Friday, August 6, 2010

Starting at the End (Please Explain)

Hi, everyone. I recently read a book that I would class as a sort of tongue-in-cheek Urban Fantasy. The classification on the spine was Fantasy (more to do with market positioning probably), but given the strong element of detective genre plus occult and magic ( and various levels of Hell) I'd definitely put it in the Urban Fantasy camp. The reason for the long introduction is that where the book sits in the genre spectrum might be relevant to my question.

OK. The book starts with a pivotal scene from the end of the story, which is put right up front as a sort of prologue. Now this sort of thing is not my cup of tea. It's like when I am watching a TV series or movie, I get hooked into the first scene and then the image fades out and the big capital letters come onto the bottom of the screen.

ONE WEEK EARLIER

That is the point where I generally start throwing things. I hate this sort of story structure. For me it negates the tension and narrative drive.

My question is, why do people structure stories like this? Is this an attempt to hook the reader? Is it to try and increase tension?

Even more importantly does it work for you?

I guess I am fairly plot driven. I like mystery and to watch the story unfold. I might even see the conclusion coming, but I don't KNOW that until I get there. Maybe some people get hooked by other elements and don't care that that know where things will end up.

Does this sort of early reveal work for you? What is your take on what this approach is trying to achieve?

28 comments:

The Robinsons said...

In one of my novels I have a prologue from the middle of the story. The story is largely character driven (someone described it as (at the time) 160000 word prologue) and a bit unusual with both sci-fi and fantasy elements. I put in the prologue for two reason. 1, to set up a bit of a mystery. But mainly 2, to let the reader know exactly what sort of story they were getting in to. The prologue explains a few of the links between the sci-fi and fantasy elements.

As ever I think the quality of the tactic depends on the story.

Scott

Dave Freer said...

Well... I am pretty linear in my plotting so it tends to irritate me, but occasional authors CAN do it well.

TMSG said...

If it's done well, it will have enough holes that readers want to fill, and they'll read through. If done poorly, I have a few more (dozens) books that I'd like to read.

Jonathan D. Beer said...

The beginning of one book sticks in my mind particularly strongly (although for a variety of reasons, not just this one). The premise of the (very short) novel is that a soldier recently transferred into a warzone has a fifteen hour life expectancy - the novel starts with him bleeding out in the middle of no-mans land.

So, will he live, will he die, is reduced to "did he make it past the fifteen hour mark?" Now, you can argue that this is both a good and bad way to set up a novel. Frankly for me it didn't matter as it was overshadowed by a great many other deficiencies, but I suppose that prologue actually made sense for what the book tried to do.

Brendan said...

Probably the important thing to do if you are to do this sort of thing is NOT to simply tell the story from a week earlier to now.

The story needs to change the readers perspective about the introductory scene as first presented, or the scene which(if written well) while it seems to wrap things up, is actually a jumping off point for further action/revelations etc.

Doreen Edwards said...

I call that bad construction and bad structure. Sometimes it feels like the writer knows the rest of the book is really uninteresting, in other words flat. It is a hook, but very often the writer simply does not deliver on the foreshadowed promise to the reader, causing disappointment. Bad practice.

Daniel Casey said...

Well, the short answer for myself is that it drives me nuts. With a thought process that looks as linear as a rabbits bramble warren, I almost always have at least four or five "what comes next" moments mapped out before I even read the what actually came next. So having a final point revealed really impacts this type of reading perspective.

On a slightly longer note; sometimes, as Brendan noted above, if the reveal is just a teaser and not really damning as a plot point, then it's alright, but it still bugs me. I can't think of an example I've read (or watched) in recent history that makes me think otherwise, it just bugs me.

Anonymous said...

I don't generally like this structure in books, but I don't mind it in movies. I think the reason is that I spend less time on the actual prologue in a movie than in a book. If it's done well, and that means by not showing something seemingly completely unrelated to the actual beginning of the story, is fine. What I don't like is that when the prologue looks nothing like the actual story with totally different main characters. I think it acts like a teaser if the story then begins with the same characters and I can keep track, but not for instance, when you have a scene set 500 years before as the prologue. That annoys me.

