“If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word.” – Margaret Atwood
First-time authors tend to believe that they must start their story from the very beginning. What follows is a long and exhausting description of events that explain how our heroine ended up in her predicament. This is a very common mistake to make.
Authors need to trust the intellect of their readers by jumping right into the action. Small clues in the action will lead the reader to their own conclusions in their imagination to build up the backstory. As long as the Author knows the backstory, has documented her character’s background and motivation on notecards, she can leave little cookie crumbs of information along the way.
I’ll give you an example of the wrong way to begin a story:
Jeanine looked around at the immaculate home she shared with Steve, a controlling husband who abused her daily for the last fifteen years. Her Precious Moments collectibles tugged at her heart. She gave them one last dusting, shedding tears about leaving them. She took a deep breath and told herself she wouldn’t miss this beautiful house. The horrors of his abuse had grown too large. She needed out and fast. She had been plotting and planning her escape for months. One day, he went to work and she decided to act. She grabbed her suitcase full of clothes, along with a roll of money she’d been secretly saving. She patted the family dog on the way out of the door and climbed into her SUV, but then decided she would be too conspicuous in the brand-new vehicle. She decided to take the city bus.
As she walked to the bus stop, she feared her neighbors might see her…
Yawn. Are you bored yet? I almost went to sleep writing that, and readers would definitely stop reading about poor Jeanine. As much as we want to care about her safety, we just can’t get past the mundane description. Readers need action.
Here’s an improvement:
She stood on tiptoes and kissed him goodbye, wincing as her bruised cheek brushed his stubble. He walked down the sidewalk with his briefcase, throwing it into the backseat of his convertible. For some reason, he turned to look at her as she stood by the kitchen window. Her heart hammered. She swallowed her anxiety. Was that suspicion in his gaze? She held her breath as he backed out of the driveway. For one unbearable moment, he paused in the road, gazing at her. She blew him a kiss. His car slowly rolled out of sight.
The clock on the kitchen wall ticked. She stood in place. Tick. Tick. Tick. The breath she’d been holding whooshed out. Without glancing at her pretty collectibles, she rushed to the guest room closet and dragged out her packed suitcase. She fumbled for a purse. Did she have enough money? She wasn’t sure. She ran out the door, forgetting to lock it behind her.
The first example is a version of telling vs. showing. Also, there is backstory, which is not necessary. The second version is more gripping because we are thrown right into the action of what’s happening. This is also known as in media res.
In medias res, ( Latin: “in the midst of things”) the practice of beginning an epic or other narrative by plunging into a crucial situation that is part of a related chain of events; the situation is an extension of previous events and will be developed in later action. The narrative then goes directly forward, and exposition of earlier events is supplied by flashbacks.
We hope these tips were helpful.