One of a novelist’s challenges in the beginning of a story is how to introduce critical back story without slowing down the story. I try to prevent overloading the first chapters with back story by observing the Cold Mashed Potatoes Rule.
Writing Tip for Today: Yes, a reader needs to understand the situation, but in a novel, it isn’t necessary to paint the whole picture at once. The Cold Mashed Potatoes Rule states, “If your character is dining and and a flash back or back story is triggered as she lifts a spoonful of mashed potatoes to her lips, the reader goes into the “prior time,” leaving the spoonful suspended in midair. The longer the writer remains in the backstory, flashback or any prior time, the colder the potatoes become.” The lesson here? Limit (especially in opening chapters) backstory/flashbacks to the Rule of 3. Use three or fewer sentences of backstory before at least touching back on the real time scene. If you allow your reader to become immersed in the backstory, she will forget about the real time scene in short order. We all want our readers to understand, but by limiting backstory and focusing upon action (scene) you’ll be more likely to keep your reader interested.
Try This! Write a scene that weaves in and out of a memory or backstory. Compare this technique with adding large expositional or narrative chunks. R.U.E. (Resist the Urge to Explain!)