Linda

Kate C. Neal said...

Like Linda, I'm not a fan of this when it's in a book, and I don't think I'd ever try to write that sort of opening. But I kinda like it in movies. Done well, it injects a level of intrigue into the start, and feels like a clue to a mystery that will unravel as I watch the movie.

Stephen Simmons said...

Chris, you raise two immediate responses in my mind, which taken together make me very nervous.

1) Offhand, I can't think of a single book in which I've liked this type of structure.
2) The work I submitted to an agent's slush-pile two months ago starts (kind of) this way ...

Actually, mine is a first-person autobiography, and the first page is the character (in narrative "present", which comes after the story) making herself important/interesting enough to make the biography worth reading.

I've enjoyed this approach in TV shows, particularly shows like CSI/NCIS. But I can't think of a book I've liked that started that way.

Getting nervous now ...

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Scott. There is a lot to be said for forecasting the story. One way to piss off the reader is to imply SF action and give them contmeporary romance instead, for example.

It would be a bit of personal preference as well. I don't think I seen this used in one instance that hasn't been a let down for me. But that's just me.

Good luck with the novel:)

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Dave. When I read that intro and find out that its from the middle or end of the story, its like a hardwood splinter in my head. I can't shake the feeling of disappointment - and the drive that would have taken me through the story leaks away through the puncture.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, TMSG. I would see the tactic as a real gamble. But I think it must be down to reader expectations. It must be a form that works OK for some (most?) people. I suspect it is probably more common in crime/contemporary books?

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Jonathan. I guess the fifteen hour window is in the some class as the 'curse' - i.e. a horror book that starts with the revelation of a curse. You know the thing will have to run its course, but you don't know how each victim will meet their end. Then its just the horrific fascination as you watch each victim try to escape.

Jim McCoy said...

This type of approach can work well as a hook if done right on TV or in a movie. I'm not so fond of it in a book where it can take me much longer to go from teaser then backwards and then forward again to where the book started in the first place. It gets frustrating because I'm constantly waiting for the teaser to reappear.

To a certain extent, I think this is a bit of a lazy approach as well. Somehow, I think that this type of an approach goes like this:

"My hook sucks and this plot-point isn't foreshadowed at all. How can if fix that? Hmm...I know. I'll cut and paste this part back to the beginning of the book. Presto! I just fixed both problems!"

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Brendan. In this particular book the scene, which was from about three quarters through the book, was presented as a life or death situation for the central character. As initially presented, it seemed as though there was 'no way out' i.e. you knew he would escape, but that it should be difficult.

When the scene arrived, it was almost inconsequential. After all that, it was a real disappointment. The character got out of his predicament with depressing ease. Almost like the writer, by this stage, wasn't too interested. (Hook achieved, move on). Grrrr.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Doreen. I certainly don't get it. I can't help but think its basically a 'cheap shot' sort of hook.

The most annoying thing is, the book did not need it. It could have carried the story without it and I would have enjoyed it a lot more.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Daniel. I am right with you on this one! It gripes me to the extreme every time. To be fair though, I will have to try to investigate Brendan's idea and assess each instance now to see which ones operate more effectively (for me) i.e. don't reveal a critical point.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Linda. I could probably cope better with the scene 500 years before than the reveal with the same characters. For me, I'm happy with anything, as long as its prior to the start of the storyline - no matter how inexplicable! It just gives me impetus to try and figure out what the heck is going on.

So in moves its OK as a taster for you. That's interesting. Thanks for letting me know. I am truly interested to see what works for different people.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Kate C. OK, yep I can see that. I guess because I am plot driven, I tend to guess plots pretty quickly. So almost any sort of clue and it a bust for me - I can see the rest already. If there is no forecasting, then I can at least hold onto the illusion that I don't know what's coming.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Stephen. Actually, for the autobiography sort of approach, I think this might work OK. If someone is reading an autobiography, they have an idea already of the main points of the person's life. They know their biggest achievements and most of the 'plot points'. What they are looking for is the in fill, the personal stuff you don't get in the tabloids.

