Considerations in a First Person Opening

This post walks through my thought process in starting a short story. Hopefully, it will help someone out there who might one day encounter a similar situation.

To begin with, I try to keep myself focused on the goal of my writing and the goal of my story.

Primary Goal:

Write two short stories, one from the point of view of a mage and one from a noble, that explain the causes of the Wizard’s War.

Secondary Goal:

There are a lot of readers out there that want a story that will make them feel something. If you can achieve that goal, you can tap into a significant market absent any other criteria. Beyond that, I personally admire any author that can both keep me engaged and evoke an emotional response. Those two criteria, in fact, comprise my main objectives for what I try to achieve with my writing.

One way to learn a technique is to find a book that accomplishes a particular objective really well. Stephenie Meyer’s Midnight Sun did a better job of evoking an emotional response in me than any other book.

My goal for these two short stories is to emulate the techniques in that work. That means a deep immersion into the character from an emotional standpoint and writing from in a 1st person POV.

My Process:

I’m a discovery writer, so, going into my first story, I don’t know much about the situation or the character. I know he’s a young mage nearing graduation at the academy that serves the Three Kingdoms. He’s in Love and wants nothing more than to marry his sweetheart. Luckily, she feels the same, so it’s not a “win the girl’s heart” story (not that that’s a bad story; I just want to pursue a different plotline than my novelette, Abuse of Power). Instead, the conflict comes from a decree from the nobles requiring that permission is required for any mage who wants to marry.

I think this is a fairly smart start. The protagonist has a relatable goal. Who can’t sympathize with someone who fights for love? And the situation provides lots of opportunities for conflict.

Problems Inherent to a First Person Opening:

1st Person offers a lot of great advantages, chief among them the ability to slip thoroughly inside the protagonist’s head. It also puts up a couple of roadblocks straight from the start:

• Describing the character is difficult. People don’t generally give a lot of consideration to their how they look to others, so getting in a good description is problematic. The appraising glance in a mirror has been overdone. I’m pretty minimalist when it comes to description anyway, so I’ll probably just throw in some pertinent details in conversation – “You know I can’t see well at night with my dark eyes” OR “My light skin burns easily if I’m out in the sun too long.” I’m not overly concerned at the moment about his appearance, and I’d prefer to let the reader draw their own pictures.
• Getting the character’s name in. A pet peeve of mine is an author going too long without giving me the character’s name, and this is much more difficult in first person. This consideration shapes a lot of decisions at the start of the story.

On to the Story:

“Tomis. I’m sorry.”

That was my first thought for the opening line. By starting the next line with “I,” it immediately establishes the name of the POV character as the first word. My main problem with it, however, is that I’m having a person other than the protagonist perform the first action (speaking) in my story. That just grates on me.

Instead, I’ll add the following as the first line:

I knew something was wrong when I saw his face.

That’s definitely the sentiment I want. It filters the situation emotionally, but there are some major issues:

• I will not start any story with the first verb being “knew.” Not going to happen. I need something more active that conveys the same emotion.
• “Saw” is the bad type of filtering.
• I don’t like the alliteration.

Modified, it becomes:

I faltered at his expression.

“Faltered,” to me, conjures the exact right picture — a guy walking along and hesitating from the emotions caused by something he sees.

I do have a problem with “his.” If I were beta reading your story and saw this, I’d write, “What, exactly, is the antecedent to ‘his’?” The pronoun use without the proper antecedent, however, allows me to focus on the protagonist. I think leaving who “his” refers to as a bit of a question doesn’t harm me all that much at this point.

“What’s happened?”

I like this response, but I need to constantly remind myself to filter the situation through Tomis’ emotions. The more I do so, the better — for this experiment anyway. I need to add something like: My alarm grew. Since that’s a bit telly, I’ll change it to: My heart raced.

Granted, that’s a pretty generic indicator. Better might be something more specific to my character. Three problems, though:

1. The absolute weakest part of my writing is coming up with those perfect beats. It’s usually something that has to wait for the 3rd or 4th draft.
2. I don’t know enough about the character yet to establish the perfect beat.
3. Would a more specific indicator detract from the focus as the reader has to parse the meaning?

