Peggy Bechko: Good Writing Starts, Bad Writing Starts


by Peggy Bechko

I think as writers we pretty much get the concept that if we want a reader to continue reading we have to hook ‘em good. And that means we need to interest them, fascinate them, confuse them with questions, whatever it takes, right from the very beginning.
In the ‘olden’ days of writing the writer could get away with setting the stage, of going on at length with backstory and set up. But, as writing is an evolving thing you won’t get away with that now. It won’t work for novels and it especially won’t work for that new-fangled media TV and movies.

One of the biggest mistakes a new writer can make is to underestimate the ability of the reader to grasp what’s going on. No, it’s not necessary for you as the writer to give minute detail on a character’s background (he was 14 when he started smoking, then joined a gang, then ended up in jail, then found redemption, then got out of jail – all to end up where he is now) so the story can proceed.

Instead, it’s imperative to jump right into the ‘action’ of the story (I don’t mean a car chase or a saber duel, I mean what’s pushing the story forward). Then, fill in necessary bits and pieces of backstory as the story moves forward.

Show your reader what the trouble is right away – because good story is based on trouble. Lollipops and roses don’t cut it. People read and watch movies and TV to see other people’s troubles and how they handle it. They want to identify.

And since they DO want to identify – make it real. There’s hardly ever ONE problem in life at a time. In fact, there’re usually multiples; one which is at the core of things, on which your story hinges and moves forward, and then multiple other problems, more surface problems, associated with it.

As an example in the real world: There’s a car wreck. That’s where things center, but the wreck is a secondary problem compared to what brought the driver there, what is at the core? Of course after the wreck there’re more ‘problems’ like police, maybe a hospital visit, insurance, court appearance and the like. All secondary problems. I circle back again to what was the cause? Did the driver (the protagonist) have trouble at home? Has he just murdered someone? Did he pop in from another dimension? There’s an underlying problem somewhere that’s the core of your story and powerful enough to engage the reader or watcher – and it has to be done from page one.

So skip the prologs, skip the head rambles, give up the poetic rambling metaphors and similes – and don’t summarize anything. Engage the reader or watcher, don’t talk at him or her as in ‘let me explain this’. Your protagonist must want something so intensely there’s no diverting him from his course. Your job as writer is to let the audience know what that is and how intensely he wants it.

The way I see it is this: Even though you can’t cram all the detail in the opening scene, you can engage the reader, grab him by his emotions and get the show on the road – without long and rambling backstory.

2 thoughts on “Peggy Bechko: Good Writing Starts, Bad Writing Starts”

  1. ‘GOOD WRITING STARTS — BAD WRITING STARTS’? C’mon, Peggy, you know better than that! You’re a writer. A good writer! And writing has no rules! Telling a story is like swimming with sharks. Yes, you might get eaten, but you might also get a movie made! Then eaten! gs

  2. Yes, Gerald, it’s true, no rules, but there are starting points and folks starting out writing or those who’re giving themselves some reminders sometimes appreciate ‘writers who have written’ helping to set up a few guide posts to launch themselves from.

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