Monday, September 12, 2011

Writing the Southern Gothic Novel

From Gone with the Wind to Confederacy of Dunces to the The Sookie Stackhouse series the southern gothic style has appeared in almost every type of fiction since its inception. The first gothic novels were born on the banks of Lake Geneva in the summer of 1816 when Lord Byron hosted a ghost story competition between himself, Percy Shelly, Mary Shelly and John William Polidori. That contest produced both Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein and Polidori’s The Vampyre. Almost 200 years later the vampire novel has evolved but is still as popular now as it was when it first sunk its teeth into the reading public. The heart of the gothic novel is extremes; greatness turned tragic, lofty affluence fallen to social squalor, heroic acts of bravery ending in madness and death. And few places can you find more examples of great ventures turned disastrous than the American south. The image of the old southern plantation fallen to ruin; aristocrat turned root-eating beggar, great beauty turned grotesque (or at least put on a few pounds and gone to seed). These themes captured the feeling at the heart of the post civil war south. But the southern gothic novel is not simply an author telling his or her story in a southern setting. No, the southern gothic novel has characters that are bigger than life, nuances of southern culture that are unique to the southern way of life, great battles between good and evil, killer Bar-B-Que and tempestuous, tube top ripping sex.

Southern Gothic Characters - Characters in southern gothic novels have to be bigger than life and, of course, a little crazy; the damaged soul, rising out of the wreckage of lost love, lost lifestyle or lost sanity. The aging debutant hanging on to Baby Jane delusions of youth; the wife-beater wearing, bad-boy who’s always a car chase away from the county jail. And southern writers write these characters so well because they have all known lots of real characters like this in their lives. Also, many southern writers tend to be a little crazy themselves. Seriously, William Faulkner, Tennessee Williams, Truman Capote, Flannery O’Connor, John Kennedy Toole, Eudora Welty - all born and raised southern and every one as crazy as a soup sandwich. Take my own town, Richmond Virginia, home to Edgar Allen Poe, not exactly the poster boy for sanity, Tom Wolfe of the perpetual ice cream suit, Tom Robbins, proof there is a fine line between genius and insanity. And I still have the image in my head of Richmond’s own David Robbins standing on the deck of a ship in pirate waters off the coast of Somalia waving a hundred dollar bill as research for The Devil’s Waters. Somehow, I just don’t see Woody Allen or Gore Vidal doing that. So, let’s take a look at some of the things that make southern characters stand out:

Nothing says southern like excess - If your character is going to be poor, make him tobacco row, stained wife beater, dirt poor. If rich, make him ‘owning most of Atlanta rich. So rich he buys a new boat each time the old one gets wet. If male, put the testosterone into overdrive and give your readers a cross between Rhett Butler and Stanley Kowalski. Female characters in the southern gothic have evolved over time, from Scarlet O’Hara to Sookie Stackhouse but they share a common thread, they are always vulnerable and in-charge at the same time, both soft and yielding yet, able to crawl out of the dirt, root in hand and take on the Yankee army with a vengeance. Picture Jessica Rabbit totin’ an Uzi wearing a hoop skirt, flak jacket and a picture hat.

Crazy elevated to an art-form- There is always a crazy character in the southern gothic novel. Some aunt or uncle or cousin, who “just ain’t quite right.” Aunt Earline’s little eccentricities, like perpetually dressing her dog like country singers, provides your other characters with opportunities to come up with great southern expressions like “her driveway don’t go all the way to the road” or “crazy as a pack of peach orchard boars.” (more about southern euphemisms later). Embrace your characters’ eccentricities and get creative. I loved the character in Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil who tied live flies to his clothes and constantly carried around a bottle of poison earmarked for the city’s water system. Remember the banjo playing boy in Deliverance? Or the story of Boo Radley plunging the scissors into his parent’s leg in To Kill a Mockingbird. Of course, most main characters should only flirt with insanity enough to make them quirky and interesting. It’s too hard to get your readers to like them if you make them barking mad.

