Recently, an e-book came to my attention under circumstances which hinted that it might, uh… not be written very well. I’m sorry to report that the hints weren’t mistaken, either. I don’t plan to name the book or its author, but I do want to discuss the flaws that make the book a frustrating read, and in particular the subtle key flaw.
Some of the problems are just easy to pick up, so easy that they should really have been caught by a proofreader: The repeated use of “where” in place of “were,” for example, or joining together with commas what should have been three or four individual sentences, separated from each other with periods.
Other flaws are more subtle: the dialogue and description and characterization are “level one”, showing no signs of attempts to push these things further, give them more zest and character and life. I plan to write about the “level one” trap in a later entry; all I’ll say for now is that if a summary of the important points of a dialogue reads exactly the same as the dialogue itself minus quote marks (e.g., Charles said “I want to wait until the inheritance comes in” becomes Charles says he wants to wait until the inheritance comes in) that dialogue needs serious work.
But the most serious flaw, the one that weakens the story the most, is simply this: it doesn’t know where its engine is.
The engine is simply what makes the story worth reading; it’s not infrequently also what makes it worth writing. Every writer is well-advised to figure out what the engine of their story is going to be, and then bring that engine front-and-center as early as possible.
The most obvious engine to use is slam-bang action. If your story is filled with exciting gunfire and car chases, you want to show the reader as early as possible “See? If you came here for shootouts and adrenaline, you picked up the right book!” It’s why the James Bond movies always start with a pre-credits sequence of action, which often has nothing at all to do with the main movie’s plot; it’s simply there to say “Do you want to see Bond besting bad guys with his wits and fists and super-spy mad skillz? Do you want to see Bond sexing up the ladies? That’s what you’re in for!” The makers know what the engine of the Bond films is, and they start each movie reassuring the audience that they know what we came for, and will deliver.
Of course, beginning writers are often advised “start in the middle of the action,” which is too easily misunderstood as “start with slam-bang action even if slam-bang action isn’t the engine of your story.” Sure, a tense chase scene is likely to intrigue readers and get them to read further… but if the rest of the book is a courtroom thriller, is that chase scene really going to get your readers’ appetites ready for what you’re planning to give them? What if the action of your novel is all the protagonist’s inner conflict? That chase scene, even if integral to the plot, is going to confuse readers who thought what they were getting in the beginning was what they would be getting in the middle and end.
So, what kind of action forms the engine of your story?
Would you believe that the answer might be “none”?
At least consider the possibility. Just about every volume of advice on writing may advise you to establish a strong plotline and make sure you take it through rising action after rising action, up to a point of highest stakes where the plot is resolved, followed by a denouement – but haven’t you read books that in no way match that description but still were tremendously enjoyable anyhow? What made you keep reading all the way through to the end? Perhaps the characters were funny and engaging people, and reading through their adventures felt like spending time with good friends. Perhaps the book was a fascinating tour of a part of our world where you’ve never been, or of a world from the author’s imagination. (Maybe you’ll just read anything with vampires in it. Hey, it’s cool! We’re not judging!)
Even for these non-action story engines, the rule of “start as you mean to go on” still applies, and again, the engine of the story is probably whatever gets you excited about writing it. Which means if your reason for writing a Western is simply “I love Westerns,” then you should immerse your reader in the Western milieu as soon as you can: give them the dusty trails and the leather saddles, the desert prospectors and the rugged lawmen, the clip-clop of horseshoes and the yip of the far-off coyotes under the moon.
(Ironically, when your story is dependent upon an engine of this kind – immersion in a particular milieu – that may be exactly the time when it’s hardest to tell if you are connecting with the power of your engine. Your most enthusiastic pre-readers may gush about how awesomely you’ve brought to life just the kind of cyberpunk world they love to read about. But did you? Or are those readers simply filling in from their imaginations what you forgot to fill in from yours? A good test might be to ask yourself, “Would my work be a good starting place for someone who would love this genre, but hasn’t encountered it before now?”)
It might not seem that there’s any particular technique involved in connecting to the engine of the story. It might seem that it’s simply a matter of “whatever your story’s got going for it, get to it early and often.” There is, however, one particular technique that deserves a bit of discussion, simply because it’s so useful but starting to get a bit of backlash.
That technique is the beginning flash-forward: starting at a moment when the engine of the story is in high gear, then moving back chronologically in the narrative to explain how everything got to that moment. It’s widely used, and for good reason: it lets you connect to the engine of the story right out of the starting gate. However, I’ve seen grumbling on some Internet boards about the use of the technique, calling it a cliché that’s getting ever more tired.
Personally, I don’t think the argument that the flash-forward is a cliché holds up under examination. The flash-forward is too basic of a technique, for one thing; deeming it a cliché also logically implies that telling all events of the narrative in a straight chronological order must also be a cliché, since it’s been employed even longer. I made my own choice to use the technique in Nightbird Descends; it wasn’t in my earliest drafts but as I edited and shaped the story, an initial flash-forward seemed the best way to tell the reader right away “this story starts with the comforting everyday world you know, but it won’t stay there; there will be suspense and fear.”
Perhaps, in the e-book I mentioned at the beginning of this post, there is a good story trying to get out. It’s hard to tell whether there is, however, because it’s hard to tell even what the author believed the engine would be. The worldbuilding? The unfolding of the unknown? Strong, independent female characters? All these could be strong engines for a story. But the strongest engine won’t take you anywhere if you don’t connect it to anything.