Saturday, February 12, 2011

Where To Begin

~~Writers are told to begin their stories with a hook or in media res (Latin for “in the middle of things”). I’ve read that we should write our novels and then cut off the first four chapters. This is attributed to Chekov, but I haven’t been able to find the reference. If all this advice is giving you an attack of nerves, I’m with you.

~~There’s something to it though. I recently read a novel by a best-selling author and I was stunned to realize that the story didn’t really begin until a quarter of the way in. Everything before that was backstory that should have been sprinkled in like salt. I almost put the book down. Almost. But I couldn’t quite do it. The story was good and the characters intriguing…and I’m a bit obsessive. ; ) Why would the author of over sixty titles make this mistake? I imagine she thought we needed all of the backstory to fully appreciate the plot.

~~Two different sources finally made the advice hit home for me. One is an article by Victoria Mixon on “Four Mistakes of Fiction Writers” and number two addresses just this issue—“Misplaced Backstory.” Here’s a bit of Victoria’s advice:

Unfortunately, we don’t read in a chronological world. We read for excitement. We read for the thrill of our blood pressure being inflated, soothed, then inflated again. We read for the roller coaster ride. (emphasis—Victoria Mixon)

Check this LINK for the full article.

The other great advice comes from Beth at the Forum. She has a great blog post that describe gangplanks, doors, and bridges. Gangplanks are for writers to help them get into the scene and they should be ditched later. Doors are for readers and bridges are to let readers make transitions between scenes. Check out Beth’s entire post at this LINK.

~~All this thinking about where to begin has made me reassess the starts of two of my works-in-progress. FRIENDLY FIRE begins when Laura Grace first sees Samantha, an abused foster child and that’s the right place because it puts into motion everything else in the plot. If I’d begun a year earlier at the funeral of Laura Grace’s husband, Tom, I would have spent pages telling you about her slide into depression, day by day, and you’d rightfully put the book down, bored to tears.

~~THE DAWN AND THE LION, my SciFi work-in-progress, is another story altogether. The many handwritten pages I have squirreled away on this story are largely backstory, and I’ve got to cut them severely to make the beginning hook you into the story. I will use all the info I’ve learned, but as sparing detail to flesh out main character Canda as she negotiates Patria with its very different culture and mores. Susan Edwards, one of my writing buddies, has always said I started THE DAWN AND THE LION in the wrong place. You know what, Susan, you’re absolutely right! It took me reading a book by someone else to really internalize the advice.

~~So here’s to finding the right place to begin. May you all find it easily. But, then, when was writing ever easy. Enjoy the hunt!


  1. Great post! I have cut TONS of backstory out of my WIP. It was really valuable to write because I needed to know it, but it's so hard to cut it out after devoting SO MUCH time to getting it down on paper.

  2. Carrie,
    I have the same problem. I want to tell the neat little background stuff...but the reader only needs hints of it. It's a hard thing to cut your darlings.

  3. I was so relieved the first time I saw Beth's post - I think I cut four chapters that day, and I've sliced off more since then, to the point where my beginning is starting to confuse people [g]
    Now I need to figure out how to liberally and deftly sprinkle in backstory...

  4. Liberally and deftly--sounds like a plan. A "crafty" plan. ; )

  5. Hi,
    I'm stopping by from the Crusade going on at Rach Writes. It's good to meet another blogosphere friend. My blog is at
    I'd love another follower. :-)

  6. My first book I have re-written the beginning at least a dozen times trying to find the right place for it to start, and I'm STILL NOT SURE. So frustrating! But fortunately the next two came a little easier. But still, beginnings are so hard. I'll have to check out your links.

    I am a new follower and crusader!

  7. Hi Lois,
    Welcome to the Shade. I'll follow your links back and you will have another follower soon. ; )

  8. Hi, Margo,
    I find beginnings tough. I'm still working on mine. Maybe it will be easier with the work I'm doing. Good luck. I hope the links help. Welcome to the Shade.

  9. You just won the Stylish Blogger Award! Stop by my blog to check it out

  10. Thanks, Heather! That'll be my second Stylist Blogger Award. I must be doing something right!

  11. Hi there! Thanks for stopping by my blog from the Crusade--I love the title of yours :)

    Starting in the right place is something I'm struggling with for my latest WIP, so thanks for your most recent post!

  12. Hello there fellow crusader. Thanks for stopping by my blog. I'm slowly getting around to the other crusaders. ;) Love your blog btw. As you could tell from your visit I'm trying for the right place to start to. see ya around

  13. Stopping by from the crusade, I agree with your post. I'm an impatient reader and I like to get right into the problem and the backstory can be sprinkled in here and there if needed.