The end result of those considerations is that I’m going to leave it alone for now.

Cale’s eyes darted toward the arched doorway leading to the main hall before focusing behind me to the right. That he couldn’t bear to look at me wasn’t a good sign. “Another decree.”

This section is okay for a rough draft. I finally reveal who “his” referred to, and I don’t think the wait was too long. I also give him an action that shows his anxiousness.

The next line is more problematic. Normally, I’d say RUE, but I’m trying to learn a new technique rather than do what I normally do. Establishing emotional context is far more important right now than worrying about overexplaining. I can already see, however, that this issue will present constant struggles.

I like the terseness of the explanation in that it both presents a hook and fits the image of Cale that I’m trying to build as being reluctant to explain the situation to Tomis.

Putting It All Together:

I faltered at his expression.

“Tomis. I’m sorry.”

My heart raced. “What’s happened?”

Cale’s eyes darted toward the arched doorway leading to the main hall before focusing behind me to the right. That he couldn’t bear to look at me wasn’t a good sign. “Another decree.”

(Overall, it’s a little choppy, but it’ll suffice for the rough draft.)

Thoughts?

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Are you intrigued by where I’m going? What do you think of the technique? Any comments on my thought process? Does this help you at all?

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How to Create Tension

The more I study the craft of writing, the more I’m convinced that the driving force to engage a reader is a relatable character displaying emotional responses to tense situations. If you miss any of those three key elements — a relatable character, filtered emotion, or tension — you’re not going to hold your reader’s interest.

Quite honestly, I haven’t quite figured out how to define the creation of the first two of those essentials. The third, however, is quite easy, so I’m going to focus on it. Instead of telling you that you need to add tension or even explaining how to add tension, I’m going to show you.

Step 1: Give your character a goal.

Jack wants to go up a hill.

Example –

Jack wanted to go up a hill, so he did.

Commentary –

Okay, not exactly the most tense scene in the history of writing. Give me a break; we’re only on step 1!

Step 2: Create opposition to the character achieving his goal.

It’s rained a lot lately, so the only path up the hill is quite muddy.

Example –

Ready for a bit of exercise, Jack struck out for the hill, but he failed to consider the amount of rain that fell yesterday. Thick, stinky mud covered the dirt track leading to the top. He stuck his foot off the paved parking lot onto the trail, and it sunk several inches. A goopy mess coated the previously pristine white Nike.

Sighing, he considered turning back. No, he thought. I’m not going to let a little rain stop me.

Jack slogged up the path, often losing half as much ground with each step as he had gained. But he persevered. Reaching the top brought him tremendous satisfaction.

He looked at the trail below him. “Oh crap, now I have to get back down.”

Commentary –

Okay, a little more tense, but not exactly riveting.

Step 3: Increase the character’s motivation to achieve the goal.

Instead of wanting exercise, Jack needs something at the top of the hill. Let’s say it’s a magic pail of water that is the only thing that can save his dying wife, Jill.

Example –

Knowing it was his only shot at saving her, Jack struck out for the hill. He knew the slog to the top would be difficult considering all the rain, but he didn’t have a choice. If he didn’t get that pail of water, and get it fast, Jill would die. He had only hours.

Thick, stinky mud covered the dirt track leading to the top. He stuck his foot off the paved parking lot onto the trail, and it sunk several inches. A goopy mess coated the previously pristine white Nike.

Imagining himself slipping and breaking his leg or injuring his ankle kept his pace cautious, but his need for quickness spurred him faster. He desperately sought the right balance between safety and speed.

Often losing half as much ground with each step as he had gained, he persevered until reaching the top to claim the life-saving Water of the Oracle.

He looked at the trail below him. “Oh crap, now I have to get back down without spilling it all.”

Commentary –

See, this is picking up. It still could go a little further, though.

Step 4: Increase the opposition.

A hill is too easy. Now, he has to climb a mountain. Rain and mud? Really? Now, there’s a blizzard. And let’s throw a stone-hurling Cyclops in his path.

