Not too long ago, I was trolling around the blogs and forums and I landed on the Kindle Board Writer’s Café. 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.

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  1. Yeah, I agree, the conflict needs to start right away, that’s were the story starts afterall, but it can be inner-conflict from one character’s POV.

    Elmore Leonard sometimes starts books with what seems like backstory (look at the opening of TISHOMINGO BLUES for example) and before you realize it the action of the story has started.

    Okay, maybe it takes forty novels to get that smooth, but now that he’s done it, we can learn from him right? 😉

  2. Right, John. The conflict can be interior from the character’s POV. It also doesn’t have to be earth-shaking or life-threatening, but I believe it does have to produce some kind of tension, which needs to be strung tighter as the book progresses.

    I haven’t read TISHOMINGO BLUES, but maybe I should. We can all learn something from Elmore.

  3. Joyce Ann

    “It was the best of times; it was the worst of times. . . .”
    “Now what I want is, Facts.”
    “Call me Ishmael.”
    “When he was nearly 13, my brother Jem got his arm badly broken at the elbow.”
    –Harper Lee
    “It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, mid October, with the sun not shining and a look of hard wet rain in the clearness of the foothills.”
    –Raymond Chandler
    “If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you’ll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don’t feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth.”
    –J.D. Salinger
    “The village of Holcomb stands on the high wheat plains of western Kansas, a lonesome area that other Kansans call “out there.”
    “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

  4. Someone who says “the action can start 1/4 to 1/3 of the way in has to wear his/her in bangs so people don’t see the “self-published” tattoo on their forehead.

  5. Joyce Ann

    It is very disturbing to realize there are so many people aspiring to be authors, yet they don’t seem to have read much and analyzed (or at least considered) what they are doing, noticing the structure and devices that make reading a joy or a waste of their time. Discriminating between what is good and bad. In other words: are they comprehending? If they don’t enjoy reading, why in the world do they want to write for others?

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