The first chapter…

Vicky Burkholder offers great advice on how to add characters’ backstories into the first pages without losing steam of the action…

Vicky Burkholder

In reading over several manuscripts, I ask myself, how does this writer introduce information about the characters? How much belongs in the first chapter?

Handling background information is one of the trickiest parts of writing. The general rule is to include only what’s needed up front, then gradually provide additional details. The problem is, how do you know what’s needed?

You want to involve the reader immediately with the story and characters. Anything that slows down that process, unless the information is essential to the scene, should be pared. However, the reader needs to feel grounded. Where are we, in what time period, and roughly how old are the characters (just a hint — don’t have to be specific)? Gender’s important, too, especially if you’re writing in the first person.

Don’t drop information in an awkward lump. It can be subtle. We know it’s present day if a character uses…

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Book or Series? Novel or Short Story?

Depending on how much you invest in your characters, you could write one book or a series of books about them.  Back in the day, I brought every Babysitter’s Club book; each one brought me closer to the girls.  Don’t even get me started on  how excited I was when a movie came out.

There’s been a trend where authors write series based on the same characters.  For example, the Jack Reacher set, the Vampire Diaries set, the Pretty Little Liars set, the Harry Dresden set, so on and so on.

This is something you should think about.  With your story idea and group of characters–do you want one story or do you think you could write more than one?

It doesn’t have to be answered right away, but it’s something to consider as you write.  It’ll help you decide if the ending to your story will give closure to the reader or end in a cliffhanger.  Naturally, it’ll end with closure if you only have one book to tell.  It’d end in a cliffhanger if you want to write a series of books; you’d want to motivate your readers to buy the next novel or short story.

Another thing you should ask yourself is if you want your piece of fiction to be written as a novel or short story.  The decision can come to you when you begin writing the pages.

I’ll give you a tip on how I approach this question:

  • I’m a huge couch potato, so I always think in terms of would my characters fit in a movie or a TV show.  If the plot fits in a movie, I’ll write a short story; everything can be told quickly and straight to the point.
  • If the plot could fit in a TV show, then I write a novel.  There’s a backstory that needs explained, there’s events in the present, but I have to reveal the future or explain the past.  If divided in Parts (like Part One, Part Two, etc.), each part ends in a cliffhanger and has a different story to tell.  Each part is considered how a season would air on a TV show.
  • If this approach interests you, then use it.  If not, you’ll figure out the best way for you to handle it.

Keep smiling,

Yawatta Hosby