On the 15th of each month I’ll be chatting about writing craft.
Welcome to part 2 of my first 3-part series here on NN, where we will explore the beginning of a novel—and why you might not want to start your story there.
Part 2: Banish Your Back Story
Ever wish there was a sure-fire way to light your story’s firecracker so that it explodes off the page right from chapter one? In Part 1 last month, I discussed one way—by starting in media res to get things rolling. For Part 2, let’s go back to that all-important opening “hook.” Most of us who have studied craft know of this Holy Grail quest for the line that will magically light the match for literary dynamite. But just as important as catchy words in the opening sentence is the precise moment in time the words are taking place.
In my time working as a submissions editor, I came across a little truth that I’d like to toss out here:
The optimal opening hook often starts 1/4 of the way or more into the author’s “big picture” of the story.
One of the best ways I saw for otherwise engaging writers to land in the rejection pile was to send in stories that began with back story. “Prologues” are a notorious tip-off, as are tales that open with the character’s eyes fluttering open, shutting off the alarm clock, etc.
Why? Prologues usually contain an information dump of back story that readers almost never need/want at that point. Some of that back story the reader will never need. All that info is vital to the author, of course, so they get the mistaken impression that the reader has to have it up front, too. Not so. It’s far more interesting to start off when the character is up to some high jinks that make the reader question, question, question, then dole out the answers gradually while the plot is on the run or requires a temporary break in pacing.
This brings us back to last month’s idea of in media res. If you’re having trouble with this concept, banishing back story (until later, and in small doses) is a good way to find the perfect “middle” moment where the tale actually begins.
All that said, my own writing must be devoid of opening volley back story, right? Um, ::cough:: I’m getting better, but have been infamous for dragging out the back story in Chapter One. I can think of two manuscripts in particular I could not get happy with after several rewrites. I finally realized I’d started off with back story—three chapters’ worth for one and almost a full chapter for the other. Out they went. Talk about “killing your darlings!” Painful stuff, but necessary if we want to tell our readers a story rather than ourselves.
In Part 3 I’ll be talking about why we should never introduce our characters. (Hang on! Don’t get out the pile of rotten tomatoes just yet.) Meanwhile, I hope you’ve found this month’s installment useful, and here’s my question for you: As a reader, at what point do you like to hear the MC’s whole story? And do your novels reflect that as a writer?