I would not be surprised if you have picked up this structure intuitively from other autobiographies you have read. I like to read autobiographies of musicians. They often start with some interesting scene from a pivotal point, and then work backwards to give the personal history. So I think you can probably relax.

Good luck with the book.

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Jim. To a certain extent, I think there is a lot of that going around. The probleme is, if the movie or book is that weak, then the artificial hook won't save it (same with damn voiceovers). If the movie or book can carry itself, then its probably just spoiled it for most people.

I must keep on the look out for instances when it is done well. It will never be something I enjoy, but intellectually I should be able to recongise its good execution.

Cheers

Brendan said...

Chris it sound like your example well and truly sucked. I think you are right that crime/murder/mystery books may lend themselves to this sort of approach.

I think Agatha Christie used it a few time very successfully. Ten Little Niggers & Endless Night both I think used this approach. But Agatha Christie was a master and we can't all expect to be able to pull off some of the stunts she achieved:)

The Robinsons said...

Red Mars starts with a prologue from the middle of the book showing one of the main characters dying. This worked for me because, knowing the character was going to die I didn't want to like him. But by the time it got to the death scene I like him anyway and it was that much more powerful.

Scott

Chris McMahon said...

Hi, Scott. Fair enough. I must admit I don't remember that.

Synova said...

I was trying to think of a novel that does this but the only examples I could think of right off are the new television show "The Good Guys". In that case I think it works most of the time because the "teaser" isn't a huge mystery even if you are waiting to see how they could possibly have gotten in the fix they are in. Also, the show is only an hour so you don't have to wait long, and also again, the flashbacks are continuous and range from years earlier to mere seconds earlier, and also lastly, it's a comedy anyhow.

I also realized that I'd considered trying something a little bit similar in one of my more-or-less stuck novels.

Only it's not starting at the end so perhaps it doesn't count anyway. It's more a problem of deciding where the story actually starts and wanting to start at a dramatic moment. As imagined, though, the "start" is the dramatic moment that the investigating agent realizes "I've seen this before" and has an idea who he is chasing.

I'm trying to decide if I need to show that bit and then go back to the "before".

Stephen Simmons said...

Synova: That sounds like something that might work in a flash-back/flash-forward, multiple timeline kind of treatment. If you're a person who appreciates "Star Trek" derivative novels, take a look at "Final Frontier" by Diane Carey (not to be confused by the Trek movie of the same title, which came later and is completely unrelated). The book takes place in two separate timelines, connected by the letters that Jim Kirk received from his father as a young boy and saved. He re-reads them in his "present", providing the transitions between that timeline and what his father was doing when he wrote those letters.

The mechanism is very specific to the situation Diane builds in that book, but it's powerful. If your detective has a folder of old notes (preferably somewhat incomplete or cryptic), you might find the same treatment helpful.

Just a thought, from someone who knows nothing whatsoever about your piece except the bit you posted here ...

Synova said...

Stephen,

It's sort of funny in a way. I was writing that up and I had an idea and then went to make a note and realized that it works even better to just start at that dramatic point because the fellow is partly cybernetic and he has actual recordings of the earlier event in his head and it's actually vital to a later event that he can take the captured data and make up a virtual event/fantasy. So a flashback will have double duty, to show what had happened and to demonstrate his ability. (And as I wrote *this* I realized yet another important thing and made a note.)

I also realized that a secondary person is going to be an antagonist and I don't *want* her to be. I don't want her to be a person who would betray him. She's hopeful and energetic in the past history part and he saves her life and I want her to be positive and upbeat and grab on to her new opportunities... but I'm going to have to have her resent him.

And I wonder if this isn't yet another reason I sabotage myself and avoid making progress on any given story.

But I've decided that later after she betrays him, maybe much later, she's going to have her happy ending. So I'm hoping that I can psych myself into writing her bad.