Several of you asked today about how to get a story rolling. So let’s talk about that today.
It is imperative these days to let a story get out of the gate fast. Backstory in chapter one is a big no-no. Readers are impatient these days to get into the story now. That may be good or it may be bad from an artistic point of view, but it’s reality.
The problem is that if a story is going to be deep, it needs to have deep characters, and deep characters have a lot of backstory. Those of you who are Potter fans know just how much backstory went into that series. And we were learning new things about Dumbledore and Snape in the final volume. Notice that the story was deeper and richer precisely because J.K. Rowling withheld that information until the final book.
So a key principle is to tell as little backstory as possible up front. Most authors have a tough time restraining themselves. “It won’t make ANY sense unless I explain about the widgets!” the author says. But the truth is that the reader won’t care about the widgets until she cares about the characters.
And your reader will only care about the characters if they are giving her a Powerful Emotional Experience. Early on in the story, that is going to mean a strong goal. Remember that a goal needs to be concrete and it needs to be worth having (by the yardstick that your character uses to measure everything, which is his own personal value system).
The goal does NOT need to be comprehensible. At least not early on. Goals often become fully comprehensible only by giving the whole backstory. Resist the urge to do that early. A bit of mystery is really OK, and if you do it right, will add to the appeal of the story. (Caution: If you do it wrong, you’ll annoy the reader.)
It may be that you are as weak-willed and spineless as I am on this point. No problem. Go ahead and write that chapter one with all that backstory. Write chapter two with as much backstory as you want. Ditto with chapter three. Eventually, you are going to run out of backstory and start actually telling the story. That will be the point at which your story actually starts. For most writers, by chapter four, they’ve hit the real story.
The trick is to not worry too much about all this in the first draft. Write it. Have fun. Enjoy the story.
Then when it’s time to edit the thing, save your original so you can always get back to it and then start editing on a fresh copy of the original. At this point, you have two options:
1) Salvage the early chapters that have all that backstory. You do this by asking every sentence of backstory if the reader really needs to know it AT THIS POINT IN THE STORY. If not, then cut it. If you follow this approach, you’ll wind up with savagely truncated first chapters, but they will move a lot quicker.
2) Delete the early chapters. Find the place where the story really starts and rename that as chapter one.
Should you choose Door Number 1 or Door Number 2? That’s up to you. It always helps to get a second opinion. Ask a trusted friend for advice. Of course, you’ll probably do the opposite of whatever they tell you, but at least you’ll have made a decision, rather than angsting over it for five years. The truth is that either approach will improve your story. So try whichever one seems most promising.
We’ve only made a start today on how to start your story. We’ll pick up again in the next blog with more.
Hiya Randy, I’m at the stage where the first draft is finished and now I’m going back into rewriting keeping the PEE in the forefront of my mind.
Recently I had a book rejected(YA Fantasy)from Harper Collins because there was too much back story. On Monday of this week I met with Erica Wagner who is the YA/Children’s editor at Allen and Unwin in Australia. She read the first 10 pages of my new novel – a YA ScifFi. Said she loved the pace, the character and the idea but wanted more back story. (sigh) Finding the balance will be the challenge.
BTW, I have restructured the rejected novel, taken a leaf out of Garth Nix’s book. In the first volume of the Seventh Tower, The Fall, he calls the first chapter Chapter Zero. It’s where the action starts. It get you in quick smart. Then we go to Part One: Before. On page 94 he picks up the thread of Chapter Zero with Part two: After.
So, thanks for starting this blog!
Carrie Neuman says
Beginnings are such a tricky thing. I plotted out a longish short story to work on. I got my first three scenes down and loved them. Then it dawned on me that my back third introduced and bunch of new characters and completely changed style, pace, and tension level.
So I plotted out a new ending and didn’t touch the WiP again. It was the ending I loved, not the beginning. So I cut out the first two thirds, and I don’t think the story suffers for it. From my one line summary, I know I can condense all the stuff that happened into a couple lines and it’ll still make sense. I had to change PoV characters, but I get to keep the stuff I really liked. I think it was worth it.
ML Eqatin says
Like many of us who are at the upper end of the communication scale, I suffer from an itch to dispense far more information than my recipients want. But in story, the trick is to make readers want more information than you are telling them — yet.
Thinking about our real stories helps me a lot withthis. From birth on, each of us enters a world with a long backstory that we do not know and could not understand. Why should fiction be any different? The reader will not be bewildered by what is a natural state for all life. You just have to make it important to him/her to find out what happens in your pretend reality, whien his or her own real world also wants discovering.
(Gad I hate having to make everything gender-inclusive. Reminds me of the writer who suggested a new pronoun to cover all bases – ‘she-he-it’ pronounced shee-it!”)
By the way, I also came up with a better tagline for my History and Hope brand to communicate what I write. ‘Rennaissance animals — and their people.’ What would ya’ll expect to find in a book from somebody with that sentence? Would you be annoyed to find that there were a lot more people than animals?
ML Eqatin says
PS I do really know how to spell Renaissance. But hey, I’m still working on signing the pseudonym without a ‘u’.
Where to start the story has really messed me up with my rewrite (2nd draft). I had timing problems, where I had originally started out with a very important event that happened to the main POV character but then I needed a lot of time between that event and the main time setting of the story. I ended up, on the rewrite, referring to this event in a very brief prologue (in character) and then I jump right into the “present” which is three years later with chapter one. I don’t even indicate the time that has passed until the first scene that shows that character. I think this works better, but it did take out a very powerful emotive experience for that main character and deflates the beginning. The redo was necessary, but I’m still worried about it.
On an aside, I found when I read back through my first draft that I not only spent a lot of time telling unnecessary back story, but that I told it over and over again in numerous places throughout the entire length of the book. That may be a symptom of my taking too long to actually finish the first draft. But I’ve seen this in books I’ve read before, the repetition of things already revealed, and I’m wondering if that is indeed an indication of the length of time it took to write the book or just a lack of good editing.
My opening usually changes several times before I really get into the story. (Thanks to me crit partners telling me where they think the story really starts!)
BTW, I wanted to say thanks for giving me permission to “write bad” a while back on your blog. Finishing a WIP has always been a struggle for me, but I did it. And it’s not that bad!
This helps tremendously, Randy. Thanks!
My next question would have to be, since my WIP is a historical piece, how do I not add too much in the beginning but give a good sense as to the time period or even a specific year? This point is pretty well stopping me on my first draft.
Hiya Donna, have you thought about what happeded in that particular year and having it impact in some way on your character? Who was president/king/queen? Wars. Rumors of wars. Endings of wars. What famous names do we assciate with that time period? Jobs also help define a time period. Worst Jobs in History is on our TV at the moment. A wonderful resource to connect the writer with all the sences.
When I come to bits I need to research when writing first draft, I just put (RESEARCH THIS)and keep writing so that the story keeps moving forward. Later I can do a search for ‘research’ and fill in the gaps as the second and subsequent drafts progress.
Thanks yeggy! I have researched things that happened in those years and didn’t think to include the monarchy at the time and such, and to find a way to sneak it in without it looking obviously placed. I’ve already researched a lot about the area as it’s, of course, another time period and another country. Couldn’t start anything until I understood what I needed to know. Why my muse chose then and there I don’t know but it has.
Now to fit it in without being boring (hence the topic of this blog). I can usually start one decently out for a chapter or at least half of it and then I start adding in too much backstory figuring that the reader would need the info. It’s a hard habit to kick.