Example –

“I have to do what?” Jack said.

“You heard me. Climb Mount Oracle to reach the Water. If Jill doesn’t drink it within the twelve hours, she’s dead. There’s nothing else I can do.”

Jack peered out the window at the swirling snow with trepidation. Reaching the summit of the mountain was no easy task under ordinary circumstances. In a blizzard, it would be well-nigh impossible. But he had no choice; Jill was his wife, his one true love.

A white blanket covered the roads as he drove to the base of the trail, and the parking lot was in even worse shape. He pulled his coat around him as he stepped from the car. I don’t know which is more likely, he thought, falling off a cliff or freezing to death.

It was a long, slow slog even on the relatively level part of the trail. Jack looked upward in dismay when he reached a slope that led seemingly to the sky. A man would have to be bloody insane to try to climb that in this weather.

Insane or desperate.

After several attempts, he managed to hook a rope around a tree above him. Though he struggled to gain purchase for each step, the rope held him steady. Cold seeped through his gloves, and his fingers grew numb. He shivered, knowing that failing to hold his grip would send him into a hundred-foot fall.

A rock bigger than his head flew past him within inches of his shoulder. Frantic, he glanced about and spotted the creature. Its single red eye dominated its face, and…

Commentary –

Okay, I think you get the picture. Tension is easy to create. If you don’t have enough, make sure you have clearly defined Steps 1 and 2. If you need more of it, just turn up the volume on Steps 3 and 4.

Oh, since I left you hanging, I’ll tell you how the story turns out: Jack manages to get the water and save Jill, but, before then, a bad fall causes him to break his crown.

Pacing Example – Using Description to Add Emphasis

I do a lot of reading about writing.  I see a lot of blog posts and chapters in books telling you what to do and, sometimes, why to do it.  What I find both valuable and in short supply are examples showing how.  I’m going to make an effort to do more of those types of posts, as I’ve done below.

I’m an engineer.  I’m trained to solve problems, and I apply that training to my writing.  The following example illustrates how I took a problem section and corrected it.

Steps to Correcting a Problem in Writing:

  1. Realize you have a problem
  2. Identify the nature of the problem
  3. Determine the cause of the problem
  4. Figure out how to fix the problem
  5. Implement changes

Check out this excerpt from The Slender Man Massacre:

With a flurry of finger movement, he typed to Christy: Got something.  Tell you tomorrow.

As soon as he hit send, the device died, so he returned his attention to the internet.  He copied the link from the blog and opened his Gmail account.

Something clicked behind him.  He spun around and thought he saw movement.  When he focused on that spot, he saw nothing.

Jonathan feigned returning his attention to the monitor.  After a moment, he snapped his head back to stare at that spot.  Still nothing.

He repeated the maneuver a few more times, making rapid movements to view random areas of the room.  Each time produced the same result — nothing.

“You’re being stupid, man.”  The sound of a voice, even his own, gave him comfort.  “There’s no one here but me.”

As much as his argument made sense, he couldn’t shake the feeling of being watched.  He walked to where he thought he had seen the movement.  There was no sign of anyone and no place nearby to hide.

Shaking his head the entire way, he went back to the computer and sent the email to himself. 

A blast of cold air, like breath from a corpse, hit him square in the middle of the back of his neck.

Step 1: Realization – Though I had read through it a bunch of times and not noticed anything wrong, my collaborator immediately noted a problem.  That’s the value of a second (or third or fourth or…) set of eyes.  Sometimes you’re simply too close to the work.

Step 2: Identify – Imagine you’re in an empty room, and you feel a blast of air, like someone breathing on your neck.  It would creep you out, right?  That last sentence is supposed to have a tremendous impact.  It doesn’t.

Step 3: Determine Cause – I have an impactful moment hidden at the end of a list of other actions.  The reader doesn’t have enough time for each action to sink in before moving to the next.  By the time the reader reaches the bottom of the section, the impact of the blast of cold air is diluted.

