Once upon a time, I was watching "Party of Five." You know, Neve Campbell, that guy, and that other guy. Five kids try to hold it together after their parents died. The older brother has to go to work and sacrifices his dreams; there's lots of angst, everybody "hurting," etc.
But I digress.
In one episode, Neve Campbell's character was taking a college creative writing class. She wrote a very fine piece. I have to admit it sounded good. The professor had a blunt reaction, though. He said, "you ended the story where it should have begun." She was devastated and planned to drop the class.
I think I've come to understand what he meant.
This particular phenomenon lives in the old "show, don't tell" neighborhood, and in the spirit of showing, I'm going to demonstrate. For the first piece, imagine hearing the words of the narrator in a movie like "Stand by Me" or a TV show like "The Wonder Years." It might go something like this:
My mother always brought my lunch to class. Every single day. The other mothers packed lunches and were happy to send them crumpled in hands, dropped on buses, and shoved into corner of lockers. But not my mother. She kept mine in the refrigerator until ten minutes before noon. Then, she came. Right into the classroom to hand it me.
It made me ever so popular. I never forgave her for that.
As a writer, this paragraph was pretty comfortable to write. I explored the character, set the tone of the story, and gave you essential back story. Unfortunately, I've also failed. Why? Because I just gave you the Cliff's Notes version of my story.
Hidden in all that exposition, there's gobs of action. But I didn't deliver any of it. I've hoarded it all to myself.
Perhaps this would be better:
Mrs. Rose slashed the chalk on the blackboard.
Squeak. Squeak. Squeak.
I misspelled the word "misspelled" again. Oh man, she hated that.
Her face flushed. "Billy! m-i-s...S! I've been quizzing you people on this word for two months! Do you think you can finally fit that somewhere in your brain?"
"Yes, Mrs. Rose."
"Yes, Mrs. Rose."
I glanced at the clock for the fourth time. The second hand kept sweeping. That's why I mispelled it.
I mean misspelled!
It was coming any moment. I sank down and begged my ears not to get red. She knocked when my eyes were closed.
"Mrs. Rose? Mrs. Rose?"
The teacher didn't even answer anymore. She just waved from her desk.
Is Billy here? I have his lunch for him."
Someone snickered, and a spitball smacked me in the hair.
Is the experience of reading that more engaging? The trick is to carefully weave in the back story while letting the readers live experience. By manipulating mood, description choices, character interaction, and dialog, the readers can piece together everything they need. A story created in the readers' minds will always be far more vivid that one we can package for them.
So what was Neve's problem in a "Party of Five?" Her piece was the back story, the narration. Almost like the notes a writer makes before diving beginning a story. When she was done, and we were ready to dive into the action, there was nothing more.
Let your characters live and breathe right away. By living with them a while, we'll get to know them. Just give them an exciting world to walk around in, and it will all come together.