You’ve started your book, writing like a maniac, words flowing from your fingertips. Maybe you’re half-way through, or maybe finished with the first draft.
Whether you’re focused on fiction, in whichever genre, category, or sub-category, or penning a narrative nonfiction book of any sort, much of the story structure is the same.
But what I see often goes something like this:
“Catherine was born in 1865 to Fred and Wilma Bates. She had 5 sisters and 2 brothers, 2 of whom died in childhood. In 1868, the family built a house on Cemetery Hill and 2 more sisters were born there.”
“Jennifer is five foot ten and weighs 156 pounds. She has brown hair and blue eyes, and likes to wear sneakers when she walks to work.”
“My mother and father married in 1922, and Dad worked as a mechanic in upstate NY as us kids were growing up. We played in the yard until sundown, and then Mama fixed us food from our garden.”
Often, this sort of historical background goes on for pages and pages, through subsequent generations, and we’re 50 pages in before any sort of story actually starts.
When I say often, I mean literally all the time.
Now, as you’re writing your book, you have reams of information on your characters and plot, right?
Perhaps you’ve researched the time period. Maybe these are your very ancestors, and you’ve listened to the stories passed down orally for generations.
Or maybe they all came strictly from your head.
Any of the above (and more) honestly doesn’t matter to story creation. Whether you’re writing historicals or modern-day romance, how you get a manuscript going proves much the same.
And you do need to ferret out all of these details (and many, many more).
But these are for you, as the author, to know. Your reader might not and probably doesn’t need every bit of this.
Or any at all.
Because these are examples of author’s notes, not created parts of the novel or memoir or other narrative nonfiction work.
Every point about a person that’s included in this book, still gets incorporated only if in service to the characters or the story (and hopefully, both).
And even then, not all at once. And certainly not as soon as the character comes on stage.
Avoid, at all costs, giving a laundry list of character traits and background up front.
These are author’s notes, and otherwise described as info dumps. And they make for about as riveting a read as a social-studies text.
Which isn’t your goal, right?
Remember: No matter what you’re writing, we want to begin with story. With the main story question woven in up front.
That is the question that the main character will ultimately have to answer, and it threads through the entire narrative.
So yes, while you (the author) have to know every dot of minutia on every character (especially the main ones), that is for you, and you only. You’re reader needs to know the truly important aspects, and how they affect the story the protagonist journeys through in this book.
Then, be sure and weave in what matters as we go—as you would meet a real person.
For example, new neighbors just moved in next door. You’ve had a lovely chat with the wife, and found her sense of humor delightful. You also suspect that a darker secret resides under the mirth, but can’t quite put your finger on it.
Six months or a year may pass before you’re close enough to her to find out her husband beats her in the night . . . And all through that time, as the story chugs along, little clues continue to come out.
The same holds true for stories of all sorts.
Especially the most revelatory of traits and secrets prove far more impactful if they filter out in bits and pieces, the most important facts coming deep into the story, as those play into the plot.
In our first example, the author has the data of Catherine’s birth and into what sort of family she was born. Maybe this holds a key to part of the story. Maybe the 2 sisters born after the move were sired by the local blacksmith. Now that is worthy of inclusion! But still not to open the story.
In the second example, that you know Jennifer’s height and weight is great. And something that needs to be worked in, but in this case, through action:
“Jennifer’s sneakers squeaked on the sidewalk as her tall, willowy frame turned men’s heads when she passed.” And then expose the hair and eye color down the line, in similar manner (but never with the mirror ruse).
The best rule of thumb: Get the story going first.
Get something happening, something moving. Open the book with a scene of importance, which knocks our protagonist off her feet (from “normal” life to the call to action), upsets her equilibrium, and presents her with the main story question—which readers will then worry about for the rest of the book. That’s what keeps them engaged.
Yep, this is a balancing act. So much of what you know about the characters, you do want to convey. Just weigh each point. And then create the character points as the people act and react through the scenes.
Then you’ll have author’s notes filling your book no more!