Sunday, September 8, 2013

What I Did "Wrong": Exceptions

The other day when I wrote my blog post Chapter One, Page One on novel beginnings, I hinted that my list of don'ts were more of a rough guideline, and that there are ways to break the rules.

Well, have I ever broken them myself? Of course I have!

So, among my list of no-nos were the following:

  1. Don't try to set the scene/give back story/explain the situation before having anything happen.
  2. Don't begin with the mundane unless it immediately hints at the non-mundane coming right up.
  3. Don't start at the climax just as a ploy to get our attention.
  4. Don't worry so much about establishing the main characters' physical appearance, relationships, or situation right at the beginning.
  5. Don't blame the reader for not giving you a chance.
I must say I'm semi-guilty of some of these things. But I think it's important to understand that I'm aware of why they're on the no-no list and I did my best to avoid the problems that these no-nos are usually a SYMPTOM of.

For example, how about setting the scene and explaining things before anything happens?

I more or less did that explicitly with my book Bad Fairy, and yet it got signed to an agent and is on submission to major publishers. It starts with a prologue--another thing many publishing industry professionals wince at seeing in fantasy novels--and the protagonist literally talks to the reader (and is aware she has readers), explaining who she is and why she's writing this book.

"So, Julie, what is this, Hypocrisy 101?"

Not exactly. There were several reasons my book starts with a "let me explain to you my situation" prologue:

1. I wanted to establish it as sort of an epistolary novel. It is supposed to be an autobiography of its author, and having the character actually address the audience while telling them why she's writing the book seems more like the kind of thing you'd actually see in an autobio. In other words, it's not a traditional book, because the character is supposed to be writing it herself.

2. The character would write it this way. I know her, and she's the type of person who would have such a thing in her book. I've never done it before or since, but since I'm basically letting HER write the book, I know she would want to explain herself and her intent before the book starts.

3. The book is an answer to a fairy tale. I wanted it to be established immediately that the character is aware of the other fairy tales and that she is writing her own version to clear the air, so to speak, and in the prologue she even says she considered jumping right in because she knows that's good storytelling. But she's not out to just tell a story.

There are often legitimate reasons to go against recommendations, and I thought this was one of them. But if you don't have a character-narrator whose voice calls for rambling explanations, pausing the story at the beginning to explain things to the readers usually falls flat.

What else? Did I break other rules?

I've never started a book with the main character waking up from a dream, though I've used dreams almost as a red herring sometimes because they almost never actually have much to do with the story. I've never had characters surveying themselves in the mirror to relay their appearance to the reader; once I even wrote a character who looked in the mirror in Chapter 1 and then proceeded to not say ANYTHING about her looks except that she was practicing making faces for a certain purpose. Another novel had a character looking in the mirror and critically examining her appearance, but only after everything she was complaining about had been mentioned earlier; it was clearly not a "here's what I look like" plant for the reader.

I don't blame my readers for not "getting it" if they give me feedback about how they couldn't get into the beginning. I've never started a book at the climax to manufacture action and then backed up to say how we got there. I don't start books with characters flopping around in the mundane, unless it's leading right into something interesting. My novel Finding Mulligan starts with apartment hunting, which is pretty boring, but its beginning makes it pretty clear that something is about to break the monotony:

 The "yes" list I provided is pretty much a personalized list of how I do it. I like throwing readers into the game through character interaction and dialogue, establishing the characters' voices (everything gets filtered through their tone), and letting the readers discover the interesting stuff along with my characters.

But I definitely still have trouble with certain things, and being aware of one's weaknesses as a writer is the first step to fixing them. In the examples on this post, I'm showing you exceptions, not excuses. But I must say I've made excuses for certain weaknesses in the past, and as I polish my writing I'm always trying to smooth the edges off these things. On that note, I think that's an excellent topic for another post on another day, so I will continue on that topic next time.

Anyone want to share "rules" you've heard about that you feel confident in breaking?


  1. I really like this post. We all worry so much about breaking the rules. Don't do it, we're told, but then we see it in other stories. So it is okay sometimes, but we should have a good reason for doing so.

  2. The one rule I can't ever, ever feel comfortable breaking (be it for poems, essays, or anything) is to open with a hook.

    1. Really? I'm not sure what constitutes a hook in this context, but I'm sure you have a good reason. :)

    2. Anything that grabs attention.

      I'm worried that readers, for the most part, make a ludicrously difficult audience, who will not bother to read anything past a few sentences if they got bored.

      This generally leaves me struggling between an opening best for introducing the piece and a line best for entertaining readers.

    3. I understand. But I think it's your job to grab attention at the beginning. That doesn't mean I think you have to pull a punch or do something cheap, though. And it can be subtle . . . enough to get us to stay with you until we grasp the true nature of what we're reading and get really invested.

    4. For a writing exercise in highschool (write a story in 30 minutes), I couldn't think of anything better than


      I truly am working on more subtle-yet-interesting openings.