Yeah, Pile of Bodies, So What

Here’s a post at Writers Helping Writers: “They’re All Gonna Die!” Wait, Why Does That Matter?

This title amused me, but I also think it’s a good question. Quite often, someone takes to heart the advice to open with action and BOOM! Bombs go off, swords flash, an angry god stomps a city into the mud, whatever. And that scene, whatever it involves, is dead boring. You’ve probably seen scenes like that. They’ve probably been in prologues that are all about the grand sweep of violent history, though certainly there are lots of examples of closer, more intimate-scale violence that take place on page one of chapter one, and lots of those still fail.

That’s what I thought of when I read the title of that post: novels that open with violent action that is boring and leaves the reader (me, anyway) uninvolved, uninterested, probably confused about what’s going on and why it matters and who I ought to be rooting for and why. Let me see if that’s actually where this post is heading …

Yes, this is a post about exactly this problem:

After all, readers don’t know who this character is and have no reason to care about their fate. For all readers know, this might be the villain who’s trying to escape justice and when saved here, will return by the end of the story to cause more problems for the real protagonist. Or maybe they’re a superhero who can fly, making this situation no big deal. Or maybe they’re faking their dilemma and have their feet solidly planted on a ledge. Or…

In other words, stakes alone aren’t enough to pull readers into our story. So how can we make our stakes matter? Let’s look at the movie Everything Everywhere All at Once for 3 lessons on how to make our stakes—and our story—matter.

I wouldn’t say make the stakes matter. I would say make the protagonist matter. Stakes as such are never interesting or engaging. The protagonist’s life is at stake? So what? I’m sure that matters to the protagonist, but until we have a feel for her, why should it matter to us? The world may be destroyed? So what? Until we’re invested in that world, why should that matter? There are plenty of other fictional worlds just waiting for our attention. It’s a lot more important to either make the protagonist emotionally engaging OR engage the reader’s curiosity about something OR both. Then the stakes may be important. Which is exactly what the post is saying, so let’s rephrase it that way:

How do we make our protagonist matter to the reader?

Before reading this post, by the way, I hadn’t seen (or even heard of) the movie in question. Let me pause to say that this is not quite what I expected!

With her laundromat teetering on the brink of failure and her marriage to wimpy husband Waymond on the rocks, overworked Evelyn Wang struggles to cope with everything, including a tattered relationship with her judgmental father Gong Gong and Joy, her daughter. And, as if facing a gloomy midlife crisis wasn’t enough, Evelyn must brace herself up for an unpleasant meeting with an impersonal bureaucrat: Deirdre, the shabbily dressed IRS auditor. However, as the stern agent loses patience, an inexplicable multiverse rift becomes an eye-opening exploration of parallel realities. … Can weary Evelyn fathom the irrepressible force of possibilities, tap into newfound powers, and prevent an evil entity from destroying the thin, countless layers of the unseen world?

Sounds like fun! And obviously this post thinks the opening is good. Back to the post and those three suggestions:

A) Provide Context. This means human context. YES. This is what I mean when I say you have to make the protagonist emotionally engaging. “In the movie EEAaO, the first act introduces the family members in ways that make the audience understand and sympathize with their struggles. The audience learns every characters’ goals, motivations, and initial conflicts. That information gives the audience the context for watching new conflicts and struggles and understanding what’s at stake.”

B) Make It Personal. YES. Same as above. “In EEAaO, Evelyn rejects the initial “call to adventure” because the stakes of the fate of the multiverse are too big for her to relate to in a personal way. She doesn’t fully embrace her role in the story—shifting from reactive to proactive—until she feels a connection to the situation. Audience members have similar reactions: The whole multiverse dilemma feels like an interesting story, sure, but the reveal of Evelyn’s personal connection to the stakes feels like a gut punch.”

C) Make the Reader Care About the Protagonist. YES. Exactly the same as above. “In EEAaO, the stakes in the movie shift from small and personal to too-big and impersonal, then big and personal, and finally back to small-ish (but still much bigger than in Act One) and personal. This shift works because we’ve grown to care about all these characters so much.”

This is NOT three different suggestions. This is the exact same suggestion phrased three different ways, or viewed from three different angles. The only suggestion is (C). Everything else is part of (C) or only matters if (C) already works.

