Feeding the Goldfish

A writer friend recently asked me to critique the first couple of chapters of her new novel. As she’s a very good up-and-coming writer, and she’s written wonderful reviews for my novels on Amazon, B&N and Goodreads, I agreed.

I was immediately interested in the subject matter–a young girl worshipping her older brother and grieving over his death–but it surprised me that the writer, whose work was usually a lightning-quick read, had written two chapters (almost 9.000 words) and I was struggling with it.


I knew before I’d finished the chapters, and I hung my head in shame, because it’s one of my own greatest faults as well:

WAY too much back story, WAY too much unnecessary detail, and not nearly enough happening in the present time.

You’d be surprised how fast that kills a reader’s interest.

This might not sound like such a sin–after all, in the opening chapters, you HAVE to tell the reader a little about your characters and describe them, and get into a little of who they are, and what they want, and where they came from, and … watch out. That’s a slippery slope.

What’s really necessary is to introduce your story in a way that’s inherently dramatic–ie, something is happening right now, and we jump right into the middle of it. How much do we need to know to understand it? How many details can you leave out?


That’s it.

And then–open with a truly dramatic situation that the readers can get involved with right away. You will hook them, they will want to know more, and I promise, they will stick around even when you tuck in bits of NECESSARY exposition here and there (and be careful; only a little bit at a time–giving exposition is like feeding a goldfish–give it too much at a time and it’ll die.)

Too many writers think if they get into tons of back story, they can disguise (or in some cases not even notice) that their opening chapters have NO DRAMATIC MOVEMENT WHATSOEVER.

In the first chapter you introduce  and describe your characters (and it’s always better to describe a character through the actions they take and the words they speak, rather than giving physical description and back story). You can tell the reader REAMS about your hero if, as in a very famous instance, you show him not wanting to whitewash a fence on a Saturday morning but figuring out a clever way to get others to do it for him–and pay for the privilege. (Thanks, Mark Twain.) This is the famous school of SHOW, DON’T TELL, and one I heartily subscribe to. But that’s action, and it’s happening in the present time. We’ll like that, and we’ll stay with it.

Almost my favorite novel opening comes from Dick Francis’s THE DANGER: “There was a godawful cock-up in Bologna.”

There is NO WAY I was going to miss reading the next sentence, and paragraph, as Francis talked about the kidnapping negotiation that had gone wrong and now there were innocent lives at stake in a high-rise apartment building and the hero stood frustrated on the street. You want to talk about compelling? He did NOT get into the hero’s angst or back story, except to say that he was there as a kidnap negotiator. He saved ALL the other details (except a couple about the kidnap victim and the previous attempts at ransom) for later in the story. I devoured it, and it was grand.

I also cannot stress enough that while you will undoubtedly, as you live with your characters and your story, come up with a million different ways of showing (or telling) details about them, you need to rein in that impulse as much as you can. You might say that as long as you ‘save’ them for a later chapter, it’s okay to tell us everything you’ve ever thought of about that character.

Wrong. You NEVER need to say it (think of it as a first date–where would you be if you blurted out everything you were thinking to someone you hardly knew?) If there are 12 instances in which you intended to show your character’s greed, drop 10 of them and use the best two in the story. Your readers will appreciate it and will not feel as though they’re being bludgeoned with a heavy stick to get your point.

This summer, while Kevin Finn and I were doing the final edit on FORWARD TO CAMELOT: 50th Anniversary Edition, I found myself confronted with my own prose again, for the first time in 10 years, and while we did correct a few minor historical points (and I feel better for it!), the majority of the time was spent first trimming, then chopping, whole sections of the book. Kevin pointed out that I had a bad habit of saying everything twice, and I did: I realized I said something first to announce it, second, to set it up for a dramatic moment. This was obviously not necessary, and I found a lot of places to cut down–WITHOUT LOSING ANY OF THE DRAMA OR THE FLAVOR OF THE BOOK.

Believe me, writers can be among the most self-indulgent people on earth, and it’s terrible to realize how much we love the look of our words on the page. (We can be like those awful public speakers who go on, and on, and on.) Minimize it and use the strongest examples. Say little about your characters and let their words and actions (and what others say about them) tell us who they are. That’s good storytelling.

