Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Get to the Point, Fast!

In today's story telling, we don't have the luxury of the long, spun out tale. In movies and TV novellas, the action has to splatter onto the screen in the first five minutes. Daddy's left the family, or murderer is lurking close by, or lover is already lurching toward someone else. All right up front. It's the same in books; no more delicious descriptions of scenery, no languorous chapters detailing the daily lives of the characters before trouble bubbles up. So I have to get with the program, like it or not.

But something can be learned from earlier authors. I am presently reading Dodie Smith's "I Capture the Castle" (1948) and am studying how she introduces backstory. She uses the device of a teenager's journal. An early entry describes how they came to live in the castle. In "Bridge to Terabithia," Katherine Paterson inserts salient background facts throughout the first chapter, where the plot is prompted by a new family's move into the neighborhood.

Backstory is problematic in my novel now under revision. As the book is heavy on family history, I need to insert more of it to explain the tension between the main character and the supporting characters. Why is the main character so frustrated with the supporting characters? Why does she react the way she does? I've experimented with changing the voice, but that's not going to solve the problem of motivation.

One solution might be to have the first chapter take place at an earlier time, maybe five years before the plot actually begins. In this chapter I think I will introduce the two characters who ultimately give my main character the most grief, but who will be, in fact, part of the solution to her problem, which, I know, I know, she must really solve herself.

And I know, I know, I've got to stop planning it and get to the point of writing it down!


  1. amen...I'm completely with you about "getting to it." All of us as new writers think we have to explain SOOOOOO much before we get into the story. It's amazing how painless it can be (the writing process) if you simply bring the reader WITH you, as you show.

    Regards, Mac

  2. Melinda,

    Planning is good. I have given myself permission to interview, tour novel related sites, read novels in the time period, read a craft/technique book and then go back to writing my first middle grade novel at the end of the summer. I've had a couple of false starts, but this planning has made me more confident about the upcoming draft. Some of the ideas that came to me recently increase the tension in ways I would never have thought of before all this pre-writing.

    Good luck with your project. I hope your book is a hit.

    I love this blog. You writers have a great thing going.

    Linda A.

  3. I agree that every first chapter needs to hook the reader--and nothing hooks like a good conflict!

    But weaving in the back story is an important part of revision. Every character has back story--just like us regular humans. I think if you allow yourself to get totally in your MC's head, back story will begin to fall in at the right moments. Just like us humans, our characters are emotionally triggered by what they see, feel, touch, hear and smell. Let your MC live, and let her remember.

  4. Reading, and especially writing about a character can be a lot like getting to know a real flesh and blood person.
    It can take a while to get to know them, to hear about where they came from, or to see them in another context, like a co worker who goes out with you and some friends on the weekend.

    While the backstory is vital to who the character is, every bit of it isn't necessary to enjoy the story and relate to the MC. Plus, what they do and the choices they make can certainly tell you about their history.

  5. I think one of the most important clues to a character's back story is how they react to each situation they face.