I recently received an email asking me how an author decides on the best place to begin a story. This reminded me of an authors’ workshop I’d attended some time ago hosted by a famous agent who shall remain nameless because his identity is really not important to this discussion. In the session, he stipulated as a hard and fast rule that when writing a novel you should not mention backstory or anything from the character’s “past” within the first 30 pages. Not a single mention of something that happened in the past, whether recent or more distant past for 30 pages! Everything should be happening NOW. Wow!
I understand his reason for coming up with this rule: It’s because so many beginning writers start with backstory. It’s natural for them to do this because, usually, their story starts with a character and the history of that character is interesting to the writer. However, it’s seldom interesting to a reader. Readers want to be placed into the action, to see what’s happening.
As human beings, we find other people’s troubles interesting. But if nothing is really happening, we quickly find our attention waning and we move on. So while writers should definitely write the backstory because it helps develop the plot of the story, it should almost never be the beginning of the story.
However, that said, I take issue with the instruction put forward by that agent for a couple of reasons.
First, while rules provide excellent “guidelines” the saying, “rules are made to be broken” came about for a reason. Show me a hard and fast rule in fiction, and I’ll probably be able to show you a successful author who has broken the rule. Whether the breaking of the rule made for poorer fiction is, of course, debatable. Sometimes the story is just so compelling that the broken rule can be ignored by the reader because no one cares when so gripped by the tale. Or, perhaps, in the particular instance, the broken rule actually made the story better. Who knows? It can happen.
Second, while I do share the opinion that a novel should rarely, if ever, begin with backstory, 30 pages with no mention of the past, or the character’s history, is too long. Imagine that you start a novel with a character that is running for his life. He is hiding behind parked cars, running through restaurants and escaping out the back (that’s always what they do in the movies, after all), jumping fences and being chased by dogs. He is panting and tired and so very afraid.
Now, can you imagine this kind of description going on for 30 pages while you, the reader, still have no idea why he is afraid, why he is running, who is chasing him, or whether he is a criminal or a good guy? Of course not!
As exciting as a man running for his life is, it quickly becomes boring if we don’t share the character’s thoughts, emotions, and fears. He has to at least think about his recent past (what happened to put him on the run) in order to keep the story believable and his motivation credible.
Please note that I am not saying that the reader needs the entire backstory two or three pages in to the novel. Absolutely not! What I’m saying is that you dole out the character’s thoughts in dribs and drabs that keep the reader hooked and interested! But, in order to do that, the author has to share some of the character’s past.
What happened to put him on the run? Did he witness a murder? Is he on his way to the police? Or does he feel he must avoid the police? Why? Was the murder committed by one police officer against another? The thoughts that provide hints as to his situation MUST be shared or as a reader I will put the book down long before I reach the 30-page mark.
For that reason, I completely disagree with the agent’s instruction not to even mention the past for 30 pages.
It is possible that the agent did not mean for his instructions to be taken in the way that they were. Perhaps he only meant backstory that is unrelated to the current situation should not be mentioned in the first 30 pages. However, that is not what he said, and, unfortunately, it was not how many of the aspiring authors in attendance took his instructions. I witnessed some rather heated discussions concerning his statements after the session. And, in fact, in one instance I attempted to provide food for thought by presenting a scenario similar to the one I’ve presented here. However, the agent who had hosted the session was a famous New York agent. It’s a sad fact that many aspiring authors will take the words coming out of the mouths of the publishing industry gurus as gospel truth. And, unfortunately, poorly communicated instructions like these can ruin a story. Authors need to heed instruction, yes, but they also need to follow their instincts and question instructions that don’t make sense.
Please keep in mind that even professionals in the industry are not infallible. They misspeak and miscommunicate at times, just like the rest of us.
And now I will address the original question: At what point should an author begin to tell the story? Where should the novel begin?
The guideline which has served me well is straight forward and easy to remember: Begin the telling of your story JUST BEFORE, DURING, or JUST AFTER the moment of GREATEST CHANGE in your character’s life. I will give you a few quick examples below to illustrate.
Here’s an example of just before: A woman starts her busy but ordinary day leaving the house in a hurry, briefcase in hand. Since she overslept and hasn’t had coffee yet, she stops at a donut shop for coffee and a bagel on the way to work. She remembers she is going to need cash for … (something) … and decides to stop at the bank. She is just about to enter the bank when there is an explosion and she is thrown violently to the ground. This will be the moment of greatest change in her life because … here are a few possibilities:
- She is injured and experiences a trauma that changes the course of her life. Perhaps she is physically scarred, or in a wheel chair. OR
- She is thrown to the ground and protected by a police officer with whom she becomes romantically involved and whom she will eventually marry. OR
- She is a former nurse and finds herself immersed in caring for the injured. She saves a child, whose parents have been killed, and has difficulty, when the time comes, watching the boy (or girl) go into the foster care system. She decides to fight the system that would place the child with an uncaring relative in order to adopt him herself. OR … well, whatever you come up with.
An example of during: The tires of your car are slipping and sliding on the icy surface of a winter highway. You see the other vehicle and desperately try to steer your car for the ditch, but you are powerless. In those endless seconds you watch death coming toward you. You hear the sound of screaming tires and rending metal; you see shattered glass cutting toward your face; you smell diesel fumes. This becomes the moment of greatest change in your life because …
- Perhaps only moments before you had been contemplating suicide. Now you suddenly realize that you want to live. You bargain with God in those final seconds: Let me live and I will … do something. OR
- Perhaps you are impaired and the accident is somehow your fault despite the road conditions. A young family dies while you survive. How do you atone? OR … well, whatever you come up with.
And, lastly, and example of just after: The initial scenario I provided above is a perfect example of starting the story just after. A man, having been caught witnessing a crime perpetrated by one police officer against another, is on the run and afraid for his life. He doesn’t know to whom he should turn for help. His life changes forever because …
- He can’t go home. He must drop out of his life and he must live completely off the grid or they will find him. He needs cash. What can this ordinary man be driven to do to survive? And, when it’s over, will he be able to live with himself? OR … again, whatever you come up with.
From my perspective, that’s how you determine the best place to begin your novel. Almost every story begins with some type of inciting incident. That incident is the impetus that drives your story forward. You need to decide if starting your story just before, during, or just after that incident that changes the course of your characters life best serves the needs of your character and his story.
And that’s about all I have to share on this topic for now. I hope you’ve found the post helpful.
Take care, until your next visit.