Of course, you will always find those who insist that the ‘inner monologue’ is beautiful and is the crux of a ‘literary’ novel, in which action is not nearly as important as thought. To me, a literary novel is usually one that has pretensions to being high-blown and arty, but in reality is just a story written by an author who can’t handle simple storytelling. To me, simple storytelling–getting the hero up the tree and figuring out how to get him down–is all there is, and the hardest thing in the world to do well.  That’s what I’m always aiming it, and I hope you are, too. The world needs more good storytellers, and far fewer ‘literary’ artists.

But that is a post for another day …

Posted on October 23, 2013, in Craft, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Joyce Carol Oates. Kent Haruff. Rod Usher. I don’t read thrillers or whodunnits, and I hate, hate, hate contrived conflicts and action scenes. Romance novels are full of the same manufactured conflicts, book after book. Henry James’s “Portrait of a Lady” would never sell today, but it remains one of my all-time favorites. The depth, the character studies, the mystery of why a woman would marry some loser and STAY married to him, is far more engaging and memorable to me than “whodunnit” or how Jane Protagonist will get herself out of that tree. But I am a minority. Book sales prove it. (Except in JCO’s case.) Susan, I don’t dispute your advice here to novice writers; I just continue to prefer the old-school, out-of-fashion literary classics to today’s fast-paced action novels.

    • Carol — I think you’ve mistaken what I said. I do NOT believe every book should be a thriller or an action book. Classics are classics because they spring from classic storytelling.

      I reiterate that front-loading a ton of exposition in favor of story is bad writing. It’s not a question of taste. It’s bad writing in ANY genre. A scene should begin at one point, build and end at another point. If that doesn’t happen because the scene is just about someone dreaming of what’s happened in the past … that’s a red flag.

      As for thrillers – that depends very much on the author. Some authors have less depth than the paper their novel is printed on. But some are extraordinary. if you haven’t read Daphne du Maurier, shame on you. She wrote thrillers, even horror, and I’m not a horror fan – but how that woman could create a mood was nobody’s business. Her scenes especially prove my point that you can take quiet detail and use it to build a scene, NOT as back story. She wrote a great scene in REBECCA in which the heroine (who is never named, so her nemesis, the dead Rebecca, seems more vivid and alive by contrast) is looking at the morning room where Rebecca spent her days. It’s not only beautifully furnished, but the heroine imagines how Rebecca spent her time there–and it’s her IMAGINING that’s critical to moving the plot forward. We learn a lot more about her character at the same time that we learn about Rebecca. All this from just a look around an unoccupied room. Brilliant. (And it ends with a killer line – she’s so overwhelmed by the presence of Rebecca still lingering in the room that when the house phone rings and she picks it up and the caller asks for Mrs. DeWinter she says, “I’m afraid you must be mistaken. Mrs. DeWinter has been dead for over a year.” Oh, my God!)

      I think you may also have a mistaken idea of what I meant when I was talking about Dick Francis (whose work I will never come close to touching as a writer–he’s in a class by himself). Not only did his values color every one of his novels, his characterization was done brilliantly: he could describe someone in two sentences who would then be vividly alive for the reader. Amazing. His prose was very spare, but every detail he gave you deepened the characters and added to the conflict. And while his stories are plot heavy, they also have solid themes that really resonate with the reader. They have dimension, and they’re just as relevant today as when they were written. Little wonder that his fans re-read his work again and again.

      ‘Action’ in the sense I meant it is WHAT HAPPENS IN A SCENE–and it’s relevant to PORTRAIT OF A LADY just as much as anything written today. If nothing happens because a character is just reflecting on his/her life — and that reflection does NOT lead to a decision the character makes in that scene or something different that he does as a result — that’s bad writing, in this century, the last century and the next century. Re-read PORTRAIT OF A LADY. I’ll bet you’ll find that for every scene where someone is reflecting on life, they come to a decision or do something as a result of that. That’s what I’m talking about.

      This is not about personal preference. It’s about craft.

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