One thing I was taught in screenwriting class was that you had to hook your audience in ten minutes or less. If they aren’t on your side by then, they probably never will be. Since Copout was originally written as a screenplay, popular movies gave me some inspiration. For instance, they usually start with an action scene. It’s often the thing that propels the character into the thick of the story (although sometimes, in a lot of James Bond films for example, the action is only a vignette and unrelated to the main narrative). So I kicked off with an action scene that provided the catalyst for a lot of what happens to Donovan Stone later on. If you haven’t read the book yet, let me tell you it’s a fantastic opening. But don’t take my word for it – read Copout.
Another piece of conventional wisdom from films is that you introduce your characters early on. Copout begins with Donovan Stone, and stays with him throughout. Right from the beginning his peculiar characteristics are on full display. Syd Field, the man who wrote the most influential textbooks on screenwriting, says repeatedly that “action is character”. That leads me to think that Donovan doesn’t need to talk much, but instead his actions should demonstrate who and what he is. That’s rom his excellent dialogue.
Thinking of this book as a film, I visualised all the action in my head before I ever wrote it down. I could see it all in my mind, even though I know it’s not what you’re going to see in yours as you read it. Then, as I play the action in my head, I think of the best way to write it, so that you can visualise it, and so that I’m not doing all the work for you.
Some of the action in the book springs from situations that I found myself in and thought, “what I would really like to do here is…” For example, I’ve been stuck in traffic jams and wanted to just get out and walk, leaving the car where it is, to be towed away or whatever. I have been in situations where the nearest grammar Nazi corrects my English for the umpteenth time, and I think how satisfying it would be to just punch him on the same mouth he’s using to taunt me.
Of course I don’t do these things. They would be mean, antisocial, sinful, illegal, and uneconomical. But isn’t that one of the great attractions of his fictional characters? They do the things that we can only imagine. I confess I struggle with this kind of thing, because, while I want him to offend the characters around him, I don’t want him to offend you.