Friday, August 20, 2010
"Murdered By Pirates is Good"
I'm delighted to bring Katharine Ashe to you today. She's a debut historical author from Avon and a frequent commenter here. When I learned she had a book coming out, I asked if she'd guest blog for me and she graciously accepted. I know you'll enjoy her insights. Take it away, Katharine!
Writers call it all sorts of things. The Inciting Incident. The Call to Adventure. In screwball comedies, the Meet Cute. I still call it the name I learned from Dr. Dewsnap in ninth-grade English: the catalyst. It is the event that sets your story in motion.
Until the catalyst, the film The Princess Bride is a sweet hometown romance (well, not my hometown, but somebody’s medieval hometown—you know, they had hometowns back then too). But when the Dread Pirate Roberts murders Wesley, that sweet hometown romance becomes an adventure.
When is it best to insert into your story that all-important catalyst? Take a tip from the experts: WITHOUT DELAY.
When does Rob Reiner, the director of The Princess Bride and other hugely popular films, offer us the catalyst? How many minutes into the movie do we learn that pirates have allegedly murdered our hero? After 5 minutes and 11 seconds of set up and backstory. If you’ve taken Alexandra Sokoloff’s brilliant class on plotting for novelists and screenwriters (http://thedarksalon.blogspot.com/ ), you’ll know that a single-title work of commercial fiction can be structurally broken down a lot like a typical Hollywood film. If you count 5 minutes as roughly 1/20 of the way through the film, that gives you about 20 pages of your 400-page book to offer the catalyst.
It is in no way coincidental that in romance novels the hero and heroine nearly always meet in the first twenty pages. In a romance, the hero and heroine’s first meeting should either be the catalyst or it should be an immediate consequence of it.
A word on catalysts and prologues. Ninety-nine percent of the time, prologues are backstory. This is why you always hear that you should never under any circumstances have a prologue in your book. In The Princess Bride, Reiner recognizes this out loud to the audience. Somewhere in minute 4 of the film the convalescing little boy whines to his grandfather, “When is it going to get good?” If you give too much backstory upfront and too little action, your readers are likely to whine too.
But a really good prologue can offer the catalytic moment. Take the prologue of Rachel Gibson’s TRULY MADLY YOURS (a perfect contemporary romance, IMHO). In this prologue, a secondary character of no little importance dies. Mere pages later in chapter one, the hero and heroine are both at the funeral. If your story simply screams for a prologue, make it work for you. Your prologue may include lots of delicious backstory, but be sure to drop your catalyst in there somewhere.
Lately I’ve been writing pirate stories. Pirates are fabulous for so many reasons. Not incidentally, they are tremendously useful for creating catalysts. In my debut Regency historical, SWEPT AWAY BY A KISS, pirates kidnap my hero and heroine, imprisoning them in a tiny cabin aboard ship. Voila, Inciting Incident! In the pages before this, we get to know Lord Steven Ashford and Lady Valerie Monroe a bit. We learn what drives them, what they most desire, what they most fear. But from that catalytic moment—which pirates so nicely provide—the action takes off. The minute Steven and Valerie find themselves trapped quite literally in the same small chamber, the plot hinges upon them working together to escape. And in such intimate quarters, immersed in high tension, anything is likely to happen.
Once your story has a place to go, you can certainly take brief tangential forays along the route—indulge in a moment of gorgeous description, paint a character’s inner thoughts with exquisite sensitivity, or whatever’s your pleasure. But if you wait too long to drop in that all important catalyst and get the wheels turning, your readers might decide to get off your bus and take one that’s actually going somewhere.
Is the catalyst in your WIP right where it belongs, or could you move it forward? Do you know of any movies or books where the catalyst comes super quick?
Katharine Ashe lives in the wonderfully warm Southeast with her husband, son, two dogs, and a garden she likes to call romantic rather than unkempt. A professor of European history, she has made her home in California, Italy, France, and the northern US. RT Book Reviews awarded her debut historical romance, SWEPT AWAY BY A KISS, a “TOP PICK!” review, calling it “a page-turner and a keeper.” Please visit her at http://www.katharineashe.com/.