Sunday, July 21, 2013


“Editors don’t like Prologues.” 

“Your manuscript starts in the wrong place.”
“This first chapter is nothing but backstory.”

Have you ever received this feedback about your work? Did it leave you confused and wondering what the critique meant? I think I found a way to help you understand. This will involve a five dollar investment (matinee cost) or you can wait a couple of months and visit Red Box. Either way, the movie you want to see is Man of Steel.

Okay, I know. Superman has a great body. Fine. For those of you who can’t see past that, you may have to plunk down another five dollars. The second time, watch the audience. The problem? The first hour is backstory. Literally. Backstory. (Backstory is what happens to a character before the imminent story begins. It’s what shapes him/her. Like the story of the destruction of the Planet Krypton and why Superman had to be sent away, followed by the story of his life growing up on Earth.)

So why is this a problem, you ask? It’s necessary to have this insight into a character’s background, right?

Yes, it is. Especially for the writer. But for the reader, backstory holds no tension, no conflict. (Just for the record, most prologues are really backstory.) In huge amounts, backstory creates a pace that is S…L…O…W.  And what happens when the pace is slow? In the movie, the audience fidgeted; there were huge high-in-the air stretches. They fell asleep. They were bored.

You see, this movie audience bought tickets with the expectation of seeing  some epic battle to save Earth, and for the first hour, almost half of the movie, there’s not so much as a hint of this grand theme.  The action that everyone paid for didn’t show up till the last half of the movie.

But it’s in there, you say. In my book. If they just read far enough they’ll get to it.

Alas my friend, this may not have been a fatal flaw for the Man of Steel. But for you as a writer? Think about it. You are asking your reader to sit for more than the typical movie time of two to two and half hours. You are asking your reader to invest five to ten hours. And that time is not spent in an enclosed, darkened room with nothing else to do but watch/read, but is spent in a life filled with distractions like homework, meals, TV, friends, computers, etc. all competing for your precious audience’s time. So when your reader gets bored, what happens to your book? Let’s just say there’s no extra-large tub of popcorn to hold your reader in the seat until ‘the good stuff’ shows up.

Your reader buys your book with the expectation of being enthralled by your words, your story. They want a snapshot of ‘the good stuff’ from page one and expect it to build from there. In Average Town, USA, there are typically no more than twenty movies showing at any one time. Not so with books. At each and every moment there are thousands of books available at bookstores and online. The competition is fierce. If you don’t provide what they want (including agents/editors) someone else will.

That means you have to start with the inciting incident – where the good stuff starts. (And just for the record, a threat made twenty some odd years ago is not an inciting incident. The threat has to be immediate.) The backstory comes in tiny bits and pieces sprinkled throughout the work.

And that’s a story for another day.

Lisa Tapp


Kristin Lenz said...

Where to start your story is so tricky. Contrary to what usually happens to others, I tend to start too late, the reader is confused, and then I need to back-track. You discuss Superman - another popular example is Girl with A Dragon Tattoo. I never made it past the slow, info-dump of a first chapter. But I didn't see the movie - maybe they changed it?

Lisa Tapp said...

I haven't seen that movie, so I can't comment on it, Kristin. I do think a slow beginning is more fatal in a book than in a movie. Unless it's truly offensive, most people will sit through at least half of a film before completely shutting down. Thanks for stopping by.