Hold my beer and watch this - A recent study - I think conducted at U of Michigan - tested how quick people were to anger when provoked. They found that the northerners angered more quickly but the southerners were the first to throw a punch. Southern characters don’t tend to be introspective; they jump first then figure out how the parachute works. And when they are introspective it is in the form of brooding, seething, or contemplating some stupidly brave or despicably heinous act. Violence, or the threat of it, is usually an undercurrent in southern gothic, but it is usually expressed more in bravado than brawl. Then again, they don’t call those sleeveless white undershirts ‘wife beaters’ for nothing.

Who are your people? - Attend any southern gathering and the second thing you will be asked is ‘who are your people?” Of course, the first thing you will be asked is “what would you like to drink? Finding common ancestors is how southerners connect. They find some mutual, distant relative and spend the rest of the evening talking about the time great uncle Colonel Beaumont Carter rode his horse into the lobby of the Jefferson Hotel (of course, if every old family in Richmond that claims their ancestor rode a horse into the Jefferson actually had a ancestor that did it, the Jefferson would have been the biggest stable in the south). Family is important in the south so trot out that freak show in your southern gothic. Mummah, Big Daddy, Great Aunt Bessie who’s so fat it takes two dogs to bark at her, should be showcased or at least have walk-on parts. And not just your main characters immediate family, there needs to be at least a couple minor characters, like double cousins, that are at least a ‘half a bubble off plumb’.

Ya’ll come - Southerners love any excuse to get together for a party so any southern gothic should have a scene featuring a local Dew Drop Inn, a barn dance or a cotillion, anywhere where folks are getting drunker than Cooter Brown and dancing like Baptists with nobody watching. This is a good place for violence, drunkenness and sex. And don’t exclude funerals as a party venue. I don’t know what it is about funerals that make southerners both thirsty and horny but southerners host great post-funeral parties with lots of liquor and distant cousins, which makes for a situation where anything can happen.

Act like you got some raising - My favorite southern expression is “bless his (or her) heart” which means “you poor (ugly, ignorant, fat, stupid trashy- take-your-pick) thing.” It’s right up there with “hold your mouth right,” which is said when someone is attempting a tricky maneuver and the only way to accomplish it is to hold your mouth right…OK some of these southern expressions just have to be experienced. But suffice it to say no southern gothic novel would be complete without a few colorful euphemisms. If you can’t come up with an enigmatic, yet homespun, analogy on pretty short notice you won’t be able to write southern gothic worth a huckleberry up a bear’s ass and your novel will come across like something the dog’s been keepin’ him under the porch.

Just for grins I looked up what Wikpedia had to say about southern gothic and they used words to describe southern characters like racial bigot, egotistical, self-righteousness. Bless wiki’s little pea-pickin’ heart, he must be a Yankee and he just don’t get it.

Southern Gothic Plot - Most early southern gothic novel plots were basically a combination of romance and horror like the secret vampire lover or the seductive ghost haunting the old manse. But over time the plots of southern gothic novels have gotten more complex and urbane. While the plot of the southern gothic still contains certain commonalities such as flawed characters overcoming the forces of evil the novels now take on more sophisticated issues;

Homegrown Evil VS ‘Come-heres’ - In southern gothic novels the worst evil usually comes from out of town. Evil forces that just show up in town, usually in disguise, are called ‘come-heres’ and they are the worst kind of evil in a southern gothic. The term ‘come-heres’ can be used for anything from an invading army of vampires to just a yankee with a U-haul. In Gone with the Wind the Yankees are the ‘evil come-heres’. In To Kill A Mockingbird Atticus Finch battles homegrown racists. In A Confederacy of Dunces the whole world constantly conspires to keep Ignatius Riley down, and in the The Sookie Stackhouse Series there is an interesting twist, the home-grown vampire, Bill Compton, teams up with heroine Sookie Stackhouse to battle both “come here’ supernatural creatures and home grown, anti vampire bigots. In my book Heavenly Pleasure I mixed it up a bit. My hometown-hero characters, including Goth stripper, a fiction writer, a physicist and two life partners who run a dirty book store. These are joined by come-heres such as God, in the form of an Ice Cream man, and a fallen angel. The heroes square off against a hometown Fundamentalist preacher and Richmond city officials joined by a come-here demon (who has possessed a local vampire), and the devil himself. Sooner or later in the gothic novel the town will join forces to fight the evil led by one brave homegrown soul that ‘knew it was evil in disguise the whole time.’

