A great many writers – aspiring and established – face the dreaded question:
How and where do I begin my story?
It turns out this is less of a question about timing and location, than it is a moment in your primary character’s life where the journey to answer a question begins.
Many first drafts contain a lot of up-front backstory and exposition because the writer is actually establishing the information they need to tell the story. It’s good information, but it belongs below the iceberg. As agent and author Paula Munier says, “What the readers need to know to read the story is not what you needed to know to write it.”
In review, revision, and critique readers will often respond to stories that mirror this structure with, “I think your story actually begins on page 34.” This is good and necessary feedback to receive (we’ve all been there), and while, sure, you can always handle it in revision, it may be more useful to develop a method of attacking it during your first draft.
Writing to reach page one
If you’re tackling a new novel this November, or struggling to revise your first scene, I encourage you to change your thinking and to approach the process of beginning your story as though you are writing your character’s journey to reach page one – to the moment their life story intersects with the plot of your novel. This exercise should examine and extrude those crucial pieces of back story required to begin your story – but that don’t quite belong in the first pages.
So, what should you focus on in this exercise? In short, problems. If you have a story worth telling, it’s more likely than not your character wants something, and has to go on a journey to attain it, with great risk, and considerable stakes, while facing some impediment that stands in the way of them attaining it.
Their problems – doubts, limitations, unrealized dreams, anxiety, fear – are what have, to date, over the course of their lives, prevented them from finally going after what they want. They’ve shaped everything your character is and does to this point – and will influence how that character acts moving forward.
Problems after all, and the struggle to overcome the limitations they impose, are what create empathy in the reader. So as you’re writing your character’s journey to page one, focus on those problems – and their origins – to develop the rich tapestry that will inform your character’s approach to their journey. If you do this, you’ll find the decisions your character makes as the plot advances – and the precise way they make those decisions – are based on the life they’ve brought with them to this point. Their past thus becomes the greatest influence on their future.
Consider a revised character sketch with the following questions:
- What problems does your character bring to the moment the plot begins?
- What was the source or cause of these problems?
- How have these problems shaped who your character has become?
- How do they impact the decisions they make?
- How have they prevented your character from getting what they want?
- How have the answers to all the above led your character precisely to the moment where your plot begins (your plot should start when there is no other choice but for your character to commence their journey toward change)?
One of my favorite short stories – and perhaps one of the most famous short stories of all time – is called The Things they Carried by Tim O’Brien. The story follows a platoon during the Vietnam war, describing the things each of them carry, from objects and weapons, to emotions such as doubt, fear and love. Among the many reasons this story is so powerful, is that it gives the reader a richer understanding why the characters are the way they are, and do the things they do in the story (thus powering the plot).
Beyond being a beautiful, powerful story, The Things They Carried is also a perfect craft-specific example of what a writer might choose to focus on in bringing a character’s journey to life on page one. Find this story, read it and study it. It’s proof you don’t need to know your character’s entire backstory – you merely need to know the things your character carries with them. This in hand, its purpose and power understood, you’ll be ready to start the moment in your character’s story where plot begins.