Each time I draft a novel, I wrestle with my set-up in the opening. Does the opening give enough info and heart to compel the reader? How much do readers really need to know before they commit to the story?
Writing Tip for Today: A novel’s first pages need a delicate
balance of action and set-up. Here are some tips:
In Media Res
You’ve heard the advice to start in the middle of the action? Unfortunately (in my opinion), this idea can lead to confusion for readers before they’ve read far. Let’s say your character is in the midst of a conversation. If you lead off your story with a line of dialogue, a noise or someone else speaking before you’ve set the scene, it can be confusing. It might get readers’ attention, but then it also might force readers to reread the line after they know who says it.
Others may not be bothered but I dislike dialogue uttered
before I know who’s speaking. The same is true for noises or other characters’
dialogue. If I don’t have a clue as to who’s saying the words or what’s making
the noise (I refer here to the actual sound, such as wham, kerplunk or other
imitations of sounds), how can I know the context? A man might speak
differently than a woman, a child differently than an adult, etc. I like to see
the speaker (and the when and the where) before I hear the speech.
Start in the middle of the action but be sure to ground your
reader in the scene before you give dialogue or sounds. That way, readers are
clear on the set-up. Most readers will take action and forward movement over a
lot of back story info.
How We Got Here
The problem for many novelists comes in the back story—filling in the details of how the character arrived at this place, with this problem and this goal. The temptation to write the character’s back story is strong—for as authors we understand our character’s motivation and want readers to understand too.
Many a prologue has tried to fill in readers on what came
before the story begins, and it often spills over into the first chapters.
First chapters weighed down with back story may make readers conclude that the
back story is more interesting than the main story. If your back story is
intruding on the main story, try removing both prologue (if you have one) and
Chapter One (or Two). Oftentimes, the action begins after the writer has exhausted
all back story, somewhere around Chapter Two or Three.
Once you’ve found the place where the story goes forward, choose several EMOTIONAL details to weave in and around the action. Readers won’t need to know where your protagonist attended grade school as much as they’ll need those deep hurts, disappointments and longings to drive the protagonist toward her goal. Weaving is easier if you use the Rule of Three—only three or so sentences of back story in any portion of the real time action. And be sure to color these back story bits in terms of how it made the character feel, think or react.
Analyze Some Scenes
When I’m trying to balance my set-up or opening, I often
read scenes from writers I admire. I analyze the ratio of real time action
compared to internal thoughts that refer to back story. Where do these authors
place their back story and does it work?
Many times, the reference to back story is brief and written as internal thoughts of the protagonist. These kinds of scenes are careful not to let the mashed potatoes get cold—that is, the back story doesn’t go on so long that readers forget where they were when it began.
Analyze scenes in the same genre as your story. Mysteries,
thrillers, action/adventure and straight romance all tend to minimize character
back stories in favor of forward action, often at a brisk pace.
Literary/mainstream novels often dwell more on psychological and emotional elements,
so the “how we got here” plays a bigger role. Anyway you slice it, your novel’s
opening is key to readers’ decisions to keep reading. Take a look at your book’s
opening today and see how well your story balances the set-up with the action.