I'm having some difficulties in balancing the amount of character history with the amount of things that are happening in the present. Basically, its a battle between story and backstory. How to I tell the reader what they need to know in order to understand whats happening in the story, but avoid writing most of the first chapter in the past tense? Posts: 60 | Registered: Mar 2008
| IP: Logged |
I'm starting to think that maybe it needs a few chapters tacked on to the beginning of where I've decided to start the story. But, the opening scene of the story has been percolating in my mind for six years, and of all things in the story, I think its the last thing I would change.
Posts: 60 | Registered: Mar 2008
| IP: Logged |
quote:How to I tell the reader what they need to know in order to understand whats happening
One thing I like to remember is don't underestimate the reader. A little inference here and there will allow the reader to work out 'oh, that's what's happened' without actually slowing the story down to a crawl to explain it with exposition or show it with a flashback. Sometimes of course, the interests of pacing may prefer a slower section and then I'm happy to do it, but usually not at the start. (And mind you, my first drafts are often unadulterated garbage, so a lot of this comes out in revision).
The 'writing lessons' link at the top of this page has some discussion by OSC on this and other issues as well, in case you've not yet explored there.
Boy, is this one I'm currently wrestling with. I'm in the middle of revising the first five chapters of THE IGNORED PROPHECY for just this reason.
TIP is the second in a series, so there's a lot of backstory. Worse, there's a whole milieu painstakingly developed in the first book (THE SHAMAN'S CURSE). And a whole bunch of characters who relate to the MC in various ways already established in TSC.
Somehow, I've got to work in enough (just enough) of that in the first five chapters or so to allow the reader to know what's going on and who's who. Without an info dump. Yeah. Piece of cake.
According to my latest reader, I'm not quite there yet. Too many things left unexplained leads to confusion. It's a fine balance.
The rule I'm trying to employ is to find a way to introduce just enough just when it's needed.
For an example by a published author, I suggest THE CURSE OF CHALION, by Lois McMaster Bujold. The way she works in Caz's history just when you need to know it and as it would have come out naturally is darn near perfect. Now, if I could just do that.
One trick is to have a character in the story that is needs explanations, a new character or someone that needs to be shown the ropes, updated or questioned. The reader is going on a voyage of discovery, and is usually willing to go along with another that is on that same voyage (the new character).
Alternatively, you could have a discussion (within the story) about the repercussions of particular bits of backstory, which allows their regurgitation by being viewed in a different, usually more condensed or onesided, light. This approach allows things to be hidden and revealed later.
Where to start the story depends on what kind of story it is. I recommended OSC's Characters and Viewpoints book in your previous thread, and it applies here as well. He goes through the idea of MICE - milieu, idea, character, or event - each a different story type, and each with a different place the story needs to start.
In OSC's writing information on this site, he also does some great work on beginnings that's worth reading.
Figuring out where to start a story is one of the biggest tricks of writing, I think. Hint: a good place to start a story is right before a character makes an important (life-altering) decision...
I once read a series of stories in my Internet Fan Fiction time, where, as the series went on, the characters spent an enormous amount of time, more and more, talking about who they were and what had happened before. Interesting stuff---well, I found it interesting stuff---but I told the guy that it wasn't realistic, that his characters already knew the stuff they were explaining to each other, that people don't do that in real life, that characters shouldn't do it in fiction either, and that it was really slowing up the action.
Really, once you've told someone who you are, there's no need to go on, and info can be dropped into conversation on a need-to-know or need-to-make-a-joke basis.
(I can't pretend I always follow this---sometimes it seems someone shows up in the story and I just have to explain who that person is.)
quote:...but avoid writing most of the first chapter in the past tense?
Does that mean you're writing your story in present tense? 'Cause that can be kinda offputting in its own right...it's another one of those "conventions" about storytelling, one of those rules writers are encouraged to stick to, but there are lots of great stories that pay no attention to it.
"But, the opening scene of the story has been percolating in my mind for six years, and of all things in the story, I think its the last thing I would change."
Then there is a case to be made that that is precisely the thing you SHOULD change. You've fixated on that one thing and you're trying to twist the story to fit it, and it's clear that you have real concerns as to whether that's actually serving your story well.
Reconsider whether your story really starts with your opening scene. Wonderful though it might be, is it really the opening of the story? If it is, then you need to find a way to work the backstory in - depending on how much there is, there are a lot of ways of doing this (take a look at "The Lies Of Locke Lamora" as an example of interpolating backstory - not necessarily a good example, I found that the repeated "oh no! Locke's in trouble! If only he knew how to do X!" chapter ending, followed by a chapter of backstory explaining how he did indeed know how to do X, removed any tension after the first time - it was almost to the level of "with one bound, he was free!").
Honestly, in order to deal with a problem like this I err on the side of writing way too much, anything and everything that is interesting to me at the time. Usually when I go back and read through the second time (weeks later) the stuff that unnecessarily slows down action jumps out at me like a nine-foot-rabbit wearing a clown wig and a Led Zeppelin t-shirt.
In other words, I wouldn't say that this is a first draft question.
One possible rule of thumb might be to ask yourself how much is the point of view character actually paying attention to and thinking about in the scene? If it isn't pertinent to what is happening in the scene, the point of view character isn't going to be thinking about it, so the reader should not have to be told about it either.
Only tell your readers what actually applies to the scenes they are reading.
[This message has been edited by Kathleen Dalton Woodbury (edited August 19, 2010).]