You’re sitting there minding your own business, watching your kid play hockey, or soccer, or whatever sport is popular in your area. A stranger slides into the bleachers next to you. You spare her a glance, but your focus is on your kid’s game. Do you care about the newcomer? Not really.
She grabs your arm. “I love hockey. They put me in hockey before I could even skate because in my family, everyone plays hockey. Boys, girls, didn’t matter. My uncle played—”
Do you care yet? I doubt it. You’re shrugging her hand off your arm and looking for a vacant seat, right? Why?
You don’t care about her childhood. You don’t care about her uncle or anyone else in her family. The only thing you care about at the moment is your kid playing hockey.
How could this stranger be more interesting to you?
She slides in and points at the game. “That’s my kid. Yours playing?”
You nod and provide the jersey number.
“He’s really good. Wow, look at that move! Nearly got a goal.” Then she starts shouting encouragement at your kid as well as her own.
Things are looking up. Maybe after a few games, you’ll look for this woman because you want to sit by her. You might share a snack or a tissue. You might find yourself growing a friendship where, yes, you’ll care that she played hockey herself as a child.
The difference is that the relationship started with a mutual interest and then evolved to where all that backstory is fascinating. That doesn’t mean you want to sit through hours of her old home movies, though!
Now look at the first few chapters of your WIP (work-in-progress). Do you start out with background because you’re sure the reader needs to know? Do you feel the need to explain how the character got to this point? How her uncle playing hockey matters at the moment?
It’s an easy trap to fall into. We don’t want the readers lost, confused, or uninterested, after all. But is starting with the foundation really the best way to hook a reader into a story?
Gone are the days of old classics like Moby Dick or even Pride and Prejudice, which at least has a fair bit of dialogue early on as well as the explanation of characters. Today’s authors are competing, not only with other books, but with TV, video games, movies, and many other forms of entertainment in our fast-paced world. This means you don’t have the luxury of meandering your way to your story’s beginning.
Ask yourself, “Where does the story begin?” That is, what is the inciting incident that propels the character from the old normal to the new normal? What’s the pivot point that sets life in its new direction?
- How much does your reader need to know at the beginning of a story? click to tweet
- Avoid the dreaded #infodump! click to tweet
You don’t have to start with an explosion, the discovery of a dead body, or a kidnapping. Any of those might be perfect in a thriller or suspense context, but not necessarily elsewhere.
In my romance novels, I look for the first meeting for the hero and heroine. In Raspberries and Vinegar, they meet when Jo flings a dustpan full of baby mice out the door, not knowing Zach was about to knock. In Wild Mint Tea, I open with Claire going in for a job interview…and Noel doesn’t hire her because he’s so attracted to her he’s afraid he won’t be able to keep his mind on his work.
If the characters have met before, it’s the re-meeting that must be captured. In Snowflake Tiara, Marisa sees a poster that reminds her of her former modeling days when she hears Jase’s voice behind her. It was a challenge to keep from going back through their previous relationship and breakup in that scene. I needed to throw in enough clues to orientate the reader without slowing down the NOW of the story.
That’s always the challenge. Keep the story’s momentum moving forward with the bare amount of information needed to understand what’s going on. Dribble in the backstory in bits here and there. Avoid the dreaded “info-dump.”
Or should you? I often pour that information into the first scenes of my first draft, then carefully cull through it on rewrites. Sometimes I’ll already have discovered a more natural way to weave it into a subsequent chapter so can delete it here. Other times I’ll find it isn’t necessary at all. It’s hard to judge.
Readers are smarter than you think. They’ll pick up clues and enjoy making the connections. Often the not knowing is what helps to pull them through the story.