Where to Start Your Story – First Page Critique – “Harm to Come”

Jordan Dane

@JordanDane

Below is an anonymous submission of the first 400 words of a brave author’s work in progress. Read and enjoy. My feedback is on the flip side. Please comment with your constructive criticism. Thank you.

***

On the floor. Broken and alone.

The image had haunted Kit Paterson’s mind for days. No one should die alone.

Viewing Rachel’s crumpled body in her head was harsh enough. Seeing it for real would have been unbearable. Rachel, neighbor and friend, had been thirty-two, eighteen years younger than Kit.

A dog’s sudden barking sent Kit to the windows of her dinette. It wasn’t MuMu’s usual bark. This howl sounded angry.

Kit knew MuMu’s owners weren’t home. She peeked through the blinds to the backyard beside hers. While searching for the Bogarts’ shepherd-lab in the near-darkness, she noticed the next house over, Rachel’s house. A glow came from the living room in back. Kit was certain she’d turned off all lights after boxing Rachel’s possessions for the day. Apparently she hadn’t. She grabbed her keys from the kitchen counter.

Beneath a streetlight, Kit smelled the aroma of smoke in the brisk October wind. She smiled. Smoke from someone’s chimney made autumn official. She wrapped her cardigan close.

MuMu’s frenzied yowls continued.

Feral cats must be prowling the woods, Kit thought. Or maybe coyotes again. She increased her speed.

As she approached Rachel’s one-story home, brightness from the windows on each side of the battered front door caught her attention. The radiance wasn’t steady like a lamp’s. This light danced.

Fire!

Kit snatched her phone from a sweater pocket. She punched 911. The operator asked, “What is your emergency?” Kit shouted the situation.

A drought had dogged Atlanta since spring. What if the fire jumped to the Bogart’s property? To the woods? To the neighborhood behind? The fire station was only a mile away, but she couldn’t wait. MuMu agreed.

Kit tore across Rachel’s lawn, past the garage, toward the rear of the house, where she collided with two people dressed in black. The taller one shoved Kit away. He and the shorter figure dashed to the road.

Kit stood stunned, until the stench of smoke slapped her awake. She ran to the patio off the living room.

A coiled garden hose laid below a faucet, unattached. Kit’s fingers trembled as she placed its end to the spigot. After several attempts, she connected the fittings and spun the faucet wheel to the left. The smell of burning wood and fabric began to overwhelm. Kit covered her nose and mouth with a hand while MuMu crashed against the chain-link fence, raising holy-hell.

FEEDBACK:

I had to reread this one a few times before I got the picture of the action. The brief memory and back story introduction of Rachel’s death had me following a path in the action until I realized there had been a detour back to a barking dog and something happening next door. One of the best tips I ever received from another author—and I’ve certainly read about this tip here at TKZ—is to “Stick with the action.”

The brief flashback to the body of Rachel is too important to gloss over and it’s a distraction from what’s happening in the present. It reads like the dead body is immediately on the page until the reader finds out this is a flashback and back story at the same time. I almost want this story to start with the body and how Kit discovers her dead neighbor. That would sure raise the hair on my neck if the author can put the reader in the moment. Very creepy.

This submission doesn’t do that. It quickly jumps into a dog barking and a fire starting next door, another good place to start. Either could be pulled off effectively, but the combination of both of them gives me the feeling that this intro is rushed and neither approach has enough meat on the bone, so let’s flesh this out.

DEAD BODY START – If the author moved the start of this story back to when Kit first discovers her neighbor Rachel’s dead body, there would need to be a setting established to put the reader into it. Why had Kit gone next door? When did it start to get creepy and why? Picture a harmless reason to call on a neighbor until Kit sees a door cracked open. Stick with the action and draw the reader into every aspect of that frightening experience. Did she scare off the killer? How much did she see of the body?

From there, where would the author go? Kit questioned by detectives, reporters, and the intrusion into Kit’s life. What does it feel like to find a body of someone you knew well and considered a friend? Kit’s reaction might cause her to overreact when a dog barks the next night and she runs to find the house on fire.