Imprisonment and Freedom - This is often both literal and figurative. Many southern gothic novels open with someone getting out of either prison or a county jail. Cool Hand Luke is unique in southern gothic in that it begins with Luke being sentenced to work on a southern road gang. But this prison is only a microcosm of his greater prison, the world filled with rules, religion and mendacity that he rejects. Often, characters in southern gothic literature feel trapped in their social station, their small town, their families or even their sexuality. In Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, Brick is injured and his injury has imprisoned him in Big Daddy’s house, but he is also imprisoned by his wife, Maggie the Cat’s sexuality and his own.

Grandeur fallen to Ruin - This Property is Condemned begins with a young girl walking down the railroad tracks which run by an old hotel fallen to ruin. She stops to reflect on the hotel’s previous splendor and the rest of the movie is a flashback about a “come here,” named Owen Legate, who arrives to close the local train station and doom the hotel to ruin. Grand houses fallen to ruin are typical in the southern gothic, picture Tara Plantation in Gone with the Wind before and after the Yankee invasion. Sookie Stackhouse’s grandmothers’ house is another beautiful old house that has seen better days. And this theme doesn’t stop at property. Blanche DuBois, once beautiful and affluent is forced to rely on the kindness of strangers, some not so kind.

Southern Gothic Setting -It just wouldn't be southern gothic if you didn't feel like you'd been thrust into a hot, sticky southern night replete with the drone of cicadas, sweat beading up on your tall glass of something sweet and alcoholic, the scent of honeysuckle in the breeze as it wafts across your front porch rocking chair. But there is an undercurrent, a strange feeling that something about to happen. The very air is pregnant with the first tremors of trouble beginning to rise with the waves of heat rising up from the street. Does that give you the feeling of a southern night?

Smell those Magnolias - The south has flora, fauna, smells, feels and tastes all its own (there’s nothing like that first bite of North Carolina Bar-B-Que). Incorporate them into your scenes, but don’t overdo it, subtle is better than overkill. You want to capture the feel of the south but give your image a distinct look and feel that is all your own. Bon Temps in The Sookie Stackhouse Series has the feel of a small Louisiana town, but with resident vampires and werewolves. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil and To Kill a Mockingbird both capture the towns of Savannah, Georgia and Maycomb, Alabama, respectively, while most of the story is set in a courtroom. In Heavenly Pleasure I have a typical Evangelical Preacher and my characters do some ‘porch sitting” but I made it unique to Richmond centering life around the James ‘Rivah’ and Richmond’s English/Southern architecture but I did something that I doubt any Southern Gothic novelist has ever done - I made it snow.

Danse Grotesque – Flannery O'Connor once remarked; "anything that comes out of the south is going to be called grotesque by the northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.” What northerners call grotesque, we southerners call normal. Fortunately, most southerners have an arsenal of grotesque personal experiences to draw from so damn the Yankees and add that touch of the grotesque to your novel. When I was a kid I was terrified of my grandmother’s house. It was a large, rambling farmhouse built in the mid-1700s. Heat came from fireplaces, my grandmother cooked on a wood stove. Oh, did I mention that upstairs there was a baby in a jar and a rocking chair that rocked by itself? Apparently the baby was left on the doctors’ doorstep and had died from the cold before the doctor found it. My grandmother was his first patient that day and the doctor asked her if she would bury it. Instead of burying it she pickled it. I don’t know why, I guess she just had a little too much character, bless her heart. The rocking chair is still a mystery. You can bet though somewhere down the line one of my books will feature that crazy old woman, the baby in the jar and the rocking chair that rocks by itself.

So good luck with the southern gothic, and remember, while you are composing the next Gone with the Wind to ‘hold your mouth right.”

