I remember reading that at the beginning of World War II a White House employee was tasked with writing a memo. I have misplaced the actual words but it took a lot of verbal detours such as “It is important that in the interest of national security that employees who find themselves in their offices after dark that they take every precaution to see that the windows are secured with dark fabric that will obscure light from the sight of enemy aircraft …” FDR said, “Just tell them to cover the windows at night.”
We writers must find a happy balance between flavoring our stories and boring them with unnecessary details that do nothing to move the story forward. Readers come to us with plenty of baggage of their own. Most of us have had our hearts broken at least once, have been scared or near giddiness with anticipation. We have felt betrayed by a friend or ashamed of something we wish we could take back. We all grew up, learning life as we experienced the good and bad mingled amid the ordinary. Writers call on our own similar experiences to portray what our protagonists go through.
The readers call on their similar feelings to fill in the blanks, too. That way we don’t have to spend two pages to describe the anguish a protagonist feels at betrayal when a few well-chosen sentences will do.
In fiction, we often make our stories better by cutting from the top down. Every character has a back story. Their personalities, environment, past experiences make them react to current situations in their own unique way, and that creates the conflict and growing complications. It is a surface situation (others, self, nature) that may start the action, but it is the person formed by the back story reacting to the current situation that peaks our concerns enough to keep turning the pages.
Our back story may be a 15 year old girl is has been lucky enough to grow up in a two-parent family, middle class, parents working, no severe illnesses, no setbacks, just all plugging along as the average suburban family. Nobody in print gets off that lucky, so let’s let Darcy learn that her father is having an affair. She will of course feel her world shattered around her.
Let’s write a one sentence scenario to keep us focused: Fifteen-year-old Darcy discovers that her father is having an affair with the office secretary and sets about to straighten out the family before it is destroyed. You have a lot of leeway here. Does her back story tell you that she’d tell her mother immediately, tell her father that she knows and threaten to tell her mother, threaten the secretary, or pretend it isn’t happening? It is your job as the writer to create a backstory that will give her the tools to react in the way you want. But after that first action, be prepared to let Darcy take the lead. Your job is done. Every complication and solution from here on is hers to face and solve or give up.
Let’s say that your first draft begins this way:
Darcy stretched across the nubby chenille bedspread with her trig textbook opened. Her foot tapped restlessly as she wrestled with the last problem. Done! She groaned as her mom’s voice floated up from the kitchen. It had that “do me a favor” tone—bad news dipped in honey.
“Sweetie, please take Dad’s suit the cleaners, and tell them to make it a rush. I forgot to leave it off this morning on the way to work. Make sure he didn’t leave his cellphone in the pocket; he’s getting so forgetful these days.”
Darcy snatched Dad’s suit slung at the bottom of the stairs and slammed the door behind her. Dad’s forgetful? How about Mom? Rats. By the time she gets back, it’ll be too late to go to Julia’s. Striding toward her bike in the side yard, she jammed her hand into one pocket after another. She pulled a folded paper from the right back pocket.
It was a sales slip for a negligee size 8. Darcy could feel blood throbbing through her temples. Mom was a 12.
In 174 words we introduced the main character, indicated that it is a two-parent household, a two-story home, and that Dad leaves his personal errands to Mom, who also works. That could be important later on. There’s nothing really wrong with starting with the ordinary day as contrast to what is to come, but we may not always have the word allowance to do that.
We could omit the introduction that shows Darcy doing her homework. We could even omit Mom’s quote. There’ll be plenty of opportunities to let the reader know that it’s a week day, that it isn’t yet summer vacation.
In only 46 words in the next example we know there’s a family of three and that Dad is cheating, a surprise:
Darcy stared at the words on the sales slip from Bon Ton Jolie that she recovered from Dad’s suit pants: black negligee, size 8. She felt the blood throb through her temples. Mom wears a 12. She felt her safe little haven crumble at her feet.
In 46 words in the next we know the above and that Darcy isn’t going to just pretend it isn’t happening:
Darcy clamped her fist, crumpling the sales slip. How could Dad buy a negligee for another woman? Should she tell Mom? Everything she thought she knew vanished in a heartbeat. Her tears blurred her vision, but not her thoughts. She knew what she had to do.
In 25 words we are plunged into Darcy’s world with her already taking matters into her own hands:
Darcy brushed past the startled receptionist and burst into her dad’s office. She tossed the crumpled sales slip onto his desk. “How could you, Dad?”
However we chose to begin our stories if we do a thorough job with the back story of our characters they will almost write the story for us. Our clever readers bring their own experiences to help them empathize, even if the protagonist’s adventure is unfamiliar. The emotions will be. Good luck.