Welcome to Death Of 1000 Cuts – making you an awesome writer, one cut at a time. Hey – if you’re working on a novel or short story and you think it’s ready to send out into the big bad world, why not send me your first page, with the title, via the ‘Contact Me’ link on the right? I can give you some honest, objective feedback, and we can all practise our editing skills. Blast me something across if you fancy it.
Thanks so much to everyone who has already sent me work. We’re all learning, and it’s a rare thing to be allowed to edit work publicly, without fear of upsetting someone. It speaks very highly of your confidence, commitment and modesty as authors that you’re prepared to share work-in-progress for the benefit of the group. Cheers.
Now, on with the show.
Make Your Readers Hungry Before You Serve Them Dinner
Martel was angry. He did not even adjust his blood away from anger. He stamped across the room by judgement, not by sight. When he saw the table hit the floor, and could tell by the expression on Luci’s face that the table must have made a loud crash, he looked down to see if his leg was broken. It was not.
– Scanners Live In Vain, Cordwainer Smith
So many of the manuscripts I see by aspiring authors smother under the weight of exposition in the first fifty pages. Don’t glaze over, you’re guilty of it too. That’s the whole damn problem.
‘But I have to establish the characters!’ they (you) bleat. ‘I need time to introduce them!’
Too late, fucko. By the time you’ve rattled through all your suite of potted histories detailing every trauma, predilection, peccadillo and high school sporting triumph of your cast of darlings, the reader will be long gone. You’re monologuing to an empty auditorium. The janitor is stacking chairs.
It might sound like an exaggeration but I see it all the time. So many would-be authors view a character’s backstory as an odious spoonful of castor oil, something unpleasant but necessary, to be got out of the way, before the real business of storytelling can take place.
But backstory is storytelling – in fact sometimes, it’s your greatest weapon. The quotation above comes from the opening to Cordwainer Smith’s short story Scanners Live In Vain. What I love about it is it throws us straight into a scene with a character and a problem, and a few anomalous details that make us think: hang on, something’s not right here. It’s this sense of missing information that drives us to keep reading and powers most of the story.
Of course, you wouldn’t dream of dumping a whole load of backstory into your prose. Oh no. You’re far sneakier than that. You kick things off in media res, perhaps with a snatch of unattributed dialogue, something quirkily provocative:
‘Francine! The panther’s been at the Marmite again.’
Then, three pages in, you tell us:
Lionel had rescued the silvery-grey cougar from a circus three years previously, counting bills into the thick, rough fist of a Ukrainian acrobat, who unlocked the cage with a single, violent snap of the wrist, the padlock dropping into the sawdust and dead grass at their feet. The cougar barely raised its head; it knew it was trading one kind of servitude for another.
Since then, Lionel had doted on Lucretia – as she came to be known – setting her meals – the wet, marbled slabs of beef – on a bronze platter on the stoop, running a comb through her coat, dutifully driving to the outpatient clinic to the get gaping wounds in his forearm stitched up. ‘She’s very gamesome,’ he’d say brightly, ignoring both the student nurse’s horrified expression, and Lucretia’s famished one as he limped back to the porch.
Golf clap. Well bloody done. You’ve managed to disguise it in all the fecund tartery of literary fiction, but it’s still a fucking info dump.
Whether you can throw a sentence together or not, the business of a good story or opening of a novel is action. I don’t mean in the ‘keep your hands where I can see them and maybe you’ll live to see your kids’ sense, though there’s no shame in that – I mean that your fiction needs to start off by throwing us into a scene and letting us experience your fictive world for a while. No breaking off into florid Wikipedia entries. No backstory. It’s hammy. It represents a failure of nerve, and while you may be able to fool yourself, your readers will smell your fear.
Once you’ve started the story proper, once you’ve given us a protagonist with a genuine need and got them into a pickle, then, at last, you might actually have stimulated our desire to find out more about this person. How did they come to be here? What is their deal? When the reader gets to want these things, for God’s sake hold back.
Just because a reader wants something, doesn’t mean you should oblige. Look at any franchise held to ransom by its fans. Readers are sociopathic little whirlwinds of id. Treat them with a firm hand. If you’ve piqued their interest in at least one of your characters, that’s a sturdy ring through their nose. You can lead them this way and that way through most of the book, only if you leave their desire for knowledge unsatisfied.
Indeed, you should use this period of control as an opportunity to loop extra piercings through all sorts of parts of their body, till by the end you’re playing them like a church organ. The info dump is one of the biggest bores of fiction, but it hides your most powerful tool for maintaining the reader’s attention – to hold them in that exquisite torture which is to find oneself utterly at the mercy of a brilliant book.