There is a golden rule in screenwriting. Start a scene as late as possible and get out as early as possible. That is, don’t start a scene with a man strolling to work, walking into a building, riding up in an elevator, getting called into the boss’s office and then getting fired. Start the scene with the man already in the boss’s office saying “YOU CAN’T FIRE ME!”
This great advice goes for novels as well, both for each chapter and for the overall story.
This topic is heavily on my mind this week because I was reviewing a novel about a woman who, in 1891, leaves her husband in Boston, travels to San Francisco, boards a ship and sails to Hawaii. There she meets a lesbian and has an affair.
The real story is about the heroine’s love affair with this Hawaiian lesbian. The problem was that the novel slogged through 70 pointless pages before the heroine landed in Hawaii, and another 75 pages before she meet the love interest. After a 100 boring pages of what should have been back-story, I emailed the author to tell her I couldn’t give this novel a glowing review. She was adamant that my interest level would soon pick up and that the ending would be very satisfying. Hoping she was right, I read another 100 equally boring pages, which brought me to the book’s halfway mark. I emailed her again to inform her I would not invest any more time in her novel because I couldn’t recommend it.
She wrote back, again adamant that if I kept reading I would love the story. What she doesn’t get, is you can’t bore the reader with 200 pages of tripe before getting to the interesting part. You have to start with the interesting part. You have between ten and twenty pages to hook the reader. If you don’t grab their interest and hold it, you’re done for. And the way you do that is by getting to the point, quickly.
Start as late into the story as possible. In the example above, the story should have started with her seeing Hawaii for the first time from the ship. In chapter two, she could have given 10 pages of back-story telling why she left her husband and sailed to the islands. By chapter three she should have meet the love interest. There, 200 pages cut down to 30. And my point is, that 30 pages would have been much stronger with all the dull crap cut away.
In order to start the story as late as possible, the writer needs a clear understanding of exactly what the story is about. In the example above, the author clearly thought the story was about the heroine’s journey – NOT! The story was, or at least should have been, about the love affair.
So my tip for this week: Understand what your story is about, and get to the heart of it as quickly as possible. There are not many hard and fast rules in writing, but the cardinal sin is: BORING THE READER! Not for a chapter, not for a page.