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.