Step 4: Determine Solution – The solution is obvious; I need to slow the pacing before the blast.

Step 5: Implement Changes – Description slows the pacing.  If I were to insert a paragraph of description between the last action and the blast of cold air, it would give the reader a chance to relax before I hit them with the hard punch.  See the revised example below:

With a flurry of finger movement, he typed to Christy: Got something.  Tell you tomorrow.

As soon as he hit send, the device died, so he returned his attention to the internet.  He copied the link from the blog and opened his Gmail account.

Something clicked behind him.  He spun around and thought he saw movement.  When he focused on that spot, he saw nothing.

Jonathan feigned returning his attention to the monitor.  After a moment, he snapped his head back to stare at that spot.  Still nothing.

He repeated the maneuver a few more times, making rapid movements to view random areas of the room.  Each time produced the same result — nothing.

“You’re being stupid, man.”  The sound of a voice, even his own, gave him comfort.  “There’s no one here but me.”

As much as his argument made sense, he couldn’t shake the feeling of being watched.  He walked to where he thought he had seen the movement.  There was no sign of anyone and no place nearby to hide.

Shaking his head the entire way, he went back to the computer and sent the email to himself. 

Beyond the whir of the CPU, nothing sounded in the library.  The silence hung over the massive room like a suffocating weight.  Each rustle of his clothes and breath he took echoed like thunder.  Even the steady tap tap of his heart beat became the rhythm section of a marching band.  Jonathan hummed a tuneless melody just to fill the void.

A blast of cold air, like breath from a corpse, hit him square in the middle of the back of his neck.

It’s a subtle change but an important one.

What do you think?  Did it make the scene work?

Cut it Out!

“Know when to hold ‘em; know when to fold ‘em.”  That’s good advice for poker and good advice for writing.

There’s a simple rule to remember — if it doesn’t advance the plot, get rid of it.

Take the following passage from the rough draft of Chapter 27 of Power of the Mages:

He had a pretty good idea of the direction from his multiple earlier sensings of the power, so he walked in that general direction.  His path took him through the center of the nearly deserted city.  Only a few of the shops were open, and those saw little custom.  Even with the relative coolness of the day, the sun shining on Xan’s head caused the mass of curls atop his head to become a discomfort.

“I hate my hair.  Brant’s and Dylan’s grow down.  Mine grows straight out.” 

He searched the area for an open barber but didn’t find any.  He did, however, spot an open clothing boutique down an alley that sold men’s hats.  Ducking in, he quickly selected a wide brimmed cover that didn’t look too hideous.  The flat black color didn’t stand out, and, aside from a black band, it had no ornamentation. 

As he placed it on his head, the shop’s proprietor approached.  “That looks perfect on you, young sir.  For the low price of one silver, you’ll have the young ladies falling all over you.”

Xan chuckled despite himself.  “I seriously doubt that, and, if it’s more than two coppers, I’ll be putting it back on the rack.”

He didn’t hear the man’s response because he sensed the magic use again.  He pulled five coppers out of his pocket, generously giving one more than what he figured was a fair price, and handed them to the older man.  No complaints followed him out of the shop.

As he rushed down the alley back to a small square with a fountain depicting some form of imagined sea creatures, he saw two men walking away from him.  Something about their walks stood out to him.  He looked at them magically.  Both glowed with power.

When I read back over this to edit it for the 2nd draft, I thought, “This is dreadful.  Why did I even write it?”  It relates nothing about the plot since the hat never comes into play in any meaningful fashion, and there’s no tension.  I finally figured out that the entire passage is there to get Xan out of the way of the two catcher’s men so they don’t see him.  There’s a much easier way to do that.  See the new version:

The winding streets confused him, forcing him to backtrack several times.  As he entered a small square, he sensed magic use again.  Trying to get a better orientation, he rushed down an alley.  When the narrow lane intersected a road, he felt the mage to his right, but movement to his left drew his attention.

Two men walked away from him.  Something about their gaits stood out to him, so he examined them magically.  Both held power.

That’s 220 fewer words to accomplish the same plot goal.

