I've been writing pretty well full time now for about four years and I've been fortunate enough to have three novels published with another to be released very soon. In that time I've read, heard, listened to an awful lot of advice about how to write, the 'ten things which will make your manuscript unreadable' and other such words of wisdom. I'm not for a moment suggesting that new writers shouldn't learn their craft. Far from it. I've done several writing courses and attended a number of workshops – the last one just the other day. You can't break or even bend the rules if you don't know what they are. And let's face it, most of the 'ten things you should never do' are common sense, like making sure your spelling and grammar are correct.
I have a larger concern, though, about the kinds of rules which tell us how a book must be structured, 'rules' about backstory and how one should edit out anything that doesn't contribute to the story.
The Rules of Writing state that thou shalt start your story where everything changes. Hmmm. Sounds simple, does it not? Let's consider one of the best known books in the fantasy genre, J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘The Lord of the Rings’. For me, this was a ‘can’t put down’ and I really, really mean that. My first time through this novel consumed every bit of free time I had. I read obsessively. And after I’d read it the first time, I read it again. And again, many times.
Okay, let’s assume, like me, you don’t like prologues and therefore ignored the long, involved introductory section which explains what Hobbits are and their history. (That prologue thing is another 'rule', isn't it?) No, we’ll dive right into the story. Remember, accepted wisdom is that one starts the story ‘where everything changes’. Fine. We start at the eleventy-first birthday party. And yes, everything does change. Bilbo disappears and we move into… back story. Frodo takes over and we read quite a bit about this and that until Gandalf turns up and describes the history of the One Ring. Then Frodo leaves the Shire. Do you see the problem? We have, in effect, three instances where everything changes; the birthday party, Gandalf’s return and Frodo leaving the shire. I could make a pretty solid case for starting the book with number three.
You want a more recent example? Let’s look at the first Harry Potter book. It starts, I’m sure you know, when Voldemort has been defeated and Harry is delivered to his aunt’s front door. The point where Everything Changed. But then we watch Harry’s excruciating childhood until we finally learn he is a wizard. Now I could probably, if I were so inclined, come up with an argument that the story REALLY starts when Harry gets that letter, that the rest is back story which could be revealed through the rest of the book. But the kids who read ‘Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone’ didn’t know that. So they read it anyway.
For me the role of chapter one is pretty simple; suck the reader in, get them interested in your world, in your characters, so they’ll keep reading. And if you happen to tell them some back story along the way, there’s a good chance the reader won’t even have noticed.
Which brings me to another Rule of Writing; thou shalt edit out everything which does not ‘belong’ to the story. Sounds sensible, doesn’t it?
Back to Professor Tolkien.
Hearts thumping, we have accompanied Frodo and his companions as they evaded the Nine and escaped across the Brandywine. And then we enter a billabong, a back water, a swamp.
Neither Peter Jackson in his much-acclaimed movie version of LOTR, nor his predecessor who created a truly horrible animation of the first half of the book, included any of Frodo’s escape into the Old Forest, the encounter with Old Man Willow, Tom Bombadil or the drama in the Barrow Downs. One might ask why Tolkien’s editor did not excise whole chapters which (let’s face it) were irrelevant in the unfolding of events. Yet I loved those chapters and was disappointed when they were left out. And what about Aragorn’s references to events in the distant (irrelevant) past? Let’s remember, too, that Jackson makes a point of starting the movie with two slabs of back story; first, the history of the ring which in the book is simply a narrative told by Gandalf, then he proceeds with the prologue, for pity’s sake, that loooong chapter where Tolkien describes Hobbits and their history. Why? Because then the people watching the movie know what he’s on about.
I wonder, too, what writers of thrillers make of this rule. Elements are deliberately introduced to wrong-foot readers, to keep them guessing. Of necessity they are not part of the story. Look at Dan Brown's 'The da Vinci Code'. He could have left out Cardinal Aringarosa and Opus Dei altogether. But the story would have a lost a bit, I think.
So, aspiring writers, take advice with a grain of salt. It's your story and your job to grab the interest of your readers and not let go. If that involves you in breaking some 'rules', so be it.
Greta van der Rol loves writing action packed science fiction with a large dollop of good old, healthy romance – although her first published book, “To Die a Dry Death” is historical fiction. She lives not far from the coast in Queensland, Australia and enjoys photography and cooking when she isn't bent over the computer. She has a degree in history and a background in building information systems, both of which go a long way toward helping her in her writing endeavours.
Her latest book, the second of her “Iron Admiral” series - “The Iron Admiral: Deception” - will be released in October. Come and say 'hi' on her Face Book page or connect on Twitter.