Identify the Beginning; Eliminate the Past

On a good day, I take two steps backward to move one step forward with my writing. Just when I thought I had written the perfect opening, I found that my opening was not the beginning of my story.

Each week, I read a different book on the craft of writing. This week I’m reading Don’t Murder Your Mystery: 24 Fiction-Writing Techniques to Save Your Manuscript from Turning up D.O.A. by Chris Roerden. I found two pieces of information in the first sixty pages that made me reconsider the opening and remove much of the past in my mystery manuscript. I determined two things: 1) Where does my story really begin? 2) How much backstory should I include?

According to Roerden, a story begins “. . . where the first sign of trouble appears. It’s where a change threatens to upset the status quo.” Roerden goes on to quote mystery author and literary agent Jack Bickham, who tells writers in The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes to “Identify the moment of change, and you know when your story must open.” Bingo! A light bulb moment for me.

The beginning of the story is not where the protagonist came from or where she’s going; it’s where her problem for this story first surfaces. In my manuscript, the problem first appears at a New Year’s Eve party, yet I had begun the book three weeks later. Therefore, the real beginning became part of my backstory. I told the reader about the beginning instead of showing the reader the situation as it unfolded.

Even though I had a good opening line, it was backstory; it was the past. I rewrote the opening—for what feels like the 100th time—to begin during the New Year’s Eve party at the moment the protagonist’s problem first appears.

What should we include as backstory? To paraphrase Robie Macauley and George Lanning in Technique in Fiction: only the part of then that is important to or has some bearing on now is worth telling. To achieve this, Chris Roerden suggests using Chapters 1-3 of your manuscript. Highlight all information that’s backstory. Then selectively cut non-essential information. For each highlighted sentence or paragraph, ask yourself: Is this info important to this story? Does it have a bearing on this story? If the answer is no, cut it and move on. Be ruthless.

I did as Roerden suggested. More than half of my first three chapters contained information that didn’t have a bearing on my story; therefore, it was non-essential information. Most of this info described the characters’ background, not something the reader needed to know for this story. However, I don’t throw the words away. I created an electronic folder for CUTS where I placed all the deleted text. Perhaps I can use it in another story—or not.

Deleting words is not an easy task. I tend to develop an emotional attachment to all words I write. As a writer, I sometimes have to let go. This is one of those times. I’m writing a mystery, not a history (thanks for the reminder, Chris). Of course, you need to include some backstory in your work but made it short and to the point without interrupting the story’s action.  

After eliminating pages of non-essential backstory, I reread my first three chapters. I didn’t want to put the manuscript down. Each sentence moved the story forward with a momentum that kept me reading. Is that not what all writers—and agents and publishers—want readers to experience: the I-can’t-put-it-down syndrome?

This Labor Day, I encourage you to find the first sign of change that begins your story and make it the beginning of your story. Then delete unnecessary backstory from your first three chapters. The last part will be laborious (but it is Labor Day!), even difficult, but worth the effort in the end.

Take the challenge: begin at the beginning; eliminate the non-essential past—Write Now!

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About Susan Harvey

I'm a humor writer and a newly retired college English instructor. I enjoy reading and writing yet don't take time to do what I really love--writing. I began writing a mystery-romance novel three years ago. Now that I'm retired, I will make time to write with the goal of finishing my novel.
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