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Finding Your Beginning in “The End”: Are You a Trustworthy Writer?

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Finding Your Beginning in "The End" | KayeDacus.comHave you ever picked up a book, read a few paragraphs, and then put it down (or thrown it down) in disgust or disappointment because there was a historical error or a page and a half of backstory or head hopping?

What happened is that you discovered you couldn’t trust the author.

Something to keep in mind as you’re thinking about, planning, crafting, and (later) revising your opening:

The reader’s trust is earned or lost on the first page.

Have you done your research before you started writing?

    Even if you think you know a topic, always find backup sources. Someone else will always know more about it than you do and will tear you (as the author) and your story apart for any mistakes.

Are you being consistent?

    While this is something you want to worry about after you finish your first draft and are in the revision stage, as you set out to write, think about the rules of your storyworld (whether realistic or fantastical), the tone of the story (humorous, serious. tense, horrific, etc.), the voices of the POV characters, the flow of time, transitions between scenes/characters, establishment of POV characters, etc. Consistency is key. A reader wants to know you are in command, that you’ve put in the time necessary to make this book worth her time (and money), and that she’s in good hands.

No one knows our storyworlds better than we do. So it’s tempting to want to spoon-feed it to our readers. However, one thing that makes us trustworthy as authors is knowing how to trust our reader’s intelligence to understand without explanation—and how to explain without really explaining. It’s all about showing and developing context. So RUE—Resist the Urge to Explain!

Also, as an author, you must trust that your reader is intelligent enough to understand that you’re not going to reveal everything about your character(s) in the first chapter. They don’t need the full backstory of your heroine. They don’t need the unique, quaint, small town’s entire history. (And they probably don’t want it.) And your reader is more likely to stay with you longer if you don’t try to reveal everything in the opening pages.

Or, in other words, let your reader make inferences from what you imply.

Thanks, but No Thanks, for the Memories

The incorrect placement of backstory stems from the mistaken belief that readers won’t know what’s going on unless the author fleshes out the characters or provides some of the protagonist’s history and at least part of the journey that brought the protagonist to this crucial place. This is the single biggest mistake writers make. A setup that very (very!) briefly lets readers know who the characters are and where they are is usually fine; a setup that includes excruciating minutiae of a long backstory usually isn’t. Give only the amount of setup or backstory that’s absolutely necessary, and not a word more. More often than not, no backstory is even needed. Try to create setups that include necessary backstory concisely, and trust the reader to get what’s going on.

(Edgerton, Kindle Locations 934-940)

Just say NO to backstory!

Backstory is not the same thing as setup. Setup briefly tells us who and where the characters are right now. Backstory (lengthily) tells the reader who and where the characters were before the story began.

Along this same vein—don’t time travel in your opening. Your story should follow a forward linear path, not start, then go back to show/tell something that happened before the opening.

I’ll never forget the ARC of a book I was sent for possible endorsement once. It opened with a bang and drew me right in on the first two pages . . . and then the author time-traveled to about a few hours (days?) before that event began and, in several LOOOOOONNNNNNGGGGGGG pages of narrative told me what had happened to the character to bring about the event that I’d read about in the opening.

And you know what? I didn’t finish reading the book (much less endorse it). And the sad thing was that the author should have trusted her readers—the backstory wasn’t necessary to understand what was going on. Only one or two things were mentioned in it that might be important later in the story—and they could have been brought up later in the story when they were important!

To ensure your reader will trust you right from the very beginning (and then continue trusting you throughout the story), remember what Jack Bickham says about readers:

1. They are fascinated and threatened by significant change;
2. They want the story to start with such a change;
3. They want to have a story question to worry about;
4. They want the story question answered in the story ending;
5. They will quickly lose patience with everything but material that relates to the story question.

(Bickham, Kindle Locations 150-154)

For Discussion:
Will your story’s opening build your reader’s trust? Once you’ve moved from the beginning into the middle, and finally the end, will you have rewarded your reader for placing her trust in you?

Works Cited:

Edgerton, Les. Hooked: Write Fiction That Grabs Readers at Page One & Never Lets Them Go. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, 2007. Kindle Edition.

Bickham, Jack. Elements of Fiction Writing: Scene & Structure. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, 1999. Kindle Edition.

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