May 3, 2012

Into the middle, intentionally

A reader left an incredibly valuable piece of feedback on the Chapter Three comments' page to the point that I felt it merited a post all its own instead of a mere response in the comments section. The critique went as follows:

Anonymous said...

Just one opinion, but I don't know enough about these character's back stories and motivation yet to care much about them or the action. Do you feel the back stories and motivation have to be withheld as much as they have been? Do you feel you have given "enough" so far?

Now that's a fairly loaded piece of feedback so I'm going to address my explanation in two parts but to start us off I'll just respond by saying, yes, I do believe the backstory of the protagonist and the major characters is withheld to the proper amount for the first three chapters of this story (or any novel, really). Were we at chapter fifteen or twenty and you still had very little clue as to what has precipitated the major conflict in the story and how Jaden and company fit, then I'd say we have a serious problem.
However, since we are quite literally only a few thousand words into the narrative, the relative mystery surrounding Jaden and the overall history of the characters is not only intentionally done but is in keeping with the classic story arc of epics for the last two thousand years. More specifically though, there are two reasons why the story is constructed this way...
First, the concept of in media res must be understood for this first explanation to have any weight. In terms of the greatest epic stories of all time (not that I'm comparing this manuscript to those in anyway; they are, however, the goal to which every storyteller should strive for), every single one of them begins not at the very beginning of the events that lead up to an action or conflict, but originate "into the middle of the affairs" or in the very middle of the conflict and rising action of the primary narrative's story's arc.
After all, there is a reason it is called backstory. The narrative of primary interest to the reader is the story and action that takes place in the actual novel, whereas the narrative of the characters' backstory is more of a history that provides depth and a sense of verisimilitude to the reader from a previous, secondary narrative that more so underlies the situation when the primary narrative begins than directly influences it.
In other words, you start in the middle of your story to ramp up the tension and action and conflict to draw readers into a gripping narrative because it is the elements and events currently taking place in the pages of that rising action which are the primary focus of that narrative and the reader. This is typically why the backstory of the characters and the events that have brought the major players to the place where the story begins is dealt with later on throughout the book, typically through flashback or reminiscent dialogue. You don't typically want to unload huge chunks of backstory at the beginning of an epic narrative because, unless you're Tolkien, you're going to bore your reader to death with the details. And since you won't have any action or conflict, the person won't have any reason to keep reading since, quite literally, nothing is happening.
And even though in media res would be enough of a reason (you know, since it worked for Paradise Lost, the Odyssey, the Iliad, Dante's Inferno, and even Star Wars), I did have a second reason to start the story without diving into the past of the protagonist with full force.
Reader/Hero Identification.
As you will see in the story, being in the dark about your true past and the new reality/world to which you find yourself thrust into is a classic trait that every epic hero possesses and must go through on their riveting journey. From Luke Skywalker to Neo to Harry Potter, even modern epic heroes have this quality that the classic heroes had. And since the goal of the author is to foster a connection between the reader and the hero of the story, I wanted to really intertwine the experiences of Jaden with the reader right from the start, which is why Jaden may be even more in the dark about his true past and the events surrounding him than maybe other heroes have been (though not by much).
I wanted the reader to feel exactly how Jaden feels, to experience the precise emotions and revelations that he does when the answers to who he really is and what his role is in the entire story come to light. It is my utmost hope that the bond the reader has with Jaden blossoms not through a mere history lesson of his background, but because of a commonality built on sharing his entire journey from the person he thought he was to the person he truly is and the hero he must become.
Anyway, I want to thank whoever posted that piece of feedback as that is just absolutely a textbook representation of constructive criticism, which is the driving heartbeat of literary discussion and narrative appreciation.


  1. very insightful, JG. thanks for sharing
    ~thunder tim

  2. Thunder Tim!

    Thanks for stopping by and I appreciate the kind analysis.

  3. I have felt from the beginning that you have done very well in keeping the reader intertwined with Jaden. Also, knowing what I know, I know that more is revealed about the other characters as it is read. I believe this is truly a great story and am excited about the prospect of more. Thank you for sharing your design of the book, too. That might help others understand the typical writing styles of say J.K. Rowling or even Tolkien. Great job!
    ~ Natalie (your sis-in-law)

  4. Gotta love family. :)

    Though, to be fair, I have complete confidence that my sister-in-law would utterly critique (constructly, of course) something if she felt that feedback necessary.

  5. I am glad you are completely comfortable with your construction. Really.

    I still feel the way I stated though.

  6. Well good! If you didn't still feel your convictions were valid then the excellent feedback you provided would not have quite the same punch and authenticity.

    Now to your original question, you asked if I think there's "enough" there to sustain the reader's attention and have them care about what's going on. My answer to that would be yes, I think there is enough there to accomplish both of those, if not one more than the other.

    However I am quite interested to see what you'd like to see more of in the opening few chapters if you find yourself not having your attention kept at all.

