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Monday, May 25, 2020

Breaking Writing Rules Right: "Never Open with Introspection"

The idea for this post has been floating around in the back of my mind for a while now, and this last week when I eagerly cracked open the newest Hunger Games book, Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, and read the first eight pages, I knew it was time to write it. (Plus, let's be honest, I just wanted an excuse to write about a new Hunger Games book) (And don't worry, no spoilers here.)

Almost the entire first eight pages are introspection. And they work so, so well.

. . . like lots of other published books that open with introspection.

And yet time and time again, writers are told to not do this. So what gives? Is Suzanne Collins just such a money-maker now that she can do whatever she wants? (Maybe.) Is she just so famous she doesn't need to care about writing rules? (I hope not!)

So why does it work?

I shall count the ways. (Many of which you can use in any story opening or passage of introspection to make them stronger.)

But first, let's discuss the rule.

What's the Rule?

The Rule:

Never open a story with a long chunk of introspection.

Why it's a Rule

Many beginning writers love (and I mean, love) starting a book with big chunks of introspection. Sometimes it feels so natural, they don't even realize they are doing it.

And what can be even worse, is that often the viewpoint character isn't doing anything--literally. He or she may be sitting on a rock, thinking. Or taking a shower, thinking. Or lying in bed, thinking.

There are quite a few reasons why this is a problem.

First, the story lacks a sense of immediacy. Because nothing is actually happening. There is literally nothing important happening in the present.

Second, when most learning writers write introspection, it has the viewpoint character focusing on the past.

Oh sure, the past may sound interesting (*cough cough* to the writer *cough cough*), because it often relays what led to the present and who the character is today (even if there doesn't seem to be anything important going on . . . "today").

For the writer, it usually feels awesome writing the character thinking about his or her past--he or she is so interesting! (To the writer.) And surely his or her past is so riveting! (To the writer.)

And the writer needs to know his or her past usually to start the story, to boot.

I'm pretty sure all of us have done this at some point. 🙋‍♀️

But the reality is, for the reader, opening with a big chunk of writing about a character sitting and doing nothing and thinking about the past isn't interesting.

Like I talked about in my flashbacks article, the past is only usually interesting when it clearly links to something in the present, or better yet, future, that needs addressing--when the past provides meaningful context to the present or helps solve a current problem. But in the opening, the reader doesn't know the character nor his or her current, significant problems, so going immediately to the past is not very effective.

This is doubled by the fact that the past has already happened--it's done, it's over. Therefore, it holds little to no tension or stakes, because nothing can be changed. Not only does it not draw the reader in innately, but it can become boring because the past has nothing at risk.

The reader doesn't care about the past until he or she cares about the present. And they won't care about the character's past, until he or she cares about the character.

(Generally speaking, of course.)

But wait--there's more!

When writing a character's thoughts--they are often told in "telling" ways. After all, that's how we think. (Well, at least when we put our thoughts into language--in real life some thoughts don't actually make it to language.) And in the hands of a beginning writer, telling can be even more boring--because often beginning writers haven't learned how and when to tell well, yet. (Which is fine, we all start in the beginning). So not only is it boring, but it's vague and non-immersive for the reader.

All of these things combined, lead to slow pacing. Nothing is happening in the present. There is no real tension or risk. The past has already happened. All the writing is told. The audience struggles to care about the character . . .

And all of these things together and--look! Let's watch that new show on Netflix instead of reading. (*closes book*)

And because so many unpublished authors want to start a story this way, it's often preached to never open with long chunks of introspection.

Don't forget, most of what people read are published stories--which means they haven't seen the hundreds or thousands of stories that people who read unpublished stories have. Most of the "writing rules" come from navigating the realm of unpublished stories--because that's where you see most of the problems manifested. By the time something is published, most of the major problems are all sorted (hopefully).

Okay, now it's time for Songbirds and Snakes--err . . . I mean, how to break the rule. 😅 (And don't worry, I'm only referring to the very opening pages.)

How to Break the Rule

As I've said before, I love an excellent chunk of introspection. (The keyword there being "excellent.")

So after everything we've talked about that can go wrong when opening with introspection, how on earth can anyone do it right?

Here are some features you'll need to use to your advantage.

Think Forward, not Backward

One of the worst things about opening with introspection, is that the writer turns the character's thoughts to the past. In reality, almost every story should have some character thoughts sprinkled in, in the opening--that focus on the uncertainty that is called the future. Unlike the past, the future hasn't happened yet. And few things hook an audience better than uncertain possibilities.

This means (and you've heard me say it before!) putting in the text what the viewpoint character fears or dreads may happen in the near future or, what the viewpoint character hopes may happen in the near future. Ideally, you do both.

This is the first great rule of opening with lots of introspection. Have the viewpoint character think forward to what could happen.

Sometimes you can also get away with the character worrying or hoping about what could be presently happening--to someone else.

Songbirds and Snakes does this all over in the first eight pages.

It begins with Coriolanus worrying that if his stomach growls at the reaping, everyone will realize his biggest fear--that he's poor, which in the society of the Capitol, can have major consequences for him and his loved ones.

He also fears that his appearance will give it away (particularly his shirt), which means he simultaneously hopes that he can find a better shirt before it's too late.

Which also leads to him worrying about his cousin, who he knows is willing to even sell her body to find him appropriate apparel--something he doesn't want her to have to succumb to, but something she may be doing at this very moment.

Through the layers of his thoughts, these build and build, so that both his hopes and fears reach a climactic moment--if he doesn't take care of his stomach and his shirt, he may lose his opportunity to be a mentor, which means he won't be awarded at graduation, which means he won't be able to afford to go to university after he graduates, which means no career, no future--not only for him, but his family.

