Writing Tips: 3 Reasons NOT to Begin Your Novel With a Dream or a Flashback

Figuring out where to start your novel can be difficult. Where your readers enter the story, what they see, who they meet, will color the way they view the rest of the novel. The first few pages are where the reader gets their footing and learns just what the story is all about, where it’s going to take them, whether or not they should trust the voice that is taking them through this foreign story land.

Sometimes, when you’re not sure just how you should start your novel, it can seem like a good idea to start with a dream or a flashback, your character remembering something that happened before the reader came along, or something that never happened at all. There are 3 reasons not to do this.

  1. The Confusion Factor
    In the first five pages of the novel, you should be setting up your reader’s expectations of the character and world that they’re going to be sharing with you for the next 200 pages. If you then suddenly shout “just kidding!” and change everything that they know or thought the novel was going to be about, you risk at worst losing their interest, and at least confusing them.
  2. It’s been done (and done and done and done)
    You want your story to stand out in your reader’s mind. You want to grab people’s attention and hold it. If you resort to this trick that everyone else has tried, how well are people going to remember your book in the midst of all the others? Be worth remembering. It may take a little more work, but it’s worth it!
  3. If it’s a flashback, why didn’t you just start there in the first place?
    If you absolutely have to start us in the “past” and then jump forward, ask yourself why? Why didn’t you just start us there in the first place? For a flashback to work at the very beginning of a novel, the event you’re taking us back to must be pretty earth-shattering for your character, but then not matter at all until the current time. The fall of Voldemort and Harry’s arrival at the Dursleys’ home were both HUGE to the plot of Harry Potter. So J.K. Rowling, instead of having a character remember those moments later, plunked the reader down right there in the moment. She started with a deeply significant event and showed it to her readers, and by doing so, those events had more impact.
Finally, you can choose to do a flashback or a dream at the beginning. If it’s right for your book, it’s right for your book. But you’ve gotta wow us with it. Make it a flashback or dream to remember!
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Writing Tips: 4 Questions to Ask When Writing Back Story in Your Novel

If you’re reading this blog post, you’re probably creative. You’re probably a writer with an overactive imagination. That’s great! You’re my favorite type of person. That deep and beautiful imagination is what drives you to do what you do, to write and create worlds for you and your readers to get lost in.

So what do you do when it comes time to share that world with others, when it’s time to tell the tale that’s been growing inside your fertile mind? People who have the widest imaginations have the hardest time getting to the heart of their story. What details do you include? How much history to you reveal? After all, you’ve worked so hard to cultivate your characters, who they are, how they and their world came to be. Surely your readers are interested in the details and the back story as much as you are.

And you’re right–up to a point. I love discovering the depth of detail and planning that an author has gone through to create the character that I am following and the world that character lives in. The problem arises when I get socked with that back story before I’m ready to appreciate it, before it matters to the story at hand.

If you throw too much detail at your reader too soon, they’re not going to know what to do with it. At the beginning of a story, your reader is busy figuring out how things work, who the characters are, what they want most, and what’s standing in the way. They’re not gonna want to know WHY things work that way… not yet… or the deep personal histories of the characters yet… they don’t know to who they’re supposed to care about yet!

You’ll have the same problem if you throw in too much detail at the end, too. Your reader will likely skim right over back story revealed too close to the ending, in order to get to the “important part” of the story.

So how do you  know what back story to include and where? Here are four questions you can ask when you feel the urge to type out your character’s family tree:

  1. Is this bit of back story relevant to what’s going on RIGHT NOW in the story? (follow-up question: Will your reader understand that it is relevant right now?)
  2. Does the back story you’re including move the story forward? 
  3. Does it reveal something important about character motivation?
  4. Will your reader be confused about what’s going on without this back story?
If the answers all of these questions are yes, include your back story! If any of these answers are no, you might want to reconsider revealing that back story now.
The last thing you want is for your reader to skim over any part of your tale. It’s better to reveal back story on a need-to-know basis rather than dumping it all on your reader when they’re not ready for it. The right bit of information presented at the right moment will hook your readers and then they won’t be able to get enough!