Now. Yes, now.

The image you see here occurred to me in talking about one of the submissions to my Crafting a Killer First Page workshop at the Write on the Sound Writers conference.

Backstory (yes, yes, I know, but you need to know this! Really.): workshoppers submit their first chapters, and we critique the first page. The challenge is whether or not the narrative is compelling enough to force us to turn the page. There were 100 writers in the workshop, and more than 20 submitted their chapters.

The opening that sparked the thought in the graphic is this:

Cynthia seldom thought back to the days before she had her own house full of children. It provided no benefit to remember she was once young and beautiful, proud and straight, proffering flaming red hair inherited by each of her five offspring. She had attracted many admirers. It was easy for men to imagine themselves with her building a life and a family.

The Rogers were of proud old English stock, their distant family the recipient of an American land grant in the early 1700’s. Even so, in 1847, the year of Cynthia’s birth, her family had strayed far from nobility. They owned a small farm in Greig, New York where her parents eked out a living. She and her six brothers and sisters worked hard to help, but eight mouths were hard to feed so the children were expected to fend for themselves as soon as possible.

After a majority of workshoppers signified that they wouldn’t turn the page, I talked about why—the reason was, as I’m sure you have concluded, was that the narrative plunged into backstory almost immediately.

So I said that we ought to have “Now” on the back of our left hand to remind us that we need to be in the “now” of the story, not the “then” of the story, especially on the opening page.

And then it occurred to me that we also have to have “Yes, now” on the back of the right hand because, as we type, you know that our minds will likely volunteer a “But the reader needs to know. . .” No, the reader needs to be in the “now” of the story. They don’t need to know anything; they just need to experience the story.

Addendum: make that inside the character’s “now”

While most of those who submit their chapters for a critique on my blog, Flogging the Quill, get the idea of starting with a scene that includes their character, not all do. Here’s an opening that, in a sense, is in the “now” of the story, but the point of view is so omniscient that you have no idea of the character’s experience—and that experience is what readers pick up books for.

The marketplace of Ra’al Shala bustled with activity as coin and merchandise exchanged hands amid the steady stream frantic of haggling that accompanied each transaction. Every merchant and customer did their very best to accuse one another of committing blatant theft or gouging prices, depending upon which side was made the claims, and it always seemed as if the groups would come to blows at any moment. In the end, however, both sides would always complete their deals, exchange friendly farewells and then depart, fully confident that they had emerged the victor.

Yes, this sets the scene—but for whom? If this opening were to utilize what I call “experiential description” in my book, you would see (and hear and smell) this marketplace via the experience of the character—the character’s “now.”)

If there’s any way to stay in the “now” of your story for the whole story (no backstory, no flashbacks), I believe you have the best chance of writing a real page-turner.

For what it’s worth.

0

About Ray Rhamey

Ray Rhamey is the author of five novels and one craft book, Flogging the Quill, Crafting a Novel that Sells. He's also an editor who has recently expanded his creative services to include book cover and interior design. His website, crrreative.com, offers an a la carte menu of creative services for self-publishers and Indie authors. Learn more about Ray's fiction at rayrhamey.com.

Comments

  1. says

    I think that addendum is key! In fact, it really helps me understand why an intro paragraph that my friend wrote was good, but not great. He started in the now, but not his character’s now, so as a reader, I had no one to latch on to as my anchor through the story.

    I’ll try to keep “Now, yes, now!” in my head as I write. Thanks! :)
    .-= Kristan´s last blog ..Beautiful North Carolina (no Photoshopping required) =-.

    0
  2. says

    It’s too easy for readers to give up on a book. Better give them a reason to latch on early, and “now, yes, now” is a great formula for doing just that.

    Thanks for a great post, Ray!

    0
  3. says

    Ray,
    As always, excellent advice. If I can’t tell through whose eyes I’m viewing the opening scene, in whose situation I find myself, I’m less likely to feel like investing more time in the work than it takes to skim those first sixteen lines.

    0
  4. says

    It’s funny – every time I think I am in the now, I find I am closer, but maybe not right there. Taking a break from my intro and revisiting it goes a long way toward recognizing that.
    .-= Jonathan´s last blog ..100 Comments! =-.

    0
  5. Dwayne says

    Great post, Ray.

    Some writers are brutal to us readers – it’s so unfair; they don’t give me anything to imagine during those first paragraphs and pages.

    And reading without anything to visualize is sort of like chewing on hay – it’s bland, to say the least; or even worse, it’s like walking in the dark waving your hands around looking for something to grab on to. Not a pleasant feeling, right?

    So I’m all for starting in the NOW and, in general, knowing who’s doing what, rigth from the start.

    Dwayne

    0
  6. says

    You bring up a good point and something that I’ve continued to try and exorcise from my own writing. For me, I’m trying to introduce military life to civilians so it’s similar to writing about another country or at least another culture. I find myself very much in the ‘but the reader needs to know’ mode a lot more than I’d like. But I’ve found that by figuring out how to explain in the now, rather than backstory helps, even though I still struggle with it.
    Great post!

    0
  7. John says

    Regarding the last paragraph of your post: If you could point out a successful, full-length novel currently in print that contains no references to past events, I’d like to read it.

    0
  8. says

    John, all novels refer to past events in some way, and that’s not the point here. The point is that the narrative, as much as possible, happen in the “now” of the story. Flashbacks to past events can work when they become, for a short time, the “now” of a story because they are well told scenes, with conflict and drama. References to the past can be woven into an immediate scene without having to break into a flashback or exposition.

    I don’t think what I wrote says to write a novel with “no references to past events.” But I’ve read many manuscripts that drop out of the immediate scene to deliver pages and pages of backstory. In my individual, subjective experience, that stops the story.

    Hey, it’s your call. Writers are free to include anything and everything they think is needed. But if you’d read the 300+ opening chapters that I have in the past year or so, I think you’d come to see what I mean.

    0
  9. Danielle says

    You can’t remind us writers in training often enough of the importance of making something happen on the first page. I go back to your blog, “Flogging the Quill” regularly to remind myself.

    0