Wednesday, December 4, 2019

Start Writing Your Book in the Right Place

by Sarah Sally Hamer @SarahSallyHamer

What a silly question! It starts at the beginning, right? Or does it? Where exactly IS that beginning?

Believe it or not, most people (especially newbies), start in the wrong place. Do you?

Where is the RIGHT place?
  • It is not back story.
  • It is where the action begins.
  • It is at the most important place.
  • It is all about character. 

Easy enough. Right? We just pick a character and start writing. Okay. So it’s not that simple. Sorry! 

Let’s start with back story. 

Back story is everything that happens before the story begins. But if you don’t know WHERE the story begins, everything is in play. Narrow the focus. What is your story about? What’s the core event? In so many words, our characters aren’t born the day they step onto the first page. They have a “previous life” which can be decades before the story starts, some of which DOES belong in the story. Just not in the beginning. For instance, you don’t need to know a character broke his elbow when he was thirteen, like Jem Finch did, unless it has a direct bearing on the core event of the story – HOW he broke that elbow. (To Kill a Mockingbird starts with a description of Jem’s broken elbow. A lot of back story follows, which I don’t recommend, but Harper Lee does it beautifully.)

Action is imperative. Most readers aren’t interested in a long, drawn-out explanation of everything that happened to the character during their life. In fact, one of my friends says, “Don’t tell me about the labor pains, show me the baby!” He’s exactly right. Start with action, making sure you hook that reader, THEN tell them how the character got there. This is also the most important place to start – where something is happening, not mired in the past.

Character, and how the story relates to that character, gives the reader someone to “attach” to. Even the most lovely description, if it’s not seen through a character’s eyes, can be boring. Back story is the reason a character sees things in a special way – as do we humans. If something horrible has happened, it’s hard to have a happy outlook on life, and it skews our perception. The reader needs to see the end result of the skew, not the genesis of it. At least not at the beginning.

In my blog on Deep Point of View, I describe Belinda, a soon-to-be ex-wife. She’s in the courtroom hallway, waiting on the divorce trial to begin and sees her husband smooching with his new girlfriend. 

Where would her story start? Do we need to see the years of marriage, as they grew farther and farther apart? Do we need to see their wedding or the birth of their children? Probably not. By starting a story in media res (in the middle of the action), we hook our audience with her blowing up at the ex in the hallway. 

Is the back story important? Absolutely!! But where’s the best place to tell it to the audience? Probably not at the very beginning.

So, start with action, not a character thinking about something. SHOW us the character, so we know how they react under stress. Poor Belinda probably thinks she has everything under control until she sees her husband’s new squeeze, tight skirt and all. How would you feel in the same situation? We don’t need a lot of background at this point – we need to see Belinda react. Then, fill in with information (also known as motivation), as you need it. Maybe Belinda’s best friend meets her for lunch and Belinda tells an incident from the past that gives the reader information about why she blew up. 

Bottom line, write the back story. 

It’s good for you as the author to understand your characters’ motivations and back story is where it comes from. But don’t show it to the reader in the first fifty or so pages. Sprinkle it in, one tidbit at a time over a series of scenes, holding the best of it for the scene that makes the most impact on the reader. 

Throw the character into action from the very first, even if it’s just Belinda controlling herself enough to smile and shake hands with the floozy. Make the reader wonder WHY. Why did the marriage break up? Why did the ex find another woman? Why is Belinda so upset? These are all questions you’ll need to answer. 

Just not on the first page.

Where do you start your stories? Why?

Start Writing Your Book in the Right Place - tips from @SarahSallyHamer on @EdieMelson (Click to Tweet)

Sarah (Sally) Hamer is a lover of books, a teacher of writers, and a believer in a good story. Most of all, she is eternally fascinated by people and how they 'tick'. She’s passionate about helping people tell their own stories, whether through fiction or through memoir. Writing in many genres - mystery, science fiction, fantasy, romance, medieval history, non-fiction – she has won awards at both local and national levels, including two Golden Heart finals.

A teacher of memoir, beginning and advanced creative fiction writing, and screenwriting at Louisiana State University in Shreveport for over sixteen years, she also teaches online for Margie Lawson at Sally is a free-lance editor and book coach at Touch Not the Cat Books, with many of her students and clients becoming successful, award-winning authors. 

You can find her at hamerse@bellsouth.netor

I wish to express gratitude to the giants whose shoulders I stand on and who taught me so much about the writing craft. I would list every one, if it were only possible.


  1. I see it so often. I always tell newbies to think about the last large party they went to, where someone they never met before starts telling them their life history. You look for the nearest exit and sidestep your way toward it as quickly as possible! That's what backstory in the beginning of a book does to readers.

  2. I love how stories can be found in any situation. :-)

    1. It is fun, isn't it? :) I think writers are usually great "people-watchers" and find material just from observation.
      And, I also think that we lean heavily on our own experiences. Not that writers have to actually experience a death or divorce to write about it, but we all have our own "brand of grief" where we can understand someone else's.

      Great comment! Thanks!