This is part four of a series on how to start a Hero’s Journey story. Our goal is to include these elements in the opening scene:
- Grab the reader’s attention with a hook beginning
- Raise questions that the reader wants answered
- Provide a goal for the protagonist
- Show the protagonist’s qualities and flaws
- Set the physical scene with only essential details
- Begin building a bridge to the back story
- Establish a feeling that a crisis of some sort is coming
- Complete the journey toward the initial goal by showing success or failure
To illustrate each element, I provided an example from my book Reapers (See first post), and we are now on #6.
6. Begin building a bridge to the back story: Every story has a back story, that is, the events that occurred before the opening line. When your story begins, the preceding events are a mystery to the reader, some of which the reader needs to know in order to fully understand the main story.
Many writers choose to begin the story at an intriguing point as a way to hook readers, then they proceed to fill in the back story by dumping a load of information all at once. This method halts the main story and frustrates readers. They wonder, “What happened to the intriguing part? I want to read what happens next.”
Such shenanigans by authors is like breaking a promise. We baited the readers with intrigue, then slung the story back to another time and/or place. If the back story is so important that we have to provide the details all at once, then we should have started the story at another point.
A better option is to begin the story in the protagonist’s ordinary world right before a crisis event (to be explained in a later post), and provide clues to the back story while continuing the main story. These clues are dropped one by one (my students and I call it dropping popcorn), and readers collect the clues and put them together to recreate the back story, like bricks that build a bridge to the history setting and personal backgrounds.
In the Reapers example, the early clues are subtle. “Someone in my territory” indicates that the protagonist has a territory to oversee. The city must be divided into sections. Why? Later clues will provide the answer.
“I could take the time to collect her” indicates that Reapers have a feeling of responsibility to collect ghosts. This is likely part of their duty.
As the story progresses, we provide more and more clues until readers are able to put them all together. This is hard work, much harder than simply dumping all of the information at once, but it is better storytelling.
One of the difficulties we encounter is how to provide clues in a subtle fashion without creating contrivances, that is, clues that seem forced for the sole purpose of providing readers with information.
Some writers create a conversation between characters, and the dialogue provides the back-story information. This is called dialogue dumping, and it can halt a story just as surely as can narrative dumping. It can also look much worse, because such dialogue usually comes across as forced and unnatural.
“Your battle armor looks splendid, my king,” Sir John said. “It reminds me of the previous war in which you won a great victory over the Wolfkin and established our expanded borders.”
The king nodded. “Indeed. Because of that conquest, I am now sovereign over the seven species of sentient creatures. We are now at peace with all but the Wolfkin, and now we go to ensure that the border stays where it is.”
This is an ugly example of contrived dialogue that attempts to inform the reader of back story elements. These two men would never have this discussion, because they both already know these facts.
This is an extreme example, but I hope you can see the principle. Try to avoid any dialogue that is information driven and would not be spoken under the circumstances.
Good back-story bridge building includes providing hints that come across as natural and non-intrusive. They feel like part of the story, and readers pick up on them almost without thinking, and the bricks come together without effort and without halting the main story.
Next week we will continue with the list of elements to provide in the opening – #7 Establish a feeling that a crisis of some sort is coming.
If you have any questions or comments, please post them.
Categories: Writing Tips