Tag Archives: in medias res

How James Bond can help you avoid information dumps

skyfallopening
Who is this man? What is he doing? I am intrigued. I must know more.

A disclaimer before we start today:  I know nothing, Jon Snow.  I am offering the following merely as the opinion of a layperson who has not, for the record, published a single book – not as a treatise of indisputable fact.  So it’s entirely possible that the words lying in wait below may be a complete and utter waste of the precious time I’ve requested of you.  But please try to give them some consideration before you sit down to your next draft.  Trust me, I have been there and done that and I want to try to steer you away from the rocky shores I know lie in wait.  Put simply, you need to stop opening your stories with massive information dumps.

Across the Interwebs lies a plethora of sites where authors both experienced and perenially aspiring have posted excerpts of their books – usually the first chapter – for ongoing perusal and feedback.  As a veteran lurker I’ve thumbed through a copious number of them, and as my own interest is in writing fantasy (at least for the time being; I’m not limiting the scope of future projects) those tend to be the ones I zero in on.  And it pains me to point out that a great many fall victim to the curse of the information dump.  The following is my own pastiche, but let me know if any of it rings familiar:

CHAPTER ONE

Prince Xakhar Tazeros, half-dragon Ninth Regent of the Grobulan Confederacy of United Independent Feudal Kingdoms, was seventeenth in line to the throne of Erador.  Erador was one of three countries fighting for dominance of the island of Makteros, the only source of the prized mineral hermulite, which was needed to forge the precious Lion Scimitars that were wielded by the ancient warrior race of Qobari.  The Qobari Order, descended from the first colonists of Zathan, were the finest combatants that had ever walked beneath the twin suns and possessed the secret martial art of sha’Kaj, which allowed them to possess the forms of trees and plants and turn them against their enemies.  One of their most formidable foes was Duchess Zalana, Prince Xakhar’s blood-sister and a sorceress of considerable power, who had long held a grudge against the Qobari and sought to wipe them out.  Zalana drew her magic from the Goddess Ia, matron of darkness and one of the Six Gods of Grobular, along with Gatharsa, Yelene, Mq’mal, Rappan and X’gi.  The Six Gods were worshipped on every continent except the sub-lands of Serkana, whose belief system operated on a belief in the divinity of blades of grass.  Xakhar and Zalana were descendants of the last King of Shocen, who had died in a battle against the Qobari twenty-nine semicycles ago…

Are you still awake?  Hope so, but if you’re not, I’m not surprised.  Granted, this was a bit over the top, but this is the feeling I sometimes get in reading some of these manuscripts-in-progress.  I am in awe – SHEER JAW-DROPPED AWE, I tell you, of the imaginations that can craft these complex worlds that are at once both familiar and alien.  I can’t do it.  I just come up with silly names like Grobular.  But what usually happens is that the writers get so caught up in spilling out these intricate details that they forget to tell a story.  Go back and read that paragraph again and note that nothing happens.  It’s just fact after fact laid out for you with excruciating precision and at no point does the story start moving.  Theoretically, everything I wrote there was important to the telling of the story that is to follow, but rather than introduce this stuff organically, I threw it at you like a bucketload of baseballs.  And there’s nothing there to keep you reading unless you really want to know how the last King of Shocen died (fell off his six-legged zorse into a pit of hungry hoopdehars).

Let’s try this again.

CHAPTER ONE (revised)

Xakhar removed his blood-soaked Lion Scimitar from the face of the dead Makterosian soldier, thinking that while his headache of this morning had not eased, it was certainly preferable to that which his opponent had just suffered.  Xakhar slid the blade back into his scabbard and cast his gaze upward to the angry, swirling clouds which blotted most of the light from the twin suns, the storm the result of the spell cast by his blood-sister.  When they were small they fought over toys or the last slice of dessert; it bemused Xakhar to note that while the scale of their battles had escalated considerably to include thousands of innocent casualties, the stakes had more or less remain unchanged.  Zalana still wanted his toys – the kingdom-shaped ones, naturally – and she was not above using her magic to wipe out anyone who stood between her and the prize she sought.  As he looked skyward, he could see her evil smile in the curve of the clouds, hear her mocking laughter in the thunder, and feel the might of her anger in each crash of lightning.  “Going to be one of those days,” Xakhar said to himself.  He glanced down at the soldier’s bisected face.  “You got off easy.”

