~~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!