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Monday, July 12, 2010

Dying Star

To modify a famous opening sentence, "All good writing is good in pretty much the same ways." Whatever the genre--when it comes to telling stories--certain ideals, conventions, and principles apply. The law of economy and efficiency; concreteness over abstraction. Show, don't tell.

Then there's the convention know as in medias res. The Latin phrase, which translates to "in the middle of things," describes a narrative technique whereby, instead of telling stories from the very beginning, authors plunge their readers into conflicts already underway. Especially with respect to the first pages and scenes of our stories, ideally we want to invite readers into worlds populated by characters whose lives are already complicated by situations which, if they haven't set a plot in motion quiet yet, will do so very soon. In medias res.

The genre here is science fiction. The story opens with Zech, the hero, twenty-minutes from a confrontation with some rivals to whom he is about to make an offer they can't refuse: at least he hopes they won't refuse it. In the bedroom (or the equivalent) of his starship, he picks out a suit custom-tailored back in Astria (his home planet) from the fleece of a "very rare animal." He shaves his stubble and—later, in the kitchen adjacent to his starship laboratory—takes his daily vitamins (likewise a product of Astria). And though he wishes to swallow them with something presumably stronger than water, he finds the bottle empty. But then it doesn't matter: whatever was in the bottle, he doesn't need it anymore.

Take away the sci-fi trappings: the starship, the "omni-com," the mention of other planets and rare creatures thereof turned into suits—and what's left? A man getting up in the morning, doing his toiletries, getting dressed. In a word: banality. Why do so many stories in writers workshops start with characters waking up, stretching, brushing their teeth? Maybe because their authors haven't located the true beginnings of their stories, or they're too timid to plunge straight into situation and conflict. Or maybe they feel they want to "milk" things a bit more before getting into the action.

But where no suspense has been created, there's nothing to "milk." A character getting out of bed is a character getting out of bed—whether the bed is in a suburban tract house in Pine Hill, New Jersey, or on a space station orbiting between Saturns rings, makes little (if any) difference. Just as looking at the readout on his omni-com makes Zach want to yawn, so readers are likely to find themselves yawning through this opening scene, despite it's author's game effort to front-load it with suspense by telegraphing a future dramatic event in the opening paragraph. But that event won't occur for another twenty-minutes. Meanwhile we're stuck with a character contemplating his razor stubble while we're treated to a nickel-tour of his spacecraft.

My suggestion: open in medias res, with the promised dramatic deal scene. We can learn about Zechs suits and his razor stubble later.

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