Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Single Biggest Mistake Writers Make

There are so many holes, big and small, that a writer of fiction can fall into that naming one as THE worst is a pretty tall order. Yet Les Edgerton, in his book Hooked: Write Fiction that Grabs Readers at Page One and Never Lets Them Go, does just that. It may help narrow our guesses a smidgen to know that Edgerton is talking about story beginnings. So, what's the biggest, the very biggest, mistake one can make in a story's beginning?

He says it's this: Not trusting the reader to get it. As in, too much set-up, too much backstory, too much explanation.

I think he's right.

But to say that writing such material is itself the Biggest Mistake is to fail to dig deeply enough. Why do we pile this stuff in? Maybe, to some degree, it's because we simply like the material. We made it up, and we're bound and determined to cork it into the narrative. But this reason pales beside the Biggest Reason: We don't think readers can follow the story unless we include it. We don't trust their intelligence. We don't trust them to get it. We're writing down to them.

If we really think we can't trust them to get it, remembering the last movie, play, or TV show we watched should change that thinking. Through these media, stories unfold before us in visible and audible scenes, and we simply have to process what's going on and fill in our own holes. "A long time ago in a galaxy, far, far, away" notwithstanding, movies don't give us backstory before they get rolling. They just roll. And most audiences get it. Because other entertainment media compete with written fiction like never before, more and more movie techniques are used by the story writer or novelist. We can't overload a story's beginning with material meant to "orient" the reader any more than a movie maker or playwright can. Not even if we disguise it as a prologue. We must provide what is needed for the reader to understand, yes. But these are carefully chosen details, actions, and bits of dialogue that work within a present, ongoing scene. Not an info dump.

Edgerton posed the question "What's the single biggest mistake writers make in their story beginnings?" to several editors and agents. Here are the replies he got:
  • Thinking it's okay that the story starts slow because it "gets better later on."
  • Writing a beginning that's all backstory.
  • Baiting and switching -- writing an exciting beginning that doesn't relate to the story.
  • Assuming they don't have to earn the reader's interest.
  • Beginning with a dream, the weather, or background info.
  • "Front-loading information."
  • Starting with backstory or character descriptions.
All of these responses say the same thing: The single biggest mistake we can make is to NOT launch into the story immediately. We can, and must, start with a scene that kicks off the story's conflict, and trust the reader to get it.


Anne Spollen said...

True, true, and I needed that reminder. I love backstory. I actually like to read it when I read a book so I guess I am more of an odd duck than I realized.

But he's right: you have to hook them in with the fireworks and fill in the rest later.

Good reminder; great post!

Lisa Gail Green said...

It truly is an art, being able to weave in the backstory as needed without the reader noticing.

Angela Ackerman said...

Not trusting the reader to get it. As in, too much set-up, too much backstory, too much explanation.

Man, this is a description of my first draft, I swear! I probably edit the chapter 1 more than all the other chapters combined, just to remove all the crap I bung it up with.

I had a crit partner offer a good pice of advice that she had from an editor: never put backstory in the first chapter if you can help it. I think it's a good rule to live by.

It's easy to allude to something, and drop a single line that shapes the situation, but rarely is there a need for a giant dump. That first chapter is all about showing who the character is by what they do, not long diatribes about who they are.

Marcia said...

Anne -- I like to glean things myself, but unlike a lot of readers I like prologues as long as their connection to the story becomes clear at some point. We hear that editors and readers "hate" them, but I wonder if it's the same reason they "hate" rhyming picture books -- it's just hard to do them well and justify the necessity of the technique.

Lisa -- Yes, I think that word "weave" is really important. It may take some distance from the story to realize just what readers need at which points so they don't get confused.

Angela -- Richard Peck says every time he finishes a first draft he throws out chapter 1 without rereading it (!!) and writes a new one. It's so important and so hard to get right. I agree that needed backstory should come later than chapter 1 whenever possible. Even then, so much can be suggested in brief "aha" moments.

Andrea Mack said...

Marcia, this is a great post!

I think sometimes the backstory is stuff the writer needs to orient the story in his/her mind, and some of it may not even need to be included.

"Not trusting the reader to get it" can happen other places in a novel too. Like when the character is reacting to something, and the writer tells the reader how the character is feeling, instead of allowing the reader to interpret.

I love your points about movies and TV shows (wow - a good excuse for watching TV), and the need for carefully chosen details.

I'm glad you posted this.

Marcia said...

Andrea -- Absolutely -- that backstory needs to exist, but it's for the writer. The reader doesn't need a lot of it. During revision, we have to recognize the passages that are merely us talking to ourselves, and remove them. I agree that emotional nuances are another thing that writers are often afraid to let readers interpret for themselves. But when readers have to feel the emotion rather than have it supplied, that's when writing becomes powerful.

Anonymous said...

Hi Marcia, thanks for taking time to comment on my blog. I think yours is lovely :o)

Marcia said...

Thanks, Niki.:)

TerryLynnJohnson said...

I sometimes get paralysed when I read writing advice. But this is good stuff.

Mary Witzl said...

This is SO true, and there are things here that make my ears burn in a good way. Picturing our writing as scenes from a movie is very useful and we would be wise to do more of this.

I hate not being trusted to get it. I hate writing that is tedious in its explanations, as though I need everything spelled out. But I do this too!

Great post. As usual!

cleemckenzie said...

As you know from my blog that's exactly what I'm working on now. As you also know and have pointed out, I may have to wait until the end to find the beginning. Sheesh!

I'm starting to understand that snake with its tail in its mouth. :-)

I appreciated your post, especially at this point in my WIP. Thanks.

Marcia said...

Terry -- I know "how-to" can make us awfully self-conscious. I think of that verse about a centipede that was asked how he knew "which leg came after which" and it "through him into such a pitch" that he "ended up in a ditch, considering how to run." Hmmm, maybe I'll have to Google that.:)

Mary -- Eeons ago, I read an article in THE WRITER about "giving fiction the movie treatment." I found the idea so helpful that I never forgot it. And I think it only gets more relevant as decades go on.

Lee -- LOL about snake with tail in mouth. I like endings that circle back to the beginning, but I didn't always take it as literally as it seems to be.