Often, the best way improve your work is by deleting the stuff that doesn’t belong.

Creating a Short Story

In my post yesterday, I discussed how to make your short stories short.  Soon after posting, I ran across this contest.  I decided to put my new knowledge to the test and create a story based on the following prompts:

  • The frozen north
  • A people in need
  • A man in white
  • A rune embroidered cloak

As I wrote, it struck me how interesting the creative process is.  I thought I’d capture as much of it as I could for a blog post.

The first thing that struck me from the prompts was the image of a man dressed all in white emerging from a winter storm.  That didn’t work for my opening line, however, because I knew that this man was not going to be my protagonist. 

That led me to someone observing the figure.  A name popped into my mind: Clark.

My theory on names is simple: I hate naming characters, perhaps because I give too much importance to them.  I hate made up names like Grok and completely abhor made up monikers that no one can pronounce like Fjosljthoa.  Simple names that you’ve possibly heard of make up my sweet spot.  On the other hand, I try to stray from sounding too modern in a fantasy piece.

I’ll often plug in a placeholder name until I get to know the character.  I like for the name to reflect the personality, and, at the start of the piece, I know absolutely nothing about him.  Moral of the story, I doubt homedude ends up staying named “Clark,” but I need to call him something for now.

Clark balanced atop the icy precipice.

My three inclinations regarding opening lines:

  1. Mention the character’s name immediately.
  2. Have something happen to the character.
  3. Put the first line by itself in a paragraph.

Check.  Check.  And Check.

Typically, a better verb than “balanced” could be found, but I love the icy precipice.  It conjures up an image of him being in danger.  This line also tells me things about the character.  For one, he’s probably somewhat athletic if he’s balancing atop an icy precipice.  Second, it’s probable he could have found a less dangerous perch, meaning he’s not risk averse.  Athletic and foolhardy.  Sounds like a teenage boy – my kind of character.

To continue with my story, I needed to know two things:

  1. Why is Clark balanced atop the icy precipice?
  2. How does Clark feel about being balanced atop the icy precipice?

The snow swirled around him as he stared over the lifeless tundra.  What an incredible waste of time.  I can’t see twenty feet in front of me in this blizzard, and nothing ever happens here anyway.

Part of him recoiled at the ungratefulness of the thought.  Most young men considered the Watch a high honor, a sign of entering adulthood, a way to serve the village.  His mind drifted to a hot fire and sharing a mulled wine with a warm body.  Sue.

He closed his eyes.  She hadn’t resisted his advances too strenuously last night.  Maybe he could relieve her of some of her clothes next time despite the cold.  If not, Mary had been eying him lately.

Now, I’m starting to get somewhere, to get a sense for who this guy is and what’s going on.  He’s selfish and insolent.  His only slight saving grace is that he has the wherewithal to be chagrined about being selfish and insolent.

Believe it or not, those three paragraphs set the entire story.  We know the protagonist is coming of age and a part of a community.  It’s the perfect start to a hero’s journey, and, since we’re starting at the first stage of that honored format, our short story should focus on his decision to take on a quest.  We’ve also established the change we need to see in him – going from selfish to selfless.

Sighing, he turned his gaze to the horizon.  At the base of his post, a figure in white emerged from the driving storm.  Clark started, and his leg slipped.

He reached frantically for any firm hand or foot hold.  His body leaned over a fifty-foot incline littered with jagged rocks.   Grasping at the ground, he found only piles of snow.  He shut his eyes.

This is not going to be fun.

The world lurched as he tumbled forward. 

Number one rule of writing action: put your protagonist in danger.  Check.

Now that I’ve given a brief taste of the Ordinary World, I need a Call to Adventure, so next up is to use the resolution of the sticky situation to provide a reason for him to leave his village.  I’ve got some good ideas how to do that, but you’ll just have to wait to read the story to find out what those are.

What do you think so far?  Are you digging it?

