Home - is where I want to be / But I guess I'm already there /I come home -
she lifted up her wings /
Guess that this must be the place...
- Talking Heads, "Naive Melody"

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Follow-up: Setting the Hook

I'm going to continue with the analysis I started in my previous post, using the same two books to explore how the hook evolves into the opening of the story--the first page or so--and what gets accomplished in the first chunk of the book.

Though I didn't really think about it at the time I selected them, Swordspoint and God's War have some superficial similarities: both have main characters who are basically paid killers, both of them are first novels. The differences, however, are enormous, as we saw in their opening paragraphs, and each continues as it began.

God's War is divided into parts. Part 1: Bel Dame covers roughly the first 50 pages of the novel, so we'll use that length as our comparative point. A bel dame in the book's vernacular is the higher echelon of killers, distinguished from mere bounty hunters; they do important work, hunting down traitors and those who have returned from the war carrying dangerous contagions. The first few paragraphs after the hook set up the events of Part 1.

The first part of God's War consists of background and setting material interwoven with present-time information about Nyx working, using Jaks to track down a target. At the same time, she is trying to evade some old associates and enemies, who consider her as having violated the bel dame rules. Nyx gets her target, but she also gets caught, goes to prison, gets out, and forms a bounty hunter team--accepting this lower-status work as all she can get, turning some of her own hunters into members of her team. Seven years pass.

The passage of so much time with no detail at all makes me wonder why the story didn't start with Part 2. With the sole exception of a very brief, glancing contact with some Mysterious People, nothing that has happened so far seems to have major significance. Nyx is tough as nails; she has a sister (not close), a dead partner (de rigeur for hard-bitten types) and no scruples, ideals, or goals beyond staying alive. The other POV we've met, Rhys, is a foreigner from the enemy country, a former dancer, an indifferently talented magician willing to work for Nyx, and religious. His backstory provides potential conflicts that could be interesting, but so far they have not materialized.

After 50 pages, these characters have not become people, and I am only continuing to read this book for my own education.

Let's turn to our other paid killer, Richard St. Vier (names can say a lot, whether they have a real-world derivation or are based in a fictional language, whether they have surnames--it's a great way to imply without stating your setting). Swordspoint has several POV characters; the plot turns on conspiracy and betrayal, so the multiple voices have a role in making events comprehensible. Let's take a look at the rest of the opening.

Honestly? It gives me goosebumps. It could be argued that this lyrical opening is too slow, that it seeks to make a character of the landscape when it should be showing us the actual characters. As a reader, I'm inclined to let people get away with beauty for its own sake; others may be more strict.

This doesn't outline events; it gives a feel. 50 pages farther into Swordspoint, St. Vier has fought two duels. Like the Jaks business, these are non-plot events that serve to introduce Richard, his lover, the setting, and the entire cast of noble characters whose schemes against one another set the plot and subplots in motion (for such a short book, there are plenty of threads).

By contrast with God's War, after those fifty pages you have a sense of what each of these people wants. Whether it's power, challenge, sex, a hiding place, everyone is after something, and everyone faces obstacles to their desires. This, along with the variety in their goals, goes a long way toward making them realistic. The backgrounding takes a while, partly due to the size of the cast, but there are no extraneous players; the plot rises organically out of contact between people whose wants are in conflict.

A long-distant version of my first novel started with the birth of one of the main characters. For both of the MCs, I included childhoods and formative events, not quite grasping at the time that I was thereby writing a biography, not a plot, that the character's story was not The Story. Many painful revisions later, the first chapter of the book contains the first events in the actual plot.

God's War starts with a bang, then appears to lose its way in a maze of past perfect background and current events that seem insignificant. Swordspoint starts slowly, like a gardener sowing a varied handful of seeds to see what comes of them.

Where do you start your story? Where does the plot start? Do you find yourself having to backtrack a lot in time to lay background? Is that background playing a part in the plot, or just in your character's background?

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