If you’ve ever heard the words, “the story starts here,” you know what every writer eventually learns. The first few chapters of a manuscript are likely not where your story begins. This concept is not new to me. Over the years, I’ve heard these words from contest judges, critique partners, and even as feedback from agents and editors on submissions.
I shouldn’t have been surprised then, to hear it from my editor on my current WIP. When I got my first round of edits back last week and she said get rid of your first two chapters, my jaw dropped and I immediately wanted to argue. But what about setting the scene? How will my readers know that we are in a dystopian future and how we got there? What about all that lovely description? After I took a few deep breaths, poured myself a glass of wine, and contemplated leaving the country, I turned around and looked at my story board and had a good laugh. Among the pink sticky notes I’d posted, briefly outlining each chapter, there was a bright yellow sticky signifying chapter three. It said, “INCITING INCIDENT-story starts here”.
Well, crap! That yellow sticky note not only validated that my editor was right on the money (isn’t she always?), but that I knew where my story began and I had ignored my better judgment. I also realized that I had taken the easy way out. Instead of skillfully weaving in backstory, description, and setting, I had laid it all out in those first two chapters like a newbie.
You’d think I would know better by now, but I fell prey to what most writers do without being consciously aware—I “told” my readers what I thought they needed to know. In all fairness to myself, I recognize that this is part of my process. Those first few chapters are necessary for me to clearly set the stage for the story to unfold—at least in the first draft. During revisions I should have caught this and fixed it. Given more time and the opportunity to work with critique partners I’m certain it would have been.
If I had to pick my greatest weakness as a writer, I would have to say it’s that pesky “showing”, and knowing how and when to deliver back story. It’s a tricky business finding a balance between narrative, dialogue, internal thought, and description. Sprinkling information through a story without “dumping” or taking short cuts via prologues, journal entries and other overused devices is hard work. Normally, I wouldn’t use the word “lazy” to describe myself, but when it comes to “show don’t tell,” I’m afraid I take the easy way out every time until someone points out that I’m “telling” too much. For those of you who aren’t sure what I mean, let me give you an example.
Zeph challenged Sam’s authority at every turn.
Rather than saying this, I could easily show Zeph arguing with Sam. In other words, don’t state the obvious. Whenever there is telling, it takes the reader out of the story and into the narrator’s voice instead of staying in the character’s head. In my opinion, one of the reasons Kristan Higgins’ books are so good is because she is a master of the show don’t tell rule.
As I continue on with my edits, I’ll have to find creative ways to weave in the back story, setting, and descriptions that will bring the story to life rather than drag the reader along by the nose. Wish me luck; I have my work cut out for me.