Saturday, September 05, 2020

Mise en place is prep, not cooking

I've been working on queries and requested fulls these past few weeks.

One thing I've noticed is that writers frequently offer up a lot of backstory or "whys" in the first few pages. Sometimes that's a good thing.

Most often though it is not.

Readers don't need to know everything at the start.
It's better, often, if they don't.
NOT knowing creates tension. That's a GOOD thing.

Consider if your novel was a chess board.
Does the game begin when you set all the pieces in the right place?
It starts when someone MOVES.

And if you're not familiar with the rules of chess, you don't know why the knight moves in an L-pattern, or the rook stops cold when another piece is in the way.

Not knowing creates tension.

Remember your reader isn't wondering why you're doing things, they're just following the story.
It's only when they CAN'T follow the story that they start wondering what's going on.

Sometimes I hear "my beta readers said we needed to know X or Y."
That's not good advice.
You WANT your reader to wonder about things. That's called tension.

Part of your development as a writer is being able to distinguish between what information your readers need to follow the story, and what we don't need in order to build tension.


nightsmusic said...

I tend to do that, an info dump in the first chapter. Then I remove that chapter at the point where something happens to change all of that and that's where I start. Usually that's once I've gotten at least halfway through though. If you tell your readers everything up front, they've got no reason to read on.

Lisa Bodenheim said...

I have 2 POVs in my story. I seem to err with too much infodump in one character's storyline and not enough in the other. The protagonist I most identify with emotionally, who has the biggest piece of the story, is the one who becomes flat and boring. It's much easier for me to cut infodumps than figure out what needs to be added.

Julie Weathers said...

Diana Gabaldon always says you tell the reader things when they need to know them and not before. That being said, if I'm going to have a character shoot someone with a Deringer, the readers need to know she always carries that gun in an inner pocket so it doesn't just magically appear.

NLiu said...

I was reading Lisa Cron's website last week (trying to decide whether I should fork out for her book) about how backstory is the first half of the story. She pointed out how most novels have tons of backstory or character history in the first few chapters, but you never notice it because it's stuff that's engaged with the narrative. A smell reminds the character of their childhood. Their window is still broken because they lost their job and can't afford to fix it, which leads to angry remembrances of the shady ex who broke it in the first place. Etc. She made the point that no one cares about the story if there isn't some deep-seated flaw created by the character's past so this story has to come and change them.

Now I am confused and my hamster wheel is flying out of control.

Is it a case of too much backstory being bad, or is it only bad if it's irrelevant and/or takes the narrative down in a flying tackle?

Beth Carpenter said...

This came home to me a few months ago when I was reading a book that started off interesting but quickly became repetitive and annoying. And yet, because there was a question left unanswered, I kept reading. I figure if the tension of an unanswered question can keep me in a bad story, it's gold in a good one.

nightsmusic said...

I think her point is that while backstory is the first half of The story, giving you why the characters do what they do, think what they think and act like they act now, it's not the First Half of the story meaning, it's not something that needs to all be dumped into the first three chapters of the book. The backstory should be woven through as in the examples she gave, here and there, small touches that can give great insight into the character. Dumping it all in the beginning doesn't give you a vested interest in the characters. It's just a nice story, sort of like your friend telling you about something that happened the other day. It doesn't go anywhere.

The angry remembrance of the shady ex thrown into the story at some point can really tell you a lot about why the character is handling the situation they're in right now, the way they are.

Probably not the clearest explanation, but I hope it helps.

CED said...

I just finished reading Cron's Story Genius and I highly recommend it. I liked it so much that I transcribed all the exercises into my own "Story Genius quick reference" packet.

Anyway, I think what she means is that the first half of the story is backstory, and the second half of the story is what goes in the novel. She doesn't mean the first half of the novel is backstory. This idea really resonated with me: the novel starts when your character can no longer ignore this misbelief that they've been forming throughout their whole life. It ends when they resolve it, one way or the other.

We only need hints of how that misbelief is formed. But for the author, knowing more of the backstory is going to shade how you write the novel, so having a good amount of backstory in your head (that stays off the page) is not a bad thing.

Katja said...

I didn't think that a smell reminding a character of their childhood is backstory. Or a broken window bringing something up from the past.
I thought this is drawing a 'deep' ('3 dimensional) character, which is GREAT.

It doesn't sound like info dump to me.

For my second book, I have been worried that I under explain. A few of my dear writer friends commented "oh so if she actually didn't have an abortion and that's what you mean, then you can easily fix that."

And I was like: WHERE did I say she had an abortion??? (Not once did I use that word or anything similar.)

Thinking about this then actually made me happy, because it seems to leave me room for Big Fat Twist, heehee.

Brenda said...

IMO we often don’t credit our readers with intelligence. We show the action and then, just in case the reader is obtuse, we explain what’s going on. Say it once, say it well.

Speaking to NLui’s example:
She shivered and vowed that if she ever got another paycheque she’d fix the cracked window.
Cause she’s broke. Get it?

I edit out a lot that looks like the second bit.


Brigid said...

At first I thought this was about getting details wrong--a glut of writers emphasizing their chef-protagonists using mise en place during cooking, i.e. misusing the word/concept. Perhaps I have read too many cooking-related novels lately.

Katja said...

Agreed, Brenda, our readers are more clever than we might think.

NLiu said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
NLiu said...

Ooh, thanks everyone for the help on my poorly-worded splat of a question! Very helpful :)

Craig F said...

And the answer is, (It changes) . Some stuff needs an info dump to start. Most of what I write need that info dump to be dribbled through the text.

In truth,I have not yet found the style that any agent wants. Maybe I need to start with Oomph Fulfas, maybe with a tech poof. I will keep plugging away until I get there.

The world is in an uproar and I wish to find a suitable distraction for those that need one. Maybe tomorrow I will find it, maybe the day after.

Enjoy your Labor Day, folks.

AJ Blythe said...

My first chapter is guaranteed to be deleted during edits because I never seem to be able to start in the right place the first time.

And lucky you guys having a long weekend. Enjoy.

Unknown said...

When writing Sci-fi, some backstory can be helpful in giving the reader time and place, especially when the scene is not Earth bound. Take Star Wars, every beginning is a disappearing description of the history of what happened and where. The opening scenes are important visuals of outsized war machines, fantastic spaceships, or hyper-speeding through space. The viewer is immediately placed in a future time and other worldliness. Of course, all Sci-fi does not start this way. Fahrenheit 451 is a good example of Janet's point. The first words: It was a pleasure to burn. Wow!

Android Astronomer said...

"Sometimes I hear "my beta readers said we needed to know X or Y."
That's not good advice."


I've had so many beta readers comment "OH, WOW! So it was this guy all along who was keeping them from their goal? Maybe you should mention that in the beginning."

I want to scream "NO! You discovered that at exactly the point in the story I want the reader to find that out!"

Sometimes I think I'm writing for an audience of one...