A quick note on the hero’s journey: a standard part is the Denial of the Call.  This portion, usually, is my least favorite.  In Power of the Mages, I skipped it entirely.  Why can’t a hero desire the adventure and the quest?  To me, having the protagonist always not want to go gets old.  This story, however, is all about the protagonist changing from a person who would not take on the important mission out of selfishness into someone who would risk his life to do so.

I’ll post the finished product on this blog after the contest judging is over.

Let Me Tell You Something

In this post, I asked if I made a mistake in telling instead of showing.  A commenter asked me to share specific examples.  Here are four places in my writing where I have made that choice:

The first instance involves summarizing.  “A story is life with the boring parts removed.”  In Power of the Mages Chapter 2, I have an interlude where Xan distracts his adoptive father.  The anecdotes from Master Diwen are not meant to be exciting, and there was no plot reason to relate them to the reader.  However, I didn’t feel that I could just skip the portion in question without making the scene choppy.  I summarized.

Xan cut her off with a sharp look.  “How are things at the bank?”

As he hoped, the question elicited fifteen minutes of anecdotes about his guardian’s business.  Xan strove to appear interested and not let his eyes close.  No one mentioned anything more about sleep or his health before Master Diwen left.

As soon as the door closed behind her dad, Lainey released her tongue.  “You can’t keep dismissing this problem.  You act like you haven’t gotten a good night’s sleep in a month.  You can’t keep your eyes open.”  She put her hands on her hips.  “You need help.”

The second instance involves motivation and emotion.  I want the reader to clearly understand why the POV character is behaving the way he is.  In Abuse of Power, I could have written a scene just for the purpose, but I chose telling in order to keep the writing tightly focused on the plot.

He chose a specific spot for each step.  Despite his bulk, the resulting crunch of leaves and sticks blended into sounds of gurgling water and a gentle breeze stirring the canopy of treetops.  The cool night air and the excitement of the chase made him feel alive.

How dare she ask me to give up this.  The thought made him want to tear a limb from a nearby tree and crush it into splinters.  If she knew how I felt, maybe she wouldn’t have asked, and we’d still be together.  A quiet voice in the back of his mind reminded him of how many times he had told her just that.  Fighting not to scream in frustration, he picked a patch of ground covered in moss and stepped on it.

The third instance involves transitioning between scenes.  When time passes with nothing important happening inside a chapter, I could end a scene, put three asterisks, and start a new scene with contextual clues as to the new time and location.  In Power of the Mages, I decided to only use that technique when I’m changing POV characters.  Instead, I use a short, telling paragraph to indicate what is happens.  Here’s one I wrote in Chapter 3.

After an hour of nothing happening, fatigue overwhelmed him.  He resisted closing his eyes but found it impossible.  Soon, he fell asleep.  The guards roused him briefly for lunch and again for dinner.  Otherwise, Xan spent the entire day in slumber. 

The fourth instance involves backstory.  There’s always a concern with losing the reader by incorporating too much history.  I think, however, that some is required for epic fantasy.  In Chapter 5 of Power of the Mages, I included a few paragraphs that I felt the reader needed to know.

As he studied his friends’ faces, Xan reflected on the laws against magic.  A half century ago, a powerful magic user called the Lion rebelled against the three kingdoms, seeking to take power himself.  Many of the mages, tired of bowing to oppressive restrictions set by the mundane government, sided with him.  Another great magic user, the Eagle, came out of retirement to lead the opposing force.  The resulting battles, the Wizard’s War, called the War of Lion and Eagle by some, raged for more than ten years.

The conflict decimated the ranks of mages.  Sandhold’s king persuaded the leaders of Waveshire and Spiredom to act.  Their combined forces wiped out the remaining magic users, save for some few who agreed to no longer use their abilities and not to train new recruits.  Prohibitions proscribing execution to any born with magical ability became law following the Eagle’s death a few years later.

With the regulation in force for so long, the population gave it no thought.  They considered it evil, much like murder or rape, without questioning its fundamental morality.  It amazed Xan that people revered the Eagle while reviling people who, like the town’s namesake, used magic.

I’d love to hear your opinions.  Was I justified in Telling instead of Showing in these four places?

