30 Days of Balance #21: Starting in the Storm + Passive Voice

Fantasy authors often plan important events – wars, battles, murders, usurpations, the finding of powerful artifices, ascension – and then backtrack to explain all the preparatory details that bring a reader to this place. In my opinion, as best as one can, an author should endeavour to begin the story within the storm of the event itself and let the backstory play out when the opportunity arises. Again, this is likely due to my love of Malazan Book of the Fallen, even if Steven Erikson himself would likely augment the first half of Gardens of the Moon if given the chance. And he loves forcing his readers to dig deep.

My point is more about the importance of immediacy in action. I don’t mean that the book has to start with action – many books feel they need to ‘hook’ a reader and that is fine, but an excellent book will draw readers in regardless (For example, the plodding start of The Name of the Wind has done little to tarnish Patrick Rothfuss’s reputation as a writer of excellence.) Fantasy is a slow burn genre. It takes time. If it did not, all the best books in its canon would not be Bible-weight tomes. Learning about an entirely new world takes time. If the reader does not want to take that time, then by all means they can read something set in the present. In the present all you need to learn about are the characters themselves. It is not about physical, Saturday morning cartoon type action – it’s about placing your writer’s eye at the most critical moment, or building up to it very fast.

Purge of Ashes accelerates very quickly after some groundwork is laid out. It follows the general pattern of a movie – which, if you’ve been paying attention, is not surprising. Being a larger work that is meant to span many books, however, time lines get spread until an eight-page prologue is not the beginning, it is just the tip of the beginning. The more to be constructed, the more leeway had to take your time. Story arcs tend not to function if completed in 3/5s of a book only to spend the final 2/5s in exposition.

One of the key things I learned about editing came when considering this notion of being active as often as possible. Somewhere part way through an early edit I became a passive voice policeman, always watching for any sign of trouble and eliminating as much passive voice as I could find. I found numerous instances. Hads and haves died by the hundreds. Past tenses cowered in hovels. It was a dire time for the word population, the hovering cursor spelling menace for the expendable.

This started any given point of view right in the middle of the storm, instead of backtracking to recount the storm before moving on. My natural tendencies were creating stories about things happening moments prior before reaching the point of the section – but why? I brought the story back a few tics, rewrote active tense in the present, and always pushed the narrative forwards instead of explaining what had just happened. Readers don’t want their character recounting recent events. They want them living current events. It seems so simple until you actually read things over and realize not every point of view needs to be the mental dance of the movie Memento.

JM

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