Tuesday, March 23, 2010

It's a Story From the Very First Word

I'm plowing ahead with the new version of my book, and as I head toward the midpoint of Act One I have to keep reminding myself that what I am doing is telling a story, and not setting up a story. What I mean by that is that the opening chapters of a book are supposed to be just as much of a story as the middle, or the end. The first act, or chapter, or page or even the very first word, is not introduction. It's all story. I have to be telling my story from the very first word.

I am not talking about "hooking your reader from the first word" or whatever bullshit advice non-writers are pawning off on writers this week. I mean simply that you have to have a real story you're telling and you have to start telling it at the start of the book and tell it all the way through.

A lot of the unpublished manuscripts I'm allowed to read spend a great deal of time at the start just setting the stage, moving pieces around the game board and explaining the rules of the game. None of that is story, usually.

The main way I use to determine if I'm drifting out of actual storytelling and into stage setting is to remain aware of my scenes. Am I writing a scene, or am I writing an essay? If there's no scene, if nothing is being dramatized, then I'm not telling a story and so I'd better stop writing and think about what I'm trying to do.

My book has some good-sized chunks of backstory to work in, and I have worked out a provisional system for giving it to the reader. There are a couple of rules I make myself obey for this:

1. Write in scenes. This is just my overall rule of writing novels.

2. There is no backstory. By which I mean that in general, I simply don't allow myself to talk about what happened; I only let myself talk about what is happening. If there was some incident in a character's past that had to do with his/her motivations or personality, I find a way to have that incident--or a similar incident--happen inside the main storyline, in the "story present." If I can't find a way to do that, then I am increasingly tempted to just not include it at all. We do not have to explain every single thing about our characters. In real life, we meet people where they are and figure them out as we go along.

3. Action before explanation. This is a sort of framework I am using in the current book, that goes sort of like this:
  • Dramatized scene begins. Show major conflict of scene.
  • Insert necessary background information.
  • Finish dramatized scene.

Not only is this how I structure scenes, it's also how I am structuring chapters. It's also how I am structuring each act. It's also how the overall structure of the book works. I'm a fan of nested structures; they make me happier than is reasonable.

Anyway, the point I'm trying to make is that, especially in the beginning of a book if it's a book being written by me, it's very easy to drift off from the story and describe the world and the history of the world and I don't think that's necessary and I don't think it's a good idea and so I am trying now to write carefully and make sure I'm still telling a story with each page of prose and that's causing me to write more slowly than I'd like and so it feels, frankly, like I'm making no progress at all. I have a large cast and I have to introduce all the characters. I have to introduce them in dramatized scenes. Each scene has to be an important part of the actual storyline; I don't get to have scenes just to introduce characters. I don't get to have standalone chunks of backstory. I don't get to have flashbacks or a prologue. I just have a story that starts with the first word of the book and continues to the final word of the book. Writing: harder than it looks.


  1. Scott - whenever you write on the blog I almost feel slapped in the face. But that's a compliment. The voice in your blog comes across strong. EVERY time I read what you have to say and I always learn something about my own writing. Thanks.

  2. Scott- this was great. My urge to add in backstory is nearly as strong as my addiction to chocolate. Thanks. I'm going to print this out and post it above my computer.

  3. As a reader I resent being pulled out of the drama to be force fed some back story. I often don't bother picking up the thread again.

    As a writer, I long to include back story and it almost hurts not to.

  4. Great post. And if you plunge the reader into a great scene from the very beginning, isn't she going to be hooked anyway? There's no gimmick to good writing--just good writing.

  5. "writing is hard than it looks" Amen.

    I also have a little system for writing that's been working well for me. Each chapter, each scene even, has to move one of the plot points forward.

  6. I totally agree. I get bored reading back story - I want to *see* how it affects the characters, not just be told what it is. I like back story that is discovered gradually in whatever the character happens to be going through at that present moment...and I do my best to write that way as well.

    I'm also a huge fan of nested structure, and write in scenes first, then chapters, then sections. :-)

  7. "Hook your reader from the first word" is just another term for what you're saying here. "Don't bore me on the first page while I'm looking for excuses to walk away" is another way to say it.

    Your reader's probably standing up when they read your first page, in a bookstore, with a friend yapping in one ear about some other book. If you could reach out of the page with both hands and grab their head, you would.

