Rule Number One: Open With The Monster
|No one cares about the building of the mead hall; we care about Grendel.|
There's a phrase every writer should be familiar with; in medias res. It's Latin for "into the middle of things," and it was first coined by the poet Horace. The phrase refers to stories that start the reader out in the meat of the action instead of at the "beginning" of the story. Whether the hero is in the middle of a shootout, the heroine is chasing bad guys down a dark alley, or someone who might be our lead is sitting in a classroom and taking a stressful exam, the point is that we come in while someone is doing something. Details of the world and context for what we see are filled in afterward.
As always, examples work best. Some time ago I was chatting with a writer who was having trouble with her plot. I asked her to give me her elevator pitch. Her book was about a girl who was a high school freshmen, getting used to her surroundings, new classes, adjusting to new friends, etc. After about twenty minutes of telling me about her perfectly normal trials and tribulations she drops the bombshell that the girl is being stalked by a nightmare creature from the ether, and that in chapter five it slinks out of her closet and tries to kill her.
My advice to her, and to you dear reader, is this; open with the monster.
Rule Number Two: Short and Sharp
|Say hello to my little friend!|
You know that one family member who drones on and on at events, insisting on telling you every story in the most languid, roundabout way? The sort of person who could be regaling you with a story of a behind-enemy-lines covert kill mission in Afghanistan and make it sound as exciting as getting a root canal? That's the sort of prose you want to avoid.
Let's use another example here. Say you're writing a hard-boiled detective story, and your hero went home and crashed after a long night on a big bust. You could eat up page after page of him preparing breakfast, showering, going through his closet, washing his dishes, and shaving. Or you could slam all of it together into a single paragraph of short, hard-hitting sentences. "I woke up with the afternoon bells, and stumbled into the shower. Once I was clean and shaved, with a few eggs in my gut and clean clothes on my back, I was ready to hit the streets."
That's an entire early afternoon in less than 50 words. What's more the reader internalizes it more easily because it's in handy, bite-size pieces. Your novel shouldn't be a meat loaf that someone has to slog through; rather it should be a bowl of M&Ms that, when someone has eaten the whole thing, they wonder how the hell that happened.
Rule Number Three: When in Doubt, Cut it Out
|Editing, in its natural form.|
What do Kathy Reichs, Michael Crichton, and Tom Clancy all have in common? Well aside from being bestsellers, all three of these authors have habits of including reams of information in their books that read like technical manuals, and which are not necessary for readers to understand the story. Reichs presents jargon-filled run downs of murder wounds, rather than just telling us the victim took an ax to the head. Crichton provides abstracts of scientific theory on everything from gene-splicing to time travel that have no impact on being chased by a T-Rex, or life-or-death sword fights in medieval France. Clancy often waxes on for pages about naval culture which seems completely unconnected to the book you're reading. This information may be fascinating to some readers, and tedious to others, but the point is that if you don't need it to clarify the story you should cut it out.
Put another way, we're all very impressed that you're an aficionado of 15th century Renaissance artwork. If we don't need to know the name of a particular artist, an official term for a certain brush stroke, or the value of a given painting, then don't waste page space on it. Don't break stride while we're running pell-mell after terrorists to remark on the architecture; focus instead on where characters are going and what they're doing.
Rule Number Four: Don't Waste Our Time
|You have precisely 20 seconds before your reader self-destructs.|
Most people have fairly scheduled lives. Students go to class, then come home. People with 9-5 jobs go to work, then come home. Maybe they take in an occasional concert or go see a movie, but their lives are routine. Characters are people, and many of them have equally boring, scheduled lives. That said, a novel is a series of points of interest strung together on a chain like a pearl necklace. We're interested in the pearls, so don't waste time telling us about the chain holding it all together.
Look at Harry Potter. The bulk of the story takes place during sessions at what amounts to a wizarding boarding school, but we don't slavishly start every day with Harry getting out of bed and end every day with him going to sleep. We don't mention anything he does or learns in class unless those incidents build the story. You cannot tell the reader every action a character takes, so focus only on the important parts.
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