Have you ever read a first chapter that took your breath away? Made you cry? Shocked you? If you can accomplish an emotional reaction in your reader that quickly — hopefully by a quick attachment to your protagonist — half your battle is won. When you think of all you have to accomplish in the first few pages of a novel, you really understand how writing a great first scene requires many hours of practice, and concentration. It takes examining successful, long-lasting novels to see how that first scene was constructed.
Without sending you into cardiac arrest by listing nearly twenty important items you need in that first scene, I’m going to concentrate on some important ones — the ones that really need to be considered. Some of them are essential “do not’s.” And the first one you may already know (but often feel so tempted to fall back on): No back story.
Briefly, back story is narrative explanation -- all the information you as the author know about your characters: their histories, where they came from, who they’re related to, how they came to be where they are now. In other words, information that belongs in your characters’ past.
In order to start your story with a punch and draw your reader in, you need to construct a scene with action happening right here and now. Some writing teachers say things like “no back story in the first fifty pages.” Some editors will be so bold as to say they would be happy if they saw NONE in the entire book. Maybe that won’t quite work for your book, but it’s sad to say that countless opening scenes start with a line or two in the present, and then, whoosh! There you are reading about the character’s early life or marriage or something she did right before the scene started. Which should make you ask…Are you really starting your story in the right place?
More often than not, the answer is no. That’s what second and third drafts are for — throwing out your first scene or two. As a manuscript assessor, I find that a good number of novel submissions I read should really be starting with chapter three or four. A lot of beginner writers spend one, two, ten or more pages just “setting up” the story by explaining a mountain of information they think the reader must have before the story can actually get underway. Kids want action in their stories! Not boring back story.
A helpful exercise to remove back story is for you to go through the first thirty pages of your novel and remove every single instance where you’ve used back story or informative narration, and then chose only three brief sentences containing a “back story fact” that you feel you really must include in the opening chapters so the reader would “get” the story. These three sentences can be conveyed by the protagonist in dialogue to another character (forcing you to avoid narrative and share back story via dialogue, which is usually the best way to do so).
Needless to say, when you re-read your story, you will surely agree that your novel reads much better without the back story. So think about weaning yourself off the need to explain. Your readers aren’t dumb—really! They don’t need you to explain everything, and they actually enjoy a mystery and being allowed to start figuring out the puzzle you are presenting.
Many books I read and edit don’t “get going” until page ten. All that up-front explaining, narrative, setting up the scene, etc., was all great back in Dickens’s time (A Tale of Two Cities, for example). But we don’t do that anymore. TV, movies, and video games have changed the modern reader’s tastes and readers -- kids in particular -- want cinematic writing.
Sol Stein in his book Stein on Writing says, “Twentieth-century readers, transformed by film and TV, are used to seeing stories. The reading experience for a twentieth-century reader is increasingly visual. The story is happening in front of his eyes.” This is, of course, even more true in the twenty-first century.
So how do you avoid the dreaded info dump and back story?
Think about the emotion, feeling, or sensation you want to evoke in your reader. You want to put them in a mood right away. You want to be specific to generate that mood, which means bringing in all the senses and showing your character in the middle of a situation, right off the bat.
And that’s the next essential element: establishing immediately the drives, desires, needs, fears, frustrations of your protagonist. Not only do you need to show her in conflict, in the midst of an inciting incident, but you need to reveal her heart, hint at her spiritual need, show her vulnerability, and what obstacles are standing in her way. In the first scene? Oh yes. Yes!
Now, go through your first scene and take out all the back story. If needed, come up with only one or two lines that tell a little important information you think the reader must know and use those in dialogue, if possible. Then read your scene over and see how much better it is. Because it will be better. Much better!