Last week I began a 2 part series about how to write the beginning of a novel by blogging about 10 things you should do. This week, it’s 10 things you shouldn’t do.
Backstory is information about your character’s background, the background to the events of the story or the background to the key relationships in the story. It doesn’t belong in the first three chapters of your novel.
We want to get to know your character the way we get to know a person in real life. We don’t know everything about a person when we first strike up a friendship with them; half of the fun is in finding out those things over the course of the relationship. It’s the same with fiction.
We are happy to not know some things, we are happy to have those things filled in as we go on the journey of the book. Backstory slows the story down. Save it for when you need a moment of respite from the tension, a slowing of the pace. The beginning of a novel should be all forward moving action so you can engage the reader with your story and your characters.
There is nothing worse than reading a chapter, with a vividly realised scenario, only to have the character wake up in chapter two and tell us it was all a dream. This does not allow us to form a connection to your character as they really are, or to the actual events of the story.
3. Excessive Description
We don’t need an overly detailed description of the geography and setting of the story in the first three chapters. Drip feed this information in by all means, but attach it to a character’s viewpoint, rather than giving it to us through the eye of God. If description is attached to a character’s viewpoint, then we’ll at least learn something about the character at the same time.
4. Lack of focus
Things which cause a lack of focus are:
- Too many characters
- Too many story events, for instance, switching to a parallel narrative too early, before establishing the first narrative strand
- Head-hopping from one point of view character to another
- Too many locations
You want to have the reader settle in to your first three chapters rather than become confused and disorientated by not knowing which characters to focus on and which events are important.
5. Shopping Lists
Here’s what I mean by shopping lists: She had red hair, blue eyes, porcelain skin, one cute dimple and a huge smile. Her dress was long and flowery, her shoes were dainty and her toenails red. Bangles jingled on her arms, rings sparkled on her fingers and big hoop earrings hung from her ears.
In this sentence, I am giving you a shopping list of a character description. It’s much better to have the character in action, talking to another character, where her smile and dimple become apparent, or dancing in a way that makes her dress and bangles move. Integrate the description with the action, rather than separating it out into a long list.
6. Characters Doing Nothing
Washing dishes, staring out windows, looking at reflections in mirrors, looking at photo albums: these actions should be used with caution in your first three chapters.
Again, think about real life. Would you want to watch a person wash dishes or look at themselves in the mirror? No! So why would a reader want to do that in fiction?
You need to look at the actions your character is undertaking and make sure they are interesting and varied throughout the narrative, but most especially in the first three chapters.
7. Characters Reflecting on Their Current Situation
SHOW us their situation. If they’re in an abusive relationship, give us a scene where the partner abuses them, and then show us the effect it has on your character. If they’re ashamed, how can you show us their shame?
Try not to have your character simply thinking about the abuse, and thinking about being ashamed, and wishing they could make a change. Get out of their head and get them into a scene.
Flashback isn’t a great idea in the first three chapters. We really need to get a good feel for your character’s present situation before we go jumping back in time. And, often, flashback is just a backhand way of getting in exposition, which we’ve already said should be minimal in the first three chapters.
Prologues are a hotly debated topic. Some agents and publishers don’t like them at all, some don’t mind. I don’t know if there’s a right or wrong answer other than to make sure you’re not using a prologue to dump backstory. Make sure the prologue raises important questions in the readers’ minds about the characters.
10. Spoon-feed the Reader
Trust your reader. They don’t need to know everything in the first three chapters of your book. In fact, they don’t want to know everything. The reason they’re reading your book is to find out the answers to the questions your fabulous opening chapters have raised.
Leave out more than you put in. Make sure this creates a compelling dramatic question that the reader is desperate to have answered – by the end of the book!
I hope this 2 part series on writing strong beginnings was worthwhile. Let me know what you think below. Do you ever do any of these things in the first draft of your books? I know I do. Which is why I love redrafting!