    Readers do have a built-in expectation that you can use for backstory. It's because we've all been reading books written this way all our lives: if you absolutely must, stick backstory into chapter 2 or 3---make a clean, unexpected jump into it and back out again.

    The jumps shake your reader up and keep them intrigued. Surprise in chapter 1! Surprise again in chapter 2! Surprise with a little bit of familiarity as a reward (they're starting to make sense of this world when they find themselves back where they were in chapter 1) in chapter 3! They almost get three beginnings for the price of one.

    Of course, it's best if you can do backstory in flashback because that's scenes rather than exposition. And nobody is going to sit through a whole chapter of exposition. You're lucky if they'll sit through a paragraph. Be aware your reader is always driven to move forward. Don't make them drag you. You need to be dragging them.

    And read some Dashiell Hammett. He never used exposition, for anything, ever.

  8. Great post today! Your thoughts are always so refreshing to me. Thank you!

  9. Great post, Scott! Whenever I get in trouble or stuck on a piece of writing, remembering to Write In Scenes usually solves the problem.

  10. "it's best if you can do backstory in flashback"

    I so totally disagree.

  11. Great advice! It's not always easy to write in scenes, especially if you're an organic writer and are discovering the story as you go. But that's what revision is for.

  12. Scott, I think this advice comes at a great time for me. In my writing lately, I've been much more self-indulgent, which I think is ultimately a good thing. But, I also realize that I'm drifting more than I'd normally like to. I'm writing what I want to write instead of what I want to read, and that usually means I have to go back and revise and revise. I needed this today. Thanks!

  13. Girl with One Eye: My mother taught me never to hit a woman! Mostly what I do here is talk about whatever problems I'm having with my own writing and I egotistically assume it'll be applicable to others. Thanks for commenting!

    susiej: I would love to write a book that's 1,000+ pages long and begins with the geological history of the region where it's set. But I won't.

    Fia: I think there are ways to make the backstory part of the mechanism that increases the conflict and tension of the main story, so the reader is always "in the story" no matter what I'm writing about. I hope.

    KID LIT WRITERS: No gimmicks! Damn straight.

    Crimey: That's an excellent rule of thumb. It's even better if scenes do more than advance the plot. I try to have everything push the story forward via plot, character, theme, symbolism, conflict and tension. Sometimes I don't achieve it, but that's my goal: everything all at once with eloquence and beauty.

    Jamie D: Yes, scenes first!

    Victori: What I object to with the "hook your reader" advice is that a lot of people mean it (and take it) as beginning a book with some sort of over-the-top event or some kind of mysterious statement ("When I opened the jar of peanut butter that morning, I had no idea it would cause the demons to eat every inhabitant of the Upper West Side...") to pique our interest when what immediately follows is not particularly compelling. The compelling must be there from the start. Which is likely what you're saying anyway!

    Regarding backstory, maybe we have a different idea of what "flashback" means and how to use it. I agree that dramatized is better than summarized in almost all cases, but sometimes I think that our beloved 3500-word backstories can be reduced to single sentences like, "I was angry because he'd killed my father" or "I was bitten by a werewolf when I was a teenager." Perhaps not that clumsily, but you get the idea, I hope. I also think there should be some kind of law that bans backstory before chapter 3. Or 4.

    Valerie: Thanks!

    edith: Me, too. I ask myself how I'd write what's next if I was a playwright. I must imagine a scene in order to move forward at all, actually.

    Sandra: I know it. I have a bad tendency to write about the story as much as I write the story itself. I am attempting, in my current draft, to write something that won't need any major revisions, so I'm going slowly and carefully. Fool's errand, I know.

    Davin: "writing what I want to write instead of what I want to read" is an excellent way of putting it. I think a lot of writers are natural essayists, and we have to recognize when we're writing essays instead of stories. Which can be hard. It's sort of like letting ourselves daydream when we write, and off we go into 5,000 words about nematodes or eels when the reader just wants to know if the main characters are going to kiss or fight.

  14. Not starting with exposition is a rule I'm breaking in my current WIP because of the fairy tale theme. I'm starting a lot of chapters with a sort of "once upon a time there was..." intro paragraph, followed by a scene. But I'm doing this mindfully, and I may change my mind later if it isn't working.

    Generally speaking, I try to do just what you've laid out here. It's good, solid advice for a contemporary novel.

  15. Your posts are always interesting. I kind of agree with being wary of "whatever bullshit advice non-writers are pawning off on writers this week" although Victoria has some good points from the editorial perspective, too.

