24 Hours Earlier
Two quick knife thrusts skewering my gut, then the man in black leather twisted the knife and ran, but not before grabbing the McGuffin. As I lie here on the floor, blood soaking into the medium pile carpet, my vision dimming as life flows out of me in crimson pulses, I wonder if it was all worth it. The betrayal, the confrontation, the plotting, and all the burials -- Jeez, it's a lot more work to bury a body than you think. And for what? Life was so simple, so happy, so violence-free just a day ago ... Okay, so there's nothing about that intro that is true, except that I did "lie here." But, I'm sure you've seen (better written) intros like this before in stories, books, movies, and, especially, televisions shows. Desperate to have an action scene or a cliffhanger as a hook to grab the audience before they can change the channel or stop perusing the book and saunter down the aisle to pick up something with a bimbo on the cover, writers too often love to skip ahead to the climax of their story, then head back in time and run the story forward to explain how the hero got into such a desperate situation. For example, in the movie version of Starship Troopers (you know, the one with Doogie Howser as a military scientist who dresses like a Nazi stormtrooper), the movie starts out with an action sequence of soldiers firing their machine pistols at a exo-skeleton alien bug, advancing as they do so (cause bullets are so much more effective when shot from three feet instead of fifteen feet) until one gets grabbed and impaled by the bug. Then we skip back and watch the soldiers enlisting and training and showering and talking tough until they arrive at this scene, which ends up not being pivotal in any way. The device is even more common in television shows -- so common that it drives me crazy. Sometimes, the clip is even set up as a cliffhanger, when it isn't really one or when it has no relation to the main plot. My favorite example of this was on an episode of Criminal Minds, where JJ was sitting in the passenger side of one of the FBI's ubiquitous black SUVs and we see a truck barreling toward her, about to impact. Then, of course, we flashback to an earlier point and when we get to the scene, she yells and Derek reacts, puts the SUV in drive, and accelerates away to safety, taking enough time to do so that the truck would have already collided had the edited footage been true to its implied time scale. I see this kind of thing so often on television, especially on action-oriented shows, that I am sick to death of it. So, what is the point of this post? To tell you as writers to STOP doing this. It's hackneyed, it's overdone, and it makes what might be a good story a crappy, cliche'd one. Readers may put up with being mislead, but they certainly don't like to see the trick as blatant manipulation. And they really don't like to be lied to. If you start with a pivotal action moment and backtrack, you, at best, undercut the suspense as to what is going to transpire in the story. The reader/viewer knows the protagonist is going to survive to reach this point and that certain events will have to occur to create the situation (the volcano will erupt; the bad guy will steal his gun; whatever). Worse yet, the scene may reveal other critical clues about the story arc -- who the bad guy is, when the event occurs, who else is there or not there. In short, the action teaser has all of the egregious faults of the worst movie trailers, but with no upside because the viewer/reader is already consuming the product. Sure, it's great to start your story/book/movie with a hook, especially an action hook, but if you can't do that naturally with either a prologue or the first chapter, then maybe your story shouldn't really be starting where you have it starting. (By the way, the difference between an action prologue and an action first chapter, in my mind, is that a prologue is set at a time which is before the main events of the story and/or at a place different from the main events of the story and/or features a character (such as the antagonist or a minor character) other than the protagonist.) Yes, I know this device can work. Heck, How I Met Your Mother has made a regular feature of it, with different characters reciting how different (or even the same) events occurred, but sitcoms are generally not worried about suspense, especially when the entire premise is one big retrospective. I don't know about you, but I personally don't want my stories and thrillers to read like an episode of HIMYM. "24 hours earlier ..." captions should be like exclamation points, used sparingly and for very good reasons. So if you are thinking of doing either, think again, and just say "NO!!!!!!!!" Okay? And if you liked this post, please feel free to pick up any of my books and stories, most of which avoid this device and any overuse of exclamation points, I promise. To visit my website, go towww.donaldjbingle.com (where, by the way, you can click to my review page and read a complete review of the travesty that was Starship Troopers). To buy my books, or to simply grab a free app that will let you read Kindle books on any iPad, PC, Mac, or smartphone, go directly here. As always, your thoughtful comments and reviews are most welcome.