Michaeline: Descriptions in the Beginning

Don't leave your readers confused! Give them the basic facts up front! (image via Wikimedia Commons)

Don’t leave your readers confused! Give them the basic facts up front! (image via Wikimedia Commons)

So, this week I’ve been reading an anthology of gay fantasy romance, and it’s been really good so far. But, since I’m not writing a review but a craft analysis, I don’t really want to name names – I’m going to take a tiny quibble and blow it up large, and see if I can figure out how to avoid it.

The great thing about an anthology is that you get a variety of usually new writers with lots of beginnings all packed in one volume.

The first story had a rocky start. We started in a Chinatown, and I was ready to roll with that – but I didn’t have a good feel for the “when” of the story. Something about it made me think of a Chinatown from around the 1900s; there were no cell phones or Land Rovers to tell me otherwise, and my first clue that maybe we were in the modern world was a burrito in about the fourth paragraph. I remember distinctly thinking, “Would a 19th century copper really know anything about burritos? Well, maybe the author is trying write a very cosmopolitan cop.”

We kept in this twilight Chinatown (which totally was Chinatown! But a kind of eternal, no-time Chinatown) teetering on the edge between 1895 and 2010 until finally in the 13th paragraph, the author talked about a cup of coffee and a female police officer. I thought, “OK, they’d have cups of coffee. They might have lady police. But I think we’re in more modern times.” Paragraph 16 brought tourists (could have happened in 1900; I’ve read accounts), but finally in paragraph 17, the BART (San Francisco’s bus system) appeared, and I thought, “Hallelujah! I know when I am!!”

If only in paragraph one or two, there had been some office workers waiting for the BART, and scattered by the wild chase going on, I would have been able to concentrate on the exciting story.

The author did a great job of creating a physical place or the “where”. The “what” was a chase, which is always interesting when done well. It foreshadowed the “why” by producing an antagonist and a conflict that was about to bloom into bigger conflicts. As for the “who”, it was enough to know that our chaser was a half-fae trying to help dragons get their eggs back, despite natural inclinations that did not include running in the morning, and that person was familiar with many cultures and especially knew this Chinatown. You can’t do everything in 10 paragraphs.

Still, I was thinking 17 paragraphs is far too long to be wondering what era we are in. I got to wondering if as writers, maybe we need to be reporters, and at least make an attempt at providing at least four of the five Ws (who, what, when and where).

Then the third story confirmed that theory. It began with a variation of “Marley was dead” – the famous beginning to Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”. So, I was firmly set in a Dickensian 19th century England, and every word after did nothing to dispel that theory. The “when” and “where” were established in three words for me, and every follow up word did nothing to make me doubt the illusion I built up. Presenting a dead guy in the very first sentence provides such an intriguing “what” that I was willing to go along with the writer for a few paragraphs to find out what was going on. By the third paragraph, we got the “who” of the protagonist and what and why he was so upset came out directly in the fourth paragraph. The details and the language all confirmed what I imagined from the first sentence, and I felt very safe and secure in the writer’s world.

One note about this story: the love interest doesn’t show up until the second scene, although, in a way, he is definitely in the first scene’s subtext, driving the whole story.

So, I guess add that to your first scenes checklist when it’s time to edit. Do you have the who, what, when, where, and maybe why and how?

The following two questions interest me: Is the protagonist there in the first paragraphs? (Note: in the third story, the protagonist didn’t show up on the page until the third paragraph, but was there in the subtext.) How about the romantic antagonist (love interest)?

I would say it’s not as important. I think there’s some value in “the establishing shot” that gives your reader a tiny, safe ledge to stand on when reading a story. It better be one hell of a view, though, and you better hustle in the protag and an antagonist of some kind in pretty quickly.

I’m still thinking about this. For every rule we set, I’m sure there’s a great story somewhere that breaks it good and hard. How about you? What did you like and dislike about the beginning of the last story you read or wrote?

5 thoughts on “Michaeline: Descriptions in the Beginning

  1. I’ve been judging entries for a chapter contest. My entries are Contemporary Series (aka category romance, aka short contemporary), so I knew the when before I opened each document. Since these novels may not always come so neatly categorized, I should go back and verify you can tell when you are. Thanks!

  2. Now you’ve got me riffing, when I should be editing. Billy Mernit, author of Writing the Romantic Comedy and the Living the Romantic Comedy blog, recommends that Scene 1 introduces the protagonist, Scene 2 introduces the love interest (which, in romcoms, is generally the antagonist) and Scene 3 brings them together. That seems to be an approach I’ve fallen into.

    • Oh, that’s an interesting progression! I remember hearing somewhere that the love interest should be there in the first scene, and I didn’t question it much, even though I know for sure that isn’t the case with many romances — Heyers in particular. I was reading a lot of Heyers when I heard that.

      I think we usually do get a lot of cues. Even in something self-published, there’s a cover and a blurb and all sorts of things to help us get into the when. The anthology is really something different, though. The genre doesn’t give us a clue as to when a story takes place. But, knowing it’s gay fantasy, I felt that the writers didn’t feel a lot of pressure to emphasize the gay part (hardly any of them showed the characters as gay from paragraph one, so far), and the magic isn’t necessarily in the first scene. Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t.

      It’d be fun to see how those types of expectations change from genre to genre. A historical romance, for example, would need strong when clues. Paranormal romances are often contemporary, but there are a lot that have steampunk (19th century industrial) influences, so when is important, too. Contemporaries would have to give strong clues about the where, I would imagine, and the social issues that are going to be involved.

  3. So what I’m wondering is—if the protagonist doesn’t show up until paragraph 3, what’s happening in paragraphs 1 and 2? Seems like all you’d have would be setting and weather. I’m all for setting, but we read for the characters. It would have to be a particularly gripping opening two paragraphs to get me to continue reading that story.

    • Here’s how I think the writer made it work (for me, at least).

      1. First paragraph: dead guy introduced, plus literary reference to a rip-roaring ghost story. OK, I’ll stick around for a bit. (And it certainly helps that the first paragraph was only six or seven words long.

      2. Second paragraph: description of dead guy. Two rather long sentences, but only two, and every word counts.

      3. Why dead guy matters and the rest.

      Although, upon reflection, the first two sentences were a bit of a cheat, because the dead guy wasn’t very “A Christmas Carol”-y . . . I think. Maybe he was a warning to take a life of more moral rectitude. But in general, no. It rang a bell in my memory, and I read further to find out just who was ringing that bell. I didn’t feel cheated while I was exploring this story, and actually, I don’t feel cheated now.

      I will say, I’m a kind reader, and will usually give a book five or six sentences to grab me (unless I’m in a bad mood, or the sentences convey something I just don’t want to read). But in this case, the writing grabbed me from the beginning, and kept me actively engaged until the end. YMMV, of course (-:.

      What works, works, and if it’s not working, then it’s time to look at the rules and see if something needs to be tweaked. (Although, I’m starting to wonder if The Rules are somewhat like tarot cards or Oblique Strategies, which simply present outside information to the creator which might not have crossed their minds otherwise. If The Rule isn’t useful, pass on to The Next Rule — that sort of thing. That would be a very useful function for The Rules, and people wouldn’t mind so much when The Rules are contradictory or are simply cluttering up a bit of writing.)

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