Pause. I couldn’t watch another minute of the movie.
It was a 10-hour flight, though, so I had to find something else to do …
I was on my way home from two weeks in Japan, and my writer instincts must have sensed I’d be back to work soon.
Because I had this idea next, related to a classic writing tip:
Go back to the movie you were watching and see if you paused it at 20-minutes in.
The 20-minutes-in theory
Since I’m not the first, and I won’t be the last, fickle airplane movie watcher, I returned to In Search of Fellini and had two options on my screen:
- Resume Playing
- Start from the Beginning
I tapped “Resume Playing” and to my delight, I had paused the movie at 20 minutes and 33 seconds.
And it wasn’t because the plot was getting boring at this point — it was actually getting interesting — but the prior 20 minutes of backstory was boring.
The first scene should have been the one the writer chose to insert at 20 minutes into the story.
All talk, no action
I watched 20 minutes of backstory about Lucy and Claire — and I didn’t care about them at all.
I wanted to care about them. That’s why I turned on the movie in the first place.
And I would have had a greater chance of caring about them if the film began with Lucy returning to the busy city curb to find her vehicle towed.
Then, at a loss for what to do, she gets lured into a Fellini film festival by a scantily clad, black-bearded man.
For the writer’s characters to hold my attention, I needed to see action immediately. By the time the action started in the movie, the only action I wanted to take was … turn it off.
Precise placement of backstory is a skill
Once I was engaged in Lucy’s bizarre journey, I would have been way more curious to find out:
- She’s 20, but acts 13.
- She’s sheltered and naive.
- She’s attached to her mother, Claire, who was recently diagnosed with a terminal illness.
All those details make the story richer, but they have to be inserted with care and precision.
Too early on isn’t terrible — it makes good sense to “start at the beginning,” but gripping creations often transcend “good sense.”
Writing practice doesn’t only help you with fundamentals; it helps you uncover your style and the elements that make your writing satisfying.
Try this article introduction challenge
I loved how this experience reminded me of the importance of action in our writing.
Backstory in your introduction is often unavoidable in your first draft and it can help shape the structure of your writing.
But if you want your content to be intriguing and keep readers closely following along, give them action first and strategically weave in your background information as needed.
Oftentimes, you’ll find it simply weakens your writing and you don’t need it to complete your content.
So here’s today’s challenge: Before you publish your next article, pinpoint the “action” you offer in the first five paragraphs.
Compare those first several paragraphs to the rest of your text, and rearrange and/or rewrite your introduction until it contains the parts of your content that engage, rather than just explain.
Don’t save your best part for “20 minutes into your article.”
What “action” do they need to see now that will allow them to care into the future?