Thursday, June 23, 2011

V. Mark Covington- the Stage vs the Page

Intro both plays and novels, dialogue must fit in with the story smoothly, it must suit the character's personality and it must be easily understood by the reader or the audience. All dialogue has to have a purpose. It shouldn’t be there just for the sake of having your characters talk. In plays practically the entire story is carried out on the shoulders of the dialogue and the non-verbal cues of the actors. In novels you can use narration to describe the scenery, the thoughts and feelings of the characters, but dialogue can be much more effective tool for description. The difference between narration and dialogue is the difference between a friend telling us about the movie they saw this past weekend and hearing a robot read the generic synopsis of the movie. We’re more likely to listen to our friend’s version, aren’t we?

All dialogue needs to have a reason. The words have to reveal something to the reader/audience.

Use dialogue to:

• Reveal Characters- Plays rely on dialogue to reveal characters, relationships, etc. Novels should also use dialogue as much as possible to reveal your character’s uniqueness. It’s more fun to overhear two people talking about someone’s character traits then for a narrator to tell you about them.

• Tell the Backstory - Plays use dialogue to tell the backstory, what happened before that brought the characters to this point in time. In novels it is often tempting to dump a lot of backstory on the reader all at once, especially in the first chapter. It is much more effective to thread the backstory through the plot and subplot, revealing a little at a time. Also, try to avoid giving out a lot of backstory in the first chapter. The first chapter is all about action and suspense, drawing the reader into the story so they can’t put the book down.

• Show Conflict - Plays use dialogue to establish conflict, to add intrigue, create mystery. In a play this should be done in the first 3 minutes. In novels dialogue is an effective tool to lead up to and accentuate the conflict. The sooner you relay the nature of the overriding conflict to the reader the better, usually on the first page, if not the first paragraph.

• Describe the Scene - Plays have sets, and a set can depict a very real place, a kitchen, a ship, a trailer park. The set can have details that reveal the story, an empty liquor bottle, an unmade bed, a crime scene outline of a body. Novels have to use either narration or dialogue to describe the scene, (place, time of day, weather, etc). Use dialogue rather than narration whenever possible to describe, or supplement, the description of the scene;

Example:“Go on and have a seat on that old couch, don’t mind the dog hair, and that wet spot is just from tears.

(from this we know the couch is old, and probably in rough shape which gives us a clue about the rest of the house. We also know that the character has or had a dog and somebody has been crying on the couch. You have a mental picture, but you want to know more. Who has been crying, where is the dog. Is the dog dead, is that why the person is crying?)

• Describe the Action - Show don’t tell. This is easy in plays, you have actors constantly moving about on stage, showing the audience what his happening, and good actors have a myriad of ways to showing thoughts, emotions, etc through non-verbal cues. In novels you have to use words. So try to use words that convey as much action as possible instead of tag lines. (she said, he said). While dialogue can be informational, a way to develop a character or reveal the plot, it is emphatically not conversational, any more than war or sex or prayer is conversational. Dialogue is character, and character feeds the plot. Above all, dialogue should be linked to visual action. We tend to process more visual information (55%) than vocal (38%) or written (7%). But if the written word describes visual action it increases the likelihood that the information will be processed.

Example: “I won’t be a part of that.” John took a step back, arms crossed over his chest, shaking his head emphatically.

(We don’t have to say “John said.” By following the statement with John’s action the reader knows it’s John and the words match the action).

• Establish Voice – Voice is that sense there’s a person behind the words. This is easy in plays, the lights, action and dialogue will usually focus on one person at a time. This is the person who’s eyes through which the reader/audience sees, hears, feels everything in the story. Try to make a hard demarcation when you switch voice in a novel. If you constantly jump from voice to voice (head hopping) it can confuse the reader. You can use the idiosyncrasies of your characters (language, gestures, perspective) to establish and personalize the character’s voice so the reader will recognize from who’s perspective the story is being told at a given time.

