Thursday, February 4, 2010

The Cool Stuff You Don't Know.

New writers get in trouble sometimes. Heck, they should get in trouble all the time; that way they'll have things to write about when they're old writers. But I digress...

The trouble I'm thinking of today isn't the fun kind. It's the trouble-in-the-writing kind. And this trouble comes right up front. We're talking backstory, folks.

My new book starts with my main character waking up in a hospital. He's English, so that should be "in hospital." He's had a seizure, but I make reference to a previous accident he suffered at some point in the past. The accident becomes something important the reader knows nothing about.

When do I tell the story of the accident? Page 227.

Note that I did not tell the reader the whole story of the accident on page one. Or two. Or five. And in that way it became The Cool Stuff You Don't Know. And this is very important stuff in your book. It obviously functions in every mystery novel, because ordinarily someone is dead right up front, the writer knows who did it, and they do nothing but not tell you for three hundred pages. Very cool!

For some reason, lots of new writers don't buy this idea (unless they're writing mysteries, one hopes). No, these are the new writers of Everything Else. And when you start reading their novels you get, right up front, their main character's life story.

Don't do this. Here's what you do: make whatever is happening right up front as interesting as you can. Go ahead and mention some interesting mystery (the dead person or The Accident), but don't rush to fill us in. Keep us in the immediate scene of the story. Just show us what's happening, make us interested, and we'll get to page 227.

Want to read a writer who is terrific at writing The Cool Stuff You Don't Know? Tana French. She starts one big mystery in her excellent first novel, In the Woods, and you still don't know the answer to it at the end of her second book, The Likeness. And it works! I'm not suggesting this technique will work for most of us, nor am I saying that I'm not hoping that the meta-mystery will be solved in her third novel, but keeping some secrets works very, very well.

So don't tell us everything up front. Think of your reader as a blind date. Your blind date doesn't want to know all the gory details that first night. And you don't want the reader going off to the rest room and never coming back.

1 comment:

Rebecca said...

I'm excited that you mentioned Tana French. She may be my favorite newly discovered (by me) author of 2009.

PS: Nice post - very applicable.