A couple of weeks ago I was asked by the friend of a friend if I'd mind looking over the first thirty pages of the person's novel. *The writer wanted a fresh set of eyes to look it over. As a way of giving back for all the help and advice I've received over the years from other writers, I gladly said I'd be happy to look at the pages.
The story is a paranormal romance revolving around a jaded woman who hunts down mystical creatures and the leader of a group of Scottish bear shifters. (The writer has a much better tag line than this.) Intrigued by the premise, I couldn't wait to start reading. Fifteen pages in, I was bored to pieces. Twenty-two pages in, my eyes were glazing over. How did this great sounding book become so boring?
Back story. Lots and lots of back story. The story started out telling the reader everything about the heroine whom I'll call Thea. We learned about Thea's childhood, her family, where she went to school, all the crappy experiences she had with men, about her quirky best friend and his family and how they met. We also learned how she came to be a mystical hunter. After a page break, we learned about the hero whom I'll call Bruin. We learned the history of his clan, how they came to be shifters, the hierarchy of the clan, Bruin's family, how the death of his father at the hands of a hunter affected him, and on and on and on.
Starting on page twenty-three, there's a scene where Thea and her friend are hiking. They're suddenly attacked by a black formless shadow. Thea is barely able to hold the entity at bay, her strength is weakening, her friend dying from his wounds when Bruin arrives in his shifter form and saves them. This scene is so well written, I can hear the sounds of her friend's cries of pain, smell the forest, taste Thea's fear. The pacing is incredible.
When I told the writer the story needed to start with that scene on page twenty-three, that all those other pages were filled with back story. She kept repeating, "but all that stuff is important," or "the reader needs to know..."
I explained back story is important. Sometimes it explains a character's motivation or why they act the way they do. But only the relevant back story should be included. Does it matter to the story where the character when to school or who her first boyfriend was? If not, it should be left out. Also never, ever dump all the information you want to give the reader in one large chunk, especially at the beginning of a story. It's a sure fire way to get a rejection letter from an agent or editor.
If you have back story you want to convey, drop it into the story in bits and pieces. There are so many ways to do it -- through dialogue, narrative summary, flashbacks (keep these to a minimum) and perhaps the least popular way to do it, by using a prologue. Personally, I think dialogue is the best method. You can have characters reveal the important parts of their back story through conversation although you have to be careful to limit how much you say at one time otherwise the dialogue can become unwieldy.
The writer sent me her revised pages this past weekend. All I can say is Wow! She took out nearly all the back story and now the story opens with the attack scene and continues at a breakneck pace leaving the reader breathless and craving to know more. She included in her email that at first she didn't agree with me, but decided to rewrite the opening and show it to her critique group. She received raves and wanted to thank me for pointing her in the right direction. Realizing the members of her group suffer from the same problem, she's shared what I taught her with them.
That's one of the great things about writing, sharing what you learn with other writers and paying it forward.
(*This blog was written with permission of the unnamed writer.)