Today’s post might be a bit of a rant. I love urban fantasies and dystopias. They are what I read and, mostly, what I’m interested in writing. This post is more about dystopias.
I read an interesting article a few days ago that talked about why some dystopias don’t “make it.” One point was that we (the reader) are thrust into this post-apocalyptic world where every freedom known by Americans has been suddenly and completely “forgotten.” The rich live the good life, and the pour live in the equivalent of work camps. And there is no explanation as to how the world got this way. The reader is expected to just accept it.
Over the long weekend, I picked up a couple of dystopias. For each, I read 3 or 5 chapters before putting them down and half-heartedly telling myself I’d go back to them. No such thing will probably happen.
Why? Partly because of what the previously mentioned article said—the believability was flawed. More, though, because of how the stories began.
A paradox—if you will. In studying the craft of writing, I’m told to “begin in the action.” In the same breath, I’m told to “show the character’s normal world before launching into the earth-shattering events.” There’s a problem here. Many characters’ “normal worlds” are not filled with tension and conflict. Yes, conflict comes in all types (see this post for specifics on the argument), but starting with an unrelated conflict for the sake of beginning with a bang just seems…unnecessary. As a reader, I personally want my first chapter to establish the world. It doesn’t bother me if we’re not jumping off of buildings or fighting fire-breathing dragons in chapter 1. I want to get to know my character and my world, especially if it’s a fantasy or sf story.
The two books I put down over the weekend jumped into conflict. The first started with the main character in the back of a truck with a bunch of other girls. Very quickly, the girls were out of the truck and either being killed or sold. The main character was sold (because having her killed would have made for a really short story) and taken to a house where the story unraveled all-too-quickly. I felt like I was drowning in the speed of events.
What really made it a tough sell, though, was the massive amount of flashback-type scenes. There is a time and a place for flashbacks. They are usually used sparingly and show events long before the story in order to help see critical points in the character’s life. These flashbacks showed events that happened, as far as I could tell, almost right before chapter 1 started. Why didn’t the author just write the flashbacks as chapter 1 (thereby showing her main character living in poor conditions and being kidnapped)? Instead, I was tossed into a situation with no idea how I’d gotten there and forced to watch, what would have been awesome scenes, flit by as afterthoughts.
It’s a shame because the concept behind the book was good. But the choices and pacing just lost me.
The second book—I don’t know what to say. It began with a conflict that ended very quickly—too quickly. The chapters were twice the length of a normal chapter. While there isn’t a set-in-stone page count for chapters, 3000-4000 words is a good range to aim for. Too much more and the book just drags.
There was no real explanation of how the world got to its current state. The reasoning behind the battles to the death, though, was established. It was a bit overdone—“we are weeding out the weak in order to build a powerful army”—but at least it was there. My problems really started in chapter 2. Characters, organizations, and plot twists started flying and didn’t stop. By the time I gave up the character had joined a secret society, been told she needed to kill her “clone,” watched her family die, told her brother’s best friend/her best friend/I’m not even sure to get lost, and murdered a teenage girl without any feelings of regret. That was a lot to swallow in such a short time, and I just couldn’t do it.
Things to take away from this:
-When they say “start with action,” they don’t mean “skip any form of introduction and launch straight into the earth-shattering moment.” If we don’t see “normal life,” we can’t judge how life has changed.
-Balance the beginning chapters. Introducing too little causes stagnation and loses readers. Introducing too much causes confusion and loses readers. It’s said of the entire manuscript “if it’s not necessary to the story, odds are good it doesn’t need to be in there.” That applies to the opening chapters as much as the rest of the book. And just because it doesn’t belong in the opening chapters doesn’t mean it doesn’t belong in the story. Chapter 2 just might not be the right place to casually let it slip that your main character is an alien and part fairy…and an assassin…and has DID (dissociative identity disorder)…and has a drug problem…and—you get the idea.