Friday, April 20, 2012

How Much Lead-In Time do You Really Need?

Astronomical Clock detailRight now I’m writing the fourth Memphis Barbeque mystery.  I’m still working on the first draft and, like all first drafts, I’m realizing I’ve got some issues.

The biggest one I’ve got right now is that I’ll need to move the discovery of the victim’s body up.  Right now, the body is found around page 32 and that’s going to be a bit too far back for my editor (and readers.)

I’ve read posts where writers have fussed about having to put the inciting incident so close to the front of the book—but, to me, that’s just the modern reality. Unfortunately, we’re not only competing with books that have that early hook, we’re also competing with short attention spans and readers hooked on TV, computers, and game systems.

I think late inciting incidents presents a recurring issue for most writers and for many genres.  It’s easy to write in a long lead-in time while we’re setting up the story’s big event.  (For a nice review on a inciting incident, take a look at writer K.M. Weiland’s posts:  one on maximizing your inciting incident and one on the difference between the inciting incident and the key event.)

As an example, here’s an overview of what’s going on with my current story (and I’m not addressing this until I’m done writing the first draft):

First of all, I’ve introduced several of the main characters in the story—my protagonist and two important supporting characters. 

The characters are introduced through a scene where a ticking time bomb element is in place (and no—I write cozy mysteries, so this isn’t an actual bomb, but it’s a stressful event with a stated deadline.)  So there’s some tension—but it’s not the inciting incident.  It’s not the murder.

Then I started setting up the murder.  I introduced another of the supporting cast and wrote a scene to show how the future murder victim is making certain people unhappy….two characters talking about the future victim.  One person he’s making unhappy is close to my protagonist, introduced in the opening scene.

But a murder needs at least 3-5 suspects just to keep the reader guessing.  So I’ve got an additional, tense scene with the future victim and some future suspects—people that the protagonist and supporting cast don’t really know, but who play important roles in this book.

Then I’ve got the setting to work in—and this setting is important for this particular murder.  I write in a scene at the festival, bringing in the elements of the setting that are important to the murder.

Finally—the body is discovered. 

Now I know that I’ve kept things moving along in those 30-odd pages.  I’ve set up the murder so it’s not just some out-of-context, out-of-the-blue body being thrown at the reader.  I’ve had tension and conflict and humor and necessary character introductions.

But I know that my editor will want me to move the body’s discovery up.

This means that when I’m done with this draft, I’m going to probably cut out some of those scenes.  There was a time when I’d have dumped the body in a prologue (you’ll see that in a couple of my first books) and then proceeded on with the story exactly as I just explained it above.  I’d crossed off the body’s discovery by putting it on the first page of the book, then moved back to my usual set-up.

I’m not as crazy about doing that anymore.  It worked all right, but now I get the feeling that the whole time the reader is reading the set-up, they’re wanting to get back to the body they’d heard about in the prologue.  I just don’t like it as much as I used to.

So what I’ll do at the end of this draft is to ramp things up. I’ll move the discovery of the body about 10 pages up.  I’m going to have some of my character development and introduction in response  to my inciting incident.  After all, it’s going to be a stressful event for these characters—their response to it will show a lot about them to the readers.

I’ve also realized that I disclose a few things in my book’s beginning that I could hold off explaining until later.  There’s, I think, a tendency for writers to want to loop the reader in.  I know I have that tendency.  It’s good not to want the reader confused, but if we’re just holding off on revealing a connection between characters or a character’s secret—there’s no reason not to let that  extra element of tension spice up the story.  Why not?  

Working in the inciting incident:

Have it be your opening hook.  The characters’ reaction to the events will be the readers’ introduction to them.

If you’re trying to delay the inciting incident but hint at it (to keep readers hooked), use flashbacks and flashforwards with caution.  These can either backfire or intrigue.  The ones I read seem to backfire more often than not.

If you just can’t think of a way to move the inciting incident closer to the front of the book, make sure that you’ve got a good amount of tension and conflict in your lead-in to that point.  If the first part of your story is all backstory and set-up, the reader might not stick with it.

Remember that we don’t have to tell everything upfront.  We can raise questions and delay answering these questions until later in the book…even at the end of the book.  As long as it’s not confusing or unduly frustrating, this delayed revelation adds tension to a story. See if some of that explanatory lead-in material can be put off until later in the book.

When do you usually include your story’s inciting incident? Do you ever have to push it up?  As a reader, when do you find yourself losing interest in a book—and is it related to the placement of the inciting incident?