Agent insights: narrative preference
I’ve heard writer/readers say that they don’t like to read present-tense stories. And that first-person narratives are the mark of a beginner. And so on—there are many narrative preferences expressed out there. I asked Amy Boggs, agent and contract director at the Donald Maass agency, if agents had problems with first-person or present-tense narratives. She said:
Whenever anyone brings up narrative preference, I like to share an anecdote.
I was walking with a friend of mine who worked in the children's marketing department at Penguin. She read basically everything that Penguin put out for children's and YA, and she was telling me about a book she didn't like but couldn't pinpoint why. Eventually she said, "I guess I just don't like first person."
I stopped in my tracks and said, without preamble, "The Hunger Games. The Thief. Dresden Files."
She thought a moment before saying, "Okay, apparently I love first person."
Both present tense and first person tend to be scapegoats when someone dislikes a work, but I feel that is like blaming a hammer for a crooked bookshelf. I do think that present and first person are more difficult tools for writers to wield, however. Part of this, I believe, comes from the fact that they are the instinctual narrative. We live our lives in first person present, so when we set out to put a life onto a page, often that's the perspective our gut tells us to take. I'm truly all for listening to your gut, but it's also important to follow through with your brain. Especially with something as big and important as narrative perspective, you want to be able to ask yourself why you decided to write the book like that, and the answer can't be "just because."
For any authors struggling with this, I recommend reading the Queen's Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner, the Goddess of POV (above I mentioned the first of the series, The Thief). Each of the books in the series utilizes POV in a different way, and it's not by accident or instinct. Each book is told in the POV that is necessary for the book to come out exactly as it needs to. One of the books even switches from first to third at points, but each switch happens at exactly the moment it needs to in order to tell the story right. Reading the series and deconstructing MWT's reasoning behind her POV is an exercise that would help any writer.
The key at the end of the day is that form has to help function. The function of a book is to tell a story. If the form (tense, POV, language) gets in the way of the function, then the book will fall short. It would be like a dress that's cinched around the ankles; however pretty it might be to look at, no one will wear it. I'm open to all POV and tenses, as long as the writer can wield them expertly.
Many thanks, Amy, for your insights.
Here’s The inciting incident: story launch pad from my book, Flogging the Quill, Crafting a Novel that Sells.
Every good story is launched by an “inciting incident.” But does it have to be on page one? In surfing the Web I came across advice in one place to make it happen at the opening of your story, and in another place to have it occur as soon as possible after the story opens. I think that’s mostly right, but not altogether. First, just exactly what is an inciting incident?
Robert McKee, in his excellent book, Story, defines it this way:
An event that radically upsets the balance of forces in the protagonist’s life.
So when must the inciting event occur? Well, there’s no imbalance created unless the reader has some idea of the life the protagonist currently knows. If you can find a way to make it happen within a paragraph or two of the opening of your story, I think that’s a smart thing to do. However, it can happen later—but only if there are other story elements that propel the reader along the stream of your narrative.
McKee cites the film Rocky as an example of a delayed inciting incident. He figures the true inciting event is where Rocky is invited to fight the world champion. But that doesn’t happen until a half hour into the film. Until then, the story that keeps the audience involved is the developing love story between Rocky and Adrian.
Wherever the inciting incident occurs, what precedes it must have tension, must be raising story questions that keep the reader involved. It can’t just be exposition that lays out the protagonist’s life.
A question rises in my mind from McKee’s definition: How much does a
reader first have to understand about the protagonist’s life to give the
imbalance meaning? I often see manuscripts in which the effort to do
this leads to gobs of exposition that stop the story cold. In Rocky, the
film takes a long time to first create Rocky’s life. But keep in mind
that a theater audience is a captive audience.
The answer lies in the nature of the incident. For a crime victim who is stabbed or shot, the imbalance is immediate and clear. In a literary novel, it might be much more subtle.
Now that I think about it, I wonder if Rocky meeting Adrian isn’t the real inciting incident—would he have accepted the fight challenge if he and his life hadn’t already been substantially changed by falling in love?
Another way to look at understanding the inciting incident is to key in on the word “provoke.”
An event that provokes a desire in the protagonist that he is compelled to satisfy.
“Compelled” is the key. If he can say forget about it, it’s not much of a desire, is it? Here’s another one:
An event that forces a character to take action in pursuit of something he needs.
McKee would argue that a protagonist’s desire is to bring her life back into balance. That makes sense to me, but it seems too abstract. Specifically, what is the nature of this incident?
It can be negative (and, it seems, usually is).
- The banker’s children are kidnapped.
- An innocent woman is accused of a hideous crime.
- A young mother is fired from her job.
The event can be positive, too, but so hugely positive that it unbalances things and can throw a life out of balance and create new desires.
- Rocky is invited to fight the champ.
- A grocery clerk wins the lottery.
- A secretary is promoted over her boss.
- A battered woman escapes to a shelter.
- A man in a happy relationship is smitten by a beautiful woman.
I think McKee’s notion that the inciting event throws a protagonist’s
life out of balance is a good one. Anything out of balance is bound to
create tension and conflict—will it fall? Will it right itself? The main
result of the event, to create a desire in the character to regain
balance, is the fuel that fires the engine of your story.
In McKee’s scheme of things, your protagonist must have a powerful desire. He must then attempt to satisfy it. But his attempt is frustrated. He fails to achieve it because of something the antagonist does (preferably), or perhaps something the protagonist fails to do, or some other story element.
Your story picks up momentum and tension at this point because the character has to try again and, because of the nature of his failure and his desire, has to take a risk. A risk with negative consequences. Yep, he fails again. The negative consequences raise the stakes. He has to try again, and this time take an even greater risk. With greater consequences. He fails again. And so on.
For example, in a historical novel, let’s say the daughter of a king is sent to live with the neighboring king in the age-old tradition of fostering. This upsets the balance of her happy life at home, but the consequences are potentially positive, and she makes no effort to change things. This isn’t an inciting incident because, even though the balance of her life is disturbed, there’s no jeopardy attached.
Then, on the journey to the neighboring kingdom, her party is attacked. She is taken and sold as a slave to another kingdom. Now that’s an inciting incident. Her desire is to return to the life she knew, and there’s the risk of being beaten, raped, or killed if she tries to escape. But try she must, because her life as a slave is a horror to her.
You can write the story from there.
For what it’s worth
© 2010 Ray Rhamey