Starting a Shift

Seems like yesterday, but in November, 2015, Kitty asked a question about how to write a prison break and avoid cliches. In January, 2016, I wrote a post on the subject–http://gailcarsonlevine.com/blog/2016/01/20/lemme-out-convincingly/–and recently the universe responded with its own solution–peanut butter! You may have read about this. More than one prisoner was involved, which is not what Kitty was looking for, but from the description, the break could have been carried out by just one, and it certainly avoids cliche. Happily, all prisoners have been returned to jail. You can read about it here: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/01/us/alabama-inmates-escape-peanut-butter.html?_r=0.

And this lovely, in-depth article appeared recently in the HuffPost about the twentieth anniversary of Ella Enchanted. You can read about it here: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/ella-enchanted-feminist-nostalgia_us_597bb2e7e4b02a8434b6866e.

On to this post. On July 5, 2017, Bookfanatic wrote, Does anyone have any ideas that will help me with the beginning of my story? My MC went to live with the fairies when she was six but I’m not sure how to write the transition from living with her aunt to living with the fairies.

Samantha wrote in response, How about a prologue?

And I suggested that Bookfanatic read The Moorchild by Eloise McGraw, which I’ve mentioned here before. In The Moorchild the process goes the other way. A half-elf whose mother is an elf is banished from the elves’ Mound and sent to grow up in a human family. McGraw begins with the grandmother in the human family who suspects that Moql (elf name)/Saaski (human name) is a changeling. After this start in current time, McGraw seamlessly transitions on page 13 to a flashback that provides the backstory. The writing is superb, and the temporal change works.

But I’m not a fan of either prologues or backstories if we can avoid them. Prologues worry me because some people (like me sometimes) skip them.
And I’m not crazy about flashbacks because they divert attention from the action moving forward. That diversion can–briefly–weaken readers’ interest, and, in a split second, we can lose them.

On the other hand, some readers and writers love them. Readers may feel a backstory lets them in on a secret, which has more than enough charm to make up for the distraction. And writers may feel they’re giving the reader a peek behind the story curtain.

So take your pick.

However, in this case, straightforward telling (and showing) seems called for. Our story can begin with our MC–let’s call her Lacy–in her aunt’s home, engaged in her ordinary routine. Let’s say she’s eating breakfast.

We don’t know if the aunt in Bookfanatic’s story is a good character or a villain. If she’s bad, Lacy’s breakfast may be half a slice of burnt toast. If she’s good, it may be a ripe peach, a fried egg, and oatmeal with cinnamon and brown sugar, which would have been my favorite if I had been a sensible child. In fact, my fave was six slices of white bread with the crusts removed, which, inexplicably, my parents let me eat day after day.

Let’s imagine that the aunt is bad. The fairy materializes in the kitchen, waves the burnt toast in the aunt’s face and intones in a mellow fairy voice, “This is what you give my godchild?” Before Lacy’s startled eyes, the aunt becomes a toad.

The fairy smiles fetchingly and waves her wand, and Lacy finds herself seated at the fairy’s fairyland dining table. A napkin unfolds in the air and settles gently in Lacy’s lap. Breakfast appears on the empty plate.

The fairy beams. “Dig in, darling child.”

The scents are unfamiliar, but Lacy picks up her spoon, fearing that if she doesn’t eat she’ll become a toad, too.

And so on. Breakfast can be delicious or odd. We move onto the progression of Lacy’s first day, using showing to reveal her disorientation, her mistakes, and the differences between the two worlds. We can use telling to reveal the reasons, beyond burnt toast, that explain why the fairy swooped in. If we’re writing in first person, Lacy’s older self, who’s narrating the story, can provide the answers. If we’re using third person, the narrator can reveal the reasons. This explanation can be woven into the showing, a sentence here, a sentence there.

Or we can start even earlier, say in Lacy’s infancy, again using showing to set up the conditions that will lead to the fairy’s intervention. If we approach it this way, we won’t need the narrative explanations.

(Obviously, what I’ve invented probably has nothing to do with Bookfanatic’s plot. The fairies themselves may need the child. Or a zillion other possibilities.)

If the main story takes place a long while later, say, when Lacy is sixteen, we may want to use telling to sketch in a few events in her life between then and now, so that the hop doesn’t feel abrupt.

When we bring the story into the present, we can echo the original situation. Lacy, older now, is eating breakfast across from the fairy and pouring caterpillar milk into her grass-seed cereal from a china pitcher in the shape of a toad.

Lacy and the scenario I’ve laid out may be charming, but it won’t really start the story unless we introduce the central problem of the tale early. We want to get the reader worried as quickly as we can, if possible in the first scene–not full-blown, but in a less emotion-packed way. Suppose the central conflict is a lack of understanding between humans and fairies. Well, we see evidence of it in the fairy’s failure to notice Lacy’s terror when her aunt was turned into a toad.

Here are four prompts:

∙ Write the first scene in the Lacy story with no flashbacks, just forward action.

∙ Write the first scene using a flashback.

∙ Write the scene when Lacy leaves the fairy’s dining room and enters the wider world of fairyland. Show the differences, Lacy’s confusion, her false assumptions, her missteps.

∙ Write the beginning scene in your telling of “Rumpelstiltskin.” Go back in time as far as you need to in order to write the story without flashbacks, which may be the birth of Rumpelstiltskin or something in the life of the king, the miller, or his daughter.

Have fun, and save what you write!

  1. Thanks for the post. I love the opening of Ella. I’ve noticed that Disney movies seem to be doing this lately too–Frozen, Brave, Princess and the Frog, Tangled… they all have a brief showing of backstory of the princess(es) as little girls before the rest of the movie starts.

