We’ll pick up where we left off yesterday on how to launch a story. However, first we’ll deal with Donna’s question:
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.
Randy sez: You can always put a dateline at the beginning of the first chapter (or the beginning of each chapter). For example, “June 6, 1066”. Or whatever. That tells a lot in little space.
Barbara emailed me privately to tell her method for handling backstory. She first writes a “prologue” (which if I understand correctly, she does NOT include as part of the story). Then as she writes the first few chapters, she works in bits and pieces of that “prologue” into the story.
Randy sez: This should work just fine. The key thing is to ask every single piece of the backstory why it deserves to take up space in the story. If it has no good answer, then nuke it.
I liked ML Equatin’s comment that every person starts life as a newborn, knowing none of his or her own backstory. And yet somehow, we all manage to get along for quite some time, and none of us ever knows the whole backstory.
That really ties in nicely with what I wanted to say next, which is what to put in those first few chapters. The problem is that often it takes a while for the story to get up to speed. The protagonist generally DOESN’T know on page 1 what this story is about. Generally, the story interrupts the life of the protagonist by replacing his normal everyday problems with some MUCH BIGGER problem.
And that’s a key point. What you want to do is start your story with your character facing some ordinary, everyday problem. Then interrupt that as soon as possible with the new BIG problem.
Let’s look at some examples:
1) LORD OF THE RINGS. In the first chapter, our hero, Bilbo Baggins, is facing the happy problem of how best to celebrate his birthday. We’re treated to a longish account of the party and Bilbo’s mysterious disappearance from the party, which leads to hints about the evil dwelling in that pesky Ring. And that leads in succeeding chapters into the main problem of the story, which is that the Ring must be destroyed.
2) PRIDE AND PREJUDICE. In the first chapter, Mr. Bingley moves into Netherfield Park, and the initial problem is that the man simply must be met by the Bennett girls, but that can’t happen until their Papa first meets him. This happens in due course, and Bingley is charming, if shallow. And that leads, ultimately, to us meeting his friend, Mr. Darcy, who is the real love interest of the story for our heroine Lizzie.
3) PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN. Skipping the prologue, the first scene shows us Elizabeth facing the immediate problem of putting on a new dress from England with a corset. This leads into the fact that her daddy is setting her up for a marriage proposal from the commodore and her fainting and falling into the sea, where she’s saved by Captain Jack Sparrow. And soon enough, the real story gets rolling because Elizabeth’s pirate gold brings the Black Pearl to her.
4) OXYGEN. (Written by me and John Olson.) In the first chapter, our heroine Valkerie Jansen wakes up in the middle of the night at a remote site in Alaska where she’s doing biology fieldwork, and the nearby volcano is venting and she can’t breathe. She takes action to solve her problem, and next morning is visited on site by a couple of gents from NASA who want to make her an offer she really ought to refuse. And ultimately that leads to the main story, about a disaster on the first human mission to Mars. Note that the first chapter ties in neatly, because the main story is about not being able to breathe.
Note that in all four examples, the initial scene is about facing a problem in the ordinary world. But it ties in nicely to the full story. That’s a key principle. Make the initial problem tie in to the main story problem.