• Reinforce non-verbal cues - Actors constantly use non-verbal cues, gestures, eye movement, facial expressions. Weave these into your novel through the action that follows dialogue. Give your character a “tell” (A tell is a poker term that describes a gesture, a hand movement, facial expression, something that gives a clue to what cards they are holding, are they bluffing, etc). In 2012 Montezuma’s Revenge I had one of my characters, Agent Sanchez, suck on a bullet as a non-smoking aid. I used that bullet as a weathervane for his non-verbal thoughts. When he was nervous he popped the bullet into his mouth and sucked on it, when shocked, he dropped it out of his mouth, when he was bored or thoughtful it played across his lips, etc.

o One trick for creating non-verbal cues for your characters is to have each character deliver an opening speech to you. Visualize him or her on the stage giving a verbal autobiography, let them vent their frustration, talk about their wishes, hopes, dreams, fears, etc. Now, in your mind’s eye watch what they are doing with their hands when they are talking. Look at their facial expressions, eyebrows, posture, etc. Use these to give your characters depth throughout the novel.

• Establish Authenticity - Good written dialogue should mimic actual speech and dialect – but only use a dialect if you are well versed in the dialect and it doesn’t come across as forced. In my play Shakespeare in the Trailer Park, I used Elizabethan/Southern because I grew up in Richmond, Virginia using a southern dialect. My grandparents still used old English words so this was not that much of a stretch. (I did fail a lot of spelling tests though spelling words like colour and shoppe). Avoid using stereotypes, clich├ęs or accents too much. The dialogue should be authentic to the character, a farmer losing his farm isn’t going to go into a long speech about the importance of agriculture to the economy. He is going to talk simply. He is more likely to say:

"I tell you Myrtle, it’s all just gettin’ to be too much for me. One day soon the bank is going to swoop in here and snatch this place right from under us.”

Other things to remember when using dialogue in both the theater and in the novel:

• Less is More – Shakespeare said “Brevity is the soul of wit.” Dorothy parker added “and lingerie.” Mark Twain once said “Never say metropolis when you can say city.” The most valuable of all talents is that of never using two words when one will do. This is so applicable to stage plays that it is worth committing to memory. Brevity and clarity are keys of writing good dialogue.

o For plays brevity is important to assure the actors can utter the words effortlessly and that the audience can understand what is being said easily. You don’t want the audience to think about what a sentence means for so long that the play has moved on to the next scene.

For example, one of the original lines in Shakespeare in the Trailer Park, was “Dry as a tumbleweed dipped in alum and rolled in a blue law.” It was painful watching the audience try to figure this out while the actors moved on to the next scene, and then to the next act. I changed it to “dry as a funeral drum.”

o In novels you can be a little more verbose but don’t overdo it. For example, it is generally known that the beginning of A Tale of Two Cities begins, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times," which actually covers a lot of imagery. However, that is only part of the opening sentence, which continues for a total of 119 words and is also the opening paragraph.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair….

Can you see an audience sitting still for this?

• Constantly fill your Toolbox –Develop skills in using dialogue by exposing yourself to different types of media, plays, screenplays, novels, etc. I have written novels, plays television commercials and restaurant reviews and learned something new each time. Also, read a variety of genres to pick up tips on the subtleties of dialogue in that genre and how they differ from the others. Sci fi dialogue will be very different from romance or historical fiction. Mix genres, read some sci-fi, steam punk, southern gothic, humor, westerns. Different authors use different devices. Build your toolbox. When the only tool you have is a hammer all your problems begin to look like nails so the more tools you have better a builder of books you will be.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Tell Me a Story

Back when the first primitive humans huddled around an open fire after a long day of hunting and gathering they shared the events of the day by grunting and gesturing. Mostly this was to kill time while watching the day’s kill sizzle to charred doneness over the fire. Then, somewhere along the way, those grunts and finger points turned into actual dinner conversation. I’ve often wondered about that first conversation, the first time that early man managed to string together a subject and a verb into a coherent expression of his thoughts. I don’t think that first sentence was a rambling narrative of the teller’s opinion as to why the weather has turned colder, or a complaint that dinner was a tad overdone. I don’t even think it was about sex or even a recounting of the teller’s heroics during the day’s hunt and why the teller should now be immediately voted chief of the clan. I think the first sentence ever uttered was very simple, “tell me a story.” I think people wanted, and still want, a good, old fashioned story. Of course, I believe the second sentence was probably a rambling opinion or a glorified tale of the hunter’s prowess, his qualifications as clan leader, and why he should have the prettiest woman and the lion’s share of the meat. This later became the political stump speech and even later the ‘blog’. The third sentence uttered was probably a fart joke. I don’t think early man qualified his request for a story with “give me a character-driven narrative” or “give me an in-depth description of the main character’s thoughts and feeling as he hurled his spear toward the antelope,” I think he just wanted to hear about people or animals or even the gods of that time, doing things. It wasn’t until the invention of puffery by the romanticists in the 18th century that character driven narratives and deep introspection evolved to plague the storyline. When Homer penned the Iliad and the Odyssey stories were about people, gods and creatures actually doing things.