My World Is Defined by What I Write

I’m learning a particular style of writing.  I’m not saying that it’s the only style or even the best style, but it’s what I’m focused on at the moment.  It does seem to be the “in” thing as far as modern writing goes.

This style says that the following opening is horrid:

Joe lives in Dallas.  In the year the story takes place, 2012, he’s 22 and working at an entry level position as a bank teller.  With a degree in economics from LSU, he expected more from life.  He’s frustrated with his low pay, menial job and his lack of a love life.  His hair is cut short to conform to his employer’s dress code but spiked to try to give him some degree of individuality.  The length still riles him every time he looks in the mirror.  Even his car annoys him – a 1996 Ford Mustang with two dents and holes in the upholstery.

The main problem with the passage above is that I’m trying to tell the reader everything they need to know about the character up front instead of developing him slowly.  A secondary concern is that I’m revealing details that may not be relevant to the story.  For example, does the reader need to know that he went to LSU?

In the style of writing that I’m learning, a setting detail should be included only if it does one of the following:

  • Sets the scene, but only a thumbnail sketch – Think of a play.  A single cardboard tree stands for an entire forest.  A table with two chairs set with plates indicates a dining room.  Add a menu, and it’s a restaurant.  You can be a little more detailed with the written word but not much.  Give the reader only enough information to create a picture in their mind.
  • Set emotional context – We’re viewing only the things that the character sees.  If he’s looking at roses and admiring their beauty, that says one thing about his emotional state.  If he sees leaves decaying on the ground, it says another.
  • Provides some important plot purpose – If the character is going to stab someone in chapter 2, you need to make sure that, at some prior point, he has access to a knife.

Take Joe.  He looks in the refrigerator and sees:

  • Perhaps a bottle of Abita Beer – Since this is a, presumably, small regional brand, this helps set the scene.
  • Perhaps a carton of milk – This can remind him of his dead father who used to guzzle milk straight from the jug, much to his mother’s annoyance.  It’s a fond memory of happy times but saddening due to the loss.
  • Perhaps a bottle of juice – Later Joe is going to drink that juice not knowing that his roommate has poisoned it.

Similar to setting, I’m going to develop my character through his actions, but I’m only going to show you those things that have some bearing on plot.  Perhaps Joe has a complicated love/hate relationship with his mother.  Since the plot revolves around Joe’s poisoning by his roommate, maybe that relationship with his mom has no place in my story (unless the roommate’s motivation for attempted murder is driven by his annoyance by the telephone fights to which he’s constantly subjected.)

The point is this:

I am only going to reveal details that directly impact the story.

This constraint gives me an important advantage; it allows me to keep my story tight and engaging.  There’s no getting bogged down with unimportant details.  There is no chasing of rabbits.  It does, however, lead to an important caveat.

This method only works if the reader allows me to shape my world as I go.

This is the first line in Power of the Mages:

The bottle slipped through Xan’s fingers. 

My expectation of the reader is that a void exists in his mind when he opens my book.  After reading that first line, he fills that void with a figure and a bottle.  Perhaps the figure is humanoid or perhaps not.  The bottle could look like a soda bottle or a whisky bottle.  The only thing firm is that the figure has some indeterminate amount of fingers.

Later I give more details:

At seventeen, young for a journeyman apothecary, he strove for perfection, to be precise in his movements.

Now the reader knows the figure is a male, young, and probably human.  If the reader, for whatever reason, had pictured Xan to be old with a wrinkled face, I expect the reader to replace the image with that of a young man.

The reader’s responsibility is to fill in his mental picture with dashed lines for the details I have not yet given.  When I write something specifically showing that detail, he has to erase the dashed lines and replace them with the solid ones I’ve shown.

My responsibility as the author is to keep the solid lines consistent and the reasonable.  If I show Xan with curly hair and later show it to be straight with no explanation in between, the reader has every right to throw the book away.  Similarly, I must keep the details within the realm of the possible.  If Xan has three-foot long hair and gravity in all other ways works normally, I can’t have his hair stand straight up without some explanation.