You’ve heard it before. “Start your story as late as possible.” It’s good advice. Get your reader right into the action. Paragraph one on page one, WHAM. They’re neck deep in narrative. In medias res, even. Get them asking questions, and promise answers right around the corner to keep things moving. All good stuff.
Unfortunately, you can’t drop into the story yourself, as a writer, out of nowhere. It’s extremely rare for an idea to spring fully formed from your cranium and immediately make itself coherent on the page. Characters need motivation. Settings need history. Present events should be informed by previous ones. You need to do some planning. Puppets, after all, don’t just drop onto the stage and start cavorting about. They need strings, and you need to make sure those strings are taut and untangled.
The audience, on the other hand, never needs to see the strings.
Take a character from a work. That character came from somewhere. They had parents, or creators, or something along those lines. Maybe they’re an experiment that started before the story begins. Maybe they’ve been kicked out of an organization or Heaven or the local book club. They might have loved and lost, or maybe a candle still burns for someone. This is all stuff to figure out beforehand.
Once you do, though, it’s not necessary to show it to the audience. The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit would not exist without the history and stories set down by Tolkien in The Silmarillion, but those notes might not necessarily make for good reading. Die hard fans will definitely get a kick out of that sort of thing, but at first blush, it’s cluttering up the narrative and over-complicating the characters. Hook the reader with clear, concise action and dialog first before you delve into the background stories, if you do at all.
Character bibles are good tools to use here. Get the stuff out of your head and into a format you can reference, but that doesn’t seep into the finished work. When it comes to trimming fat, trim things discussed in your notes that don’t necessarily need to be brought up in the story. Simplify, simplify, simplify.
I think I’m starting to ramble rather than dispense good advice at this point, so let me hear from you. How do you keep your strings cared for but concealed from the audience? What works for you? What doesn’t? What are some other examples of this sort of thing?