On Hugos and Nebulas, Part 7: Slow Movers

According to the Experts, you must always start your story “in media res” or in the middle of the action. That particular rule is driven hard at newbie writers, who are more likely to start by laying some groundwork. A good writer will begin in the middle of the crisis, make it worse, then fix it… slowly, with many setbacks. That is supposed to be The Way to write a good story.

There is something to that rule. In my slush pile sorting adventures, I have read – or tried to read, anyway – many slow starters. Generally speaking, I much prefer a quicker start, but there is a time and place for slow movers.

Many of the Hugos and Nebulas I read had opening paragraphs, scenes, or chapters that would move backwards if they went any slower. You’ve seen quicker dead sloths, I’m sure. Some of the tales started with long blocks of backstory or character details or world building. If there was any action, it was sparsely interlaced with the other data. Apparently, if these tales are considered the best science-fiction has to offer, a slow starter is acceptable, regardless of the admonition of The Rules.

So, what should we do? Engage your reader quickly, but if you need some background information to keep things clear, that’s okay. Just be sure that your addition actually serves the story. Famous examples of the practice are not a license for sloppiness.

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One thought on “On Hugos and Nebulas, Part 7: Slow Movers

  1. Edward Forrest Frank

    I would say both yes and no. Something is happening in the slow starts. In most fantasy and science fiction because of the nature of the genres – alien worlds, fantasy settings, the world setting is as much a character in the story as the human (or otherwise) actors. In a western you don’t need to explain the old west and how the physics works. In Sherlock Holmes you don’t need to explain late 19th century London, because it is familiar. Most romances don’t need explanation because it is set in a world with which we are intimately familiar. This isn’t the case with most fantasy and science fiction. The reader needs a sense of place and a sense of how things work to become immersed in the story, to relate to the tribulations of the characters. I still like stories that start in the middle of some action and think it is a good rule to follow, but in these genre there are also other considerations. If you can start in the middle of the action that is great. If not, it isn’t as great of a sin here as in other genres. Readers need to be brought into the story, sometime providing background first, even if slow, is what needs to be done to accomplish that goal. Personally on the first page I like to see the protagonist introduced, the quandary he is facing presented, and to catch a glimpse of the antagonists. A unique unfamiliar world setting must also be presented in fantasy and science fiction early on for the readers. Crappy writing ignores this need and for me the shallow exploration of the setting in these stories does not allow the story to have sufficient depth to hold my interest no matter how many explosions and laser blasts, and fireballs might be presented. More so than in other genres I think quality science fiction and fantasy is an exploration of ideas and concepts, and less so the visceral action of westerns and emotional hand wringing of romance novels and most contemporary fiction. Ideas need background.

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