Yesterday I went to a Donald Maass (literary agent) event on “The Emotional Craft of Fiction.” I really enjoyed it and learned some new craft tools to apply to my work. If you ever get a chance to hear him speak, I strongly recommend going. (There’s also a book of that same title by Donald.) His website is here and to read specifically about Donald and where he is speaking, go here. Obviously I can’t share the whole session, but wanted to share a small portion.
What really struck me is the six elements our openings need to include. Some were familiar, and some were presented in a way new to me. Here they are:
Donald illuminated these ideas with sample passages from several books and one unpublished manuscript. I’m going to briefly show these elements with my own example from a recent book I’ve read, Katherine Reay’s The Austen Escape. Feel free to “look inside” at the first section before reading my analysis.
The mood – frustration
Story questions – What is Mary’s project? What is her relationship with Nathan? Is she in love with him and he doesn’t know? Why is he so helpful? Why does Mary not get along with Karen?
Life or death – death. The project is dead.
Language/style - contemporary
Need/urgency – Mary needs to move on.
Strength – Yes, she is determined to get over her “illusions.”
All that in just a little over 200 words. Does it make you want to read on? It definitely did so for me. And nothing really is happening. It’s only a conversation. But I was hooked.
For me the most difficult question to answer in Donald’s examples was language/style. I could see it when he pointed out that one text had a Biblical style, almost a sermon. Another was ironic. I think I need more practice. ;-)
We can analyze the openings of our own manuscripts by using these elements. Or ask our critique group or beta readers to answer these questions for us. If their answers aren’t what we expect, that may be okay. But if the answers are not where we wanted the opening to take them, it’s back to the keyboard.
When I travel I like to take “light” fiction with me. By that I mean ones that don’t make me think too hard. I like to download them to my kindle app on my iPad, so I’m also not carrying extra physical weight.
The first one started out so well—set in Africa, viewpoint of a baby rhino, then switched to the people. I loved what the people were doing—saving at-risk animals. But there were sections where something would be shown and then it would be followed up with an unnecessary telling sentence. I don’t want to give an example from the book directly, so I’ll make one up:
Showing: Dark clouds scrolled across the sky and Lydia shivered in the sudden wind. Before she could reach the porch, rain stung her bare arms. A flash of lightening flared, immediately followed by a boom of thunder. Lydia ran up the steps and under cover, but she was already soaked.
Telling: It was a terrific storm.
D.B. Jackson says, “Trusting your reader means, in essence, not slowing your narrative to explain things that don’t need explaining.” (Italics mine.)
The next book. After an intense scene in the viewpoint of the child who is the main character, we hung around too long. She was only four. I remember a few powerful happenings from when I was very young, but not a lot of detail. The excessive detailed memories of a four-year-old made me lose my suspension of disbelief. It needs to be logical or we need to be provided with reasons why it is logical. I really like this post by Dr. Vicki Hinze on “Suspending Disbelief” where she discusses how to do it in your writing.
Later I was in disbelief again when the main character, now a teen, blamed herself for her older brother drowning in the pond. She felt it was her fault because she went off to do something else. Foreshadowing suggested it could have been suicide, but the character never thought anything about that possibility, ever, which would have validated the drowning and her feelings of guilt. I felt as if I’d been lied to. In Anton Chekhov’s famous book of writing advice, he says, “If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired.”
Note: I bought both of these books. I was trying new-to-me authors, and unfortunately they won't be new favorite authors.
So, my reading choices weren’t the most successful, but someone this week recommended the Netflix movie The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society and I loved it! Here’s a link to the trailer. I since discovered it was based on a book, so that’s my next reading choice.
What are you reading and learning from?
SM Ford writes inspirational fiction for adults, although teens may find the stories of interest, too. She also loves assisting other writers on their journeys.