    When I first started writing, my favorite way of telling backstory was through dialogue. BAD IDEA! It makes a slow, boring beginning and makes the dialogue sound forced.

  2. Bookfanatic102 says:

    Thanks for answering my question that really helps! I usually skip prologues too and I agree flashbacks can lose the readers interest I find that flashbacks make me forget what the scene was about so i usually read a bit of the flashback and if it isn’t important I skip ahead.

  3. Wonderful article!

    I wish I had it where I cold take a picture of it, but I actually have a small pitcher shaped like a toad (well, a frog) that I inherited from my great-grandma. Along with 205 other frogs of various sorts. Figurines, jewelry, a lamp…

      • The face is all kind of scrunched down around the lip of the pitcher. Some of the frogs (mostly tiny ones) are still in a case at my parents’ house. I’ll try to remember to look the next time I’m there. The rest are probably in the attic, because I have a small house, and I can’t get up there.

  4. And, um, my book has a prologue. Agents were saying they couldn’t relate to the main character, so I wrote a prologue where he was just a little baby serpent-demon, and test reader said “Aww, now I want to hug him!” So I HOPE that was a good idea…

    • Bookfanatic102 says:

      I think it was a good idea as long as the reader can still tell whats going on even if they don’t read the prologue.

    • The main thing I worry about with prologues are cliches. Showing your MC as a baby seems fine. I would have a problem if it were a long boring description of the history and how the world works, or if it has a quick, confusing flash from the antagonist’s POV. My sister took a different spin on this–her prologue seemed to be one of those “antagonist flashes”, but it turned out to be an anti-hero main character. She was playing with the cliche.

      • This is more like like something that could be Chapter 1, There’s just a 15-year time gap between it and the current Chapter 1. Of course, there’s a 20-year time gap between 2 later chapters. It just doesn’t seem as dramatic because the MC doesn’t age noticeably. (In fact, the second line in the “new” chapter is “Once, twenty years would have seemed an impossibly long time, but among Aureni years passed almost without notice. “)

        Hm. Maybe I should just call it Chapter 1?

  5. I started a new WIP while waiting for NaNoWriMo but I’m trying to decide if it’s YA or adult fantasy. Griffins catch people and treat them like livestock because they don’t recognize our voices as speech. My MC Tyra learns to communicate with a giffin and they work together to create peace. I can change Tyra’s age. Her best friend is a young mom (you know time is passing when her babies hit new milestones). I wouldn’t be comfortable writing physical relationships so it will be appropriate for either audience. I have more experience with YA but would teenagers be good for the mom and baby characters? Any thoughts? Thanks.

  6. Personally, I would love to see more Moms and babies in teen literature! The only thing I would be careful with is how much detail you use in sensitive situations, such as giving birth. I read A Summer To Die and there is a birthing scene near the end of the book which included a few extra details, not too graphic but it still made me rather uncomfortable.
    I think including a mom in your story is a great thing! For one thing, it would give teenagers a greater respect and appreciation for the moms in their lives.
    Hope this helped! : )

    • I think it sounds great for YA. I wish I had started interacting with young moms earlier. As it was, I was 19 when I started a babysitting job, and suddenly the world of moms and babies opened up to me. I discovered a talent I didn’t know I had in relating to babies, and a group of potential friends in their mothers. If the mom character is a little older than Tyra, the age difference could also add an interesting and good dynamic to your story.

      I also would love to read more stories where motherhood and babies are important to the story. Especially if they are written by a mom, familiar with early development and the way babies show their unique personalities as they grow.

  7. If my prologue is a dream and about 1 1/2 pages long, does that count as a prologue or should I, in the interest of avoiding prologues, try to weave it into Chapter 1 instead? Most of Chapter 1 is the MC’s sea journey to her new home, so I could have her just remember the dream during the action, but I like to avoid editing in new thoughts if I can (especially when I didn’t bother to write them in during the first draft), so I don’t bog down the narrative…
    Any thoughts?

  8. Yeah, I feel like I should move it anyway because Chapter 1 needs a good deal more life in it and having the dream just standing by itself feels too much like a set piece. Those Mythcreants website writers wouldn’t approve. (The way they slash Mortal Instruments and Eragon made me quail!)

  9. María Castillo says:

    I don’t know exactly what i’m saying ’cause i speak spanish but i hope you understand this. Ella Enchanted has been my favorite book since my mother give it to me (many years ago) 😀 It’s like so so SOOOOO lovely i can´t breath, it’s like i love everything about it, especially Char lol I used to (and i just did it again) to re-read it thousand and thousand times cuz i’m happy while ‘m reading it but i get nostalgic when i finish it so i have to read it again to be happy(? This is like the third time i look it in google, to see what i found, and is the first time i foud something this BIGGGGGG, LIKE YOUR BLOG I CANT BELIEVE OMG I LOVE WHAT YOUR WORDS MAKE ME FEEEEL. I have also read The Two Princesses of Bamarre, and i love it so much too but we will talk about that later xD Every time i finish the book i just pass and pass the final pages (that haves the introduction of your other books) expecting to find more about Ela but i dont and its so sad that i start looking for fanfictions on internet cuz i just NEED more about her, about Mandy, about Char and about apple. I would like that the book had like 238727846237842834762874628362834646280 more pages(? but i also know that is already perfect how it is so i dont know is just i would like to feel for more time that internally warm happiness that the book causes in me. I just wanted to say that, i dont even know if this is the right place to write it but whatever. Thank you for your attention c:

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