I have a confession. For years, every time I started a new manuscript, I was so caught up in giving the reader the characters’ backstories that I couldn’t seem to move forward. It was point critical to me to share the place the characters were coming from, their histories and fears, the things that motivated them and changed them and made them who they were. I’d spend pages trying to craftily weave in these impressive facts. Some of my most beautiful prose comes in the form of character backstory that never made it to the finished manuscript. Yes, you read that right.
You see, when it came time to edit, I would cut, quite literally, thousands of words off the beginning of the story in order to get to the right beginning—the one that actually interested the reader. It hurt, cutting these precious darlings that meant so much to me, but truth is truth: readers need to learn as the character learns, and no one is so insightful they understand themselves completely at the get go. A character that self-aware isn’t interesting. Readers have little room to grow with the character(s) through trial and error, hope and heartache.
In an effort to keep you from traipsing down the same precarious path I forged, I’m going to share a few things I’ve learned along the way from the people who have helped shape my writing process: editors, creative writing instructors, incredible New York Times bestselling authors and critique partners. Some of it might be hard to hear and even harder to implement, but your stories will be better for the undiluted blood, sweat and tears you shed on their behalf.
Before you can write the authentic beginning of a story, you need to know the general premise. Yes, this sounds very basic, but it’s also true. Many writers sit down with two character names, a rough idea and little more than a hope that the story will unfold before them. This is “pantsing” at its finest. Does it work for some people? Absolutely. But it also means more editing and rewriting in the long run. Why? For all the excitement of finding the story as you go, it means there are holes you don’t see, tangents that need trimming, subplots to weave in, emotion to layer across scenes and more. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with this method if it’s the way you write best. That said, I’m going to suggest you take a couple of days and really delve into the story you want to tell. Don’t panic! I’m not suggesting you plot. I’m only suggesting you organize a few thoughts.
First, develop a character sheet for every character in your story. The most complex sheets should be for the hero, heroine and villain. The information you record on these sheets will help you remember specifics—eye and hair color, skin tone, occupation, height, weight—and will keep the characters individualized. You can develop a character’s strengths and weaknesses, heroic qualities, flaws, GMCs (goals, motivations and conflicts) and developmental arc for the story or series. You can tie other characters together by defining what your hero most wants and what it is that stands between him and that person, place or thing. You can use the hero’s established weaknesses to strengthen your villains assault, or use his heroic qualities to best define how he’s going to win the heroine’s heart. All of these things are critical to know before you lay pen to paper or fingers to keyboard.
Second, you need to have a solid understanding of your characters’ backstories. Backstories are as complex and diverse as the story you’re telling because they are full of the events and experiences that shape your characters into the people you portray on the page. For example, a spouse who has suffered from domestic abuse will react differently to a mugging than a Marine home on leave from a war zone. A businessman will consider the ins and outs of a situation differently—say, buying a car—than a stay-at-home parent because their needs aren’t going to be the same. A man standing on the ledge of a fifty-story building and considering jumping isn’t going to have the same GMCs as a woman whose husband is cheating on her. All of these things matter to your characters, but you need to be able to discern whether or not they are immediately necessary for a reader to know. Chances are, they aren’t.
But that doesn’t mean you don’t need to know.
As the author, part of your “job” is to filter out the difference between want and need—what do you want the reader to know, and what do you need the reader to know within the first three pages, or roughly 1,000 words, of your story? Because what you choose to share, the way you portray your characters based on where they come from and who they are, sets the entire tone for their reading experience.
So how do you accomplish this daunting differentiation, this want vs. need? Pick up three books off your literal or virtual bookshelf. Choose different genres if you have them. Or, better yet, go to a bookstore and pick up three books you’ve never read. Knowing the genre only, read the first line and stop. What do you know, definitively, after reading the opening sentence?
Now read the first paragraph.
The first page.
The first three pages.
This isn’t a shopping venture (though you might find some new books this way). This is about reading for experience and education. This is about studying the craft of those authors who have gone before you and successfully forged the daunting path to publication. What do they give you in those first experiences? What did they decide was most important to convey to you when you first stepped into the world they’d created? What did you walk away with?