The bottom line is that this story seems to have a beginning off the page and only hinted at in the first few lines. That raised questions with me as a crime novel reader. I wanted to know what Kit saw? The dog barking and the fire can be exciting, but what happened to Rachel?

DOG BARKING/FIRE START – If the author decides to start the story at the first sound of a dog barking, that can work, especially if when Kit goes to check on the fire, she finds Rachel’s dead body and the shadow of someone running from the house. Then it would be OFF TO THE RACES.

THE IMPORTANCE OF SETTING – Whether the author chooses to go with the dog barking or the dead body to start this novel, setting can help to titillate the reader’s senses and give meat to the bones of this introduction. This intro is a little sparse for me. Try answering these questions by writing a solution into the introduction and see how much better it will read. It’s important to tease the reader with all their senses to put them into the scene.

Setting Questions:

  • What time of day is it? The first hint of time is in the 5th paragraph where the author references it’s “near-darkness.” We have control over every aspect of this scene. Why not pick total darkness? Anyone setting fire to a house would want to do it under cover of darkness.
  • What is the weather? In the paragraph starting with “Beneath a streetlight,” there’s mention of a brisk October wind. Instead of making this fact add to the mood of the scene and foreshadow what’s coming, the author made the choice for Kit to smell wood burning in a fireplace and it made her feel good. So picture a cold wind making Kit think twice about going outside. It makes her uncomfortable and forces her to bundle up. She’s already at odds with the weather, but her curiosity outweighs the biting chill.
  • What does Rachel’s house look like? Does it foreshadow what Kit might find? If Kit found a body there, going back would make her relive the shock. How would that make her feel? A house where good memories used to be might be cast into a sinister feel if Kit found Rachel dead inside.
  • How does the barking dog react when Kit approaches? If Kit’s going because she’s worried about the strangeness of the dog’s bark, how does the dog react as she approaches? A frenzied dog yapping would put me on edge and cause my adrenaline to hit the red zone, especially if I thought someone lurked inside.
  • How can the setting layer in the feeling of anticipation that something bad is about to happen? Make the reader feel the ramped up tension by layering the dread of something about to happen. Hitchcock was a master at building the anticipation of something bad. He knew how to build and layer. Once the reader (or moviegoer) saw what was behind the door, the tension was gone.

TENSION-FILLED DIALOGUE – Kit is alone for this intro, except for when she calls 911. Instead of focusing on Kit’s side of the call, while she’s frightened and unsure what to say, the author only writes what the calm dispatcher says, “What is your emergency?”

The author also uses a “telling” way to express Kit’s emotion by saying ‘Kit shouted the situation.’ Showing is a more effective way to get the reader engaged and have a visceral reaction to the action in the scene.

Imagine what Kit is feeling and how she might report the fire or a dead body. Her heart would be racing, her adrenaline would be off the charts, and she’d be panting as she tried to find her thoughts. She might speak in short spurts and stumble over words or ramble. What the author envisions for this scene, focus on the most emotional aspect of it—that’s Kit.

PLAUSIBLE ACTION – Toward the end of this intro, Kit encounters two people dressed in black. One of them shoves her. Instead of Kit being fearful of these two people, she races for a garden hose. That didn’t seem rational to me. If I ran into two people who obviously were up to no good, I would be afraid for my life. I wouldn’t be worried about a garden hose. Let the firemen do their job with their big hoses. (Everyone knows they have big hoses.) How gutsy does the author want Kit to be? Does she fight these people? Chase them? There are options for her behavior, but grabbing the garden might be last on Kit’s list if she is a gutsy, smart character.

For Discussion:

  • What constructive feedback would you give to this author, TKZ?