The one actual suggestion: Make the reader care about the protagonist. Do that by first placing her within her social milieu, thus providing context so the reader understands who she is as a person and likes her and is starting to root for her. Only after you’ve done that can you make the story feel personal to the reader, which you do by making the stakes matter to the protagonist in a personal way.

This is very true, but I definitely consider this all one item, not three items. People just like lists so much and want everything to be a list, but I don’t think it helps to pull this particular idea apart that much. I think it obscures the truth that making the reader care about the protagonist is the key.

Not that there aren’t other ways to tell a story. Making the reader curious will work for some readers, even if the protagonist is unpleasant and the reader doesn’t care about her. This doesn’t work well for me personally, but it can work well for plot-first readers. I would say that those are the two options, though — either get the reader to engage emotionally with the protagonist or make the reader curious, or both. Can anybody think of a book that succeeded without doing either of those things in the opening?

Oh, I might have one more: linguistic style alone seems to be enough for some readers. I’m not sure about that. Maybe it’s the author’s style with the language plus at least one of the other two.

Maybe there’s something else that can also work aside from these three possibilities. Anybody else got a suggestion?

For me, of course, it’s almost always engagement with the protagonist, with curiosity a very (very) distant second choice. For me, style alone may make me read a page or two, with genuine appreciation, but is not likely to be enough to make me read the whole book.

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10 thoughts on “Yeah, Pile of Bodies, So What”

  1. Even cheesier: introduce a new character in chapter 1, then kill her–and it is always a “her– off in chapter 2. David Weber did that in a later HH book that I bought remaindered. I threw it at the wall. I have considered Bracketyjack’s HH fanfiction to be canon ever since.

  2. I still remember a superhero comic subplot where the evil authorities had released a serial killer because the heroes were banding together after a period apart. The serial killer, in his track toward the heroes, was murdering people by the dozen.

    When he arrived, he saw another supervillain and tried to bargain with him about their common interest in bringing down the heroes. Unbeknownst to him, the supervillain had been cured of the insanity driving him and released to the care of his superhero brother, and joined the fight on the heroes’ side. After he was knocked out, the serial killer resentfully kicked him because he would have shared.

    Even as I was horrified by his attack, I was noticing that I cared more about the reformed supervillain than all the dead victims, because he actually existed as something more than a body on the floor.

  3. Also, a good rule for epic fantasy is that you don’t tell that the world is in danger until halfway through the first book, even if it’s the only book. That way, the world has time to be real first.

  4. This might be a subset of “make the reader curious”, but I since I don’t at all consider myself a plot-first reader I wanted to point it out: I will not finish a book with a protagonist I don’t care about, but you can buy time to get me to care about the protagonist by making me interested enough in the world or the culture.

    I think The Dispossessed was like that for me. I don’t remember specifically what happened in the opening, but I know I read the whole book mostly wanting to know more about how life worked on Anarres and caring only a little bit about the people or the plot.

    Ooh, or The Race by Nina Allan, which is divided into several distinct parts, some of which are sci fi or fantasy and some of which aren’t. I didn’t really like the protagonist of the first part, and I never really got too invested in the plot, but I kept reading because I was trying to figure out what the author was trying to do with the world building. The world felt weird and inconsistent and like it had “mistakes” that the author seemed too skilled to have done by accident, and I just could not figure out what was going on. Then I hit the other parts and they were very different, and I started to get what the author was doing, and by the end I was like, “actually this is an amazing book that should win awards.”

  5. Elise, that’s what I would call venue-first: interest in the setting. I agree, that is different. I should have separated that out from both character-first and plot-first, because it’s a subset of curiosity, but not curiosity about where the plot is going. And I agree. For me it’s characters, then world building, then plot very much last.

  6. Laurie Marks starts out her series in a very interesting way: she introduces most of her protagonists kind of peripherally and then everything is interrupted by a war. Even though the first book is mostly about war, it’s the most pro literacy, anti war set of books (Fire Logic, Earth Logic) I’ve ever read, very well plotted and set up and written.

  7. Alison, I think I have the first book on my TBR pile. I’ll download it to my phone so I’m more likely to get to it soonish.

  8. Alison, you’ve inspired me to re-read Laurie Marks’ books. My library has a very handy little feature that tells me it’s been 3 years since I borrowed her books.

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