Sunday, July 8, 2012

Thrillerfest: Start Where the Story Starts

Jamie Freveletti winning her Thriller award last year! with Barbara and me
I've got about twelve hours before I leave for Thrillerfest, and about twelve thousand things on my to-do list, so that should work out just right. As I pack (and I'm trying to do this in a carryon, people, so no one is allowed to judge my wardrobe for the next seven days!!) the first thing into the suitcase is my notes for my workshop with my agent, Barbara Poelle. I really hope some of you might be able to make it, (Wednesday, July 11, 9:00am at the Grand Hyatt) but just in case New York City isn't on your schedule for the coming week, I thought I'd share a preview.

There are a few pitfalls that plague nearly every aspiring writer, and among the most pernicious is the Chapter One Info Dump. This is when you have so much to share with the reader about your characters, your world, the fantastic crisis you have created that you have to tell EVERYTHING ALL AT ONCE. You've heard that we readers must meet your hero/heroine right away, so you figure you'll go ahead and really help us get to know her, including all the facts and history that will help us understand who she is when she faces conflict.

Unfortunately this is the exact opposite of what will engage your reader.

Readers are delicate beasts, as fickle and easily diverted as middle school boyfriends. They have to be kept interested at every turn, and that means you have to use every trick that, well, your mom ever told you about boys. Actually, wait, that's wrong: you must use ever trick in the 1950s snag-your-man playbook.

shake it, bake it, whatever it takes, people
- make a big first impression: Your first line has to be HUGE, people, and I know you already know that. Your first paragraph, page, and scene must live up to it. But here's a little tip you may not know: this hook does not have to be a faithful foreshadowing of what will come. Be devious, if you like - it's the equivalent of this date I went on where the guy led with "I'm a government security expert, specializing in bomb detection" and it turned out he was a TSA agent.

- but then, play hard to get: Immediately drop back. You've seen this device a thousand times: in the first scene, we witness - perhaps even viscerally experience - a crime or other dramatic act. Then chapter two throws us back into the ordinary world. Set against the adrenaline rush, the relative serenity of the everyday has us looking for portents.

- keep it mysterious: Go ahead, give a few mis-impressions. Red herrings. Blind alleys. Yes, I am a natural blonde, as a matter of fact...that guy? oh heavens no, just weekends? mostly volunteer work and working in my organic garden. Yes, you can lie to your reader; in fact, many of the best thriller writers do so routinely, because guess what, sisters: once hooked, your reader actually likes to get jerked around; it keeps him guessing.

- after that first contact, hold something back: Wow, great date, can I take you out again next week? No? The week after that? No? You're that busy? Obviously the danger here is losing that ardent reader, but if you dole out the goodies slowly and carefully, you'll fan the reader into a virtual froth of longing.

- never give without getting: if you're going to wear that Spanx for six hours and drop fifty bucks on a shellac manicure, he better be taking you uptown, am I right? As a writer, never give away a clue, and never give your hero/heroine any satisfaction, unless you shift the story an equivalent amount in return. This may involve your characters' suffering or sacrifice, or you may take the opportunity to drop in some backstory or narrative now that you're on the downbeat of the action.

Don't worry, this slightly tortured analogy was just for my own amusement. In the actual workshop, we'll be talking about how and when to introduce backstory and internal conflict without dulling the impact of the inciting action. I've got a worksheet that I'm quite proud of, that you can use to find your own story's best starting point. The hour's going to fly by and I'm hoping we'll all come out a little smarter and a lot hungrier to get to work.

See you soon, people!


Janet Reid said...

I'm so grieved to be missing this. Please ply Barbara with potato vodka at 9am in my honor.

Mysti said...

but but but but I never dated? Don't worry, I think I get it. Lots of food for thought here, thank you!

Another thing I've noticed recently--ignoring the rules of intimacy. There are stages. Only teenagers and sociopaths skip steps in real life--in fiction we can skip some, as the RWA has taught me--but don't skip a whole bunch right up front. I'd like to know a little something about your hero before I jump into bed with her (unless that's what the story is ABOUT)...

Sophie Littlefield said...

Janet, I am missing YOU! I will do my best to keep B happy, whatever it takes :)

Sophie Littlefield said...

Mysti, aww, it makes me feel happy all over when you show your smarts. RWA may have taught you a little something but you got it going on all by yourself.

Robert K. Lewis said...

Next year in NY, Soph! You, me, and a bottle of wine! I'll definitely be there! GREAT post, kiddo! :-)

Sophie Littlefield said...

thanks robert! i'll miss you this year! will have a little somethin' in your honor, though.