Six impossible things

Fixing Chapter One: Background, setting, backstory

The third problem that article-writer had with Chapter Ones was “too much background and too much telling.” His answer was to cut out all the description. Unfortunately, this “simple and obvious” solution isn’t a universal one – in the first place, it doesn’t allow for differences in taste, and in the second place, it doesn’t allow for books like Mervyn Peake’s Titus Groan, where it is three pages before a character appears, and eleven before a word of dialog or an action other than the (minor) character walking through more description of rooms and furniture takes place.

Once again, the trick to deciding whether or not to revise the description or backstory from Chapter One is twofold: first, the writer needs to have some notion of the purpose of background, setting, and backstory in Chapter One in general, and second, the writer needs to have some idea what will make this particular story achieve that purpose most effectively.

Part of the problem here is that four different things tend to get lumped together in this category – background/setting, backstory, simple description, and narrative summary. The first two, background/setting and backstory, are there to orient the reader. They provide the time, location, and culture, and a sense of how the characters got to whatever place, time, and situation they are in at the start of the story. They involve content.

The other two, simple description and narrative summary, are writing techniques. They have as much – or as little – place in Chapter One as dialog, action, internal monolog, or any other writing technique that is about how the writer is doing something and/or what exactly he is doing, rather than about what he is saying. There isn’t anything particularly different about the way techniques are used at the start of a story and the way they are used in the middle or at the end.

Problems with too much description and misuse of narrative summary are therefore usually general writing problems, rather than something specific to Chapter One. If Chapter One seems to have too much of them, but the rest of the story is fine, then it is probable that the writer has to write his/her way into the story the way some writers need to write their way into their characters. Sometimes the solution to this is to cut, or to treat the entire chapter as scaffolding; other times, rewriting the chapter from scratch works (because once the writer has gotten to the end of the book, they are into the story enough to be able to redo Chapter One the way it should have been written). It is, however, fundamentally a matter of the writer’s individual process and the way they need to work in order to get started.

Background, setting, and backstory are another matter entirely. They do have a specific Chapter One job – orienting the reader. The problem here is that readers and writers have a greater divergence in their tastes and preferences in this area than in just about anything else affecting Chapter One…and whoever you talk to about it will very likely be quite adamant that all writers must tell their readers a lot (or almost nothing) about the background, setting, character’s backstory, and/or descriptions of people and places. This tends to make many writers nervous, especially when, as is common, the tastes and preferences of the other reader do not match the writer’s own tastes or the story he/she is trying to tell.

The first thing to do is to try one’s best to ignore all questions of taste and preference, including one’s own, and focus on the job that needs to be done. That job is “orient the reader,” and the question is, how much orientation is necessary up front? What is the absolute minimum amount of information that is necessary in order for the reader to understand what is going on? What is the most effective way to get that minimum necessary information across to the reader? The opening scene of Romancing the Stone does a great job of placing the viewer in time and place…only to have that understanding turned completely upside down at the start of the second scene. But while that change makes most of the specific details of time, place, and character from the first scene irrelevant, it provides a much more fundamental understanding of the main character’s job and character than we’d have gotten if the story started with the second scene.

Once you have an idea what the bare minimum of background/setting/backstory information is necessary, you can decide whether you have enough (about 95% of writers, I think), whether you need to add more, or whether you need to cut some of it back. This is not an easy choice. In my experience, about 80% of the time, anyone who knows a lot about a particularly well-developed background or backstory is likely to assume that everyone else will need to know just as much in order to understand what is going on. This is seldom the case; usually, what the reader needs to know to go on with is not the complete history of the space colony at Betelgeuse and the tragic story of the heroine’s long-lost childhood love, it’s that she’s a spaceship pilot having trouble with the regulations at a colony spaceport. The rest can come out later, gradually (and the story will probably be better for it). It’s not like Chapter One is the only chance you’ll ever get to mention it, if it really is important to the story.

The other 20% of the time, all the “extra” information really is needed. Sometimes the need is structural (as with Alicia’s comment a few posts back about the first and last chapters mirroring each other in her work). Other times, the more-than-minimum information is there because it underpins some other important aspect of Chapter One (plot or characterization), or because it is stylistically or thematically important. And sometimes, it is there just because the particular author absolutely loves books that start with in-depth worldbuilding or long rambling backstories.

Ultimately, the question is “is doing it this way (whether that’s the minimal or maximal approach) the most effective technique to use in this story?” Sometimes, that means the writer will have to work outside his/her comfort zone, because the bare minimum he/she prefers just isn’t right for the particular book, or the in-depth background he/she loves is too much on top of everything else that needs to be in Chapter One.