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First Page Critique: Watch That Exposition

James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell



Here is a first page that has been submitted to TKZ for critique. My comments on the other side:
Ride the Lightning
I always knew my law degree would come in handy. I’d been promoted from bartender to manager of the strip club outside of Biloxi in less than three months. It hadn’t hurt that the owner had walked in on my old boss auditioning a dancer on the couch in his office. The books were a mess, both sets. It turned out the staff wasn’t all he’d been tapping.
Amateur.
No one would ever find the skim I’d set up. My dad had taught his only daughter well. The owner didn’t have a problem with it because this time it all benefited him. As long as I kept the cash flowing, he gave me free rein to run The Lightning Lounge as I saw fit.
A definite management challenge cluttered my desk. I had to arrange the biggest bash in county history. The sheriff had commandeered the club for a party celebrating the execution of Billy Ray Draper. The former police officer, convicted of killing his wife, a Lightning Lounge dancer, was scheduled to get the stick in six weeks. The club owner told me to pull out all the stops and that the sky was the limit. 
I riffled through my spreadsheets and made notes. The new sound system was online and the upgraded flooring gleamed and reflected the motion sensor lights. One huge problem remained. No matter how I shuffled the schedule, I didn’t have enough waitresses and dancers to man the tables and the poles for the multi-day party. I’d placed ads and been interviewing, but the pickings were slim. 
A knock at my office door interrupted my musing. Hopefully, part of the solution had just arrived. 
“Come in.”  
She glided into the room on red stilettos. Her painted-on jeans and tank top hugged ample curves all the way up to a mass of blonde curls that Dolly Parton would kill for. She was no schoolgirl, the horizon of forty was clear in her face, but she owned it. 
I took the out-stretched hand dripping with rings and jangly bracelets. Her grip was strong and sure. This was a woman who could wrestle trays of beer mugs and make it look easy. 
***
The first 3/4 of this page is all backstory, exposition and set-up. It’s a common problem because writers think readers have to know certain information before the story can begin.
They don’t.
Remember: Act first, explain later. Readers connect with characters in motion. They don’t connect with exposition.
If you give readers an actual scene, with a disturbance thrown in, they will wait a long time before you need to explain anything to them.
Not only that, they don’t need all your explanations at once, or in narrative form. I think it was Elmore Leonard who said that all the information a reader needs can be given in dialogue, and he’s not far wrong. 
So always start with something happening in the present moment. Later, if you decide you want to be stylish or poetic in the first paragraphs, that’s up to you. Tremble when you do, though, and hear my voice in your head. Act first, explain later.
I wrote not long ago about these “tar pits” of fiction. Have another look at that post.
Here’s a self-test. Check your opening pages for use of the word had and its derivatives. That’s a dead giveaway that you’re not in the present moment.
I’d    
hadn’t    
had walked    
he’d been tapping   
My dad had taught
The Sheriff had
That’s past tense. You don’t want to open with the past. Oh, but doesn’t To Kill a Mockingbird open that way? If you can write like Harper Lee and you want to go literary, have at it. But I still recommend the action way, even for literary types who would like to win a National Book Award before they die.
Look at your opening pages until you come to the place where an actual scene is happening. Or try the Chapter 2 Switcheroo, where you toss out Chapter 1 and make Chapter 2 the new beginning. That often works wonders.
Anyway, I’d start this novel here:
She glided into the room on red stilettos. Her painted-on jeans and tank top hugged ample curves all the way up to a mass of blonde curls that Dolly Parton would kill for. She was no schoolgirl, the horizon of forty was clear in her face, but she owned it. 
I took the out-stretched hand dripping with rings and jangly bracelets. Her grip was strong and sure. This was a woman who could wrestle trays of beer mugs and make it look easy. 
***
That’s a voice I like. I want more of it. And a scene is underway. I would want to read on from here.

