I’ve been working hard all day on getting ready for the writer’s workshop in Couer d’Alene. I leave tomorrow and will get back Sunday night. In between then and now, I’ll do 8 hours of teaching and about 12 one-on-one critiques. It’s gonna be busy!
I see that many of my loyal blog readers have taken up the challenge to critique Cate’s first paragraph. I’ve been critiquing first paragraphs for a bit more than a week now, and yesterday, I challenged you all to try the next one for yourself before I tackle it. I’m delighted to see all the excellent comments you made. Cate’s head must be buzzing.
Now it’s my turn. Here is the paragraph we’re critiquing, submitted by Cate:
They came for me on the fifth night of the hospital stay, when my arm had started to heal and I was restless to get back to my guardian, Luc. I cursed the rock, in my sleep, that had brought me down in the fields, brought the thirty lashes on both me and Luc, left him bloody and unconscious and me just alive enough to watch. Was he alive, was he dead? They wouldn’t tell me.
Randy sez: I see a great, terrific, hot opening line. Then I see backstory for the rest of the paragraph.
Where does the backstory begin? Hard to say, but I’d say it’s already begun with the phrase “when my arm had started to heal.”
A hard lesson that I’ve had to learn over and over again (including with my own current novel I’m working on) is this: The reader doesn’t care two cents about backstory. The reader cares about frontstory. The reader cares about now. When you give the reader some frontstory, she starts caring about the character. After a while, she starts caring about the backstory. Your reader is paying the bills, so you need to give her what she wants.
I would cut the first paragraph here:
They came for me on the fifth night.
This has a ton going for it:
1) “They” — who are these sinister people?
2) “came for me” — whoever they are, I’m in a boatload of trouble.
3) “on the fifth night.” — fifth night after what? I gotta keep reading to find out. And why’d they come at night? Are they some kind of death squad? I HAVE to read more.
8 words, and you’ve already set the stage for a strong, scary scene. There is just no good reason to stop the story cold with backstory. Cate, I know there is some info you want to work in about how our hero got here. But listen, there are some Bad Guys standing around my bed just now–they came for me. I don’t have time to deal with the past.
Here are the things to ask: what do “they” want now? Why am I not going to give it to them? What are “they” going to do to make me give it to them? How far am I going to resist?
Answer those questions, and your scene will write itself. During that scene, you can sneak in a few things that hint at what happened in the last few days. Hero can demand to know where Luc is. “They” can threaten to break Hero’s other arm. Nurse Ratched can come in and demand that “they” leave. One of them can slap Nurse R. silly with an icepick.
As you do this, Gentle Reader will pick up that Something Bad happened a few days ago. But far more important, Gentle Reader will FEEL an iron terror that Something Way Worse is about to happen NOW.
NOW is what matters in fiction. If the backstory is so important that you have to start your book with it, then move your timeline back and make that the NOW of your story.
Randy sez: “Backstory bad! Frontstory good!”
Next week, we’ll continue with the next first paragraph. In the meantime, I’d love to see Cate post a new first paragraph that is ALL frontstory.