I’ve read a few books lately where I feel used. Manipulated. Tossed around like a puppet on a string. Actually, the last three I’ve read have made me feel that way.
Why? Because of three things–shifts in time, placement of the inciting incident, and very fast shifts in viewpoint.
One book’s Chapter One starts in September. The next chapter starts in April of the same year. Of course, we quickly realize Chapter One was a prologue. But the common wisdom, the heck with the timeline, is to call a prologue Chapter One. Next in this novel we have other chapters going in the right direction, but with back story, of course–always needed, but it IS hard to keep track of what happened when because the story didn’t start at the beginning–I mean the beginning of THIS story. Sure, the characters have back stories and those need to be told. But when the author also fools with the story’s timeline this way, it’s confusing—I don’t know if the flashbacks relate to the fake Chapter One or to Chapter Two. I know the reason for this is because the current wisdom is to start with something exciting. The heck with getting to know the characters and setting first. Start with a fascinating action, and then fill it all in, going backwards, then forward. Is that really a good way to tell a story? Obviously, I don’t think so.
And this thing about inciting incidents? My books have more than one. I hope most books do. Part of the excitement should be the build-up to the incident. Anyone can put a dead body on page one. And go backwards. For a police procedural, I expect that, because it’s the police’s story. For almost all the other sleuths, I want to know a bit about him or her, the other people in the story, and the setting before someone stumbles over the body. I wish I had a library full of Agatha Christi’s books so I could see how they start. The few I’ve read haven’t started with what I would call an “inciting incident.” And she’s sold more fiction books than anyone else, right? She’s still selling.
The next problem is the shifting viewpoints. I’m fine with that–do it myself. What I don’t like is whiplash. We have two pages with VP #1, then ten with VP #2, then four with VP #3, then we get into just sections where they go from one to another. How can a reader feel as if she is getting to know the characters in this mishmash? I like to spend some time with each one. And I hate it when the VP shifts right in the middle of a scene. There might be two people on the planet who can do this well–the author of the book I’m reading while writing this is not one of them. So, again, I feel manipulated.
Of course, it’s entirely possible that readers who are not writers don’t notice any of this stuff, or if they feel uneasy about the way the story is unfolding, they don’t know why. And there are good reasons to start with a big inciting incident (I do in my current work in progress), to play with the timeline, and to shift viewpoints rapidly (near the end of the story is better, though, in my opinion, than at the beginning). But we need good reasons for any of these tricks, and we have to be good enough writers to pull them off.
Yes, I know we manipulate the readers all the time–we hope to make them laugh and cry. We hope to make them want to not stop reading until the very end, then be sorry it’s all over. That’s good storytelling.
The manipulation I object to is mechanical. The scaffolding is showing, then falling, my friends, in a lot of current novels. And as it’s falling, I’m getting bruised and whiplashed.