By having the introspection focus on the positive and negative near-future outcomes, we're drawn in. Which leads me to my next point . . .

Think, Significant Stakes

It's not enough to just have the character think about what could happen in the future. He or she needs to think about what significant things could happen in the future.

This means that whatever he or she thinks about, needs to have either deep, personal ramifications, or far-reaching, broad ramifications.

For Songbirds and Snakes--who really cares that Coriolanus (who will eventually become one of the worst villains in modern fiction) doesn't have a dress shirt and his stomach might growl? No one! It's a shirt. It's a stomach growl. But Collins lures the reader into caring, because each of those things have, juicy ramifications, a.k.a. significant stakes, attached to them.

These things together innately bring in tension and hooks.

Learn more about significant stakes here.

Think Complexities

Complexity happens when you smash together contrasting ideas and explore the space between them (sorry, some of you are probably sick of hearing me say this by now 😅 but it's still true!).

When you smash together things that seem to be opposites, or at least contradictory, the audience can't help but want to understand how such a thing can exist. Therefore, it draws them in.

As Coriolanus is praying cabbage soup can save him, he's also recollecting the long passed power of the Snow family. Imagine, living in a penthouse in the Capitol and having to worry about what you can stuff your starving stomach with to keep up an appearance. And isn't the Capitol supposed to be terrible? And Snow himself--starving?!

To be fair, some of the irony comes from how we know his life will end up. But that's allowed. Everyone comes into any story with some expectations. But even within this passage itself, there are opposing concepts pushed together, such as Coriolanus thinking about how Tigris's "apprentice" position is actually slave labor.

Think to Link Timelines

A big long opening with introspection about the past is boring--we've established that. But to be fair, naturally, the human mind is regularly linking the past, present, and future. In fact, some studies suggest that the reason we store memory is so we can perceive a future. Why not use that to our advantage?

One of the things that introspection can do, is link (think cause and effect) past, present, and future. And in fact, in a story, it's one of the only things that can do that in the text. It works as a bridge. And therefore helps bring temporal cohesion into a story.

Remember, once the audience cares about what could happen, they'll likely start to be more interested in what is happening or did happen. Because if something bad or good could happen, then they want to know what is influencing that potential outcome.

This means, that ideally, something in the present, or past, is affecting the potential consequence you've laid out on the page. If it's something in the past, it sucks; it's already past, the viewpoint character can't change it. If it's something in the present, it draws us in, because it could determine the outcome. Ideally, it's great if both the past and present are playing into the potential outcomes of the future. This is when you can use introspection to your advantage. After all, without it, you wouldn't be able to link timelines at all.

Likewise, when there are complexities (opposing concepts smashed together), the audience naturally wants to know how such things can exist, so, introspection may play into that, by feeding them information. How did the prestigious Snow family become so poor? Well, now I'd like to know what contributed to that. But first, I want to know why the person who will become President Snow is making cabbage soup.

Think to Sprinkle in the Concrete

The less we see the concrete present, the shorter the passage of introspection needs to be. Otherwise, it won't sustain the audience.

Sure, you can get away with a big chunk of introspection right off the bat, but it likely can't be longer than a couple of pages, and in most cases, a couple of paragraphs.

If you sprinkle in significant or informative things that are happening in the present, you can carry the introspection for longer. This is because it helps with immediacy, and therefore pacing. And if you are linking present and future together, than what's happening in the present can feed into the introspection in satisfying ways.

To be fair, Songbirds and Snakes does start in the concrete present--for half of the first sentence. Then largely goes into introspection, without very much happening in the present until Tigris arrives. But Collins still sprinkles in the present, with Coriolanus's grandma singing the Capitol anthem, which is at brilliant odds with their family situation, and therefore feeds into and influences what he's thinking.

Basically, she uses the present to emphasize, feed into, and direct his thoughts.

Similarly, it's helpful to include concrete images in the character's thoughts. Remember how I said most introspection is "telling"? And often "told" in boring ways? One of the tricks to making telling great, is include elements of "showing" into it. Part of this means including concrete thoughts. (Now that sounds like a contradiction.) Sprinkle in specifics--such as recalling the cigarette stain on the shirt. It can go a long way.

Think in Voice

Some of the best introspection is great because it reveals the character's voice.

Remember our little voice equation?

What the character thinks about + How she thinks/says it = Voice

Voice is more than word choice (though that plays a role); it's also worldview.

To get voice on the page in satisfying ways, you want to be at the deepest level of POV penetration. And guess what? That is simultaneously introspection.

Not every voice needs to be so vibrant that the snark leaps off and hits the wall across the room. It just needs to be real. And it needs to be there.

"Watching the bright pages of his picture books--the very ones he'd pored over with his mother--reduced to ashes had never failed to bring him to tears. But better off sad than dead."

That last sentence gives me all the voice I need.

"If Tigris's revamped shirt was unwearable, what was he to do? Fake the flu and call sick? Spineless. Soldier through in his uniform shirt? Disrespectful. Squeeze into the red button-down that he had outgrown two years ago? Poor. Acceptable options? None of the above."

That tells me what and how the character thinks.

And sometimes, the voice can be so entertaining or powerful, that it alone can sustain an audience for quite a long while.

To be fair, a lot of these things should be in any story opening, but this is how you can get away with lots of introspection, in particular. And you can also use these same techniques for introspection elsewhere in the story.

. . . And if you are interested in Songbirds and Snakes and haven't gotten a copy yet, you can get one here. I finished it yesterday, and have to admit--it was a satisfying prequel, in my opinion. 

P. S. I'm also looking to fill up more slots in my editing schedule. Check out my editing services.


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