A couple of suggestions. Always check your pop culture references to make sure they’re not too dated. I hope I’m not insulting Dolly Parton, but is she that well-known anymore to people under 40? I’ve been editing my WIP and saw that I’d referenced a hit song from the 80s. Oops. I did a little research and found a hit song from 2005 that worked much better.
Even so, be selective with these things, because in a few years they may become terribly awkward. How about all those books published before 1995 that used favorable O. J. Simpson references?
Now to some micro-editing:
She was no schoolgirl, the horizon of forty was clear in her face, but she owned it. 
Here is where our good friends Show, don’t tell and Don’t gild the lily come in. That first clause is a tell. And it is not necessary, because the rest of the line does the work and does it well:
The horizon of forty was clear in her face, but she owned it. 
Isn’t that crisper? You want that standing alone, not fuzzed up with a tell before or after. I see this all the time. Things like: I ran up the hill. My lungs were on fire. Sweat flopped off my forehead. I was dog tired.
That last sentence adds nothing. Worse, it takes something away from the immediate experience by the reader. It’s a little “speed bump.” Too many of these and the ride is ruined.
Let’s look at this sentence now:
I took the out-stretched hand dripping with rings and jangly bracelets.
I like the use of sight and sound here. But a tiny speed bump as I was wondering how jangly bracelets were dripping from her hand. It’s not too bad because know what the author meant to convey. Still, I’d consider making it clearer. Something like:
Bracelets jangled as she stretched out a hand studded with rings.
Finally:
This was a woman who could wrestle trays of beer mugs and make it look easy. 
I don’t know how or why someone would wrestle a tray of beer mugs. I assume the author means some kind of carrying of heavy trays. But carrying is not wrestling.
In my own writing, the things I always find during revision are metaphors and word pictures that don’t quite make it. That’s when I hunker down and try to figure out a way to make them work or simply come up with something else.
I advise the writer to tweak this one, and also to brainstorm a few other word pictures. Then choose the one that works best.
All that being said, I am interested in this character who slid into the room in stilettos! And I’d love to see the next few lines be dialogue that begin to give us a picture of the narrator and where she works, and so on.
Thanks to the author for submitting this piece.
Other comments? 
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Avoiding the Tar Pits of Fiction

@jamesscottbell

Nothing slows down a novel quite like large mounds of exposition and backstory. Expositionis material the author puts on the page to explain context. Backstory is story material that happened in the past but for some authorial reason is dropped in the present. When this kind of material appears in the middle of a scene it can slow the pace, sort of like a Mastodon trying to escape a hungry caveman by way of the tar pits. 
Now, let me be clear that not all exposition and backstory is bad. In fact, properly handled, it’s tremendously helpful for bonding reader with character. But if it’s plopped down in large doses, and without a strategy in mind, it becomes a pool of hot goo where the story gets pitifully stuck.
Here is how to handle exposition and backstory, especially at the beginning.
First, ask yourself is it necessary at all? Quite often the writer has all this story info in his head and thinks the reader has to know most of it to understand what’s going on. Not so! Readers get into story by way of characters facing challenge, conflict, change or trouble. If you give them that, they will wait a LONG TIME before wanting to know more whys and wherefores.
You can do yourself a favor by highlighting the exposition and backstory in your opening chapters and then cutting all of it. Make a copy of the material. Look it over. Then dribble in only what is necessary. And I do mean necessary. Be ruthless in deciding what a reader has to know, as opposed to what you think they have to know.
Second, put a lot of this material in dialogue. Dialogue is your best friend. Make sure there is some form of tension or conflict in the dialogue, even if it is simply one character feeling fearful or nervous. Arguments are especially good for exposition and backstory. Recently I watched the Woody Allen film Blue Jasmine, and nodded approvingly at an early scene between Augie (Andrew Dice Clay) and his ex-wife, Ginger (Sally Hawkins). They’re arguing about Ginger’s sister, who calls herself Jasmine. A lot of background is revealed in this exchange:
“What’s the rush, Ginger? You got a date?”