Take these things back to your manuscript. Write out as complex a backstory as you feel you need to in order to know your characters intimately. Print those pages, grab a highlighter and then rip through that backstory with a critical eye, picking out only the things that are most important in the now. Choose a different color and go back and choose finer nuances you need to make sure the reader learns as the story progresses. You can use the marked up pages as your guide or you can do like I do and create a separate document where those critical factors are listed by bullet points and checked off as they’re woven in.
This brings us to the third point: authentic beginnings. You should, at this point, know your characters so well you have personal details about them that may never make it to the page but help you connect to them in a very intimate way. Take all you’ve learned about what makes your characters who they are and consider their GMCs for the story. Is there an action point, a sharp first line that you can deliver that paints a picture for the reader? Here are the first two lines out of an urban fantasy I’m working on:
The dead man’s soul flitted around the back of his throat like a coal miner’s canary, its last warning chirp coming far too late for anyone to hear. Well, anyone but me.
What do you take away from the opening? There’s death, the victim can’t be recovered and we have a hero/heroine who can sense both death and souls. You know the hero/heroine isn’t your average individual. S/He has a unique ability, but what, exactly, does that mean for (in this case) her? And what about the soul she senses? A successful opening should fan the flames of curiosity, action, need, desire—whatever it is that’s genre appropriate—and pull your reader in with extreme prejudice.
Go back to your bookshelf. Choose a book in your preferred genre that you’ve read and are very familiar with. Go through the same exercise again, reading the first line, paragraph, page and three pages. Knowing the story as you do, what choices did the author make in conveying pertinent information to you? Can you see the relevance of the choices s/he made?
When you take the components of your character sheets, the complexities of your backstories, your genre, your overall storyline and your opening scene POV, you should be able to determine what it is the reader most needs to know in that very moment. How you choose to convey it is, of course, a matter of style and voice and a thousand other things that make an author’s work unique.
I would encourage you to really do some research into character sheets and come up with one that works well for you. My character sheets are four pages long and take me about two hours each to fill out. The backstories come from there, and they require another couple of hours to get right. But once that foundation is poured? The story that comes together is much stronger, no matter whether I chose to fly by the seat of my pants or loosely plot point to point.
Feel free to ask me any questions this post might have stirred up but not answered. I’m happy to help wherever I can!
Until next time,
From stable hand to a name on the door of a corporate America office, Denise Tompkins has been many things. (Never a waitress, though. Thank you cards for her sparing the unsuspecting public from this catastrophe can be sent in care of her agent.) Writing has always been her passion, though, and writing romance? An absolute dream come true. Her theory is that a kiss should be meaningful regardless of length, a hero can say as much with a well-written look as he can with a long-winded paragraph and heroines are meant to hold their own. She’s no Cinderella and Shakespeare wrote the only Romeo and Juliet, so Denise sticks to women who can save themselves and tortured heroes who are loathe to let them.
Denise and her husband live in the south, where all foods are considered fry-able and bugs die only to be reborn in bloodsucking triplicate. Visit her online at www.denise-tompkins.com anytime.
The demons that haunt you don’t have to be your own.
Maddy Niteclif’s world has changed so radically she’s no longer sure she recognizes the face staring back at her in the mirror. Pale skin, wide eyes, new scars, and even newer wounds. They’ll heal. It’s the invisible wounds—the ones that disfigure the soul—that pose the most danger.
Hell’s higher thinkers have organized. They’re seeping into the paranormal world, bypassing easy targets as they run larger prey to ground. Maddy is caught in a mad scramble to identify the next target before the demons find the individual. But when the demons’ mark is someone from under her roof, she finds just how far she’ll go to protect those who belong to her.
Maddy is about to learn the most difficult lesson yet: loving someone, seeing his scars ripped open and watching as he’s driven to his knees…it hurts. To save his life means she’ll have to sacrifice the only other man she’s ever loved. There’s only one guaranteed way to ensure both men survive, but it will require the ultimate sacrifice.