Writing the opening of a novel might well be the most daunting part of the entire beast. It is the part I have re-written more than any other as I have drafted my YA fantasy novel THE LINGERING SHADOW . It is the sample you send out to agents when you begin the even-more-daunting querying process. As I have combed through my manuscript these past few weeks, preparing for my first round of querying, I have learned many things I will share. The first is on the use of backstory in the opening of a novel. This is my humble opinion, so take it as you will.
The question is always how much backstory to include right away. We want readers to know something, and probably they need to as well. But too often the first chapter becomes this wandering, convoluted heap either of day to day events that give us a feel of the MC’s life before conflict strikes, or a barrage of info-dump in between bits of action. Neither are very helpful, nor likely very attention-grabbing for readers (or agents for that matter).
In my latest revision, my only goal was to trim down the manuscript of anything I could bear to let go of (there was a lot of it, and I was trying to write succinctly already in that draft). One area I found a lot of dross was my opening chapter, filled with little snippets of information about Taylor (my MC) and her life. Much of it was already pretty plot-specific, and important (her mother and sister were killed mysteriously in a city where crime was largely eradicated). But much of it could go, or be saved for later.
If you’re not sure, kill it.
There is no right answer, but I decided, if there was a part of me that questioned whether a paragraph was important enough to keep, I would kill it anyway, even if it was a paragraph of prose I was quite fond of. This worked. When re-reading the chapters after those cuts, I never missed the things I cut, even when I wasn’t positive about them initially. Trust your instincts when editing. Kill your darlings, too. Those elegant descriptions are probably beautiful, but they are probably over-written anyway. Save the long descriptions for something really important (not the soothing effect of a day-to-day shower… oops!).
Keep the action moving.
The opening is when you are grabbing your readers attention for the first time. If the info is not pertinent to the initial action, probably it can go, or be saved for later, when we are already invested. In Taylor’s case, when a pair of shape shifters come after her in my opening, readers didn’t need to know every detail of what happened to Taylor’s mother and sister months before, or the political and social structure of her world, and they definitely didn’t need to know about her everyday life. Just enough to know strange things were happening in Taylor’s world. Trust your readers to build with the key pieces of information you give them off the bat. Sometimes a flashback or significant chunk of backstory is needed for the story as a whole. Those can wait. Pull us in with tension first.
Start at the beginning.
Like I said, we don’t need those chapters of day-to-day life, introducing as many significant players as possible, or info-dump laying out the intricacies of the world, or the landscape, etc. If it’s needed, keep it brief. I cut whole chapters (and prologues) this way. Let the action later introduce us to the world and the people in it. Start your story where the action starts. Identify the inciting incident (the thing that happens to your MC that propels her into the action of the plot), make sure it happens in your first chapter. For Taylor this is when she meets a young man named Rogue, when the shape shifters come after her, and he rescues her. In my first draft this didn’t happen until chapter 5. Now it happens within 7 or 8 pages. You’ve got a lot of story, and not a lot of word count to spare. Save a few hundred, or a few thousand, words for later and start with the inciting incident.
Good luck with your own writing and editing!
Read the opening to my novel (here), and let me know what you think.
Leave a comment about what you think makes a good opening.