“It’s none of your business. It happens to be Jeanette, so…”
“Jeanette?”
“Jasmine.”
“What’s she doing in town?”
“She’s living with me till she gets back on her feet. She’s had a bad time.”
“When she had money she wanted nothing to do with you. Now that she’s broke, she’s moving in.”
“She’s not just broke, she’s screwed up. And it’s none of your damn business. She’s family.”
“She stole our money.”
“Okay!”
“Understand? We coulda been set. That was our whole chance in life.”
“For the last time, Augie, he was the crook, not her, okay? What the hell did she know about finance?”
“Don’t stand there and tell me that. She’s married to a guy for years, up to his ass in phony real estate and bank fraud. She knew nothing about it? Believe me, she knew, Ginger.”
Third: Act first, explain later. Stamp this axiom on your writer’s brain. Or put it on a note and tape it where you can see it. This advice never fails.
Let’s have a look at the opening of one of Robert B. Parker’s Jesse Stone novels, Stranger in Paradise:
Molly Crane stuck her head in the doorway to Jesse’s office.
“Man here to see you,” she said. “Says his name’s Wilson Cromartie.”
Jesse looked up. His eyes met Molly’s. Neither of them said anything. Then Jesse stood. His gun was in its holster on the file cabinet behind him. He took the gun from the holster and sat back down and put the gun in the top right-hand drawer of his desk and left the drawer open.
“Show him in,” Jesse said.
As we will find out, Jesse Stone knows this Cromartie very well. He’s called “Crow,” and he’s a Native American hit man. There is lots of backstory between Jesse and Crow. But Parker doesn’t reveal any of yet.
What he does instead is show Jesse getting his gun ready. That’s intriguing. He knows something about this man after all, and it requires his gun being ready. Act first, explain later. The scene continues:
Molly went and in a moment returned with the man.
Jesse nodded his head.
“Crow,” he said.
“Jesse Stone,” Crow said.
Jesse pointed to a chair. Crow sat. He looked at the file cabinet.
“Empty holster,” he said.
“Gun’s in my desk drawer,” Jesse said.
“And the drawer’s open,” Crow said.
“Uh-huh.”
We now know that this Crow is someone who notices things, especially when it comes to guns. What kind of person is that? We don’t know and Parker isn’t telling us. We only know this guy is probably dangerous. This is not friendly small talk. The air is crackling with potential trouble.
Half a page later, we get this:
“Last time I saw you was in a speedboat dashing off with a lot of money,” Jesse said.
“Long time back,” Crow said. “Longer than the statute of limitations.”
“I’d have to check,” Jesse said.
“I did,” Crow said. “Ten years.”
“Not for murder,” Jesse said.
“You got no evidence I had anything to do with murder.”
Boom. Now we get backstory information, but notice where it is. In dialogue! And that, indeed, is how Parker delivers almost all the essential information in this novel.
Of course, Parker is writing in a particular, stripped-down style. But the principles he uses will serve you as well.
It may be your choice to render some backstory in narrative form. If you do, let me give you a rule of thumb (not the same as an unbreakable rule!) that I’ve given to many students with good results: in your first ten pages you can have three sentences of backstory, used all at once or spread out. In your second ten pages you can have three paragraphs of backstory, used all at once or spread out. But if you put backstory or exposition into dialogue, then you’re free to use your own discretion. Just be sure the dialogue is truly what the characters would say and doesn’t come of as a none-too-clever info dump (I explain more about this in my book, How to Write Dazzling Dialogue.)
We place a lot of emphasis here at TKZ on sharp, intriguing openings. For good reason. That’s what editors, agents and browsing readers look at first. We don’t want to leave them in the tar pits—we want them to keep on reading!

These tips will keep you out of the goo.              

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Don’t Stop the Story to Introduce Each Character

Captivate_full_w_decalby Jodie Renner, editor & author
Follow Jodie on Twitter

Imagine you’ve just met someone for the first time, and after saying hello, they corral you and go into a long monologue about their childhood, upbringing, education, careers, relationships, plans, etc. You keep nodding as you glance around furtively, trying to figure out how to extricate yourself from this self-centered boor. You don’t even know this person, so why would you care about all these details at this point?

