now. Josh’s interactions with them will keep him vital to the reader until he is rescued at last.

Exercise: If you have a dramatic plot event, see if you can plausibly place a major character at the heart of it. If not, give the protagonist a loved one or the like to serve that purpose. If you have to backtrack from the event to make this new character matter to the reader, is that such a hardship?

“Tell the readers a story! Because without a story, you are merely using words to prove you can string them together in logical sentences.”  —Anne McCaffrey

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine


The Daily Journal

I frequently enjoin writers to write every day. That practice maintains the vital whispering link between you and your book. Yet every writer has days when he wakes up feeling flat and empty. The mere thought of leaping into your made-up world brings on an irrational resistance. No, just N-O. I don’t feel like it today.

That’s where maintaining a journal can come in handy. Writing about what happened to you the day before isn’t hard. Or, you can remember a past moment of humiliation, maybe a month ago, vividly enough. Or, you may have seen a stark image, say, how low the embankment wall of the Boston Public Garden pond is when it is drained in the winter. That is the beauty of a journal. You’re not on task when you write in it. You’re not worried that the crappy way you’re writing today is going to be seen by anyone. Best of all, you may find that some of the personal material is serviceable for your book if you just reshaded it to fit.

The journal also provides a fall-back option that helps maintain your confidence. If you’re having a tough time getting started, at least you don’t have to quit in failure, which can bother you for the rest of the day. Maybe you can write about a funny thing that happened to your best friend in high school. Halfway through, you realize that the anecdote might be retailored to fit a character in your novel. As an added benefit, you have that relaxed, charming narrative voice as you related it to your journal.

A journal can be seductive, however. Maundering on about your day, such as the hurtful thing Jane said when she really doesn’t know Kim very well at all, can end up being a replacement for writing. Because a journal isn’t meant for public consumption, your prose can be unstructured. Your “characters” are not well defined—because you know them so well. They don’t have to be interesting, and there is nothing urgent about a chance meeting in the supermarket.

That’s why you want to keep your eye on the prize. Use the journal as a way to prime the pump. You might start by writing down an argument you had with your mother on the phone yesterday. Relive the intensity of those emotions. But keep in mind that a journal is supposed to be a collection of thoughts you are going to use in this story or in future stories. Even in the relaxed confines of private material, you are still trying to write about interesting topics.

Exercise: Set a limit on how long you will write about personal material, maybe 15-20 minutes. Then turn back to the novel and see if you feel any looser. Often the biggest hump on a blocked day is getting out the first sentence. Once your fingers are pumping, see if you can train them back on your greater purpose.

“Inspiration does exist, but it must find you working.”
—Pablo Picasso

Copyright @ 2017, John Paine

Copyright © 2012 John Paine. All rights reserved.