OK, we all love a good story but I’m finding good stories harder and harder to come by. I read books that have great characters, the heroes and heroines have depth, they are multi-dimensional, full of angst or humor or perseverance in the face of calamity, but they tend not to “do” much of anything throughout the story (unless you count their constant spewing of angst and introspection). I find that a lot of authors tend to get bogged down in the character’s introspection, or in the background information of the novel. I have even seen authors describe the scenery in agonizing length, taking the reader from anticipation to boredom until the story line dies. I tried to read a Barbara Kingsolver novel recently, it started off innocently enough, describing a very bucolic scene of a deer drinking at a stream in the forest with sunlight sifting through the tree branches. Thirty-two pages later that same damned deer was still drinking at the same damned stream and I now knew more than I ever wanted to know about the many ways sunlight can sift through leaves. I personally don’t hunt game, but by this point I was hoping a hunter would come crashing through the forest, shotgun poised, and blow that dear to bits. I also hoped that hunter would then reload start in on those damned leaves. So, on page thirty-three I got up, walked to the window and pitched the book into my back yard. I hope the sun gently filters through the leaves toward it for a long, long time.

A novel should be like a river flowing to the sea, the current pushes the plot along and the characters react to the changes in the flow and speed of the water. In their little character boat they survive the white water, curse the doldrums, or go down with the ship, but the focus should be on the journey to the sea, not those journeying. When the current slows, and the boat begins to flounder in the backwater, the reader quickly loses interest. But when that boat is sucked into class five rapids, and rushes along at a good clip, the reader’s heart begins to beat a little faster eyes are glued to the text, fingers poised to flip to the next exciting page. This is not the time so pause and tell the reader what boat company made the boat, that the boat maker’s tools were passed down from his father or that his daughter has a large nose, that’s the best way to lose the momentum of the book, and in doing so, lose the reader. Now, I’m no enemy of sub-plots. A good sub-plot can add to the depth of the book and give the reader a change of scenery, and/or let characters and take a breath after an exciting passage in the book. Notice I said after, not during. I have seen lots of writers try to “create suspense” by switching scenes to a sub-plot in the middle the action. This may suspend the action enough for your reader to start eyeing his open window. Also, be careful of how much time you spend in the sub-plot(s). Never linger in the subplot so long that the reader loses the string of the major plot line. The major plot-line should always be going full speed ahead in the reader’s mind.

OK, so yes, I’m a story-driven writer. I feel that the story should drive the characters and the characters should, in turn, react to the twists and turns of the plot. And when my characters start messing with my plot I calmly remind them that ‘I’m the writer here, and with a quick visit to the ‘replace all’ function I could change their names from Brick and Desiree to Eugene and Bertha. Like the Gods of old I speaketh to them; ‘I made thee and I can take thee out, so don’t tryith it’. I’ve even had to threaten to “pull this book over and turn it around” from time to time when my characters started to wander off toward the edges of my story outline.

Character driven novels move along at the whim of the characters and usually with a lot of ruminating, soul searching and belly-button staring contemplation. I don’t give my characters that kind of time. If you give your characters even a little slack time they will soon be eyeing the edges of the storyline and began to shuffle, ever so casually and stealthily, away from the plot. When I see them start to look introspective I quickly send in a tornado or have an alligator turn up in their bathtub. That’ll show those slackers. Of course I’ll go back a couple of chapters and plant the seeds of catastrophe very subtly so the characters won’t know what’s coming. They may ask “why the sudden appearance of my ten year old nephew and why are you having him flush his pet baby alligator down my toilet?” I smile and say, “just keep to the storyline and you have nothing worry about.” I alone know what these mutineers will be plotting a mere few chapters on, and now I’m ready for them.