Or have you ever had a friend go into great long detail about someone you don’t know, an acquaintance they recently ran into? Unless it’s a really fascinating story with a point, I zone out. Who cares? Give me a good reason to care, and feed me any relevant details in interesting tidbits, please!

In my editing of novels, I’ll often see a new character come on scene, then the author feels they need to stop the action to introduce that person to the readers. So they write paragraphs or even pages of background on the character, in one long expository lump. New writers often don’t realize they’ve just brought the story to a skidding halt to explain things the readers don’t necessarily need to know, certainly not to that detail, at that point. And it’s telling, not showing, which doesn’t engage readers. In fact, they’ll probably skim through it, and more likely, find something else to do instead.

Another related technique I find less than compelling is starting with the character on the way to something eventful, and as they’re traveling, they’re recollecting past or recent events in lengthy detail. It’s much more engaging to start with the protagonist interacting with others, with some tension and attitude involved. Then work in any necessary backstory info bit by bit as the story progresses, through dialogue, brief recollections or references, hints and innuendo, or short flashbacks in real time. And through reactions and observations by other characters.

Rein in Those Backstory Dumps!

Contrary to what a lot of aspiring authors seem to think, readers really don’t need a lot of detailed info right away on characters, even your protagonist. Instead, it’s best to introduce the character little by little, in a natural, organic way, as you would meet new people in real life. You might form an immediate physical impression, especially if you find them attractive or repugnant. You notice whether they’re tall or short, well-groomed or scruffy, timid or overbearing, friendly or cold, intelligent or dull, charismatic or shy.

If you’re interested in them, if you find them intriguing, you pay attention to them, ask them questions, and maybe ask others about them. You gather info on them gradually, forming and revising impressions as you go along, with lots of unanswered questions. Maybe you hear gossip, and wonder how much of it is actually true. Through conversation and observation, you formulate impressions of them based on what they (or others) say, as well as their attitude, personality, gestures, expressions, body language, tone of voice, and actions.

Involve and engage the readers.

It’s also important to remember that readers like to be involved as active participants, not as passive receptors of dumps of information. Finding out about someone bit by bit, trying to figure out who they are and what makes them tick, what secrets they’re hiding, is a stimulating, fun challenge and adds to the intrigue.

Unlike nonfiction, where readers read for information, in fiction, readers want to be immersed in your story world, almost as if they’re a character there themselves. So be sure to entice readers to get actively engaged in trying to figure out the characters, their motivations and relationships, and whether they’re to be trusted or not.

Let the readers get to know your characters gradually, just like they would in real-life.

For ideas on how to approach introducing your characters to the reader in your fiction, think about a gathering where you’re just observing for a while, trying to get your bearings, maybe waiting for some friends to arrive. You look around at who’s there, listening in to snippets of conversation. A few people interest you so you move closer to them, trying not to be obvious. You might pick up on glances, smiles, frowns, rolling of eyes, and other facial expressions. You read their body language and that of others interacting with them.

Perhaps you decide to strike up a conversation with one or two who look interesting. You find out about their personality and attitudes through their words, tone of voice, inflection, facial expressions, body language, and the topics they jump on and others they avoid. Then, if they interest you, you might start asking them or others about their job or personal situation and get filled in on a few details – colored of course by the attitudes and biases of the speaker. Maybe you hear a bit of gossip here and there.

That’s the best way to introduce your characters in your fiction, too. Not as the author intruding to present us with a pile of character history (backstory) in a lump, but as the characters interacting with each other, with questions and answers, allusions to past issues and secrets. Even having your character thinking about what they’ve been through, isn’t that compelling, so keep it to small chunks at a time, and be sure to have some emotions involved with the reminiscing – regret, worry, guilt, etc.

So rather than stopping to give us the low-down on each character as he comes on the scene, just start with him interacting, and let tidbits of info about him come out little by little, like in real life. Let the readers be active participants, drawing their own conclusions, based on how the characters are acting and interacting.

Reveal juicy details, little by little, to tantalize readers.

