“The story starts here.”

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.

What about you? Do you have trouble with information dumps and giving too much backstory? How do you know how much to tell the reader and when?  

27 thoughts on ““The story starts here.””

  1. Hi PJ, Here’s what I do…not that its good or anything…just what I do. I write the first chapter first. I don’t plan out the characters, the backstory or anything. I simply have the hero or heroines name to use….then I write only the opening action. I don’t start doing ANY character charts until chapter 3. Helps to avoid dumping backstory in the beginning when you don’t know any. Hope that helps.

  2. Thanks Jennifer. That is brilliant! You may have something there, because I originally had the opening line of the book in my head and guess what…that’s the first line in chapter 3! I’ve used your method with previous books and it worked except for the fact that I had a ton of revision to do later because I didn’t really know my character well until 3/4 of the way through the story. My process evolved to include character sketches and a timeline with turning points before I got started. When I knew I was writing a trilogy, I figured I should try to set the stage a bit, especially since it was dystopian and there was a lot of world building to do.

    Unfortunately, opening with journal entries to “fill the reader in” and a lot of “well written” and lovely scene setting, leads to a blah blah blah, bloody boring opening. The action clearly starts in chapter 3. So I’ve made a list of pertinent info from those two deleted chapters and am slowly working them into the story. The hardest part is that there are details woven into the book that pertain to events from those first two chapters, so I have to root them all out and change them. Uggh!

  3. Great article, PJ! It seems so many of us have this same problem. I’ve been trying to get rid of the first couple chapters in one of mine, but I can’t seem to pull it off. It was so much easier just to set the scene and TELL! LOL.
    But at least we’re aware of the problem and are moving toward fixing it.
    Kristan is a master, I agree. Some people just know how to get it flowing quickly and sprinkle the information as needed.
    Okay. I’m off to cut the first two chapters…

    1. I know I’m not alone in my plight, Kim. I’ve heard great writers say they usually have to go back and cut the first few chapters out completely, so we’re in good company. For me, those first chapters are my brain’s way of solidifying the story for me. It’s almost as if I have to do all that telling right up front so I know where to start the story. The problem is that we don’t see it in our own work, so all that “telling” often goes unchecked. That’s where a good editor or critique partner comes in handy. Thanks for stopping by.

  4. Showing not telling and information dumps are the bane of my writing existence. I know I’m doing it when I do it, but I figure I’ll correct it in edits. Then I forget that it’s there and my editor does the same thing. “Your story starts here!” Thanks for the necessary reminder that I need to go back and fix chapters one and two. LOL

    1. Mine too, Cindy! I’ve taken workshops on this topic, so technically I should know how to do it, but it gets me every time! I know when I’m doing it some of the time, but not always. I hope that over time, I’ll recognize it BEFORE I do it. It would be nice not to have those *&^(&%()^% moments of recognition only after an editor points them out. Makes me feel kind of dopey!

  5. Is all the information needed? I had to chop away early pages, too. When I looked the story over, I found that a lot of this information already existed here and there. I’m grateful for talented editing, but tossing those babies still hurts. The story is better for it.

    Timely post. I’m in the middle of this myself.


    1. I agree, Sandy. Thankfully, the information is reiterated in the story later, so a lot of the opening isn’t really necessary when I really examine it, but “killing our darlings” as Stephen King says, is necessary to make the story better.

  6. Hi, PJ. I’ve been on both sides of this aisle. On one hand, I have a tendency to withhold too much of the back-story. Your characters know it and they won’t retell themselves what they already know, right? Well, I found out sometimes such approach can muddy the waters to the point of zero visibility. On the other hand, I also went as far as adding chapters at the beginning, so my original Chapter 1 became Chapter 3. That did not work well either. So you’re not the only doing away with the first two chapters {grin}. I found out that it helps me to write down, sometimes in a form of a list, the back-story, all the way to the inciting incident. There I draw a line across the page, highlight it, and write on it: the story starts HERE. Afterwards, I check off the elements of the back-story as I include them. I think some of the best books I’ve read were those where the back-story was included in small doses, all the way to the end, shocking the reader with its revelations. It’s hard work to do it right.

  7. Paula, great blog. You always share important information. Late last night, I got back my first chapter from my instructor, Sherry Wilson. Her critique was unexpected, it had “I like your story, and I was surprised, you as a new writer, set the stage nicely.” Aren’t those encouraging words? Encouragement is important, as well as the criticism to take out the first two chapters. It does take a minute or more to swallow and move forward with a suggestion as you had. Sherry noticed that I want my hero to have a strong POV, so she suggested some ways to set the stage with him opening, rather than the heroine, and she added, “if I want to make those changes.” The original opening was with him, but it was boring, trite and poorly written. Another go at it might be fun and a challenge. I can always keep the opening I have. We’ll see. While I am going through this whole process, I am learning. Thank you too, Kristan Higgins, who helped me “set the stage.”

