While reading a few writers’ and agents’ blogs today, through links from Twitter contacts, I came upon a tweet that really struck me. The Editorial Department, a company devoted to book editing, posted the following:
Readers have to care about characters before they care where the characters came from. Skip the backstory and dive into your story.
This is profoundly important, and was something I myself really had to learn in my own novel-writing. You may feel like you absolutely have to describe your characters’ history right at the beginning of your story. After all, these are total strangers, and surely the reader needs some context for them?
But this is a very special case of one of those “Show, Don’t Tell” situations. If the characters themselves are interesting and intriguing at the beginning, the reader will want to read on, to find out what happens to them. And along the way, the reason the characters are in their current situations will gradually reveal itself.
That’s one mistake that fiction writers often make. You don’t actually have to explain everything immediately. Sometimes you don’t have to explain at all. But the vital information can be revealed gradually, by characters talking about it, for example. Or it can come up naturally in the course of the story. There are all sorts of ways to work it into the narrative and into characters’ conversation, without sitting down and giving a history lesson in the first five pages of your novel.
A facilitator in a novel-writing workship once told me, “Kill the Sheriff in the first paragraph.” That’s the “hook” that gets readers wanting more. You can illustrate why the shooting happens as subsequent events develop.
Some writers have discovered that after they’ve written the first two or three pages of their novel, they suddenly realize that page three, five, or even ten is where the novel really starts.
When you’re starting your own story, keep this in mind. All that backstory is probably not necessary right at the beginning. Just leap into the plot from the first paragraph onwards. The history will eventually catch up.