And don’t forget, the most interesting characters have secrets, and readers love juicy gossip and intrigue! Just drop little hints here and there – don’t spill too much at any one time. Give us an intriguing character in action, then reveal him little by little, layer by layer, just like in real life!

Readers and authors, do you have any observations or advice to offer on dealing with character backstory in fiction?

 Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling Fiction: Captivate Your Readers, Fire up Your Fiction, and Writing a Killer Thriller. She has also published two clickable time-saving e-resources to date: Quick Clicks: Spelling List and Quick Clicks: Word Usage. You can find Jodie at www.JodieRenner.com, www.JodieRennerEditing.com, her blog, http://jodierennerediting.blogspot.com/, and on Facebook, Twitter, and Google+.

 

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Honoring the Backstory

by Clare Langley-Hawthorne

Our first page reviews often bring up the issue of backstory and how to incorporate it successfully (and judiciously) into a novel.  

In mysteries and thrillers we often have protagonists with a military or law enforcement background and, given that many of our readers will have similar backgrounds, we need to get the details right. As writers we have an obligation to do our research and try and paint as accurate a picture as possible. This can be a challenge for someone like me who has never been in the armed forces, trained in law enforcement, or (thankfully) had any exposure to war or its aftermath. I have to rely solely on research and my imagination. 

So far in my novels, I’ve focused primarily on the years prior to and during the First World War and  have the advantage of being able to access a huge array of first hand accounts, books, film footage and audio recordings dealing with the horrors associated with trench warfare. There are, however, only a minute number of veterans still alive from this war which means I cannot directly speak to them about their experiences as part of my research. In some ways though, this also makes my job a little easier, as there aren’t going to be many World War One veterans alive to challenge the experiences as I present them. 

For more recent theatres of conflict, authors need to be ever vigilant regarding their research as there are many more veterans alive who will demand we get the details correct (and who will complain if we fail to do them justice). When it comes to developing a character with a recent military backstory, authors need to also be aware of the sensitivities involved – whether you’re dealing with a character who served in Afghanistan, a character involved in one side or the other during the Northern Ireland Troubles, or, perhaps, a CIA operative who had exposure to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict…whatever the backstory is you have to get it right. 

As we’ve also discussed in our first page reviews, when presenting a character’s  backstory you also have to be careful not to slow down the narrative pace of the book. All the details you have researched cannot be presented in huge, long-winded chunks, or your readers’ eyes will glaze over. 

Here are a few tips when it comes to developing and presenting a compelling backstory:

When developing the backstory (particularly a military or law enforcement one):

  • Do your research thoroughly. I cannot emphasize this too much. Read books. Talk to people currently in the field or veterans who have experienced the same conflict/trauma that your character has experienced. 
  • Make sure you understand the impact their training and experiences have had on their characters. 
  • Know how they would react in a certain situation (it would, for instance be unlikely that an ex-Marine would turn tail and run when confronted with a mugger – not unless you have created an appropriate backstory that would make this behavior entirely believable).

When presenting the details of your protagonist’s backstory, remember:

  • Show only the tip of the iceberg at the start (even though you know everything, don’t foist it all on the reader at once)
  • Use key, tantalizing, references at first to get the reader intrigued (e.g. rather than providing a long-winded paragraph listing all the protagonist’s experiences during the civil war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, you could just say: “After what happened in Bosnia, he wasn’t sure who to trust any more”…that way the reader wants to know what happened as it impacts the story).
  • Make sure the backstory is relevant to the main story you are telling. There’s no point having an elaborate backstory if none of the elements come into play in the main story. The backstory needs to have a direct impact on how your character thinks, feels and acts (and in a way that rings true and is compelling to the reader).
  • Use action and dialogue to draw out the backstory rather than narrative exposition. This will keep the pace and tension going. 


So do you tend to have protagonists with a military or law enforcement background in your stories? If so, how do you go about researching this and what pitfalls do you try to avoid when presenting your character’s backstory?

