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.