From Rick:

Consider the following story opening:

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TWO DAYS AGO:

Tonight he’d do it. Severin had watched the place every night for the past week.

His long, dark hair gelled back, his face black-smudged, and wearing black slacks and a black turtleneck to blend into the pleasant June night, he leaned on a railing that ran along the Spree River in Berlin. The water below rippled along, reflecting the moonlight and streetlights. He tilted his head back and looked up at bright quarter moon. He would have preferred a cloudy night to better conceal him, but it was late enough and he’d seen no one on the streets.

He been here in Berlin, Germany, for nearly four years now, finding it a good base and central location for his goal of retrieving as many Mosaic pieces from the hands of those who had acquired them over the many years since the Mosaic had been found in Egypt by Pharaoh Narmer in 3128 B.C. and slowly fragmented. Even if he found all the pieces, he had no idea how to reassemble the Mosaic—or even if it was possible to do so.

Finding the pieces all over the world was sometimes a challenge all by itself, but then he had to figure out how to procure them. Occasionally outright theft was the simplest way when the owner didn’t bother to keep his piece in a safe place. Sometimes the owner didn’t even know what he had, having inherited a piece or pieces and therefore didn’t bother to keep them in a secure place.

But with all the centuries that had passed, there were so many Mosaic fragments scattered around. What was left of the original, about half, was safely stored where only a handful of people like himself knew where it was, and he helped ensure it stayed that way.

Some of the pieces had fallen into the hands of individuals who should never have possessed them and in whose hands such pieces could be dangerous. The one he was after tonight, a large piece measuring sixteen by eighteen inches. He’d learned its size by arranging for his young assistant, Jonas Berg, here in Berlin to see it during one of the rare private viewings the collector gave once or twice a year to show off his prized collection of art and artifacts. Severin hadn’t dared go himself lest he be recognized.

He gazed over at his target, one of the three-story apartment buildings that lined the quiet bend of the river in this affluent section of Berlin. Over his shoulders, a strap supported the padded sack that would contain the object of tonight’s foray.

Car headlights coming up on his left caught his attention. A cab worked its way toward him. He subtly turned away and slouched to make his six-foot-three, broad-shouldered frame less conspicuous.

After the cab passed, he pushed off the railing and strode across the street. From his pants pocket he withdrew the duplicated keycard that would grant him access to the building. Getting that card to copy had taken some cunning.

Severin encountered no one inside as he made his way along the richly carpeted hallways. This building belonged to the individual whose treasures he had targeted.

Arriving at the display room’s ornate wooden door inset with a carved medallion, he extracted the lock picks from his pocket. Patience and care. He had plenty of time. This lock’s design would thwart most amateurs, but experts would find little challenge in it. The sadistic owner had done this on purpose. He wanted would-be thieves to make their way inside where unpleasant traps awaited. Only the best would know how to disarm them.

Severin eased the door open only enough to permit him to slip through and stay flat against the wall. Before he shut it, he inserted a self-adhesive label between the latch and strike plate. Opening the door without a special key armed one trap. Closing it would complete the circuit and release a paralytic gas to disable the thief and permit his capture. Since he had not managed to acquire that special key, the self-adhesive label served. Fortunate for Severin, the collector believed his trap sufficient and thus saw no need for security guards and cameras.

Stone pedestals of various sizes and heights, with Plexiglas covers locked over them, dotted the twenty-four-foot-square room and held various art objects—some purchased, most stolen. Strips of white LEDs illuminated the contents and cast an eerie light around the room.

Everything in here oozed money and elegance, from the parquet floors of exotic hardwoods to the draperies layered with white over purple that broke up the windowless walls. The scents of those woods and fabrics hung in the air and attested to the room having been used little since it was remodeled.

In the center he spotted his objective. He’d known of this piece’s location for many months. Planning this job, researching the anti-theft devices, and waiting for the collector to be out of town had finally led to this moment. He’d already spent decades gathering other pieces. What did a few more months matter? Procuring one this size had made the wait worthwhile. Only one other collector had amassed a greater volume of them, but he had not yet figured out how to break into Aleksandra Polivanova’s vault.

This building belonged to her son, a worthy collector of artifacts in his own right. Why Aleksandra had let him keep this large piece of the Mosaic in a less secure setting still puzzled him. In any case, he expected his theft of it would not bode well for their mother-son relationship. He took a deep breath and returned to the matter at hand.

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The problem with this opening is that it sidetracks from the main story and action and distracts the reader with unnecessary information, especially that third paragraph and the three after it. Before you think that this information is necessary, I want to point out that most of it is given later in the novel, where it more appropriately belongs and without the outright telling. In this opening, we see what too many writers do, namely interrupt the main story with backstory far too soon. Especially in an opening, you must grab the reader’s attention and keep the reader interested. Yes, you need some setup and setting, but you shouldn’t do it with an information dump.

I could have extended this even further by telling how Severin copied the keycard. But is that necessary to the story? Was it necessary to talk about why he wanted the piece and about his previous forays into procuring pieces? No. Again, this information comes out later. These are story questions that the reader will get answers to later.

