Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Setup vs Catalyst

My mother and stepfather, who are bibliophiles, have a massive amount of books, and whenever we visit I am drawn to the shelves. Last time I visited, the suggestion that I look into PG Wodehouse was made. So I picked up one at random (there were tons, like are of every author in that house). I am not unfamiliar with PG Wodehouse, who is most famous for the Jeeves series. My mother read him a lot when I was young, and I've read some his short stories, which were witty and enjoyable. But never a novel. I picked up A Damsel in Distress and flipped it open. It began like this:

Inasmuch as the scene of this story is that historic pile, Belpher Castle, in the county of Hampshire, it would be an agreeable task to open it with a leisurely description of the place, followed by some notes on the history of the Earls of Marshmoreton, who have owned it since the fifteenth century. 
Immediately I closed the book. A leisurely description of the place! With notes on the history of some earls! Nooooo! I remarked to my mother that this opening line was very off-putting, and the reply was that I obviously didn't know good literature. Well, that's BS--and opening with that kind of malarkey is no way to begin a novel and pull in a reader. That's pretty clear.

But neither I, nor my mother or stepfather, knew that the rest of the passage actually negates that first line, and the story does open with some action rather than the dreaded "leisurely description." Such is Wodehouse's wit that he continues,

Unfortunately, in these days of rush and hurry, a novelist works at a disadvantage. He must leap into the middle of his tale with as little delay as he would employ in boarding a moving tramcar. He must get off the mark with the smooth swiftness of a jackrabbit surprised while lunching. Otherwise, people throw him aside and go out to picture palaces.

Exactly. (And how much do you love the term "picture palace"? I'm guessing that means movie theatre.)

If you've ever read Les Edgarton's book Hooked, which is about how to write catchy fiction today, then you know Les suggests the very same thing--that you must "get off the mark with the smooth swiftness of a jackrabbit surprised while lunching."

Note that PG Wodehouse makes this clear, but then takes his time getting to his action by dint of this kind of opening. You might wonder what the point is in noting that his readers need action or else they'll throw him aside (as I did) and go out to picture palaces, when in fact by mentioning it, he slowed down the story. Since Wodehouse was no dummy, my guess is that he knew that readers, while wanting action off the bat, don't want explosive action.

That is, we want to be drawn in. We want some setup. In Save the Cat, author Blake Snyder says we need an opening image and a setup before the catalyst. We need a little time to become acclimated in the new world before the explosion occurs.

That said, the action should still be clear. The jackrabbit should still be off and running. It just shouldn't be exploding right yet.

What are your thoughts on this? Do you want some setup in your openings when your read--or do you want your catalyst right up front? How do you write them? Any examples?

And by the way, I'm totally going to read the rest of A Damsel in Distress. Update: for those of you who have Kindles, A Damsel in Distress is free. Yes. Check it.


Cathryn Leigh said...

*giggles* I've never read the book, but somehow I knew he wasn't going to go on describing what he was saying he would... I must have his sense of humor. :}

I think going into the action, farily quickly is good. But you need to get the reader involved with the character first. It's a hard balance. one I'm going to be working with as soon. Epps. :}

:} Cathryn

Sierra Godfrey said...

Cathryn, I should have known too-- you are much more attuned to literary devices than I am--but my mother and stepfather have, in addition to vast quantities of fiction, a collection of incredibly dry, boring nonfiction as well. I don't think my stepfather would bat an eye at a boring pastoral description. So, the collection being what it is, I took it at face value.

And, I wasn't familiar with Wodehouse's wit. But, now I am. :)

Character involvement--yes!

Diane Henders said...

I wouldn't necessarily say "yea" or "nay" to explosive action at the beginning of a book. I'm just looking for something that sucks me into the story. Sometimes it's action, sometimes it's not.

What I want is something in the first page that makes me sit up and say either, "Wait... what?" or "Ooh, I like this (character, narrative voice, world, whatever)."

As long as I find that, I'll keep reading.

P.S. I would have run screaming from Wodehouse's opening lines, too. :-)

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