Note that the “absolute minimum information necessary for understanding” is not the same for all books, all genres, or even all books within the same genre. A story set in present-day may need only a reference to stoplights or McDonalds to give the reader enough information to go on with; one set in Paris, 1798 may need a lot more description for most readers to figure out where and when the scene is happening.

As with the other basics – characterization and plot – sometimes there is just no possible way to do much in the way of reader orientation. It is difficult to start with the viewpoint character in the middle of a battle and still give the reader a clear sense of where and when the story takes place (though one can get a bit of mileage out of whether the battle is being fought with swords, guns, or phasers), much less any important backstory regarding why the battle is taking place or information about what the world and culture are like.

  1. I don’t know if I’m particularly sensitive to it, but every time I’m pulled out of the story by the author to sit me down and explain something, or take me to another time and place so I understand something, my mind starts up a count. I’d prefer zero instances – and especially zero whole-paragraph-of-something-else instances – but I’ll take a couple of short ones that are so necessary I don’t even notice them.

    Some people love that stuff – the more sidetracks, the merrier, so it’s just my not-very-humble-at-all opinion.

    I think it’s bad writing. Any time you break the web that captures your reader, you have to have absolutely no other way to get the information in, and it has to be necessary right then.

    Trust me – I can rewrite almost anything to get around that.

    Take it all out – and then see how much is essential (that’s my method – YMMV).

    Do not discard anything – you’re probably right that it needs to go in there somewhere, but it is more likely to go down smooth in much smaller snippets than a paragraph, and in less detail.

    Or in a later chapter. The reader can wait – a reader can only handle so much new stuff at a time, and readers are much faster than writers, so it gets to be an overload quickly.

    I try to let readers accumulate the information over the course of the story – they will feel better because the ‘figure it out.’ If they get the full picture right before they need the full picture, I’ve done it perfectly.

    It is very hard. I cut my drafts down 10 or 20 to 1, because I have to get those ideas all out of my brain in their many variations. I just think it’s my job.

    Oh, and I don’t trust writers who infodump on me – and often don’t make it to their second chapter.


    PS Sorry for rant – pet peeve.

  2. “In my experience, about 80% of the time, anyone who knows a lot about a particularly well-developed background or backstory is likely to assume that everyone else will need to know just as much in order to understand what is going on.”

    Do you have any advice for that other 20%– those of us who tend to chronically under write? Not just when it comes to opening scenes, but everything else as well– my writing tends to be significantly shorter than that of my peers even when, objectively, the same number of things are happening. I know some of the problem is that it frequently doesn’t occur to me to add descriptions of people/places, but I don’t think that covers all of it.

  3. @Alicia: I’m one of the people who rather likes that sort of stuff. I guess the difference is that – if done well – an explaination doesn’t pull me out of the web of the story, but rather is part of the web of the story.

    Another point is that different readers not only want different amounts of information but need different amounts of information, both to understand what’s going on and to avoid misunderstandings. In fact I feel that avoiding misunderstandings is more important. A good amount of “I’ll explain later” can be tolerated, but any misunderstandings the reader has need to be cleared up very quickly, or they’ll fester.

    • If you saw some of the extra bits I write before cutting things down – you’d really not love my characters enough to go into that much background and detail – but those are the easy piece, the ones that just flow out my fingertips.

      Because I have too much backstory in my head – there may be a place for that among tidbits reserved for true aficionados – and I can talk/write your head off!

      But there’s this story, see, and I want it out there some day…

      I do have a checklist – and try not to let any person reading go more than a paragraph or two before confirming they are where they think they are – but I also think there’s some satisfaction for the reader in recognizing a particular voice from the words on the page.

      Now if I could just order a million readers all cut with the same cookie cutter – with the same like and dislikes.

  4. “His answer was to cut out all the description.” <–This seems to be the common "solution" most people recommend. I've read a lot of books lately that seem to do this, and while it does help me get right into things, I hate being confused…

  5. Celeste, I’m with you. Of course, everyone knows about the American southwest, or North Korea, or whatever, and I’d just be cluttering up the pages if I put in more than three words of description/explanation, right? What, the reader doesn’t know everything I spent months researching? Really?

    The only solution I know of is a really good beta-reader, someone who both can recognize when something isn’t there that should be, and who’s willing to admit what they just don’t know. Sadly, those are mighty hard to come by; if there’s another solution, I’d love to hear it.

  6. In Titus Groan, the setting IS effectively a character… a highly eccentric character at that. Yet too many of today’s critics would cut its introduction.

    I’m not a fan of chop-it-out editing. I find more often it’s not that something isn’t necessary, but rather that it’s insufficiently developed.

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