  7. Thanks for the openness.

    "what you'd like to see more of in the opening few chapters"

    Maybe I am a bit too impatient but I guess

    a) What Gwen looks like. Right now she is mostly just a name on a page to me. that isn't enough for me. (I'd imagine some female readers would want to know more about Jaden's appearance and mannerisms.) And not just looks but more and faster hints at personal motivation. Right now she is just a fairly generic spy chick running around talking serious.

    b) Some more specificity about the "Sovereign". What balance of political, economic or religious is intended? It would affect my reaction to him and what he does. It doesn't have to come all at once but I'd like more, a steady stream of more definition in future chapters. I am not sure why total ambiguity has an advantage over some definition.

    c) I can live with the definition of the Assembly taking some time. But how many chapters in will readers wait? I'm antsy at chapter 4 and probably wouldn't last to chapter 10 to find out much more. I am not a heavy fiction reader and probably not typical. Back story and motivation are high priorities. What I do read, stick with and enjoy is very heavy on these. Action by itself doesn't impress me much.

    A few more sentences or paragraphs of back story and motivation here and there might be enough to remove the issue for me. As is, I am not sufficiently connected. I rarely am willing to take the fiction ride so I am probably a hard sell and my reaction is certainly about that as well as the story and its pace and style.

    Don't really want to be a focal point though. Shared a few thoughts. Might not be exactly right for me but that is not unusual. Good luck.

  8. Awesome insight. I appreciate the time you've spent and the willingness to share your opinions.

    I'd say each individual person has their own preferences but that doesn't negate the validity of your wishes as a reader in the least.

    Regarding a), by Chapter Four Gwen is described a few times with blue eyes, blonde hair with fair skin and a few mannerisms that describe her personality a bit (she always puts her hair behind her ear when she's nervous, she blushes when she has to divulge her personal information) and her motivation in the story at this point is as Jaden's appointed guardian.

    Regarding Jaden, since this is a third-person limited POV, Jaden's mannerisms and appearance are going to be difficult to discuss at length as, well, he's not going to comment or dwell on his own apperance of movements so it would be breaking the point of view to list them inorganically.

    b) The Prologue was really intended to be a small glimpse of the "Sovereign" but, fortunately, the next three chapters give very real information about him and the Legion, as you desired.

    c) You get a direct look at the Assembly in the very next chapter.

    So, ironically, I think the next few chapters would be exactly what you were waiting on. And while unanimous interest is impossible, I still think all reader's opinions are relevant when they've been willing to invest their time and effort into a work.

  9. I might have forgotten or moved too quickly past the paragraph that provided description of Gwen. That is still fairly brief. Not enough to fully animate the name for the rest of the story IMO.

    Describing Jaden's looks might be difficult with your narrative choice but I'd think it would help or need to get done more and there would be some way for Gwen to facilitate more of it.

    If more information of the Sovereign, Legion and Assembly is coming, great. I guess I should have waited longer.

  10. Haha, well not necessarily, because there's a big difference from "I should have waited since I would have kept reading" to "I didn't care so I stopped reading at Chapter Four."

    If the emotional investment isn't there, you won't wait and you'll just move on. Either way, your feedback deserves consideration and evaluation. Solid points all around.

  11. I believe the third person narrative puts you in the place of Jaden so you feel what Jaden feels. Kind of like first person, but without all the I's and me's in the dialogue. At least that is what I feel when I read Harry Potter. Even though J.K. Rowling describes Harry to a "T", I still feel as though I am Harry Potter. I will say that you can't make a fantasy novel anything but a fantasy novel. Stop trying to read this story as anything but a fantasy and it might help open your mind a bit mister/miss anonymous.

  12. A preference for vividness and depth is clearly not a direct or impossible challenge to the basic nature of a fantasy novel. Not sure I'll personally call a novel that wasn't dripping in vividness and depth that much of a fantasy for me. But everyone's reading and reaction will be their own and it is true that the preference for lightness / heaviness will vary among readers. While there is a possible deft middle ground, writers will usually more satisfy one wing or another.

    Given the short length of the chapters, I now more fully acknowledge that Chapter 4 isn't very far into the project. Chapter 4 in some projects would be further in.

    One of my intentions in commenting was to break the ice and perhaps help the author gather other feedback.

    The previous poster notes that J.K. Rowling's narrative choice did not prevent rich main character description. I assume that was important to that reader. Though this other anon apparently does not share my interest in elaborate detail and tries to call for me to change my preference (not going to happen) there is some commonality that character description is important.

  13. And I fully appreciate you breaking the ice, by the way.

    Chapter length is an interesting study regarding the preference of fact I think this topic may also merit an individual post as well. Look at you, helping to decide the content of the site!

    Like I've always said, there's nothing more rich and intriguing than literary feedback since it almost always prompts constructive discussion and shared insights.

  14. Alright. Glad it was of some use. That was the hope.

    I assume I am not the target demo so my personal reaction is probably not a particularly good barometer. Nonetheless that is what I could offer.

