Friday, June 4, 2010

Weak Fiction (Part 2 of 3)

A few years ago a publisher asked me to endorse the first book in an adventure series. I knew the author slightly and was eager to help. I began to read and before I finished the second chapter I knew I had to decline.

He didn't know a major rule of fiction: RUE (Resist the Urge to Explain) that I gleaned from Browne and King's Self-editing for Fiction Writers. Hide the back story. Never let what happened in the past stop the action in the present.

As I remember the book, four people appear in chapter one. That was fine and four people aren't too many. The author made the caper clear and connected each of the four men with the proposed heist. That was fine. As he introduced each man, however, the writer spent more than a page explaining the person's past and motivation. That was not fine. I was bored and I didn't care.

Read those last three words again: I didn't care. Worse, the action stopped four times. It's like seeing a car speeding toward you and you ponder whether you want to quit your job, leave your marriage, or go back to your meds. While you ponder, the car should have hit you. If two paragraphs go by and someone hasn't taken evasive action, you are dead. And so is the story.

By contrast, The Good Guy by Dean Koontz does an excellent job of omitting all back story. We learn about the three major characters only from what they tell us. Most writers aren't expert enough to do that. So do it this way: sneak in the back story—a sentence or two at a time. Readers will like you for it, even if they don't know what you're doing.

Good novelists resist explaining everything—
especially in the opening chapter.


  1. Thanks for the pointers Cec!


  2. Great advice! This reminds me of a quote I read recently by Ernest Hemingway:

    "If a writer knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one ninth of it being above water."

    (I found this on the Cup of Comfort blog.)


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