The key question you should always ask yourself is simple: Does the reader need to know this information (or need to know it now)? Or is it merely information in your head that should stay in your head for now? Some writers feel compelled to insert everything that comes to mind. They want the reader to know what they’re thinking rather than what the characters are concerned with. Severin is here to do a job, and that’s all he’s concentrating on. He’s not thinking about his past. That’s the writer’s thoughts—and those aren’t what the reader is interested in.

Maybe you don’t think the above passage is all that bad. Honestly, it’s not horrible, but it’s not great. Below is the original version from the opening of the novel The Mosaic that Chris Keaton and I wrote, before I fluffed it up. See if you don’t think it not only flows better but also keeps the reader in the moment.

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TWO DAYS AGO: Berlin, Germany

Tonight he’d do it. Severin had watched the place every night for the past week.

His long, dark hair gelled back, his face black-smudged, and wearing black slacks and a black turtleneck to blend into the pleasant June night, he leaned on a railing that ran along the Spree River. A bright quarter moon cast a stark light over the area and augmented the infrequent street lamps.

He gazed over at his target, one of the three-story apartment buildings that lined the quiet bend of the river in this affluent section of Berlin. Over his shoulders, a strap supported the padded sack that would contain the object of tonight’s foray.

Car headlights coming up on his left caught his attention. A cab worked its way toward him. He subtly turned away and slouched to make his six-foot-three, broad-shouldered frame less conspicuous.

After the cab passed, he pushed off the railing and strode across the street. From his pants pocket he withdrew the duplicated keycard that would grant him access to the building.

He encountered no one inside as he made his way along the richly carpeted hallways. This building belonged to the individual whose treasures he had targeted.

Arriving at the display room’s ornate wooden door inset with a carved medallion, he extracted the lock picks from his pocket. Patience and care. He had plenty of time. This lock’s design would thwart most amateurs, but experts would find little challenge in it. The sadistic owner had done this on purpose. He wanted would-be thieves to make their way inside where unpleasant traps awaited. Only the best would know how to disarm them.

Severin eased the door open only enough to permit him to slip through and stay flat against the wall. Before he shut it, he inserted a self-adhesive label between the latch and strike plate. Opening the door without a special key armed one trap. Closing it would complete the circuit and release a paralytic gas to disable the thief and permit his capture. Since he had not managed to acquire that special key, the self-adhesive label served. Fortunate for Severin, the collector believed his trap sufficient and thus saw no need for security guards and cameras.

Stone pedestals of various sizes and heights, with Plexiglas covers locked over them, dotted the twenty-four-foot-square room and held various art objects—some purchased, most stolen. Strips of white LEDs illuminated the contents and cast an eerie light around the room.

Everything in here oozed money and elegance, from the parquet floors of exotic hardwoods to the draperies layered with white over purple that broke up the windowless walls. The scents of those woods and fabrics hung in the air and attested to the room having been used little since it was remodeled.

In the center he spotted his objective. He’d known of this piece’s location for many months. Planning this job, researching the anti-theft devices, and waiting for the collector to be out of town had finally led to this moment. He’d already spent decades gathering other pieces. What did a few more months matter? Procuring one this size had made the wait worthwhile. Only one other collector had amassed a greater volume of them, but he had not yet figured out how to break into Aleksandra Polivanova’s vault.

This building belonged to her son, a worthy collector of artifacts in his own right. Why Aleksandra had let him keep this large piece of the Mosaic in a less secure setting still puzzled him. In any case, he expected his theft of it would not bode well for their mother-son relationship. He took a deep breath and returned to the matter at hand.

==========

This passage is tighter because it doesn’t contain unnecessary extra information and detail. This second passage also has a time and place stamp at the opening, which makes it unnecessary to mention “Berlin” in the passage itself, as I did in the first one.

The passage needs to be tight because it’s an action scene and a prelude to what’s coming. This is not the place for wordiness or extra detail. Who Severin is and what he’s done before all come later in the novel. Not telling it all upfront makes the reader more curious to find out. In fact, his theft of the piece isn’t what’s important. What is important is what happens next, but you’ll have to read the novel (or read the sample online at Amazon) to learn what that is.

I’ll state this again: To keep the reader interested, provide only the relevant details for the moment. Keep the story moving forward and don’t sidetrack. I can’t begin to tell you how many stories and novels I’ve read that started off decently then lapsed into backstory and background before the story had really begun. Worse is when that backstory is all a telling information dump about how the character feels and why he or she is in this position. And I’ve seen writers go on for pages before getting back to the current story. By that time, I’ve closed the book and fallen asleep, or if I read the sample online, I didn’t buy the book.

Whenever you’re tempted to write the character’s biography remember these words of wisdom: Everything should evolve from the story and be shown, not told, and certainly not in the first pages of your story before anything significant happens. Doing so will lose you readers, cause your books not to sell, and make magazines decline the stories you submit to them.

–Rick