Monday, March 24, 2014

IN MEDIA RES

As soon as I read this article I checked my unfinished manuscripts and made some fast corrections!

Castle Gate Press editor Phyllis Wheeler has some excellent advice:
"New writers are often tempted to explain everything at the beginning of a book. It seems to make sense. The reader will want to know where the protagonist comes from, what makes him tick, and so on. So why not just tell him, up front?

The problem is that the reader doesn’t care yet about your protagonist. Nothing has grabbed the reader’s emotions. It’s like when you first meet someone. If this person sat you down and started naming off her grandparents, uncles, and aunts, you’d politely excuse yourself.

Have you compared the beginning of a current published book with one that’s forty or fifty years old? One of the things that might jump out at you is that stories nowadays start off, like movies do, with someone in the middle of something. In writer-craft speak, that’s using the technique called “in media res,”  Latin for “in the middle of things.”

Authors from previous eras often wander into the tale, like a fireside storyteller starting out the yarn with a bit of background. “In a hole in the ground lived a hobbit.” “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.” Readers were happy with these beginnings. But the immediacy of film, and its prevalence in our culture, has changed consumer expectations for novels.
Movies, you may have noticed, usually start off with a bang these days. Something is exploding, shattering. Or hurtful words are spoken.

Novels, too, are most compelling if the first scene explodes off the page. Your protagonist is in a situation that gets the reader’s attention in a big way. There’s no storyteller doing “telling.” Instead, it’s the scene unfolding, with the author showing.

What if it’s not an intense kind of book? A sweet read? You still must draw the reader in by showing a scene with unnamed details that intrigue. Resist the urge to explain!"

Rita Stella Galieh  is an Australian author of two published historical romances.
Her last novel, Signed Sealed Delivered is an ebook available on Amazon

20 comments:

  1. Thanks for a thought-provoking post, Rita. You're so right that the beginning of a novel today usually has you gripping the edge of your seat wondering what's going to happen next. But I have noticed recently a tendency to follow this with so many flashbacks I actually lose track of the initial story! Maybe that's something we need to beware of. Any thoughts?

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    1. One thing I've noticed with modern novels is the lack of a straight time line. No one begins at the beginning of the story and follows it through to the end. Often we start at the end, jump to the beginning, go back to the chapter before then end, then get a bunch of the middle and before you know it, we're back at the beginning. Sometimes I long for a straightforward narrative even if it starts with a long, introductory sentence. :-)

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    2. I agree about the flash backs, Alice. Here and there, maybe, but not too long. You don't need confusion when you're trying to follow the story line.

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    3. Maybe it's all about the genre, Shirl. Suspense can get away with this, but as for romance, hm, we don't need to be so "het up" about things.Still, gotta do want editor wants, don't we?

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    4. I've just finished a short story Rita where there were so many flashbacks I couldn't remember where the story was going. Crazy!

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  2. Hi Rita, that's so true. I'm glad to learn the name for this. In old classics, sometimes the hero wasn't even introduced until several chapters into the book, when we learned about his parents' background (such as David Copperfield). I love the analogy about people we've just been introduced to telling us all their family history.

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    1. Hi Paula. I don't mind a little explanation but I guess the key is not too much too soon.

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  3. It is interesting how books have changed. I loved Victoria Holts books and the phrases at the end of chapters that foreshadowed what was to come, though the heroine, of course, didn't know. But that's something we don't do today.

    I just turned in an manuscript with two flashback chaptersI felt were important, but my editor said no. I could weave them into the current timeline and have him remember certain things, but no jumping around. She felt that it was two jarring for the reader.

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    1. Oh, yes Lisa, I've had to do a lot of weaving of information. But as you say, I can still read the older style of writing and thoroughly enjoy it.

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  4. Sometimes a flashback scene is ok. But when it jumps back and forth between then and now it can get a bit confusing. I hate to say it, but I kind of like the straight line story telling. Less confusing and if written right you get plenty of background and knowledge of the characters without having to have flashbacks.

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  5. Hi Angie. Sometimes we writers are given conflicting advice. Like: start in the middle of things. Give some info so you know something about the main protagonist. Flashback to show what happened in the past. Huh?

    I guess every publisher/editor wants things a certain way and what fits their line.

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  6. Rita, I have to smile when my older novels, which include so much more 'telling' than 'showing' and are written from an omniscient point of view, still sell well at my book table. Also, I have read a couple of new secular releases recently where the book opens with plain old 'setting the scene' paragraphs and even chunks of family history. All a bit confusing. And Angie, I still love the old 'straight line' story telling approach too!

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  7. OKAY. Let's just write and "let the lines fall where they will." Editors will soon tell us what they want. But oh, if only the readers had MORE say!!!

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  8. Well, she may not be today's most popular, but I still love the Belva Plain family sagas. And that's probably why I write - or try to write - what I'm working on. I guess I just move in a different tempo.

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  9. Rita, great post! The opening paragraph and page needs to intrigue the reader and hook them into the story. It's much easier to do this when there is action happening on-stage from the start. In a modern book, I'll stop reading at the end of page one if it's full of back story narrative that's setting the scene. It's often a sign that the rest of the book will be heavy on narrative and telling, rather than showing, the story. I'm also not a big fan of books with flashbacks that jump back and forward between the past and present. That said, I've read books where flashbacks have worked really well. It depends on the story and, to some extent, the genre.

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    1. Yes, I agree Narelle. Sometimes a flashback is necessary and works well. But to my mind, it needs to be once I care for this character. I want to know why he feels this way. Then it works. But when you start halfway through the story, then jump back to the past, then further back . . . oh my!

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    2. Yes it can get a bit, ho-hum!

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  10. Thanks for this post Rita. Interesting to see how writing style has changed.

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    1. Hi Dale, yes things are moving faster than they ever had before!

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  11. Great advice. I'll share this with my writing groups.

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