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 ( ), 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.

Why wait?

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


Gillian Layne said...

Katharine, I've heard nothing but good things about your release and can't wait to read it!

The Devil in Winter starts off with the catalyst right at the beginning. And in Renee Ryan's Heartland Wedding, a tornado starts things off with a bang!

Emily, I hope you are feeling better.

Then said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Then said...

Gillian, thanks for your lovely words! The Devil in Winter is in fact sitting on my bed table about to be read finally. I can't wait! And a tornado is a dramatic catalyst, indeed!

Emily, thanks so much for inviting me to your blog today. I'm so happy to be here!

Elizabeth Essex said...

I like to think of it as 'the moment when everything changes." I loved the first Bourne movie because of that opening shot, with Bourne floating in the water AFTER the 'moment everything changed' for Bourne. And he spends the rest of the movie trying to deal with the consequences of that moment. It was a great way to keep viewers/readers hooked - they want to know what happened as much as Bourne does.

Now, if I can only make that idea work in my current WIP!

Thanks, Katharine, great thought provoking post.

Then said...

Oh, Elizabeth, that was a great hook in a movie. Terrific. My best to you with your current catalyst! :)

Nynke said...

Hi Katharine,
thank you for a very well-told technical post! I'm just a reader, not a writer, but this is really interesting from my point of view too :).
Your inciting incident sounds really exciting, too - I love it when a hero and heroine get squeezed together like that :). One more for my to-buy list!

Emily, I didn't think you'd be gone this long - I hope recovery isn't too hard on you. Hugs!

EmilyBryan said...

Gillian--Authors used to be able to luxuriate in the "Ordinary World" of the characters for far longer. Now, we have to hit the ground running.

Yes, I'm feeling much beter, Gillian. Thanks!

EmilyBryan said...

Elizabeth--Yes, that's a perfect way to describe it--The Moment when Everything Changes. No matter what the characters decide to do, there is no going back to live as usual.

EmilyBryan said...

Hi Nynke--I didnt expect to be out this long either, but fortunately, I had some of the posts for this week early. Thanks for your well-wishes. I'm home and on the mend. It's times like this when I really appreciate being able to work in my jammies!

EmilyBryan said...

Katharine--I love it when a master at her craft shares some of her secrets with the rest of us. Thanks for a terrific post about catalysts.

Then said...

Thanks, Nynke. I'm so glad you enjoyed it! I love it too when the hero and heroine get trapped together. One of my all time favorites, It Happened One Night, of course takes that and runs. Yum! :)

Sarah Simas said...

HI Katharine and Emily!

You're right, Katharine! Emily's blog is fabulous. I adore that gorgeous header. :)

Aw! The Princess Bride. Love that movie. I was such a Fred Savage groupie. LOL And Wesley. *sigh* Was there ever a more dashing display of heroism when he forces himself to stand so he can defend Buttercup? *double sigh* LOL

Excellent post! You always offer up such insightful blogs, Katharine. Thanks! :)

EmilyBryan said...

Sarah--Thanks for the kind words and I love my new blog header too!

My family and I routinely quote The Princess Bride to each other. I especially love "I do not think it means what you think it means."

Beth Caudill said...

Great article. I loved the Princess Bride.

I'm also a fan of prologues...but my main reading started in Fantasy and a lot of these stories use prologues to set the world up for readers. So That is one rule I'll be disregarding as my story needs. :)

"Have fun storming the castle."s

Marquita Valentine said...

Hmm, my heroine trips and lands face first in the crotch of the hero....right after he has some musings about fate dropping the mysterious woman he met a masked ball in his lap.

Hopefully, that will count as a catalyst...

EmilyBryan said...

Beth--Agreed. The requirements of the story should dictate whether or not you make use of a prologue. However, we authors know so much about all the cool stuff about our characters and their world, it's tempting to think readers need to know it all too. My rule is: Give the readers only what they need to keep going. There's time to meander a bit later on.

EmilyBryan said...

Marquita--A crotch face-plant. If that's not going to start something, I can't imagine what would!

Then said...

Sarah, thank you!! I used to be Officially In Love with Wesley as The Dread Pirate Roberts. Probably why I created a gentleman-pirate hero for two of my books. ;) Although of course Wesley had the whole hunky farm hand thing going on. A romance writer just has an embarrassment of riches to choose from, doesn't she? :)

Emily and Beth, every time someone in my family drives off on a trip we wave and shout "Have fun storming the castle!" And pretty much any time someone says "It's possible" one of us follows up with "I kill a lot of people," although- uh- em- none of us actually have, of course. :}

Marquita, ROTFL! Thanks for the belly laugh. Yes, Emily, I agree. Very nice catalyst there. :)

Anonymous said...

Have read wonderful reviews for this book. Have enjoyed the blurb on it and the excerpts I've read. It is on my To Buy list. Being captured by pirates is certainly a way to start the book off with a bang.

EmilyBryan said...

Hi Pat. I've been thinking about you since my editor lost her job last Friday. Unemployment is difficult on so many levels and I know you loved your job as a librarian so much. Hope something good is headed your way.

librarypat said...

I am so sorry to hear about your editor. How is this going to affect your books and getting them published. I certainly hope she can find another job she enjoys. From what I have heard, the publishing industry is a rocky place to be right now.

I am working on digging through boxes of stuff from 4 households plus my job. It is a bit overwhelming and not going nearly as fast as I would like. Over the past few months, we have hauled truck loads of stuff to a variety of charities. It hasn't seemed to make a dent. I've decided the boxes are reproducing while we sleep. I will get to a point where everything is sorted and given away and there will still be too much in the keeper pile. That will be the biggest challenge. There is too much I really don't want to part with.

I hope you are feeling better. Take good care of yourself.

EmilyBryan said...

Pat--I'm not sure what my editor's termination will mean for my books. Frankly, I'm more upset over what it means for her right now.

In case you hadn't heard, Dorchester is in a state of upheaval at the moment. Guess maybe I should do a post on it, but the ground shifts every couple minutes. Anything I say might be wrong by the time I hit "publish."