    1. Thanks for sharing, Gail. I’ve learned to trust my instincts about what changes to make and what to hold onto in my stories. Sometimes it takes for me to step back and look at it from an outsiders view, like a good editor or critique partner. Usually there is merit in the suggestion, so I think hard before I accept or dismiss feedback.

      Although setting the stage is vital to grounding the reader in a time and place where our story happens, it is usually best done in small doses and concise language. A story starting with a lengthy description, no matter how lovely the prose are, is likely going to put the reader to sleep by the end of page one. In my case, I can just as easily set the scene by adding a date (MAY, 2057) to the heading on the first page, and jump straight into an action/emotional scene that sets up the main conflict of the story. My first line now reads, “I killed him!” instead of a “once upon a time” type of opening. I’m pretty sure, that is going to make readers want to know more:-)

  8. Great post, PJ, and great ideas in all the comments! I’ve heard a few writers say they’ll write a chapter one just to get started, but that they always rewrite chapter one AFTER they finish the book. You know so much more at that point. But you’re right, it’s hard to see in our own writing what is enough, what is too much, and what is not enough. I find subsequent books in a series especially challenging, because I work so hard not to “dump” backstory, and yet the reader needs some “catching up.” This is an area where my editor has repeatedly told me to “add more.” With my book coming out this fall, Fragile Darkness, I KNEW the story but couldn’t find the right opening to save my soul. I spent weeks coming up with different approaches, none of which worked. The previous book had ended so explosively that picking up all the shattered pieces was tough–until my brilliant editor slipped me one simple solution, and then presto, everything fell into place. I think that’s why the best writing is the result of a team effort 🙂

    1. You are so right about the team effort, Ellie. No writer is an island:-) I bet Fragile Darkness is going to be fabulous!

  9. Love, love, love this article! After my critique partners and every other human being on the planet told me I was starting in the wrong place, I finally cut out my first two chapters. Sure, there were some beautiful descriptions and details I loved but over all the flow is so much better. (And I pasted those favorite parts into another document – hopefully I can sprinkle them in later.)

    Glad I’m not alone in this!!! 😉

    1. Thanks Kerri! As writers, especially us young-ins, we want to hold onto those beautiful images that we create in words on the page. We see those scenes as an integral part of our story because in our heads, that’s the way the story unfolded for us. Thankfully, we have people who can look at our work objectively, without the emotional attachment, who can see the forest through the dandelions and help us to let go.

  10. Hey PJ, Write your book as you normally would, only save Chapter 1 and 2 separately from the book so you can refer to them for your back story and mark your Chapter 3 as Chapter 1. I think we all tend to do that. I usually write it and trash the beginning too. That’s what I did with both Pirates and Legend. Completely slashed and trashed the original beginnings and it was fine. Great post.

    1. Great advice, Gerri. That’s exactly what I’m doing as I edit. I have two screens so I’m keeping my deleted scenes up and referring back to them to pull the NECESSARY information out as I go. I’ll know better next time…I hope.

  11. I think a lot of writers fall prey to the too-much-too-soon background dumps. We see the story like a finished Michelangelo sculpture. What’s hardest for us to see I think is that when we’re looking at the story sculpture, we can’t see the parts that need to be chiseled away.

    I think it was Jeff Goins who explained the why of this so well. In his post on ‘Why Your Work Never Feels Good Enough’ he explains that we see our creative work as being in it’s perfect form (I’m paraphrasing). That I think is why we can’t see our mistakes like the info dumps that others can pick up on so quickly.

    Great post!

  12. I feel your pain, PJ. I had to cut a whole chapter and re-write in another person’s POV then blend it so it fit smoothly into the next two chapters. Phew! Your books are excellent and I love reading them and I know this one will be great also.

  13. Great post, PJ – as usual. I forwarded the link to my writers’ workshop. We just had this discussion last night. I always have to write two or three chapters before I get to where the story starts. Those aren’t wasted though. It helps me see who my characters are and where I want the to go. It gives me direction. I’m a complete pantser, so I spend the time writing stuff that may never be in the final draft instead of writing a 30 page outline that I will never follow and will never work for me. I can’t write like that. But finally realizing when I start writing that the story will actually start somewhere along the way, has helped free me to just write and not worry so much about the beginning pages initially.

    1. That’s a great way to look at it Rhonda. I’m a pantser as well. I like what you said about “spend the time writing stuff that may never be in the final draft instead of writing a 30 page outline that I will never follow and will never work for me.” That’s exactly how I feel. Now that I’m aware of this, the next story should be easier to deal with…I hope. Although I foresee the challenge of writing Book Two of a trilogy will be how much detail from Book One I’ll need to put into those first chapters to catch the reader up. Sigh….so much to think about.

  14. Back story/info dump has been a noose for probably all writers. And if that’s true, and I think it is, I wonder what the first draft Romeo and Juliet looked like. I think it would be an eye opener. : )

    God luck with the ms.

    1. That would be interesting to see, wouldn’t it, Donna? I’d love to go back and see first drafts of some of the greats. I’d bet it would be very educational. Thanks for commenting.

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