Thursday, October 03, 2019

Bait-and-Switch Book Beginnings

Stephen King's latest novel (which I consider one of his best recent works), THE INSTITUTE, starts with a long section from the viewpoint of a secondary character (who doesn't reenter the story until close to the end). It then switches to the protagonist, a 12-year-old boy with a slight degree of psi power who gets kidnapped by the titular Institute. Both characters are deeply engaging, and their separate stories end up skillfully meshed. It's Stephen King, so it works! Nevertheless, spending that much space at the beginning of a novel on a secondary character before even introducing the protagonist is definitely not what most readers expect.

What I think of as "bait-and-switch" narrative is common enough, in a modest way, with suspense and horror fiction. Such novels often start with a brief introduction of a character whose main purpose is to get killed. (A regular reviewer of the SUPERNATURAL TV series used to call this type of victim "doomed teaser guy.") Even in those novels, however, I feel sort of cheated if the author allots too much wordage (more than a few paragraphs or at most a couple of pages) to a doomed character. The writer has fooled us into mistaking this short-lived person for the protagonist, luring us into an emotional investment in her or him, after which we have to start all over getting engaged with a new character.

The sense of being "baited and switched" can pose a difficulty with prologues. If the prologue focuses on a character other than the protagonist of the main text, we may feel as if the author has started the book twice. We get all excited about the prologue's main character and may feel let down when he or she disappears or fades into the background in favor of a different focal character for the story as a whole.

Some readers may feel "baited and switched" by the entire opening volume of George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire series. While I wouldn't say I felt cheated, I was certainly shocked by that first exposure to his "anyone can die" authorial strategy, when the man I assumed to be the protagonist of the entire series didn't survive to the end of the first book.

Assuming this kind of shift at the beginning of a book is sometimes justified, how can an author pull it off so the reader won't feel tricked? Or lose interest when the focus switches to a different viewpoint character after the opening scenes have lured us into caring about the character first introduced? It's a little different, although still potentially tricky, when a narrative repeatedly switches perspectives throughout, presenting scenes through the eyes of two or more equally important viewpoint characters, as Martin's series does. In reading such a text, I sometimes have trouble getting back up to speed, emotionally, after each switch.

This let-down feeling doesn't have to result from a change in viewpoint characters. Long ago, I read a book intriguingly set in an alternate present where supernatural creatures exist openly, and social and economic structures are accordingly different from those in our primary world. The protagonist is a private detective who works with supernatural-related cases. (At that time, this worldbuilding concept was new and uncommon, not a familiar trope as it is nowadays.) In the first chapter, the protagonist deals with a vampire in a very funny scene. "Oh, goody, a cool vampire novel," I thought. Alas, nary another vampire in the entire book, although it wasn't a bad story on its own terms. Granted, this kind of problem isn't necessarily the author's fault. Other readers less vampire-focused than I might not assume from the first chapter that the point was to launch a vampire plot rather than (as it actually was) to introduce the protagonist's profession. Still, in my own case, I approached the rest of the story with a negative bias as soon as I realized my initial assumption had been mistaken.

Then there was the bait-and-switch of a successful chick-lit novel called MUST LOVE DOGS, whose inciting incident has a friend persuading the protagonist to place a personal ad in a dating venue. The friend gets her to include "Must love dogs" as a way of attracting nice guys, although the heroine doesn't have a dog and knows almost nothing about the species. Between the title and the inciting incident, I was expecting a romance with, you know, lots of dog content. Nope. The story soon leaves that premise behind. Maybe I would have felt less cheated by the plot if the inciting incident hadn't been combined with the title and a dog-centered cover (neither of which might have been the author's fault, admittedly, especially the cover illustration).

Do you feel "baited and switched" by these kinds of abrupt turns in a novel? And, as an author, how do you handle them if you have reason to write them?

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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