So many good comments! Thank you all so much. I appreciate each person taking the time to post.
Overall, the character’s motivation is important, I agree—no, let me make that crucial. Without it, you’d have no story. It’s like … the use of light and shadow and color in a painting.
I’m not always good at hammering this sort of thing down for my own stories, however. Anyone else’s, I can do—although admittedly I’ve hated doing literary analysis and still am at a loss many times when it comes to quantifying what makes a story “work” for me. It’s been difficult, then, to figure out how much is just density on my part, or if there really is a certain amount of flexibility allowed in the early stages of certain story structures, specifically in Hero’s Journey—which was the subject of my original question to Writer Friend #1. In Hero’s Journey, you have a character plucked from ordinary life into some grand adventure—an adventure that he mostly likely isn’t thrilled about, at the outset. Frodo and the Ring is a good example. Frodo didn’t have any grand goals, any burning desires (except maybe for some good pipeweed) … until the nasty business of the Ring was thrust upon him.
Now, I realize that writing fashions have changed, and it’s no longer considered proper to start modern works with a whole chapter on “Concerning Hobbits” … but time after time I’ve picked up fairly new SF/F in the bookstore and find … description, backstory, the main character going about everyday life. (Yes, I plan to put this to the test again the next time I visit the bookstore, and watch me be wrong just because I’ve slapped the words out here for all the Internet to see.)
Another example of this is seen in Star Wars IV: A New Hope, where we see Luke Skywalker at home on his uncle’s ranch, with no greater immediate ambition but to finish his chores as quickly as possible and then go hang out in town. We don’t find out until a bit later of his deep longing to leave his homeworld and be—something more than a Tatooine farm boy.
Anyway, I’m not discounting that part of my disgruntlement over this is probably due to the lingering sting from all the Genesis contest feedback. It was a wonder and a marvel that I finaled, and I’m still in awe that such a thing happened, and that I wound up with critiques from at least three authors that I greatly respect and enjoy. But they were hard to receive … hard … knowing as I did that all the explanation for the context of the story lay just beyond the cutoff point of the contest entry, and that I should have known to work it in for the contest if nothing else. (Yes, I was shocked the first time I found out that writers often tweak a submission just for a contest …)
But it’s made me think long and hard about why I wrote the beginning of Gift the way I did. I realized that I’d had the mantras about backstory so beaten into my head—don’t dump it all at the beginning, work it in by shreds, make chapter one all action then introduce backstory in chapter two—that I completely stripped out all backstory, with the exception of a couple of small comments, until the middle of the second chapter. This approach works well for some of my readers, but others were frustrated that there was no frame of reference for context until later, and no immediate sense of overarching motivation in my main characters.
After having several weeks to think it all through, and getting some helpful suggestions from a handful who have read the story in its entirety (and let me tell you, all of this has made me think hard about who to choose as critiquers for my next story!), I think I have some solid ideas on how to remedy this in the next revision.
But it still all feels, well, a bit artificial to me. 🙂
Context is all. STAR WARS: A New Hope (I still think of it as Just STAR WARS) starts with IMMEDIATE life and death conflict. That’s a hook. It sets up a contrast between the fighting and the boy Luke on the planet. Ergo, what the juxtaposition says is: This boy’s life is about to utterly change.
His robot fritzes, so we know he’s gonna need a new one. And what did we just see up there in space–robots.
Visually, we’ve been connected–what’s happening UP THERE is about to touch this unsuspecting person DOWN THERE. We’re engaged.
Conflict up there, big. Conflict down below (the “dead” bot), small. But we are already in suspense mode. We know something big is coming.
If one can do that novelistically, it’s no different than having a novel hook and setting up a strong, engaging situation. We can wait for clarification of eventual goals and motivations, because we already have established danger, conflicts, and that life is on the threshold of upheaval.
Oh, and we already have some motivations and goals set up in the “above” sequence. Survival, escape, a message. It may not be Luke’s, but it’s still someone’s life on the line.
And I showed in the ACFW post how the very first pages of DUNE have the set-up that says, “This young man’s life is about to change hugely”–and then he is tested, severel, and we begin to understand that bigger tests are coming, it’s foreshadowed.
Tolkien (who I couldn’t read the first several times I tried cause the opening is so fricken boring, but he eventually gets rolling) had not only a different audience, he was writing with a lifetime’s worth of scholarly engagement with myths and tales and linguistics. So, there is the scholarly voice. High Fantasy allows for more set-up, but one better have a mastery of voice and diction and worldbuilding to attempt what he did. It really is awful when folks without the chops to do high fantasy attempt it. Tolkien is sui generis.
But if one is attempting a heroic journey tale, then, yes, the ordinary world comes into play. However, even the ordinary world needs to have motivations and goals and conflicts that carry into the “over the threshold” experience. (Another film example): Dorothy. She wasn’t listened to on the farm, taken seriously, and she feared for her dog’s safety. She dreams of a place without trouble. What does she want? To be somewhere else. Somewhere over the rainbow. Why, motivation? To be without woes, Toto safe. Conflict: Well, the biddy that’s gonna hurt Toto, Aunti Em dismissing her, adn then a tornado, and then, whoa, the WITCH. More conflicts, escalating conflicts, and now the goal is to get home. From the very start, THAT story is clear on the what and why and what’s the problem.
In WIZARD OF EARTHSEA, which can fall into “High Fantasy”, no?, we have one paragraph of setting, then we begin with character background (and the sympathy that comes from the brevity of knowing he’s lost mother and father is not so likable) and by page two we are shown our protagonist, Sparrowhawk/Duny in a situation with power and conflict. A situation that is a small mirror reflecting a larger error he will make that will haunt him and cause harm. It doesn’t take long for Leguin to begin to establish things needful for High Fantasy/Quest/Heroic Journey. She still has the more formal voice, but she doesn’t unduly dawdle. We are shown that he is innately skilled, that he wants power, and that he will misuse it (as he does immediately, unwittingly, carelessly). We have a taste of conflict, we have some motivation (though surely merely budding), and we have a goal (to learn to master this power) in a matter of a couple pages. And yet this is series quest, a story just starting.
I don’t doubt an assortment of SF books take their sweet time, like Tolkien, getting to some discernible GMC. I tend to put those back on the shelf and buy one that promises me a bit rowdier pace. 😀
Shannon McNear says
Interesting thoughts, Mir. I see your point, and agree about having just the right voice for high fantasy.
I assure you, though–in my friend’s opening (the one that was criticized because the character’s overarching motivation wasn’t immediately apparent), there was plenty of immediate motivation and conflict, and hints of what would come later. Here’s this girl, considered a mute and idiot and treated as a slave (and she allows the illusion of idiocy to continue because it’s her only defense), stealing a few moments of peace and beauty on the way to carry out a disgusting task for the family that owns her. She thinks about how the king will be visiting, and how she longs to just see the entourage, but knows she’ll be ordered away and kept out of sight, since she’s being kept as a slave illegally. Then, the quiet is marred by the interruption of her cruel and bullying cousins.
All this in just the first few pages. Oh, and we learn that although her mother was truly an “idiot,” somehow the girl knows that her father was a foreign nobleman, adding to the mystery of why this girl is where she is, and what happened between her parents. And the writing style is so luminously beautiful, and the characterization and worldbuilding so immediately engaging–Mir, I tell you, I have eight children, and it was bedtime, but I did NOT want to stop reading. 🙂 I really felt that my friend’s reviewer was being unnecessarily picky and/or jaded.
Okay, shutting up now–I’ve defended my pique long enough. 🙂