Thursday, May 24, 2012

Two Ways to Immediately Improve Your Fiction

I've been ruminating on some writing advice and thinking of the best advice I could give a beginning fiction writer. Something besides "Show Don't Tell" or "Write What You Know." In reading through some recent samples on Amazon, I've found plenty of good writing, but even good writing isn't enough to hook a reader. So here's two tips that I think will improve your fiction immediately.

1.  Start your story with the moment of change, threat, or crisis. By this, I mean when the characters' lives will be forever changed by a story event. There is no going back. Here's some examples:

In Jaws, Chrissy is attacked by the shark in the first few minutes of the movie. The shark has shown up and things won't be the same for Amity until the beast is killed.

In Super 8, 14-year-old Joe has just lost his mother in an industrial accident. His world has changed forever.

In The Stand, King opens with a man frantically waking his wife. The superflu bug has been released on the military base where he is stationed. The man implores his wife to grab their daughter so they can escape before they're trapped.

In Mystic River, Dennis Lehane's opening chapter depicts Dave's abduction as a young boy, an event that will have consequences in his adult life.

It might be tempting to drop in a truckload of backstory about the character's childhood, past, etc. The first chapter isn't the place for backstory. Think of backstory like spices in cooking. Sprinkle it in here and there throughout the story. A line of dialogue here. A couple sentences there. Dumping it all in at once will ruin your dish. King shows us his characters getting ready to run. He doesn't delve into a long explanation of the superflu or explore the characters' entire history in the first scene. That can come later.

2. Write in immediate scenes

Immediate scenes show us the story as it is unfolding. I tell my writing students to imagine a movie playing in your mind. It's your job to transcribe what you see (and what the characters see, feel, hear, etc.) If you're writing paragraph after paragraph of internal monologue and the character is basically sitting around thinking about things, you're in trouble. Put them in action. Give them a goal to pursue. Show them interacting with other characters.

Don't explain the story, show it to us. For example, here's telling/explaining:

Frank Capretti needed to see Lou Giambra about a turf dispute. Lou's territory was in Brooklyn and lately he'd been trying to expand his drug business into Jersey. Frank wanted to talk to Lou and maybe beat some sense into him. Frank didn't like Lou being on his turf. Jersey belonged to the Capretti family. He would make sure Lou paid. Frank was the toughest guy in the Capretti family. He'd always like busting heads. Once, when he was a kid....

Here's a better way to do it in an immediate scene:

Frank Capretti walked into Mangia, Lou Giambra's sixty-dollar-a-steak restaurant. Through the gloom he saw Giambra sitting at the bar. He was sipping a cocktail, his fat ass spilling over a bar stool. Frank went up to him, tapped him on the shoulder.  Giambra turned around, his face twisted into a frown.

"Need to talk to you," Frank said.

"That's funny, I never seen walking, talking garbage before," Giambra said.

"You and your boys need to stay out of Jersey."

"You own it?"

"It's our turf. You know that."

"What are you going to do? Bust my skull in my own place?"

Frank looked around, hitched his thumbs in his pockets. "Nice place you got here. Be a shame if someone broke in, let loose a couple dozen rats."

Not award-winning material, but you get the idea. By letting action and dialogue carry the scene, we see the story. We see that these guys are enemies and that one of them is willing to stoop pretty low to get what he wants. If I were writing this scene, I'd expand it, ramping up the tension between the two men.

By using these techniques in your fiction, you'll stand a better chance of hooking the reader and keeping them engaged. If you're not already doing it, give it a try. I think you'll like the results.

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