Thursday, April 20, 2017

Robert Ellis: THE LOVE KILLINGS, Writing the First Chapter

Robert Ellis
Starting a new project, whether you're intending to write a screenplay or novel, is never easy. Sitting aboard that mythical ship lashed to the dock for the past six months, taking it easy, dreaming good dreams, never having to make hard decisions or risk anything by putting yourself on the line seems pretty fine right now! But eventually, unless you're finished, that proverbial ship needs to idle through the waterways and hit sea at full sail.

I wish I could say starting to write something new gets easier, but for me it doesn't. I've written seven novels, and the start has become exponentially more difficult each time!

Two novels that tell one story: Detective Matt Jones
I think one reason might be that my storytelling abilities seem like they're still developing, so each new novel means having to learn the process of writing all over again. As CITY OF ECHOES and THE LOVE KILLINGS would suggest (the idea that these two novels are one continuous story) I'm still actively experimenting with how I do things and why.

The reason I mention this is that writing the first chapter of THE LOVE KILLINGS presented me with a unique story problem. Because I've never heard of anyone writing two novels to tell one story, I had nothing to study or fall back on, or even lift, borrow, or steal. While it's true that stories have been serialized in the past and published in newspapers and magazines or even on radio and TV, my problem was entirely different, and let's face it, way more difficult to solve. I was writing a second novel. Days wouldn't pass, a week or even a month. Readers wouldn't have access to THE LOVE KILLINGS for a year after they'd read CITY OF ECHOES. In this case, I busted through the writing, and delivered the second novel eleven months after the first. Still, by any measure, that's a long time.

But here's the writing problem: how do you provide someone who is beginning with the second novel enough to go on without slowing everything down for the reader that began with the first? Bringing the new reader in on part two of the story means there's a lot of work to do. What's that first chapter of the THE LOVE KILLINGS going to feel like?

Let's face it, exposition is as deadly as a crash to anyone who uses a computer. How does a writer use exposition to his or her advantage? Or at least, how do I?

Something John Truby (THE ANATOMY OF STORY) once told me is that conflict heals most wounds. I'll never forget reaching a point while writing my second novel, THE DEAD ROOM, when I had to fill the reader in on the hero's background. It was crucial to the story that the reader understand what Teddy Mack was running from in his past. Without this knowledge, the story would never pay out, and both the character and the story would feel thin. At first I wasn't sure what to do. I had managed to keep any exposition in the novel to a minimum and was keenly aware of how deadly it can be. Keenly aware of how many novels I had stopped reading and never picked up again because the author got bogged down in the use of exposition and failed.

Conflict heals most wounds, so here was my solution.

Defense Attorney Teddy Mack's late night drive home
In THE DEAD ROOM I decided to put my hero in an old car with bad tires. I set the scene in the middle of the night and added a winter storm. The temperature was just beginning to dip below freezing, and so much snow was piling up on the freeway that all Teddy could see were the tracks and rear lights from a single car in the distance.  I feathered the exposition in and out of Teddy's attempt to drive home. As he thought about that moment in his past still haunting him in the present, he'd come up for air, checking the temperature gauges and struggling to keep his old, broken down car on the road. If conflict heals most wounds, then I made it my business to pile on as much as I could.

And it worked. It really worked.

The story never slowed, and by the end of the chapter, readers knew how much trouble Teddy Mack was in.

Facing Chapter 1 with a plan
But what about THE LOVE KILLINGS? This writing problem is far more dangerous because we're talking about the opening of a novel, in mid-story no less! Exposition is deadly, but in chapter one, it's radioactive. I realized one thing before I even started. There was no way to succeed without blowing major revelations from the first novel, CITY OF ECHOES.

Detective Matt Jones' view of Potrero Canyon in the hills of LA
With this in mind I bit the bullet and used the same technique I'd used in THE DEAD ROOM. Remember, CITY OF ECHOES and THE LOVE KILLINGS are one story and serve as the introduction of LAPD Detective Matt Jones, so Matt has to begin part two of this narrative in a world overflowing with conflict. Again the scene is set at night. LA is hot and dry and out of water. As Matt sits on his back deck recovering from gunshot wounds received six weeks ago in CITY OF ECHOES, he's watching a wildfire on the other side of the canyon with great concern. Firefighters are struggling to save homes and contain the blaze. The air is thick with smoke and floating embers. Ash is falling out of the sky like snow, and Matt thinks his house could be next. And then, despite the late hour, the phone rings. It's his supervisor, and he has news. Matt has been cleared for duty, and there's a new murder case to be solved. A case so dark and spooky that his supervisor won't talk about it on the phone.
A view of the Wildfire in LA from the hills

All this conflict is piling up. And feathered throughout the moment is just enough detail about what went down in CITY OF ECHOES to lock a new reader in and keep him or her in the game.
And it worked. It really worked.




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