  14. Dropped by to say hello from the crusade and to follow. Thought the media res section was spot on. I love action in the first few paragraphs.
    Edge of Your Seat Romance

  15. Hi, Jess, Lisa, Diana, and Raquel,
    Welcome to the Shade! I'm really enjoying this Crusade and meeting some really nice folks.

  16. I love your post. I recently had to do this with my YA. I'm so much happier with it now though. It's a much faster paced book.

    I'm following ;)

  17. This is a great post!!! The beginning of a novel makes all the difference.

  18. Such a difficult problem :-)
    so hard to know where to start and stop.

    Figuring this out really helped me with my book. I hope i how have it right... :-)

    thanks for stopping off at my blog!

    Go crusaders!!


  19. Excellent point, Zan! There are so many ways to approach a story, but the direct route always seems to serve the story and reader the best.

    Fellow Crusader,


  20. Hi,Elizabeth, Diamond, Constance, and E.J.,

    I'm glad you liked the post. I'm glad I wrote it out, even if my momma really didn't like me not liking her author. ; ) She understood when I explained how I would have rearranged the story.

    It's great to hear from so many Crusaders. See you around.

  21. Back story is like salt...sprinkle carefully.


  22. Really helpful post. I often think of unnecessary beginnings as the author warming up--and yet sometimes we love our words so much it is difficult to tell when we're doing it. This post should help a lot! By the way, happy to be in your Crusade group!

  23. Hi! I'm a fellow crusader and new follower. Nice to meet you.

  24. The Dawn and the Lion reminds me of a movie I saw once called "The Wind and the Lion" (good show). I look forward to getting to know you.

  25. Nice to meet you Zan. I think I rewrote chapter one of my fantasy over twenty times. I drives me nuts that famous authors can do anything they want and the rest of us are held to different standards. However, I hope to never let my writing slide just because I know it will sell anyway.
    N. R. Williams, fantasy author

  26. Hi there - just wanted to say hey and looks like we're in the same Crusading group :) Nice to meet you!

  27. I agree with you on in media res, but I think it's more a product of our times than a carved-in-stone writer's decree. Most of the great classics of the 18th and 19th centuries take forever to set up the story, and that's okay. It's like easing into a cold pool or a hot bath. It's works.

    It's just that we live in an age of instant gratification, and most us have been conditioned to seek out the story right away.

    Personally, I prefer a fast start over the slow intro, but both styles have their merits.

    Greetings from a fellow Crusader.


  28. Wow, I go to bed and look what lovely messages show up the next morning. ; ) Welcome to the Shade!

    @Lola--I agree, salt and backstory need to be used sparingly. Knowing what part to include and where to sprinkle--that's the craft.

    @Charlotte--Hi. I'm really enjoying meeting all the new people through the crusade--See you around.

    @Hi, Margo, It's nice to meet you too.

    @Michael--I'll have to look The Wind and the Lion up. I love new suggestions for movies to see. Thanks.

    @Nancy--I loved your post at L'Aussie's blog. Great info. Thanks for dropping by.

    @Trisha--Great! I'm really going to love getting to know you and your writing.

    @Dan--I know what you mean about the classics. The fact that reading was the only access to entertainment at home without TV, radio, or the internet, makes it a different audience. They loved every word they could get and the longer the read, the better. Dickens knew that well. ; )

  29. Hi fellow crusader!
    Great post. Thanks too for the links. I find even though I know all the "rules" I still find it difficult to get the beginning right. It's the part of the novel that gets the MOST revisions.

  30. Zan Marie, excellent post. I'm still trying to figure out exactly where to start my WIP and meanwhile, just go on my merry way trusting that the opening scenes will eventually make themselves known.

  31. Lynda and Susan,
    Hi and welcome to the Shade this morning. ; )
    Beginnings are so important. I'm sure I know where Friendly Fire starts, but some of my local crit group don't agree. I'm going to let that sit for the moment.

  32. I don't know how, but I have managed to miss out on hearing this piece of advice - about chopping the first four chapters - in all the years I've been writing. And the irony is that with my contemp. romance novel, I did precisely that - cut out the first 4-5 chapters. They were all backstory. :)

    Anyway, thanks for stopping by my blog!

  33. For ever rule, every piece of advice there is one that says something else. It's your story. So with it as you please, break the rules, remake the rules, have fun, and we'll have fun reading it.
    Welcome to the crusade, this is an excellent post, got me thinking.

  34. Trisha and Tanya,
    I'm trying to break a few rules, but I do want it read. So on I go. Good to meet you two.

  35. I've seen two arguments. One is to begin with the inciting incident, as you describe. The other is to begin just before the beginning, as James N. Frey (no, not the guy on Oprah) says. This is in line with the hero's journey. If you show the character in his ordinary world for just a bit, the reader gets to know and care about him before the devastating change in his life takes place. I think which method you choose should depend on the story.


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