Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Starting a scene by breaking the rules

The “rules” say conflicting things:
  • A good start for a scene is in media res, i.e., in the middle of things.
  • You shouldn’t start a scene with dialog.
There’s an obvious conflict here, since the middles of lots of scenes are dialog-heavy.

My approach has been to (sometimes) start a scene with a single line of dialog that presents a challenge from the speaker to the listener.

Unthinkable started with “So you see, Mr Penfield, we can’t really be communicating, because true communication is impossible.”  There follow
  • a couple of sentences about the speaker;
  • a couple of sentences of setting;
  • resumption of the action.
I still think it’s effective.

In Seen Sean?, the opening line was, “I hope the schedule change didn’t rattle you too badly, Corwin.”  So we establish that
  • there was a change in the schedule;
  • the speaker had the authority to change the schedule
  • he’s speaking to someone who had a different expectation.
After the opening line, there’s an immediate establishment of characters (the victim and his assistant) and setting (the victim’s condo).

Again, I stuck with it because it worked.

It’s interesting (as an artifact) that the original opening of Seen Sean? (click on the menu above or on the book cover to  the right) didn’t start with dialog, but just with a hint of trouble: “One Tuesday in early September, about halfway between the start of school and the first hint of autumn air, a tall, broad-shouldered man with steel gray hair, deep blue eyes, and no wedding ring strode into the office of Fleming Properties with an assistant in tow. Lisa McCloskey recognized Charles Jamison, U.S. Senator, at once.”

What do you think? How much should an author break the rules in an opening?

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Naming my main characters

When I sat down to write Unthinkable, I knew how the book should start: We enter the scene with a single line of dialog (I know: the “rules” say you shouldn’t do that; maybe more in another post), and a main character’s name is given in this line.  I typed “So, you see, Mr” and stopped.  I didn’t know what his name was.

With exactly four words written, I had no idea what the next word should be.  And it was a main character’s name.

At this point I didn’t want any of my characters’ names to be symbolic or referential (though this changed somewhat when I got to Seen Sean?).

Obviously, I was “pantsing,” but hey, it was my first novel and I (mostly) knew where the story was going.

I just didn’t know a Main Character’s name.

So I sat. I thought. I sat and thought.  Some more.

The first name that came to mind was “Penfeld.”  That sounded almost right, but a quick search of the 1990 U.S. Census data showed no entries for that name.  But there was a name that was close: “Penfield”  And that was that.  Though uncommon, “Penfield” had the advantage of being easier to pronounce and spell than “Crigler.”  You might not believe some of the variations we’ve seen and heard — but I digress.

My police detective, also a main character, still needed a name.  So I just pulled a name, “Mason,” out of the air and I liked it: it was common enough (it’s in the top 150 in the Census data), and it conveyed a solid, plainspoken feel.

What do you think?  Were the names chosen well in spite of my lack of method?