Writing Tip Wednesday: On Nothing Happening In Your Opening Scene.

I follow the Miss Stark’s First Victim blog written by Authoress. It is a great blog for aspiring authors. (For those ready to query, she even hosts regular secret agent contests.) She critiques manuscripts (for money) and lately has been sharing observations she has made while editing to help improve our writing.
On Monday she shared a great post on nothing happening in the opening pages of a story.

When talking about nothing happening, she is talking about nothing happening in sense of plot, which you don’t want because no one will keep reading your story if nothing is happening.

Authoress says there are three main reasons why nothing is happening:

1) TOO MUCH DESCRIPTION AND BACKSTORY.

She says “We don’t need to know the color of every character’s eyes, the shade and texture of their hair, and what they’re wearing. Choose details carefully, and only offer what is needed to help the reader form a picture in his mind while he reads. Trust your readers to “visualize” your characters in their own way, with a little (not a lot) of guidance from you.
We don’t need to know every single item on the mantlepiece. The color of every flower in the garden. The exact weather pattern. Give us only what we need to place your scene somewhere we can feel grounded. Don’t belabor the things that are AROUND your characters.
Use backstory SPARINGLY. Use it JUDICIOUSLY. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve encountered manuscripts that give bits of story, then insert fat chunks of this-is-what-happened-a-year-ago, then back to the story, then another fat chunk of this-is-how-they-became-friends, and so on. Backstory needs to be carefully–and sparingly–woven into your narrative. It should feel natural, unassuming. If it feels like it INTERRUPTS the story, then it’s either misplaced, too much, or both. Your pacing will die a quick death, and your readers will get bored or frustrated (or both).”

2) TOO MUCH MUNDANE DETAIL.

Authoress says “we don’t need to be told about every time your main character wakes up, goes to sleep, showers, shaves, eats, or poops. WE JUST DON’T. I think this is probably an easy problem to fall into if you’re less experienced as a novelist. In one of my earlier manuscripts, my main character apparently took an inordinate amount of showers, which one of my astute critique partners pointed out. It happens, right? And then we learn that it’s not necessary to bring the reader through EVERY ASPECT of a character’s day. This is a novel–it is not a journal.”

3) THE PLOT HAS NO REAL DIRECTION.

Authoress says “And this is the most insidious reason of all. A novel needs to move from plot point to plot point. If your novel is rambling on, the reader is going to get the vague (or not-so-vague) sense that the story isn’t going anywhere. And maybe it isn’t. Because a well crafted plot has specific “arrival points”, and the narrative and dialogue in between should be moving toward each of those points. Otherwise, you just have a lot of “blah blah blah” that doesn’t more forward.

I’ve noticed in some manuscripts that there is no true INCITING INCIDENT. This is the THING that happens to your main character that produces the CHANGE that propels the story into…well, a story. If this THING had never happened, the story wouldn’t have happened. Often, the inciting incident is placed at the end of the first or second chapter…If there is no inciting incident in your novel, then there’s no CHANGE to propel your main character into the story. It really does start to read more like a journal of sorts (“and then he did this, and then he did that”), with no apparent reason why we’re being told any of this.”

Authoress suggests you DO plot. Even if you’re a tried-and-true pantser, you STILL have to, at some point, work out your plot points so that your story has structure. Whether you do that before or after your first draft is up to you.

She concludes by saying “Your story will be engaging only if THINGS ARE HAPPENING. Not random things, but well-crafted things that move logically toward each plot point, drawing the reader forward with purpose. If your story is suffering from Nothing Is Happening Syndrome, it’s time to roll up your sleeves. Writing words is easy; writing well is hard. Strive for the latter, and your stories will shine!”

To read the whole post, which has some great examples, go here.

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