Start with action.  I hear it every week in my writer's group.  I say it myself.  But is it right?  P.D. James is adamant that she wants her readers to know the characters before something unpleasant happens to them. That way, the impact is greater.  It's usual for her detective, Adam Dahlglissh, not to show up in the first fifty pages.  I think that breaks another writer's group rule:  Get your main character on stage right away.

 

Anne Perry started "Face of a Stranger", her William Monk series, with Monk recovering from an handsome cab accident with amnesia  and she established the relationships of the main characters before the real action begins.  I wonder if this is a British v. American thing?  Or maybe those books that are strictly meant as entertainment (I'm thinking Vince Flynn right now) must grab you with action and those with a more sophisticated purpose can begin with character and minor incidents, giving you time to care about the new characters in the series before they are murdered.  Obviously, body count isn't important to this second type of story.

 

I've decided that both are right and both are wrong, depending on the book.   If the main character is a standard issue detective - down on his luck, single with a previously murdered wife and daughter, ex-cop, drunkard, willing to kill for the right reasons, and all the cops in the city are too stupid to solve crimes on their own -  then you need an action opening in order to have enough space in 90,000 words to build up a decent body count.  But if your MC is something else, say an alien from planet X who is marooned on earth and can't get any job other than private detective, but is too sensitive to kill a human, shouldn't you explain at least some of that first?  At least he's an alien.  I'm thinking that as a reader, I'd be pretty upset to learn on page 156 that the detective is an alien and not Adam Dahlglissh.  I'm just sayin'.

 

I have a character in mind for my next book, that has one of these unusual life situations (The Astronaut's Wife, Ghost Whisperer, or that new tv show where the beautiful lead can't forget anything), something like that.  I don't think I can have a murder then go backward in time while she lolls around in the hospital for three months before she awakes from her coma.

 

The alien detective leads me to the writer's group next rule: don't dump the backstory on the reader in the first chapter, but what if you need at least some of the backstory first?  My hands are wringing just thinking about all this.  How can I possibly write a decent mystery if the rules, that I thought were inviolate, are in fact, mushy.

 

I'm so confused.  I think I'm going to drowned my thoughts in a devils brew of chips and salsa and a couple of Mojitos.  The one thing I am sure of is that P.D. James and Anne Perry can write whatever the heck they want, breaking any rules along the way, and I can't, yet.  Oh, and Vince?  I love your books. They are among the few I actually buy in hardback.

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Comment by I. J. Parker on September 20, 2011 at 12:49am

Impatience is a characteristic of our time.  The point to consider, however, is that in an established series, readers are already caught and take an interest in the protagonist.  I recall one of the Morse novels by Dexter started with Morse in the hospital.  In fact, he solves the case from his hospital bed.

For a reader, Morse's predicament was at least as interesting as a body on page one.  And P.D.James is a master at characterization of minor characters. Some of her early chapters are a sheer pleasure for the skill she displays.

Comment by Jack Getze on September 19, 2011 at 11:13am

"The one thing I am sure of is that P.D. James and Anne Perry can write whatever the heck they want, breaking any rules along the way, and I can't, yet."

 

This is very true, and you'd better keep it in mind. Getting an agent or a publisher to read your work is hard -- very hard. When you get the chance, you'd better not bore them. I guess if the backstory is so interesting and entertaining, you can put it high, but starting "in the middle" of exciting action is a better bet. I'm quoting Donald Maass and several other agents/editors. And I know from picking the short stories that run in Spinetingler, starting with history or the weather puts you in the reject pile pretty darn quick. There are always exceptions  -- but it better be GREAT.

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