The Rules of Vonnegut / 5
(Sorry to have been so long getting round to this if to this. I’ve been busy writing a novel, as I hope you too are doing. The rules are not commandments, just a check list against which you can test your own work.)
‘Start as close to the end as possible.’
Counsel of perfection: let your novel start with what happens one Saturday and end it on the following Saturday, by which time the problem you set up has been solved for good or bad, and the conflicts of years – brought to our attention by way of backstory – have been resolved. (Keep the back story chronological or your reader will get confused.) Your reader will stay with you with bated breath for the few hundred pages in between, and then close the book with a satisfied ‘Oh, I see’ – waiting for the next book you write, having waited for a good two hundred pages to see how that initial scene would work out and having trusted you to resolve it. And you didn’t resolve it in a single liner, either, did you? That will work for short stories – the twist at the end – but a novel needs a well-paced and considered scene which you have been working towards throughout the novel, in which the knots of all its strands can finally be untangled.
Your novel may cover a period of five years – but start it four years and fifty weeks in, and you will help yourself. There are a hundred other ways of writing novels, of course there are. But starting near the end is a pretty good one. ‘Something happening’ is what novels are all about, why readers read them in the first place: to find out how characters deal with the events the writer has chosen to dole out to them.
And please, please, don’t wilfully keep facts from your reader. Don’t trust them to keep in their heads some mystery you have hinted at but not yet explained. They won’t like you for it.
Never cheat the reader with gratuitous puzzles. It isn’t fair to do so. Play it straight. If you’re writing out of a character’s head remember you’re not in a position to censor what is in that head. If your protagonist murdered someone years ago it will crop up in his train of thought, as a source of anxiety, indifference or guilt. It will annoy your reader if having hidden the fact you then use it as a plot point.
And remember the convention that only one person in the scene has the feelings and reactions – and that’s the one out of who’s eyes events have been unfolding. He or she will only know what is going on in others heads by observing their reactions. All others must be seen to react. Thus: At this news Bill felt a pang of fear. Bill saw Edward turn pale and realised that he too was frightened. It is a convention which people break all the time, but be aware of it.