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Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Bridging the Gap Between the Beginnings

There's a big, wide gap between where the story begins and where the characters began. Memories form the bridge that connects the story to the characters, the characters to the story -- and the reader to both. Very little else can build a book or kill it as quickly as the way the writer builds that bridge.

IMHO, one of the worst ways to build the bridge is by starting a book with a "prologue." It has all the appeal of watching the second in a movie series with an oh-so-helpful someone who watched the first part. You know that person, right? She's the one who'll lean over in the middle of a crucial scene to explain - "See, in Part 1 they first met on a bridge where she saved him by talking him out of jumping." Grrr. Right? Just - grrr.

Okay, all you prologue fanatics (I hear there's a clique of them hiding in a bunker somewhere in the Midwest). They'll tell you that a prologue is more like your perky little pal leaning over to give you the low-down during the previews. I'll give 'em that but really - is it any better? Where it's the sequel to a book or the sequel to a movie, I want to experience it for myself. I don't want to start Part 2 armed with my friend's opinion of Part 1. I don't even want to start Part 2 armed with the author's opinion of Part 1 - and there, in a nutshell (or a duck's egg) is the problem with prologues.

Prologues can convince a reader to close a book before they reach Chapter 1. There's another type of bridge that works a little better than prologues - it lets a reader get into the first couple of chapters before flooding the bridge and washing the reader -and her interest - far, far away. Yes, it's the infamous info-dump. Usually, it'll occur after a reader has gotten a wee ways into the story. She's met the hero and the heroine and often they've met each other. She's in the story and going with the flow when suddenly, the author interjects herself into the story. The author will tell the reader that the couple met before when they were 3 and 6 or she'll explain that the hero is the best friend of the heroine's middle brother and used to come home with her brother for all school holidays.

And the author loses the reader who'd just been getting swept up in the story - cheering for the heroine and hissing at the hero. By the time the reader digs her way out of the dump, the mood's been broken. And we all know that a broken mood is a mighty hard thing to rebuild. So the trick is to feed the reader the information in a way that it doesn't break the mood.

In two of my books I did this with a doorknob. Think about it - a hand on a doorknob is chock full of dramatic potential. In Brotherly Love a trio of brothers is at their ranch awaiting the arrival from finishing school of their little sister (by choice, but not by blood). The eldest brother is at the window watching as the carriage arrives and his little sister steps down. He reacts to her in a way that is far from brotherly. When she makes her to the porch and out of sight of the window, the older brother watches the door, recalling the little orphan he'd helped raise and wondering how she'd turned into this woman who called to the lover instead of the brother. He watches the knob emotions divided between the brother who knows he's not ready to treat this woman like a sister and the lover who is hard and taut and more than ready to treat this woman to every sensual trick he knows.

In A Sixth Sense of Forever the book opens with the hero chatting with a group of brothers who were his best friends growing up. They floor him by asking him to give their little sister - a girl he's known since she was a toddler - sex lessons. After a vigorous debate, he tells them he doesn't know if it's possible because she'd have to arouse him as a man in order for him to teach her such tender lessons. The hero heads up to her room where he knows she's taking a bath because that's the perfect test of whether she can arouse him. But at the door, with his hand on the knob, he hesitates, and has to acknowledge that he's been lying to himself. He's been running from his feelings for this girl since she was 16 because a family curse means that he can never marry a woman he loves.

In both of the above books, I inserted backstory to add to the mood I was building so that it didn't dump a bunch of information that would wash the reader out of the story. Another way to do this is by making the backstory part of the present tale. In A Faerie Fated Forever the reader learns of the faerie curse because the hero's clansmen are taunting him over the poorly hidden dowdy lass in a sack whose crush on the hero is locally infamous.

The past makes us who we are and explains what we've become. It's no different for heroes and heroines in a romance novel. But a story has to start somewhere and picking that spot is part of an author's job. Creators who get it very, very right can do such a good job at inserting flashbacks or backstory that readers or viewers are sorry the story didn't start somewhere else. I find that to be true on Shonda Rhimes' "Scandal." Last week's episode flashed back to the start of the affair between then-Governor Fitz and Olivia. It was during the campaign. Fitz was unhappily married to a wife having an affair, but he wasn't yet the Prez. HELLO - does that not remind anyone else of Mer/Der on "Grey's Anatomy"? I've always thought that the way we were introduced to Mer/Der explains a lot about how well they clicked for fans. And I think Fitz and Olivia would click the same way if "Scandal" pulled an about face next season and went back to the beginning. Let Shonda come on in Epi 1, explain, and let 'er rip. When the great Ms. Rhimes tweeted the good news about the show being renewed, I replied and asked her why she hadn't started the show back there - in that sweet spot.

Well, Shonda didn't answer my tweet but if she had, I'm guessing that she'd give the same answer any author would give to that question. The answer is - that's where the story started for the writer. I know that, but since I'm "just a fan" of Ms. Rhimes' work, I couldn't help putting my two cents in. But, like I said, the flashback epi of "Scandal" proved just how good Ms. Rhimes and her team of writers is at crafting a story. Fitting in backstory is a real test of the quality of an author's work.

A story must start somewhere but it will never move from that point unless the characters in the tale whisper to the hearts of readers. A reader will never care for a character who remains a stranger. Memories are the key to letting readers understand the characters, but it is a key that must be wielded carefully. Too heavy or too light a hand risks presenting a character in a false light. The only thing more likely to lose a reader than a character who remains a stranger is one a reader later realizes that she misunderstands.

When it's done right, memories or backstory will give a reader a clearer insight and understanding of events about to unfold in the tale. "To look backward for a while is to refresh the eye, to restore it, and to render it the more fit for its prime function of looking forward." ~Margaret Fairless Barber, The Roadmender
NOW IT'S YOUR TURN - Quack back about your thoughts on backstory, memories, Shonda Rhimes' work, Grey's Anatomy, Scandal or anything you want to Quack about. Just quack loud and quack proud and remember - insanity is more than valued - It's encouraged!

Mary Anne Graham
Quacking Alone Romances
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Picture credits:

Bridge gap

Close-up duck

All other pictures from
Quacking Alone Romances


  1. Well written post. I disagreed with all of it but you put forth a good argument :)

    Now, me, I prefer a short prologue for world building. Key word - short. A single diary entry. A brief explanation on how this world differs from ours. It helps to get me into the right frame of mind. But, as you said, if I don't like the world, I stop reading then.

    Shondra lost me in the first episode where she revealed that Olivia had an affair with the president (a married man.) In my mind, heroes don't cheat. And Olivia was set up as a hero and crusader from the get go. Finding out her former lover was married negated all of that for me. I didn't watch another episode.

  2. Elle:

    You'd better be careful. Disagreeing with the crazy duck lady makes you look - (what's that word?) - sane.

    I agree that Shondra lost a lot of people with the married/affair thing. The flashback showed that the Prez's wife was already cheating before the Olivia/Prez thing. That doesn't make it RIGHT but it makes it more human and understandable, I think.

    In Grey's Anatomy, Shondra sucked us into the Mer/Der relationship first and then we found out about Der's marriage. But, viewers forgave him because -- his wife hd cheated.

    Thanks for taking the time to comment!!

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