Not too long ago, I was trolling around the blogs and forums and I landed on the Kindle Board Writer’s CafÃ©. On this day, there was a question that caught my eye regarding the proper amount of backstory and description to put in the front of a novel before getting down to the business of moving the plot forward.
I don’t know, it seems pretty obvious to me that you have to involve the reader immediately. You can’t waste a lot of time with exposition and backstory. But I was shocked not only at the question, but at the responses as well.
Now, I was well aware that these were overwhelmingly self-pubbed/Kindle writers, but the number of people who tried to delineate exactly where in the novel the action should begin was appalling. One said that it’s OK to postpone the “gripping stuff” until at least 1/4 to 1/3 of the way into the book. Another said the first 1/3 of the book “should” be exposition. Where are they getting this from? Can somebody tell me? Surely not anywhere in the real world. Maybe in some “creative” writing class somewhere.
To be fair, though, several respondents insisted on getting the action going right away. And of course, that’s pretty much where I stand.
Naturally, this doesn’t mean a high body count in the first paragraph or laying out the entire story on page one. But it does mean that if a central character is introduced right away, and right away he/she faces conflict, or at the very least, some sort of tension, well, the writer is probably on the right path. If this conflict is well-presented, the reader will want to turn the page.
In addition, I think it’s a good idea (notice I didn’t say “rule”) for the writer to continue ratcheting up this tension on the central character as the novel progresses. Holding the reader is of paramount importance in the first few chapters of any book, and one proven way to do this is to escalate the conflict. This would ideally be done in every scene.
Backstory and info-dumps are a bad idea in the opening of any book. Agents and editors specifically look for that as evidence that a writer doesn’t know what he/she is doing. Better that stuff be skillfully woven into the dialogue and narrative as the book moves along.
How to do it?
Well, therein lies the challenge.