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The Great Backstory Debate

Last week we looked at the great semi-colon debate, which was a bit tongue-in-cheek (but only a bit!) Today we look at a real writing controversy, a little thing called backstory. Specifically, how much (if any) do you put in your opening pages?
You will find those who argue that there should be no backstory at all in those first chapters. Why not? Because, by definition, backstory is what has happened before your narrative opens, and you want to establish the action first, get the readers locked in on that.
This is, on the surface, sound advice. These days we do not have the leisure time, a la Dickens, to set the stage and do a ton of narrative summary up front. Or, a la Michener, begin with the protozoa of the pre-Cambrian earth and record their evolutionary development into the Texans of today.
I am an advocate of beginning with action (which doesn’t mean, necessarily, car chases or gun fights). The best openings, IMO, show a character in motion. And further, manifesting a “disturbance” to their ordinary world.
I tell writing students, “Act first, explain later.” A big mistake in many manuscripts is that chapter one carries too much exposition. The writer thinks the reader has to know a bunch of character background to understand the action. Mistake. Readers will wait a long time for the explanations when there’s a character in motion, facing a disturbance.
However, I believe in strategic backstory in the opening. I say strategic because you do have a strategy in your opening, one above all—bond your character with the reader.
Without that character bonding, readers are not going to care about the action, at least not as much as they should. Backstory, properly used, helps you get them into the character so there is an emotional connection. Fiction, above all, should create an emotional experience.
I also stress properly used. That means marbled within the action, not standing alone in large blocks over several pages.
The guys who do this really well also happen to be two of the bestselling novelists of our time, King and Koontz. You think that’s a coincidence?
So here’s the simple “rule.” Start with action. Let’s see a character in motion, doing something. Make sure there’s some trouble, even minor, on the page (disturbance) and then you can give us bite-sized bits, or several paragraphs (if you write them well!) of backstory.
An early Koontz (when he was using the pseudonym Leigh Nichols) is Twilight. It opens with a mother and her six-year-old son at a shopping mall (after an opening line that portends trouble, of course). On page one Koontz drops this in:
To Christine, Joey sometimes seemed to be a little old man in a six-year-old boy’s small body. Occasionally he said the most amazingly grown-up things, and he usually had the patience of an adult, and he was often wiser than his years.
But at other times, especially when he asked where his daddy was or why his daddy had gone away––or even when he didn’t ask but just stood there with the question shimmering in his eyes––he looked so innocent, fragile, so heartbreakingly vulnerable that she just had to grab him and hug him.
Koontz bonds us with this Lead through sympathy. We don’t know why the boy’s father isn’t there, but we don’t have to know right away, do we? In this way Koontz also creates a little mystery which makes us want to keep on reading.
Now, a word of warning when writing in first person POV. It’s much easier for the narrator to give us a backstory dump. But the “rule” remains the same: act first, explain later. To see how it’s done, check out the opening chapter of Harlan Coben’s Gone for Good, which begins:
Three days before her death, my mother told me – these weren’t her last words, but they were pretty close – that my brother was still alive.
We then cut to the mother’s funeral, and the narrator, Will Klein, leaving the house to walk through his old neighborhood. He has a specific place he’s going, the place where a terrible murder happened years before. Along the way he describes the setting and drops in some backstory, especially about one night when his big brother explained the “facts of life” to him from a ninth grader’s perspective. It’s a warm, human bit that creates sympathy. But Coben weaves it in with the action, which is about the narrator getting to the murder spot. That happens on the very next page. Very little time is lost to backstory.
Some time ago I interviewed Laura Caldwell, author of the Izzy McNeil series. She told me the following:
“I wish I’d known how to weave in background information instead of dumping it in big chunks. It’s still something I struggle with, although I think I’ve improved a lot. It’s a skill that has to constantly be refined so the background information which gets delivered reads and feels organic right at that point in the story.”
Good point from Laura.
How do you handle backstory in your opening pages? Are you strategic about it?  

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