  15. You have the benefit of formal study and I assume a lot of reading experience in the genre. You have a game plan. If feedback has any impact it should be because upon reflection you agree with it.

  16. Oh absolutely. Feedback is only as good as the quality of its criticism.

    While I may not ultimately end up making any changes to awork after careful deliberation based off of someone's critique, it is the well formulated feedback that gives pause to the author and encourages one to reflect on the work and its success at communicating with the reader. In fact, usually constructive criticism's best role is to force a writer to re-examine their work and find that, yes, indeed they did have it right the first time around (or almost have it right with a few minor alterations).

    Now if someone says they really want Jaden to be a cyborg who consumes diapers as fuel in his epic quest to conquer the galaxy...then I might not have quite the same consideration for that appeal as others.

  17. I was trying to say that even if J.K. Rowling hadn't put all the description of Harry in the book, I still would feel like I was the main character. I have felt that way with many novels I have read. I used that as an example of another fantasy for comparison. Being an avid reader of many different kinds of novels, I can tell you that being a reader of only one genre and then "trying out" a different genre, does not give one an authority to critique. Unless you are an actual critic of novels (which I doubt very much), you should not be telling an author how to change their novel. Also, being an avid reader, I look forward to more from this author seeing as I already enjoy the book so far. I hope your "patience" for more description is satisfied as this author shares more with all of us who enjoy the book thus far.

  18. "you should not be telling an author how to change their novel."

    I didn't do that. I gave my reaction, my preferences.

    You should stop trying to tell others precisely what not to do yourself.

  19. Even if I were to ask about the possibility of having Jaden and Gwen interact longer as "normal people" interested in each other before "the action" starts (say another few thousand words) to kindle the chemistry and interest in the main characters as people and or ask about whether a flashback or aside of Gwen talking with her superiors could "fit" at any point and help with understanding the backstory and motivation, it would just be suggestion that he could do whatever he wants with including nothing.

  20. Maybe having "Jaden and Gwen interact longer as "normal people" interested in each other" would have been deceptive. Maybe more unhelpful than helpful. It all depends on how you did it. Up to the author of course. I'm just mentioning my "preconceived" expectation or preference in part to perhaps hear the author's rationale. I doubt I'd be alone of that expectation / preference or in wanting to hear more about the rationale. But only if the author wants this blog to get into such things. I was guessing he did. If told that he doesn't directly, I can roll with that. So far I haven't gotten that reaction from the author himself. Quite the opposite so far.

  21. "As it should be then, it is the story that organically determines the form. Not the other way around."

    Then it would seem possible to have a break in the dominant narrative voice choice, if the story would be helped by it. As with the prologue.

  22. Ah, but you see, the story itself is dependent upon the point of view, is it not?

    This work is Jaden's story, thereby any break in the narrative from him would be a different story.

    While it is possible (and often tremendous if done successfully, like the thriller "Daemon" did), variations in narrative voice suggest it is not the person's story anymore but the story of the events and what happens more than an individual hero (or heroes) journey.

  23. And believe it or not, the initial draft of the "The Gift of the Greenstone" had about 2,500 more words of Jaden and Gwen interacting as normal individuals but as your later post mentioned, it actually hurt the progress of the characters and the story as establishing chemistry between the two was never the issue and a drawn out interplay between the two did nothing to develop depth of their relationship (after all, they have not known each other very long) but more so felt like exactly that: drawn out.

    But perhaps others would have seen it differently. Either way, the story seemed to dictate its removal more than its inclusion, in this author's humble opinion.

  24. When an individual does the a's, b's, and c's of what he/she would like the author to do with their novel, that is telling them what to do. I only said that if you aren't a critic (or a publisher), that is not acceptable. If you were mearly stating an opinion on if you liked it or not, then that is critique. I do believe publishers are the ones that ask for changes and rewrites. True critics state their opinion on liking the novel period. They don't lay out a diagram of what was wrong with it. I do read the critiques of most novels I read and they are just that. Opinions. They don't ever come across as an outline of what to fix.

  25. Previous poster,

    You said "...that if you aren't a critic (or a publisher), that is not acceptable"

    I hear your opinion.

    But I disagree.

    It is not acceptable ... to you.


    But you don't get to decide that.

    If you just said I disagree with what you said or dislike it, that is different. That is within your right to critique, if you feel you want to. I have no problem with that.

    But you went further declaring it to be "not acceptable" to give detailed feedback in general (from me or anyone apparently, given your last post) and declaring several times that you feel I should "stop" having my perceptive or saying what I want to say. That is not reasonable on your part.

    My words on the book are not that important. But it is flat wrong to try to stifle another person just because you disagree. It just is, so I wasn't going to cede to your intolerance.

    I don't really care what other critics say or do or don't. I haven't said anything outside reasonable bounds even if I might have eventually come across as gruff, after trying to be softer before. I'll say what I want to say.

    But I also have better things to do than to go back and forth more with you, so I probably won't further.