Please contact E. B. Davis at for information on guest blogs and interviews. Please join us between Thanksgiving and New Year's when our authors present original holiday short stories. We hope they will add to the season's festivities! 11/28 Annette Dashofy, 12/3 E. B. Davis, 12/8 KM Rockwood, 12/13 Korina Moss, 12/18 Tammy Euliano, 12/23 Warren Bull, 12/28 Paula Gail Benson Have a wonderful holiday! -----------------------------------------------------------------------------

Friday, July 23, 2010

The First Chapter Coloring Project

Last week, when writing about the Story Train, I wrote of wise Mrs. Zarroli’s use of a visual to keep her students alert. Another trick I’ve learned is to play into writers’ collective weakness for office supplies. I’ve never met a writer who doesn’t periodically yearn for a trip to the office supply store to check out the latest innovations in mechanical pencils, journals, binders, index cards, sticky notes and file folders.

This is one addiction I have embraced for a writing exercise that involves highlighters. The purpose is to highlight (literally) a persistent problem with opening chapters: excess backstory.

I am often asked about common errors or mistakes by new writers. One is too much story history, too early on. Even experienced writers have difficulty holding back sharing everything pertinent about the characters and past events populating a story. Writers should know their characters inside out; they should thoroughly research settings; they should give depth to their work. Much of this translates into backstory. Backstory is important in that provides meaning and logic to why characters act as they do. Sometimes, in crime stories, backstory is what brings the current story to life. Backstory may be a mystery, or solve a mystery.

Backstory can also kill a first chapter.

The purpose of a first chapter is to hook a reader into a story that is happening now. There are countless ways to do this, but one sure way to kill the hook is to interrupt the action with constant and/or long paragraphs of what happened before now. Too much backstory in the first chapter impedes the developing tension. Spending huge chunks of time on past events makes the events of now seem less important. Going off on long tangents about the setting feels like a history lesson. Explaining in minute detail a character’s life since potty training robs the reader of figuring out some of that for themselves.

In short, too much backstory makes a first chapter boring.

But backstory is important to the story, and some of it vital. So how do you tell what’s vital and what’s not? Where do you put it? How much is too much? How do you tell if backstory is flooding out the other necessary parts of your chapter?

Here’s help. Grab a copy of a first chapter and a set of highlighters, and color out each chapter as follows:

Action in BLUE
Dialogue in GREEN
Description in YELLOW
Backstory in PINK

Sounds simple, right? Maybe not. Action is not just car chases and discovering dead bodies. It’s anything the characters do that drive the plot. Dialogue and description seem self-explanatory, but what if the dialogue is screaming at someone to jump, run, duck, look out! Is that action or dialogue? And description—it’s easy if you are showing what a person looks like or what color car they drive, but is a blow-by-blow of a criminal as he sneaks away description, or action?

No one said writing wasn’t complicated. The second, hidden, value of this exercise is that it makes you examine what you are writing and consider what makes action action, and so on.

What is the easiest part of the exercise? Identifying the backstory. It’s all that stuff that’s not happening now. In this exercise, it’s the simplest to define, and the hardest to discard.

No one said writing isn’t full of irony, either.

Once the pages are colored, examine the balance. It’s an illuminating moment to see a story broken down into elemental colors. It can be a disturbing one if the vision is washed in any one hue. For a crime novels, the more blue the better. A steady sprinkling of green is excellent, too. Some passages, even longish ones, of yellow are acceptable.

If you find yourself looking at a bit of pink, don’t panic. Like the other colors, pink is necessary. Pages of pink? Still don’t panic—-do this instead. At each section of pink, ask these questions:

Does this section bring the action of the story to a halt?

If so, is this information vital to the story as a whole?

If yes, can this chapter work if this information is saved for later?

If the backstory is killing the action, but is nevertheless important for the plot to make sense, it belongs in the story. The next question is, does it belong in the first chapter?

To decide this, remove the pink section and read the chapter without it. If the action makes sense, even without the extra layer of pink info, it can be moved until later. Question the placement of each pink section until the color scheme is, in your mind, properly balanced.

While this process is designed for an opening, it works just as well in subsequent chapters. Any time the action feels bogged down, print out the chapter and break out the highlighters. Or, run to the office supply store and buy a new set.

For the greenie authors, or those not plagued with ongoing desire for new office stuff, this can be done onscreen as well. Simply use background colors as highlighters. It's the same premise, same effect.

Go on, give it a try.


Joanne said...

I have been identifying elements by color for a while now and it is really helpful. I'm very visual so for me the colors are fun. I just started highlighting on screen and I like this even better because as I revise I can remove the highlighting, then after I've finished a revision, I can re-highlight and see the new results -- this can be fun, funny and somethimes frustrating -- but there's no doubt this a great revision tool!

E. B. Davis said...

It's a great tool, but now you're responsible for my ms looking like a rainbow. Trying to define by category is hard. What if the diologue is covering back story? The characters are discussing history, but in the here and now, which pertains to the story. I fear back story inclusion, but know some must be allowed.

Ramona said...

Joanne, I remember sitting in Panera's and coloring our MS. Wasn't that fun?

Ramona said...

E.B., a rainbow is good. That's the look to strive for--I wish I'd included that in my post.

You're not alone in struggling to define what's what. It's always more interesting to the reader to learn information through dialogue, but it's still backstory.

The primary questions remain: Is it unnecessary in the first chapter? Is it stopping the action? If so, start moving.

Weldon Burge said...

Ramona, do you think it is better to blow through a novel before pulling out the highlighters? Some writers tend to spin their wheels editing, and re-editing, and re-re-editing the first chapter, thus losing momentum on the whole project. I suspect this method is best used AFTER you've finished a first draft, when you're entering the editing phase.

Ramona said...

Weldon, I can't say that there is any one best way for this exercise. Some writers like to polish each chapter, as best they can, before moving on to the next one.

As you point out, it can be very easy to get mired in a first chapter, trying to make it perfect. I suspect that may have more to do with not being certain about how to write the rest of the story rather than getting the first chapter just right. A writer needs to be able to recognize the difference between editing and stalling.

Annette said...

As a reader, not a writer, I totally agree that too much history or backstory in the first chapter is a turn-off.
TMI in the beginning of a books tend to make the rest of the book boring. I like to get to know characters as the story unfolds. Like, when this mysterious man comes to town and oops, he just happens to be a major character's long lost love.

Pamela DuMond, D.C. said...

This is a great idea, Ramona. Especially if you're a 'visual style' person. Thanks! I'll print my first two chapters and have a go. xo,