A story starts on page one, right? This post by author Veronica Scott will make you think about where your story really starts…
Welcome back, Veronica!
Where does your story actually begin? “Once upon a time” is a nice intro but maybe even fairy tales include too much backstory.
I’ve been judging various contests for unpublished authors recently and while of course I won’t mention any specifics, the main problem I see is that the author begins with one, two, sometimes even three chapters of material which they feel is necessary to the book. Unfortunately, all too often these chapters are solid info dump backstory or history. If I weren’t judging a contest entry for them, I’d be closing the manuscript and moving on. I’d never even get to the actual story! I see this same comment often in my social media feed from agents and editors, regarding submissions they receive.
(All examples are made up for this post!)
The author runs several risks here. First, while they certainly need to understand the history and events shaping their own world building, the reader is going to become bored fast with the events of the 200 Year War, told year by year, with no immediate connection to a hero or heroine they care about. This technique is even more likely to turn people off early if the author throws in a lot of terms and made-up language details. I’ve had a number of published authors tell me they do write this sort of material, often in early drafts of the novel, because it helps them think through their world building details, but they then delete the material from the final drafts. (I tend to keep scribbly notes on various purple legal pads scattered around the house, rather than write it all out, but that’s me.)
Second, the author may lead the reader to think they’ve met the hero or heroine and become invested in that person, only to abruptly find out they’ve been reading about the great- grandmother of the heroine and won’t be learning any more about that character! Or even worse, we may have been reading – and investing our emotions in– a minor character who dies or disappears, having served their literary purpose of giving us backstory. If the readers really liked that character they may be grumpy about transferring their attention and affection to whoever is the protagonist. Not to mention confused. “Is Prolog Person coming back? Will we ever see them again?”
Third, the reader may settle into reading, thinking they’re getting a great “paranormal angels on Mars” story only to find when the ‘real’ book begins, that it’s a completely different genre! All that wonderful story telling in Chapters One through Three happened in the Two Hundred Years War and now we’re moving into the real story set in 2070 on Mars.
I’ve had this happen to me several times while reading contest entries and it makes my head ache. I liked the story I was reading, and now you want me to concentrate on an “urban post apocalyptic fantasy in gritty Cityville” instead? On occasion even the author’s ‘voice’ changes once they hit the actual story they’re intending to tell and that’s also jarring.
Closely related to this is the overused technique of opening with a dream, a nightmare, a flashback or the main character looking at him or herself in the mirror.
What I suggest in my judging comments is that the author figure out where the current story begins – is it when someone breaks down the door and enters the house? Is it when the hero meets the heroine for the first time? When the heroine picks up great grandmother’s crystal ball and feels the magic working? Maybe when the aliens land and begin shooting up the city? Personally I like being plunged into the action. Or at most reading a bit of everyday stuff, then being immersed in the key moment that kicks off the plot.
Uh oh, I hear readers of certain of my books going, “Wait a minute. The first 19% of Wreck of the Nebula Dream is build up.” (Someone actually quantified that 19% number for me in an early review.) Well, yes…I wrote that novel to the classic disaster movie template, where you have to spend some time getting to know the characters or you won’t care what happens to them when catastrophe hits. I didn’t tell you my hero’s childhood traumas during an alien attack, his backstory in combat, how the interstellar cruise liner was built or why the Sectors civilization came about, or do any other world building before Nick boards the shuttle to the doomed vessel. I did write a 1000 word prolog explaining why the ship was haunted, but deleted that from the final draft as unnecessary.
My more recent Star Cruise: Outbreak is similar in structure, with a certain amount of time spent in getting to know Dr. Emily Shane during her first few days on board the cruise liner.
But I certainly didn’t open with the scene from several years earlier, where she’s a military doctor on a beach under fire from the enemy, working hard to save the lives of badly injured soldiers. Dramatic as that would have been!