Whether the plot drives the characters or the characters drive the plot, the major plot is still the overriding premise of the book. You should be able to express the premise in an “elevator description”. One or two sentences that describe the major plot that can be communicated in the average ride in an elevator. From that major premise you began to break out your scenes.

The flow should depict the continuity of scenes, each following logically from the one before. Once you have a general idea of the action that will happen in each scene you can begin fleshing things out. The first bit of flesh to be added is the opening scene. The first scene should draw the readers in and make them want to read on. This is not the place for background information or a narrative about the history of the characters (or to go on and on about the sun drifting through the leaves). That will mire up your story before it even gets out of the gate and the reader will glance again at that open window (you don’t want to see the sun filtering thorough the leaves onto your book). The first scene should be action or a mystery or steamy, or anything to spark the reader’s interest right away and draw them into the story. You can acquaint them with the characters later, preferably through another character’s eyes and thoughts or through dialogue. Be careful here though, dialogue can also bore the reader and slow the pace if you don’t pair it with some physical movement. I try to have my characters do something while they are talking, even if it’s just driving or eating. Try to break up long strings of dialogue with a visual image of the character doing something. I think everybody who has read Atlas Shrugged has skipped over half of John Gault’s radio speech in the middle of the book - talk about beating a dead horse. You don’t want to do anything that will make the reader put the book down. A tip I got from Tom Robbins is to “never mention food or sex in a scene or you will make the reader hungry or horny and he or she may just put your book down and go in search of something more satisfying than the written word”. Of course this doesn’t apply to erotica or restaurant reviews.

Here is an example of where I managed to put some action between the lines of dialogue.

“What is it you want Deputy?” Dorcas still didn’t turn from her keyboard. She was twisting her joystick and moving and clicking her mouse that brought images closer in whatever screen she chose. Blazer watched Dorcas’s eyes scan the screens as the camera changed from location to location, from grocery store, to convenience store to liquor store faster than Blazer could follow them. The fleeting images were different, but similar. A hopeful face in each camera before a backdrop of stocked shelves and beer packed coolers, and a clerk presenting that hopeful face with a lottery ticket.

“Am I interrupting your lunch?” Blazer Moore lurked, leaning in the doorjamb.

Ok, we have the action moving along and we have the characters doing something while they are talking, the next thing to worry about is voice. Volumes can, and have been written about the use of voice and tone in novels. In relation to the plot, just remember to be careful when changing voice so as not to disrupt the flow of the story. This was the hardest lesson for me to learn, to use only one narrative voice per scene. My characters all want to be the center of attention and they all have something so say in every scene so I keep my finger threateningly poised over the “replace all” button. Like our caveman story-telling around the fire, it’s a one person job. If too many storytellers start talking the listeners won’t know who to listen to. The reader is seeing action unfold in a scene and he or she can only see it through one set of eyes. More than one voice per scene can confuse the reader and disrupt the pace.

Now, your book be cruising along, plot purring like a well oiled machine, your characters spinning in a well greased groove and then you realize you’ve written yourself into a corner. Your main character is poised on the edge of a cliff over an abyss and an army of bad guys is closing in. You will be tempted to use a plot device - suddenly your character looks down and finds a parachute as his or her feet, or the ultimate plot device the deus ex machine. Suddenly a huge bird flies over and your main character grasps his mighty claw and is carried to safety. Resist the temptation to use a cheesy plot device. Or, if you must, go back and first introduce that plot device earlier in the book, like that baby alligator dropped into the toilet.

So, you have honed your premise to that two sentence description, you have broken out your story scene by scene and have begun your first scene with something to draw your reader in and you are steering your boat of characters through the fast moving current. Now is not the time to let down your guard and watch that plot boat float gently down the stream. If your characters are anything like mine old Bertha and Eugene are already plotting their next mutiny.