Every book I’ve read on writing fiction says to keep the story moving. So I started with a bomb scene in a Hospital. It bombed. Then I went with a bank robbery. Boy did it move… nowhere.
Then I read, The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins, and figured out why my story had failed before it started.
Reading Collins, I was stunned at the number of passive verbs in the first chapter. There was no fighting. Back-story was everywhere, woven into every scene! The main point of the first chapter seemed to be the characterization of Katniss. (…as I mentioned on a previous post if you need some sleep).
With this new abrasive knowledge, I began re-writing my own novel from scratch. I made my hero, Johanna, the viewpoint character (vp), and slowed us all down. I forgot active vs passive verbs and focused on the odd talents and history of my young VP, whom I dearly love.
The explosion at the hospital? She wasn’t there. Bank robbery? Never happened.
My wife and daughter do read my stuff, albeit rarely. No one else ever does, sniff, sob. No, no, no, I’ll be fine, just give me a second…
My two readers had previously suffered the hospital and bank versions (now discarded) where the non-hero side kick was viewpoint and the pace was fast and boring. They had polite suggestions.
But when they read the slow re-write that focused on Johanna as a brilliant, suffering, kind-hearted girl who felt awful about how much she had enjoyed (as a child) strangling her brother’s therapy animal… my two in-house readers looked at me differently. “What happens next?” they asked.
My wife, in disbelief kept saying, “It moves right along!”
Only one scene had a real-time clash / conflict (as opposed to a flashback clash): two under-motivated characters were quarreling for the sake of the pied piper of conflict. (You, know, the little guy with the flute who keeps telling writers that conflict drives good stories. He’s almost right.)
That scene got trashed like this…
“Is this essential to the story?” my wife asks.
“Well, no.” [me whining]
“Then get rid of that whole section.”
My fiendish little mind started to churn…
Stories MUST move! It’s the law. But my only action scene did not move. And yet the scenes where Johanna walks the house suffering memories, reflecting on the paper by the sink, wondering about her hair… This stuff “moves along nicely?”
On what planet?
When books say to keep stories moving, they mean that the reader needs to keep moving through the book. Action, hack attempts at suspense, violence, narrow escapes, poorly motivated conflict… none of that “movement” keeps the reader moving.
The hero may be fascinating to the writer who knows that Johanna did some amazing stuff on page 142, but to the new reader, if Johanna didn’t become interesting by page ten, the hospital bomb on page eleven won’t mean a thing.
More remarkably, the action scene on page three is a yawner unless Johanna becomes interesting before the end of page two!
Amazing. But it makes sense.
So I backed away from “story movement,” and started weaving in the odd things about Johanna. I made up a few new things, too, just for merry measure.
Now my first chapter moves. Wheeee!
“I want to know what happens next,” my wife says. My daughter says the same.
Those are the best words I’ve ever heard!
OK, maybe hearing that The Mentalist is on DVD was better, but that was partly because I had Ruffles in hand.
Don’t be jealous about what my two readers said. Haha. They’re related, anyway.
You’re the one with the real talent! Keep at it.
M. Talmage Moorehead
Note: That picture up top is Chris Farley, the greatest comedian who ever lived. God rest his soul.
In this skit he’s a motivational speaker who lives “in a van down by the river.” My favorite line is…
“We got ourselves a writer here! Hey, Dad, I can’t see real good. Is that Bill Shakespeare over there?”
Here’s a link to a video of the skit: http://pizzacomedy.com/sketch/living-in-a-van-down-by-the-river/