Today I want to talk about my current editorial fixation: Background. I had lunch yesterday with one of the top thriller/mystery editors in the biz, and at one point we compared notes on what works in his market and what I found worked in YA. In both genres, the answer was pretty simple: Plot rules, background fails.
Over dessert (I know, we were naughty), we both lamented the submission we see and reject over and over: the one that opens with a big, slam-bang action scene followed by about 50 pages of background before anything equally exciting happens again. Generally, that background takes three overlapping forms: backstory about the characters, description of the setting, and sharing of research. And usually, you can tell from the tone that the writer feels this background is very, very important to your understanding of the opening scene.
But really, 50 pages? There’s a reason why it’s called a thriller—it’s supposed to thrill you with an exciting plot. Why do we need to know a character’s personal history if that character isn’t really doing anything? Why paint a beautiful atmospheric picture of the Florida everglades if nothing actually happens there? Why describe in detail how a jet fighter works if it doesn’t get off the ground? Where’s the thrill in that?
Some say you start with a bang then slow the tempo so you have room to build—I say, why not keep up the tempo and build higher? After that big opening murder, I’d much rather watch the killer run and the detective chase than learn about the killer’s sad childhood and how the detective’s wife left him. In other words, let me know the characters by being shown (hint, hint) what they do than being told (get it yet?) who they are.
Here’s a little exercise I learned at a writer’s conference: take a look at your first 50 pages and cut any and all background material you find there. Then, either connect what’s left to the rest of the plot, or fill out the story with action scenes. I have a sneaking suspicion that not only will your manuscript be more gripping and fast-paced—thrilling, even—but that when you go back to fill in the background, you’ll find you it barely even miss it.