Welcome to the universe of 30-second commercials, 140-character tweets and 35-word contest pitches. Welcome to the land of short attention spans and brains trained to be wowed in under a minute. And finally, welcome to writing for this generation.
Having worked as a nonprofit magazine editor and communications specialist, I’ve written and edited professionally for years, and now that I’m working at a literary agency, I’ve read my fair share of those dreaded queries too. So, I’m writing today to help promising authors get their shot by avoiding a common problem that keeps landing in my inbox – a great concept and well-written prose that ultimately avalanches from those promising shimmers of first snowy words into a snooze-fest of backstory and completely unnecessary info dumps. It’s just too much people. Really. You’ve got to get to the point faster. You’ve got so little time.
Discovering an info dump or backstory in a first chapter is like sledding on fresh powder only to collide into a block of near-frozen snow. It stops you in your tracks. I ask: Why hide the inciting first incident of the story – the snow jump that sends agents flying into the next 100 pages – behind such a mess? Why does the backstory, this info dump of information, always hide only a page into the first chapter? Why does it feel so necessary to the author that they give up the prime real estate of the first 500 words an agent reads to it?
The reason is pretty simple, but that doesn’t make it any less easy to avoid. Backstory is hugely important to the author because they’ve used it to frame or construct their world (that’s world building) and develop the qualities and peculiarities of their characters (characterization). They want you to know everything up front to help you make sense of their world. But – and this is the part that should scare the snow pants right off you authors – your reader could probably care less. Well, that’s a slight overstatement. They do care, but they don’t want to know everything at once – especially when they have no clue or investment in your characters as of yet. They need something to root for first. That inciting first incident.
So, let’s switch metaphors. Now consider your manuscript a tapestry of beautiful stitching. You can only use a small bolt of your favorite gold, shimmering thread in the whole thing, but you’ve got a host of other colors to work with too. You’ve guessed it – the gold is your backstory, sitting so pretty, able to add so much depth and light if used correctly. But, whatever you do, don’t use it all at once or it just becomes a blob of gold stuck in one small eye-drawing corner. But, if you thread it carefully through the tapestry, you can add depth, light and beauty that makes sense but doesn’t overwhelm.
The best reason, however, for avoiding this info dump is you get to the point faster – you know – that point where your desired agent goes, “a ha, this is why I do this for a living.” And in this land of sound bites and crunched sentences, you need to hook your reader (and your agent) fast. Whether physical or emotional in nature – an inciting first scenes begs the reader to, well, keep reading. It’s this blend of marketable, hot-right-now concept + craft + keep-me-wanting-to-read-more pages + personal taste that gets authors the sought-after request for more pages. That’s a lot of factors that you, the author, control.
So, is there a checklist you can follow to make your manuscript an incredible piece of literature? Not really, no. But there are definitely things you should be aware of as you write. For the time being, think about one of them: the way you start. And if the start bores with backstory, consider if you haven’t already written a better beginning just a few chapters in. Maybe that’s where your story should begin?