“She stopped and remembered her home town and how it felt to be ten years old when she moved. . .”
I checked out two books-on-tape yesterday and tried to listen to them. The first one started at a certain point, then immediately went into a flashback, within the first page. Ditto for the second.
Yes, these are published books; they are books-on-tape. But I didn’t make it through the first chapter of either.
Fatal Backstory and Flashbacks
The best explanation of why this type opening is fatal comes from David Morrell in his book, Lessons From a Lifetime of Writing. The chapter entitled, “The Tactics of Structure” . A normal story timeline should be Event A, Event B, Event C.
The structure of these openings, however was B – A – C. In fact, one of the stories does this endlessly through the first chapter. The story opens with a young man on a journey, with an appropriate set up of his environment, mode of travel, eventual destination, etc. Then, he closes his eyes and remembers the sights and sounds of his home town. Back to the present with a grouchy traveling companion and a few bits of dialogue. Then, back to his father’s life, his father’s rise and fall in his profession, his father’s hopes that his son would follow in his footsteps, and finally, his father’s death, leading to this journey. Back to the present with the grouchy companion.
We have B1 – A1 – B2 – A2 – B3 – A3 and never even get to C.
How did this pass through editing, I wonder? Nothing has happened. I’m bored with all the flashbacks and back story. If all that was important to know at the beginning of the story, then the author started at the wrong place in the story. It should have been A- B- C. Start the story with a scene showing the successful father at work, then his death, then the character’s decision to travel, a scene saying goodbye to Mom, etc.
At the beginning, we simply need to meet the character on his/her journey and understand the present situation.
Where to put Back Story?
Literary agent Donald Maass recommends putting it much later in the story, after page 100, at least. You only put the information in when it affects the current story and deepens the current emotions. Otherwise, weave in tiny bits and pieces (that’s OK) but leave out scenes and these boring, “he closed his eyes and pictured his home town.”