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Background and beginnings

Begin at the beginning,’ the King said gravely, ‘and go on till you come to the end: then stop.’

– Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland


The King of Hearts was unlikely to have been a writer. To keep your reader reading, you need to start with something of substance, which may not be ‘where it all began’.


We know that the opening sentence, first paragraph, and even the whole of page one of your book are all crucial to drawing the reader in. They’re particularly important if you want to convince an agent to keep reading. I’ll cover techniques for this in another post, but the question here is – should we, at the start of our book, tell the reader all about who the protagonist is, where and when they live, and who the people are around them? And if important events happened some time before our tale begins, should we put those in a prologue to set the scene, or put all the history in the first chapter?


Remember that what we want is for our readers to be fascinated by the events that are unfolding before them, and be drawn to the characters that they are getting to know; background can emerge naturally and progressively as the story develops. Some way into the tale it may be possible to have some exposition, perhaps a scene that’s set in the past that tells of important events – and that episode will mean so much more when the reader is already engaged with the characters and invested in the present-day story.


In fact, withholding some information from our readers can make the writing much stronger – we can craft a puzzle that will intrigue them. What made the protagonist the way that they are? Why is there such animosity between two of the characters? We can drop hints at past events, and let the reader wonder. Writing this way shows confidence, and trusts the reader to work out, or imagine, some things that aren’t yet revealed. It’s the opposite of over-writing.


I know that it can take a writer some time to really embrace this principle, because I’ve been there myself. It can feel like a process of letting go, because of the need to strip out some of our work – but as writers we should be used to doing that, because it’s going to happen a lot. And, given that good writing is mostly about practice, no writing is ever wasted.


It can be challenging to go to a writers’ group and read out your book’s first chapter, to have someone point out that the real beginning is about halfway down page two. Don’t dismiss it, though. Look again with fresh eyes, imagine what the reader’s experience would be if they began at that point, and consider whether they really need to know the rest just yet.


The King of Hearts had one thing right, though – always stop when you reach the end. Where is the end? Perhaps that’s another post that I need to write …


Happy writing, everyone.


A note on prologues


Some people ask whether they should put a prologue before their first chapter, to get around these questions. My answer is that the same principles apply to prologues – the reader needs to be engaged with your character before they’re told all the history. Prologues come with a ‘danger’ sign – the temptation to go to town and give lots of background is just too great. Use a prologue if you want to write an atmospheric teaser from the future of the story, to make the reader wonder how we get there; use a prologue to show a pivotal scene from the past that sets up the tension for the present day; do not use it to tell us where your protagonist’s grandparents came from or all about your character’s childhood.


Further reading


This Writer’s Digest post gives some great examples where the advice is followed well and, crucially, some exceptions to the advice that also work, and why they work.


This All Write Fiction Advice post discusses how we can mix background and foreground information to engage the reader.


PS I learned these principles in business writing too. It can be tempting, when writing a briefing for a senior decision or a staff announcement, to begin with the background and give all the explanations, when really the reader just wants the punchline: what are they being asked to do? Give them the most important point first. You see, the principles of good writing are almost universally useful!


Originally posted 5 February 2021

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