Beginnings can be tricky. Trickier still for the novice novelist. A common plot mistake we’ve all seen when critiquing new novelists (and when revising our old stuff, yikes!) is the chapter upon chapter of explanation at the beginning before anything truly happens.
Are you thinking, “Wait, that’s me!” and wondering if that’s really a problem?
Then yes, it’s a problem.
Yes, readers want to dive into your world and get to know your characters, but they want to see and understand all this as the plot unfolds. Now, here’s why the extensive explanations such a common rookie mistake:
Because showing the characters and explaining the world while moving the plot along is hard!
My first book, after the first major rewrite where I took out pretty much the first half, still has the huge problem of the characters interacting and showing the world for the sake of their interactions and explaining the world, and not much else.
I’m working on fixing that right now and I want to get to the plot, but I’m not sure where it should start and how to incorporate the important rules and setup of the world (it’s a fantasy so there’s a lot of world building I have to do without boring people, this isn’t nearly as much of an issue for other genres) if I take out all the fluff at the beginning.
So this is my game plan (and my step by step guide for you). I’ll be posting my parts in future posts.
1. Write a Blurb – This is the description on the back of the book. What is the book about? Simple question, difficult to answer. But this is your set up, your main character, your hook, the inciting event. Basically, this is the sauce reduced down to a smear of flavor on the pan. Writing this will help you focus, because lets face it, all that fluff before the inciting event just isn’t that exciting and usually doesn’t make it onto the back of the book.
What do you want people to know when they pick up your book to convince them to read more and buy it? That’s your blurb.
2. Once that’s done and you know your inciting event, put that in the first chapter, cut out the stuff beforehand. I know, I KNOW. It’s painful to ditch all that beautiful world building and the characters living their normal, everyday lives. And, but but but, you want to show the characters and their their lives before they are forever changed.
Well, yes and no. You do want to show their lives and who the character is so we know how they have grown throughout the book, but a snippet. Give us an idea, a quick one, but then move on. Nobody wants to read about someone’s normal life for five chapters before something exciting happens.
So cut it, but keep it. Open another file and put all that stuff into it, to be drawn out later and sprinkled in amongst the plot. Just start your story with that slice of life and then BAM inciting event.
3. Figure out what info you cut is relevant to the plot. Do your readers have to know that the pocket reality runs on a loop that is reset every Sunday at 5 (an example from my book) then put it in there subtly. If you do this well, it can act as foreshadowing, telling the readers that little bit of info is innocent now but will be important to the plot. If it’s not important to the plot then the sophisticated reader will be annoyed when it’s not used later. Chekhov’s gun, right?
4. Take those tidbits out, save them in their own file, and sprinkle them in throughout conversations and explanations later. Maybe someone is new and asking questions (a common technique to deal with building the world is to have a new person join the team and ask questions), maybe the main character is new and learning as you do, or maybe someone is just being a smartass and playing dumb.
5. Once you have this all chopped up, go through and smooth it out. This chopped up version with stuff shoved in is your new rough draft. Polish it.