A question I’ve been asking myself during revision is how soon is too soon to drop into the main action of the story. Another way to think about this is how much does the reader need to “get to know” my characters before they’ll start caring about all the things that happen to them.
Take a mystery for example. There’s a crime to be solved, and someone who does the solving. Should I start the book with the crime or the detective? Should I get to know the victim a little first before I bump them off?
Now a good story reveals things about the characters all throughout, and those characters can grow and change depending on what happens to them, but what is a good baseline of information I should know?
Here’s another example from a project I’m currently working on. A family is on a cruise line. Some disaster occurs separating the father from his wife and daughter and he must spend the rest of the book trying to find them. How much do we need to know about his family, the ship and the circumstances leading up to the disaster before we’re off to the races. In the case of this example my disaster happens on the first page (within the first paragraph in fact). As the story progresses we find out more about the father’s relationship to the daughter and wife told through his perspective, but they are taken away before we know them at all.
Would the story be better if I had them boarding the cruise line, spending some time aboard and interacting as a family before the crisis? As with most revision questions the best way to determine the answer is to write the scene, and then if I don’t like it I can always cut it. That’s one of my takeaways from revising my first book. The stuff you cut still provides value in that it helped shape an impression of the character in your mind, or helped you to explore the possible ways of telling the story before landing on the “correct” one.
“Flashbacks” are one way to bump the action up to the front. In our mystery example this is our detective with a smoking gun over the killer’s body (or better yet with the killer’s gun aimed at him) then flashing back to what led him to this point. Some of the revision texts I have been reading suggest this is a tired structure and I tend to agree. Non-linear story telling has applications in some stories, but most good conventional mysteries can keep you in suspense until the final conflict without having to show it to you first. And again, in a mystery there is always a decent piece of action in the beginning which is the actual crime itself.
Where has the crisis begun in the books you’ve read? What books have lost you before you reach the crisis? What books reached a crisis point too soon?