Sunday, December 19, 2010

Contrived Beginnings - What I Learned from Nancy Drew

PLEASE NOTE: No, I don't hate Nancy Drew. In fact, she's one of my favorite childhood heroines. That said, the Nancy Drew books are an excellent example of writing that could use improvement. If we want to be good writers, we have to read a lot and face up to when we or others (even our icons) are less than excellent. For a detailed explanation of my feelings on this writing series, go here.

Nancy Drew 01: The Secret of the Old Clock
The Secret of the Old Clock starts with Nancy on the road, when she notices a moving van drive by and a small child who is nearly run over by it and whom Nancy rescues. She takes the girl  home and meets the girl's guardians. Within moments the two ladies tell Nancy everything about themselves, including the fact that they are horribly poor, cannot afford to raise the child (their deceased niece's daughter) or provide an education for her. They then introduce the main mystery of the plot - the missing will in which their friend Mr. Crowley  has allegedly left them an enormous amount of money.

Additionally, we learn that the ladies have just been robbed by the moving van fellows, who took a lot more than just the few pieces of furniture they bought - the ladies' silver service. Oh, and their phone is out of order, which means that rather than calling the police, Nancy has to drive off, looking for the moving van.
Here's the question: would you babble and spill the beans to this extent to a perfect stranger?

While some folks might, the average person would be loathe to discuss their entire financial outlook with someone they just met.

Nor are we given any indication other than their "say so" that the ladies are financially stressed. They haven't even bothered trying to sell the silver that the thieves took.  The fact that their phone is out of order might be some indication - perhaps they can't pay their bills - except for the fact that the very next day, Nancy calls them and the phone is in perfect working order.

So how could this scene have been better written?

1) Nancy could have come back to them the next day after chasing the thieves and THEN heard the whole story about the will. After all, having chased the thieves, she's now a proven friend. At this point the ladies could say that they'd been thinking of selling the silver but were putting it off until the will was read, since they expected to come into money.

2) Or, if the author insisted on having all the information come out in the same scene, they could have discovered the missing silver BEFORE their "tell all" about their financial situation, with similar results as above.

3) Adding in some description that suggests the women are financially troubled would help. We could have been shown threadbare furniture, a pile of bills (after all, Nancy IS nosy enough to read other people's mail) or other indications of poverty.

I'm told that later editions of the Secret of the Old Clock have Helen Corning introducing Nancy to the mystery. I haven't read that version, so I can't say if it works better, though I suspect it does - at least it gives folks a reason to talk to Nancy.

But never mind Nancy. How does your story begin?

The What I Learned from Nancy Drew Writing Series:
Intro to What I Learned from Nancy Drew
Part 1: Contrived Beginnings
Part 2: Lack of Red Herrings
Part 3: See Through Bad Guys
Part 4: Undescribed Characters
Part 5: Too Many Characters at Once
Part 6: Adverb Abuse 
Part 7: Unnecessary Scenes

Nancy Drew Mystery Stories
Nancy Drew Games

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