    I've just had my full ms. rejected by two different agents for not having enough backstory and internal monologue, so you can go overboard in the other direction. Luckily, I saved a lot of the backstory and internal stuff I cut out for the final draft.

    I think we need to write backstory for ourselves when we're writing first drafts--so we can get to know our characters (actors do this when they're studing a new part) But we need to eliminate most of it in the final draft--but not as much as I did, obviously.

  16. Genie: We can play with the form, as long as--as you say--we do it mindfully. Some writers play so much you never know where you stand in relation to the story (I'm thinking of Nabokov or Gunter Grass).

    annerallen: My agent told me several times that I wasn't telling him enough about my protagonist. "Don't be so subtle," he said.

    And Victoria's a writer, too!

  17. Scott, I like what you're saying here. I happen to write most of chapters as single scenes, and that's how I break up my book. Now that I'm writing a novella, however, there are no chapters, and I'm forced to think through things as just scenes and not chapters, and for some reason that's doing funky things with my brain.

    As you know, I've had my own personal battle with flashbacks. Overall, I think they're evil, but that's because they are rarely done well. I hate them so much I took them out of Monarch completely, but after several months of hell, I've put them back in. You know most of the story behind that. And even worse - the first flashback is all of Chapter 4, and even worse than that, there's 3 or 4 flashbacks, and they are all pages and pages long. It's terrible, but they are my favorite part of the book and I keep wondering which story I should be telling, or if it's all working in sync. Who knows. I guess you can form your own conclusion when I send you the book. :)

    Anyway, I've rambled and gone off the subject. I like your term: nested structures. Those always make me happy if I can pull it off.

  18. Backstory is my weakness. Just cause I'm gossipy anyways.

    I can't believe you're starting on a new novel so soon. That's awesome Scott.


  19. Thanks, I needed that. I'm always looking at how to fit it in. I was starting to suspect, but you spell it out clearly - don't.

  20. Pretty good stuff, Scott.
    I like the concept of nested structures (does that mean there's an Act One to Act One??)
    Another thing I've been doing is when I bring a scene to a critique, I don't explain what's going on. I want to see where the scene falls apart on its own...not in the context of the story. The scene itself should tell a story about the resolution (good or bad) of the conflict introduced at the beginning of the scene.

  21. Michelle: You know, I have two (or is it three?) flashbacks in "Cocke & Bull." In present tense. I have no idea if they work, and I won't know until I get around to revising it later this year. The bottom line is always going to be "if it works, it works." Problem is, most of the time it doesn't. I am waiting for my copy of "Monarch," and I am assuming that your flashbacks work! Actually, I think that you and I are doing some of what Davin did in "Rooster," which is having two intertwining timelines rather than having flashbackstorydumps.

    I'm looking forward to the novella project. Scene-by-scene writing has always made more sense to me than chapter-by-chapter.

    Donna: You could do like Dickens and Dostoyevsky and have chatty, gossipy characters to fill in backstory!

    The last novel I wrote was just to have something to do while waiting for my agent's feedback so I could do the rewrite I'm on now. Idle hands, etc.

    Charmaine: Don't--unless you absolutely have to. And then my advice is to put it in after the scene that required it or at least after the start of the scene that required it.

    Andrew: I agree with you about scenes. They should hang together outside the novel, mostly. And yes, each Act is broken into smaller acts. I lean heavily on the 3-part form, from scene-level upward (even though my WIP has a 5-act structure, but I'm playing with symmetry and mirror structures this time around).

  22. Scott, I'm breaking up Cinders into four sections, so I guess in a way, they are like really long chapters. We'll see how it works out.

    I think that's really interesting that all three of us are kind of doing the same thing structure-wise. Very interesting, indeed!

    Monarch should be on its way to you by the end of the week. I'm almost done with the final read-through-catch-as-many-errors-as-I-can part of it all.

  23. Great post. I really like point #2, there is no backstory. It's certainly something I have trouble with, especially since my backstory often gets redundant. Remembering to write about what is happening as opposed to what happened is certainly important.

  24. You had me hooked at "whatever bullshit advice non-writers are pawning off on writers this week." LOL!

    There is a lot of that out there, and non-writers aren't the only ones who sling it. I'd be fooling nobody by myself if I claimed I've never slung any, but hey -- it's all fertilizer.


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