Tag Archives: Sound of Music

The Good, The Bad, and The Slow To Start

Actions speak louder than words and a picture saves a thousand of them. These two phrases capture exactly the efficiency of the movie over the book. When we read (or write), we use many minutes and many words describing the scene: the appearance of the characters, the places they find themselves in and their reactions to those places. On film, those things appear instantaneously – in a single second, the Director (or more accurately, the Director of Photography) can transport us to a dank prison, an open plain or a distant galaxy.
All of which is a blessing for a reader like me, who gets easily bored by long passages of description and has great difficulty visualising things anyway.
Most movies rely heavily on dialogue. Next time you watch a film, or even a TV show, time the longest gap between speech and it’s likely to be less than a minute. Even in something like an epic car chase, where music and action take over, there are probably moments of dialogue to ensure that we stay connected to the characters. By contrast, flick through most books and you’ll find double- page spreads where not a single word is spoken.
All this came to me in sharp relief when I recently watched The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. The opening scenes introduce the three characters described by the title. The Director of Photography does a great job of placing us in the American West (not bad for a spaghetti western) and the combination of music and action leave us in no doubt as to what’s going on. But it’s a full 10 minutes before anyone speaks. Ten minutes! That’s a lifetime in movies. The only thing I can think of that comes close is two and a half minutes before Maria starts to sing in The Sound of Music (indeed, almost a minute before you can be certain you’ve not accidentally muted the TV), and nine minutes before the first words of dialogue.
As novel writers, we can learn from the movies, but we also need to be aware of the differences between the genres, and to accept that even if our masterwork might one day become a screen-play, it will be a different beast.
How long is too long? Well, both these films have done pretty well for themselves, so perhaps a long opening is fine, but if there’s a lesson here, it’s a reminder to the writer not to hang about too long before getting stuck into the action. Even if Julie Andrews is prancing about the mountains or Clint Eastwood is looking rugged and grizzled, there’s only so much world-building we can take.

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Let’s Start At The Very Beginning

Last week’s post considered the elements of a good first line, but there’s a bigger (and in some ways harder) issue about the start of a novel, which is *where* in the story to begin. It’s usually pretty easy to know where to finish (although I struggled with that too last week). But it’s harder to know where the story begins. The actions of any character will partly depend on the things they saw and felt and experienced outside the confines of the story itself. In a later post, I’ll come back to ways of weaving in backstory, but for now, let’s just agree that some things are backstory, and some belong in the “now” of the narrative.

You want the beginning to be punchy, to include the hook, to rope the reader in. You want it to include an exciting scene, some intrigue, to introduce the main characters, setting and plot. So it’s tempting to find the most exciting thing which happens in the first quarter of your novel, and start there. Great – fantastic beginning, all sewn up.

BUT

If you do that, you spend the rest of that quarter catching up. As a rule of thumb, if the opening (which could be a paragraph, a scene, a chapter or even a couple of chapters) is immediately followed by a backstory-dump, you started too late.

There’s no easy answer to the question of where to begin; it’s entirely dependent on the story you’re telling. Usually, you just get a feeling about it – if the start drags, you went in early, if you end up with that backstory-dump, you came late to the party.

Think about your character arc and plot – generally, the first portion of the book sets the scene, tells us about the characters before anything starts to change in their lives or their psyches. Give yourself time to show this, but then you need to get on with the story, which is about those changes.

Since I’ve stolen a line from the Sound of Music for my title – let’s think about where that story starts. We get a brief look at Maria’s life in the convent: she longs to be free (The Hills Are Alive) which causes trouble for the nuns (How Do You Solve a Problem Like Maria?); and then we’re off into the family Von Trapp, which is where the changes and therefore the plot begin.

Of course, starting before the action doesn’t mean you can’t start with a bit of action. It just has to be a little detached from the plot, whilst still being relevant at least in terms of theme and/or character. Consider, if you will, the beginning of any Bond movie (I’ve got Daniel Craig in my head – what else is new? – Casino Royale, I think). We see Bond somewhere exotic, taking down bad guys, possibly romancing a lady: none of them in the slightest bit relevant to the plot, but all relevant to the Bond franchise and exciting enough to start us off with a bang!

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