Which leads me to my next point – if there’s backstory or world building the reader has to have, weave it into the action, the dialog, the events of your story as they occur. Not in big chunks of dense wordage either! Readers are smart. They’ll get the context and figure out what they need to know. Your beta readers and/or editors can help you here, by pointing out places where a bit more exposition may be needed to make sense of a character’s actions, or where less is required.
Here’s how I dealt with getting Emily’s critical combat backstory into the book (versus writing a chapter of prolog). The scene occurs as she’s at the Captain’s table on the first night of her cruise. A passenger says:
“Pleased to meet you as well, Doctor. We’ve heard of you. The Angel of Fantalar, yes?”
All around the table, passengers swiveled to gape at Emily. Even the well-trained waiter paused in serving the next course. Only the three children were unaffected, chattering amongst themselves until their mother nudged the eldest in the ribs and hissed at him to pay attention.
An urge to deny the title ran through her head, but Emily knew a protest would be futile. The news agencies had spread her image far and wide through the Sectors after the Fantalar rescue, seizing on both the human interest story and the nickname that grateful soldiers had given her. She was lucky not to have been recognized earlier. “I was on the planet, yes.” She lifted her wine glass, proud to see her hand wasn’t shaking. Taking a smaller sip than she craved, Emily said, “You of all people must know how the media exaggerate the most insignificant things, Mr. Daburkn.”
“Call me Sid. In your case, there was nothing small about what you did.” Sid refused to let the topic go, and the rest of the passengers were riveted by the conversation. His trained actor’s voice carried across the dining room. “You saved how many soldiers? And the Special Forces unit made you an honorary member of their team, which I’ve been told is a rare honor for a support person, even a doctor. Our production company researched the whole episode for a possible trideo or even a miniseries, but we received word you refused to grant the rights.”
There are some similar situations during the book, which bring out other relevant pieces of Dr. Shane’s backstory.
And finally, nothing is ever lost! Maybe you can use the deleted scenes in another book, or publish them on your blog or in your newsletter as ‘extras”. I’ve done that with the abandoned prolog to Wreck. I’m planning to share the entire first chapter I deleted from Lady of the Star Wind, where Mark the hero met the Outlier Empress and was tasked with rescuing her granddaughter. See, the actual story begins a few weeks later, when Mark is poised for action outside the house where Alessandra is being held and an enemy attacks the place. I’ll probably put the deleted material in my newsletter.
Have you ever written and then deleted a prolog, or a chunk of backstory? Did you share it later?
She saved countless soldiers in the wars … but does she have the weapons to fight an outbreak?
Dr. Emily Shane, veteran of the Sector Wars, is known as “The Angel of Fantalar” for her bravery under fire as a medic. However, the doctor has her own war wounds–severe PTSD and guilt over those she failed to save.
Persuaded to fill a seemingly frivolous berth as ship’s doctor on the huge and luxurious interstellar cruise liner Nebula Zephyr, she finds the job brings unexpected perks–a luxe beach deck with water imported from Tahumaroa II, and Security Officer Jake Dilon, a fellow veteran who heats her up like a tropical sun.
However, Emily soon learns she and Jake didn’t leave all peril behind in the war. A mysterious ailment aboard the Zephyr begins to claim victim after victim … and they must race against time and space to find the cause and a cure! Trapped on a ship no spaceport will allow to dock, their efforts are complicated by a temperamental princess and a terrorist–one who won’t hesitate to take down any being in the way of his target. If anyone’s left when the disease is through with them …
Bio: Best Selling Science Fiction & Paranormal Romance author and “SciFi Encounters” columnist for the USA Today Happily Ever After blog, Veronica Scott grew up in a house with a library as its heart. Dad loved science fiction, Mom loved ancient history and Veronica thought there needed to be more romance in everything. When she ran out of books to read, she started writing her own stories.
Three time winner of the SFR Galaxy Award, as well as a National Excellence in Romance Fiction Award, Veronica is also the proud recipient of a NASA Exceptional Service Medal relating to her former day job, not her romances! She recently was honored to read the part of Star Trek Crew Woman in the audiobook production of Harlan Ellison’s “City On the Edge of Forever.”
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