30 March 2012

The Power of What Happens Next

My main interest in reading is plot.  I like to find out what happens next.  I read stories where the blurb suggests a story I will enjoy, or where it's an author whose other stories I've enjoyed.  I do re-read, but I have to be drawn by a love of a particular character or facet or the writer's voice or some such to revisit a story (though it helps that I have a shockingly bad memory).

There was one particular book - fifth in the latest series of an author I'd followed for years.  She wasn't an absolute favourite, or a re-read author, but I'd enjoyed all the books so far.  The blurb told me this latest book was about two characters - one who is kidnapped by zealots and has to survive, and the other who is blamed for the kidnap and has to mastermind a rescue.

So I read.  And read.  And I'm feeling bored, and wondering why.  And I read, and I'm irritated, and I'm halfway through the book, and by this stage I'm skimming, and I end up flipping through in big chunks, and was left dissatisfied and annoyed.

I've never read that author again.  And it wasn't even her fault.  It was the blurb.

In as much as I take writing advice, one of the pieces of advice I seem to have taken to heart is "The beginning of your story is the event - large or small - where your character(s) life changes".  So Medair starts when Decians interrupt her sulking fit on Bariback Mountain.  Champion begins with the discovery of a new rose, transforming Soren from curiosity to someone required to be important.  Stained Glass Monsters is the moment when a woman in white appears mysteriously in a field.

The first line of the blurb for Stray is: "On her last day of high school, Cassandra Devlin walked out of exams and into a forest."  The first line of the book is Cass's reaction to being on Muina.

Now I could have spent some time establishing what Cass was like at home first.  Fun scenes of Cass and Jules squabbling over the remote control, and Cass and her best friend plotting to win Nick's heart, and Cass preparing for exams.  Cass sitting her English exam.  Cass trying to decide what university she wanted to go to.  Cass sitting her Geography exam.

Imagine that going on for half the book.  Longer.  How long till you started skimming?  In the book of that now-abandoned author, the kidnapping happens three-quarters of the way through the book.

Blurbs can make or break a book - not just for selling the story in the first place, but for setting reader expectations on what the story is about.

Although I'm not outstanding at writing blurbs, every time I remember that kidnapping book, I'm endlessly, boundlessly glad I can control what goes into mine.
The blurb for And All the Stars is a prime example:

Madeleine Cost is working to become the youngest person ever to win the Archibald Prize for portraiture. Her elusive cousin Tyler is the perfect subject: androgynous, beautiful, and famous. All she needs to do is pin him down for the sittings. 
None of her plans factored in the spires: featureless, impossible, spearing into the hearts of cities across the world – and spraying clouds of sparkling dust into the wind.
Is it an alien invasion? Germ warfare?  They are questions everyone on Earth would like answered, but Madeleine has a more immediate problem. At Ground Zero of the Sydney spire, beneath the collapsed ruin of St James Station, she must make it to the surface before she can hope to find out if the world is ending
And this (still to be polished a little) is how the story opens:
Madeleine Cost lay on her side, wedged between an upright and a diagonal. Dull pain marked upper shoulder, hip, thigh. A different hurt pounded her skull. She felt dusty all over, grimed with it, except her lower half, which was wet. Getting wetter.

With a jerk Madeleine came fully awake, cracking her head against the diagonal above. Stars blossomed in the dark, and she lay and gasped until she could dare to do more.
Her world was a tight, close space: a triangle tilted so that her head was lower than her feet. A glimmer of light reflected off metal, not enough to give any details. There was barely room to squeeze one hand past the slick surface, to cautiously explore her face, her skull, and find powdery dust and a throbbing lump.  Free-flowing liquid was draining past her head. She could hear it falling. 
She could smell blood.
The blurb introduces you to the main character, tells the reader something which is learnt in the second chapter, and drops you right into the situation as described.  So, can you tell me what's going to happen three-quarters of the way through the book?



  1. I've got to say when I read books that take their time to get to plot, I'm going "come on, come on" in my head the whole time & I tend to start skimming. I'm not a fan of working my way to the fun stuff. Something has to happen NOW! Let the audience know what the character is like during the action - not before.

  2. Agreed absolutely. A blurb should tell you what you learn in the first two chapters - say 20 pages tops - and then hint at the rest of the story or describe it in the vaguest terms ("Now he must endure the wrath of the Black Angels of Haberdashery while seeking the fabled Sousaphone of the South"). Blurbs that recap the entire plot - or worse still (and I've seen this) blow the final-act twist - are an abomination unto literature.

    I realised not long ago that one of the big problems with my current manuscript is that absolutely nothing happens for about six chapters. Luckily, the rest of the manuscript is so haphazard and awkward that I have to do a new outline and rewrite anyway, so I needn't worry about the pain of lopping off just that one limb...

  3. Knowing where the story starts is a huge step in getting a novel to work.


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