Okay, while this is still not the most magnificent prose ever crafted, at least we have some sense of Xakhar as a character, the world he occupies, and the conflict that is likely to form the spine of the story.  We’ve hacked out most of the unnecessary exposition and placed a character in the middle of a tense situation.  And while the setting is still alien, the situation is more understandable on a human level.  Troubled dude with a jealous, possibly insane sister who won’t leave him alone.  This has potential.  It still needs to go through the rewrite oven a few times, but we can work with this.

If you’re writing a detective novel, you can usually get away with the most minimal of introductions to your world.  “It was raining in San Francisco that Thursday afternoon.”  Everyone grasps the setting almost immediately.  Unfortunately, a fantasy or SF author has no such privilege.  The world and the rules must be established early to provide a point of reference that the reader can latch onto.  How do you do that?  Well, less is more.  And this is where 007 can be of assistance.

You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone on the planet who hasn’t seen at least one James Bond movie.  So I’m guessing that most of you reading this are familiar with the basic Bond structure and the pre-titles teaser sequence, which is usually a huge action setpiece that may or may not relate to the main story.  You can even argue that it takes its inspiration from William Shakespeare, who almost always begins his plays with a scene involving minor characters before getting on with business.  This stylistic invention was, like many things, a creation born of practical necessity – audiences in Elizabethan England would take forever to settle down and pay attention to the stage, so Shakespeare put a bit of fluff at the start to give the rowdy masses a chance to cool it without really missing anything important.  The Bond teaser is meant to grab the audience by the metaphorical balls and reintroduce them to their favorite hero in smashing, not drawn-out, polysyllabic style, and much in the same way as the Bard, doesn’t start laying out the important plot until after the main titles.  So it’s okay if you’re still distracted a bit when things first start up.  After the explosions and the power ballad is when the real story will begin.

My modest suggestion, then, is to “steal from the best” and open with a scene that will introduce a strong character – preferably your protagonist – in a situation where they are forced to do something active instead of idling and recounting the tales of twenty-eight generations of their ancestry.  (Think about it – how realistic is this?  Do we go to work each morning thinking in exacting detail about the sheer scope of our family bloodline?)  The other thing too is that the more of this stuff you hold back in the beginning, the more mystery there will be around your character, the more tantalizing secrets to reveal.  When I was first drafting my novel, I fell into this trap.  I had the heroine tell you in the first chapter exactly who she was, where she came from and why she could do the things that she could.  When I realized as noted above that no one goes around thinking these things about themselves on an average day, I started hacking those parts out, and finding that my leading lady was consequently a lot more interesting – because now you wanted to read on to find the answers.

When you’re world-building, don’t throw it all at us at once, in a blizzard of arcane references and unpronounceable names.  Focus on movement, wants, and action, and sprinkle in details where they are relevant.  Or, to use a cooking metaphor, use them like spices and not the main ingredient.  Come into the story in medias res (in the middle of things, for the non-Latin speakers/non-English majors among us).  And if you can open with a Bond-esque, rip-roaring cracker of a scene, with peril and tension and stuff blowing up, more power to you.  The aim is to hook us, not give us a history lecture.

Verdict, ladies and gentlemen?  Am I on to something here or merely blowing smoke?

Baby, what’s your line?

