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Friday, April 26

The Problem With "Revealing" Information That's Already in the Cover Copy

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Opening scenes already have so much pressure put on them, but there's something I've been seeing a lot of lately.

An opening scene that "reveals" information stated in the cover copy as if it's a big secret.

For example, let's say your novel is about a town that's been hit by toxic nerve gas that's killed everyone under the age of twenty. Now the characters have to deal with this problem and the repercussions of it. Your cover copy might say something like...
When a tragic accident poisons a small town a kills everyone under the age of twenty, local doctor Jessica Halloway must find the cause before more fall ill and die. But as she searches for the cure, she uncovers a far more deadly source.
Every single person who reads this cover copy is going to know before they open the book what the problem is. Let's say the books starts with a scene where something crashes nearby, or a plane flies overhead and sprays stuff on the town. Characters notice it, worry about it perhaps, but it's no big deal overall. They go about their day and small clues start popping up, like kids being tired or acting odd. Then the next day, Mom is trying to wake the kids, and then starts freaking out, then her shock and grief at discovering dead kids, and it goes on to show doctors bewildered and other people having the same issue and chaos all over crying out what happened to our children?

Tragic, yes. Sad, sure. Dramatic, totally. Will the reader be sucked in? Odds are not so much.

No new information is being revealed, so there's nothing for readers to discover except who the characters are. They know the reason and are waiting for the actual story to start. The longer it takes to get there, the more impatient they'll be.

(More on first chapter false starts)

Now, I'm not saying skip the discovery part. That can be half the fun in a story like this, but if a piece of information is in the cover copy, trying to surprise readers with it isn't going to work. Dragging out false suspense won't be suspenseful at all, if the sole purpose is to reveal what readers already know.

There's a fine line between showing a situation and trying to use known information to create suspense. If you're unsure if your opening scene does this, ask yourself:
  • Does the scene end with the "shocking revelation" of the information stated in the cover copy?
  • Is the mystery of the scene all about discovering that information?
  • Is that revelation the only thing driving the scene?
  • Is the information hidden until the end and you have to do some fancy word gymnastics just to keep readers from knowing it?
If you answered yes to any of these, odds are your opening scene isn't doing enough to hook the reader. If you answered yes to more than one, that's a big red flag there's a problem.

(More on keeping readers hooked through story revelations)

All is not lost, however. To fix this, just add in a separate goal and stakes. Suggestions include:
  • What problem can your protagonist face before the information is revealed?
  • Is there a problem that might be viewed differently if readers know the information? (play with the dramatic irony)
  • Can you just cut that opening scene?
  • Can you shorten it significantly?
  • What other problems can be going on that this information makes harder or causes additional conflict?
Try looking at your story and finding other goals and motivations that aren't all about that revelation of information. Make that opening scene do more than just setup what readers already know.

ETA: This article led to a discussion about how e-books (and the lack of cover copy) affect this, so here's another look on the opposite side of this idea.  With the growing popularity of e-books, do writers need to work harder to show what the book is about in that opening scene or first chapter?