STEPHEN GALLAGHER

Screenwriter and novelist

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Beginnings

"Everything must have a beginning," wrote Mary Shelley in her introduction to Frankenstein, "and that beginning must be linked to something that went before." William Goldman put it another way: "Get in as late as you can."

Somewhere in between the two there came along a writers' rule-of-thumb which says, "throw away the first scene or chapter". This is really just a variation on the idea of getting in late, jumping straight into the moving flow of the characters' lives, of giving the sense that the story we're looking at is part of a lifelike continuum.

It isn't a continuum from the writer's point of view, of course; for us a story starts from nothing, and one of the challenges of the craft is to conceal that fact. We need to give the reader or the audience a sense of instant ease and familiarity that we ourselves don't have. We get it later, after we've been working on the story for a while; but all too often, those early pages can show up our own learning process with slow pacing and a heavy flow of background information that nobody really needs yet.

Cutting it back can be hard. We remember the sweat we put into it. And even if it's a bit dull, we think to ourselves, this is information that the reader can't do without. Unfortunately, readers are notoriously undependable when it comes to showing a sense of duty. They're not going to stick with bad stuff on the promise of good stuff later. The history of the town, the biographies of the characters, how they met, how they came to be here…

Can you cut essential-looking information, just like that? The answer is frequently yes. You have to distinguish between what you needed to work up and know in order to create the characters and the story, and what the reader needs to know in order to follow it. Think of it as scaffolding. Once the structure's up, you can take the scaffolding away. Readers happily pick up clues to character while thinking that they're following narrative action; this is what distinguishes dramatising from informing. Show them an argument, and they'll come away with very clear ideas about the two participants and what they haven't been told about a person, they'll imagine as part of a consistent picture just as they'll imagine a landscape continuing beyond the sides of a window.

There's an old pulp technique called Hook and Backfill. Pulp magazine editors used to read so much material that they'd make snap decisions based on how the first page grabbed them, knowing that readers were equally impatient and would make the same kind of judgement. The way that manuscripts were laid out meant that after you'd put your address, the word count, the title and your name, you had less than half a page to play with. So pulp writers would make a point of starting on an attention-getting incident (the "hook") and then supply the details leading up to it (the "backfill") in a quieter moment afterwards. It was done for commercial sense, but it can be sound narrative practice.

Simplicity and economy of means are the fundamentals of success in any art. One of the best openings I've ever read was that to James M Cain's The Postman Always Rings Twice; in less than two pages of first-person narrative he sets up locale, atmosphere, the essential relationships of the three main characters and the explosive potential of their situation. All in a simple string of recounted incidents from over a couple of hours, nothing that you could point to and call hard information at all.

First published as part of the Craft Notes column in the newsletter of The Writers' Guild of Great Britain.