I’m obsessed with opening lines.  I can spend hours in a bookstore scanning first pages and evaluating the effectiveness of their greetings.  What is true in the dating world applies equally to literature – the first line sets the tone for the entire story to come.  It can either grab you by the metaphorical balls or wheeze pathetically as if to say, “well, I’m not much to look at, but please if you could be spared a minute or two, if it’s not too much trouble, if you don’t have anything better to do.”  Crafting your own is a daunting challenge mainly because of what you are trying to avoid; you never want your hello to your reader to be the narrative equivalent of “Baby, what’s your sign.”  The Bulwer-Lytton Awards, which commemorate the worst published writing, are named after the man who began his 1830 novel Paul Clifford with the immortal phrase, “It was a dark and stormy night,” and the ranks of mediocrity are plentiful enough without daring to offer one’s own work up for consideration.  The trouble is there are already so many amazing examples out there, that began intimidating all writers to follow decades before you were even born.  Behold just a smattering of the most familiar and most celebrated:

  • “Call me Ishmael.”  (Moby Dick)
  • “Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead, bearing a bowl of lather on which a mirror and a razor lay crossed.”  (Ulysses)
  • “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.”  (1984)
  • “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendia was to remember that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.”  (One Hundred Years of Solitude)
  • “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”  (Pride and Prejudice)

There is my personal favorite, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” (do I really have to cite it?) and a new addition to my ranks of greats:  “Imagine you have to break somebody’s arm” (Hugh Laurie, The Gun Seller).  So what makes a truly great opening line?  I’ve read thousands and I’m still trying to figure it out.

There appears to be no singular rationale, other than that the perfect example is able to convey copious amounts of thought-provoking story information while making you hunger for more.  Who is Ishmael?  What is Buck Mulligan up to?  Why are the clocks striking thirteen?  Why is Colonel Buendia being executed, and what would compel him to recall seeing ice for the first time in the moment of his death?  What has always struck me about openers is how off-handed they seem to be, as if they were composed quickly, in a matter of course of getting on with the meat of the story, even though for all I know hundreds of hours of thought and revision have accompanied each individual letter and punctuation mark, their shapes calculated precisely for maximum impact.  There are limitations:  the line cannot be so “out there” that it stops a reader’s momentum dead so they sit and ponder its meaning endlessly.  It has to be a kick in the pants to force you onward.

The Great Gatsby‘s intro does just this:  “In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.”  What does this tell us?  That we are about to be led through this tale by a man who is looking back on reckless youth and continuing to this very moment to wrestle with the meaning of those years.  What is the advice his father gave him and why has it haunted him since?  We need to know more, hence, we need to read more.  Contrast this, say, with the first line of Elmer Gantry:  “Elmer Gantry was drunk.”  Without factoring in the character’s name, this is really only two words.  Yet they still crack open the door to a mystery that demands exploring.  The book is called Elmer Gantry; why are we being introduced to the protagonist in such a disagreeable fashion?  Why is he drunk – is this a regular occurrence?  What could be so wrong with his life to compel him to become inebriated?  Is he a tragic or comic character?  Only one way to know.  Turn the page.

You can drive yourself a bit batty with that first line.  In writing my novel I have gone through dozens of iterations of my opener, scaling up, scaling down, going broad and universal and then small and personal, and struggling to find that ideal balance of brevity versus length, captivation versus compulsion.  It’s an invitation that has to ask without sounding desperate, and has to reassure the reader that a trip inside this little world of words is going to be worth however much time we have asked for their attention.  No wonder it’s as difficult as working up the courage to approach that sexy woman in the bar.  I remember hearing some pick-up advice once and I wonder if it can be applied here as well.  The gist was that if you are at that bar and you see a woman you are attracted to, you are obligated to approach her within 30 seconds of seeing her, otherwise not at all; the idea being that the longer you wait, the more you invest in the outcome, making a possible rejection more damaging to your ego.  The lesson to be drawn, then, is to just start writing in medias res, as if you are already on to the next woman, and that first will either come along or she won’t.  Being casual about it might ultimately lead to failure, but overthinking it makes failure certain.  The thing to remember is that it is only a start, and where you go afterwards is what really matters.