Starting Your Novel with Backstory? Don’t.
I’ve gotten some great free eBooks by being involved in the Kindle Scout program. You nominate a book, it gets selected for publication, and you get a free book. You get a free book that’s been vetted by the Kindle editors, so you can expect a certain amount of expertise from the book. Awesome, right?
It is, except when it isn’t. Not all of the books are worth reading. Sure, you aren’t going to find a million typos or anything majorly wrong, but a few of the books I’ve gotten have not been good.
Take today. I’m not going to mention the title or author, I’m not trying to shame anyone here. My first few novel length stories had major issues. (I didn’t try to publish them though.) I finished a book yesterday that was pretty good. I enjoyed it. I tried to start a new one today, and I didn’t make it very far.
I read the first page. I flipped through the next few pages. I closed it and opened another book.
The author lost me on the first page.
It doesn’t matter how good your book is as it goes along. If your opening isn’t strong, many readers are not going to stick with it until it gets good. In fact, with that “look inside” feature on Amazon, many folks aren’t going to buy it at all.
Let’s call this book a post-apocalyptic tale. It’s not, but remember I’m not trying to shame anyone. Just because this book has a weak opening, it doesn’t mean future books by this author won’t rock my socks. Imagine, if you will, a post-apocalyptic tale that begins with a newspaper article that dryly recounts everything that happened to cause the apocalypse and where everything stands today. Imagine this “article” goes on for pages and pages.
Boring. I’m talking about mind-numbingly dull. Thus my disappointed closing of that book and switch to another before I read two pages.
What was the writer thinking?
I imagine the author thought, “Hey, if I make the backstory and world building into a newspaper article, it’s a clever way to introduce the world of the book that fits the story!”
What really happened:
The writer wrote a ton of backstory and world building and info dumped it into the beginning of the book under a thinly-veiled disguise that did nothing to make it more interesting or readable.
Consider Arthur Dent and the big, big world of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Where does this story start? Does it start with a ton of backstory and world building that tells us all about this giant new galaxy of a setting?
It starts with Arthur Dent brushing his teeth. He brushes his teeth, he remembers something important, craziness ensues, and by the end of the first chapter, the reader has learned quite a lot about this man and the world he lives in. It’s all done in an engaging way without an info dump in sight. As the books go forward, the reader learns more and more, all in interesting, bite-sized chunks, all while the plot of the tale moves forward.
Don’t start your book with an info dump. Don’t do it. More readers will turn away than will suffer through it. It is, by far, the least interesting way you can show the fabulous world of your book to your readers. Let them jump into your world and explore it with your gentle guidance. Think of the world of your story as a treasure that you will lead them to, not an annoyance you want to get out of the way as soon as possible.
One way is effective, one way is not.
So, I closed that book and opened another. I was distrustful and disgruntled, expecting the worst from this new book because of my recent, ennui-inducing experience.
Here’s what I found:
“The real problem with dynamite? It doesn’t work too good when it’s wet.”
Sucked me right in. What does this tale start with? A train robbery! And not one that’s going according to plan, either. By the end of the first chapter, while exciting things are happening, I know a lot about this world and a great deal about the main character. I like him already, and I’m anxious to finish this blog post and get back to the book.
The book is Ace Lone Wolf and the Lost Temple of Totec by Eric T. Knight. I’m recommending it to you right now based on the first chapter alone. Westerns aren’t my favorite genre, but I like them, and a good story is a good story. This has all the makings of a very good, very well-written story.
I gotta go now. I gotta book to finish.
Teatime News: Teatime of the Living Dead was not selected by Kindle Scout, but it will have a big release day on May 9th!
Hi Julianne! Per your earlier permission, I scheduled this article to be featured as a guest post on http://www.ryanlanz.com on June 16th. As usual, it has your credit/bio/link. Thanks!
I did all the info dump, except the newspaper format, with my first finished book. Luckily I have articles like yours to clearly outline newbie mistakes for me to avoid. Plus My beta readers were hard on me and said stuff like “boring!” and “is she sitting around and thinking AGAIN? Attack her with some aliens” so it’s not published and will not end up in someone’s “DNR after the first page” pile.
Exactly! None of us no the issues with our writing until someone points them out. That’s how we all learn. My first novel had the first chapter way to introspective, just this side of info-dump, and another kind writer pointed it out to me so I fixed it. And I haven’t made that mistake again. Other mistakes, sure, but not that one! 😀