Getting to grips with the Story Bootstrapping Problem

How do you establish characters while making them interesting and keep the audience along for the ride while you do that? It is time to get to grip with this problem.

As writers, we need to establish our characters, set them in a world. We need to outline the goal the characters are working towards while foreshadowing the obstacles between the character and their goal. We need the reader to care long enough to do all that and the reader will not care unless we do all that. This is the bootstrapping problem.

Every story ever written has to wrestle with the Story Bootstrapping Problem.

Thus anonymous reader asks

When your backstory is as important as your story how do you tell both without tacking on a bajillion word introduction?

As hard questions go… Oh, boy. Here we go.

The Story Bootstrapping Problem

I was hoping no one would ask this because this is exactly the topic that I have been struggling with myself.

Every story has a bootstrapping problem. Readers need us to get on with the story and be interesting which requires that we have character, place, and motive established but to do that we need to get on and be interesting.

Writers Stack Exchange has a question about “A long backstory right at the beginning” which at least addresses the Story Bootstrapping Problem. I read that question several times before I tried to answer but, ultimately, I needed to do a lot more reading.

In Fixing Chapter One Patricia C. Wrede tackles the Story Bootstrapping Problem. Incidentally, Patricia’s blog is a great example of an authorial platform, but I digress.

Chapter One and the Story Bootstrapping Problem

In a short story you have maybe a paragraph or two to get to grips with the Story Bootstrapping Problem but in a novel, this is the task of Chapter One. The Story Bootstrapping Problem is what chapter one is for. For this very reason, it is sometimes recommended that you write the first chapter last. It is good advice at least for some of us some of the time.

When it comes to how you start your story, writersdigest.com has some pointers on that, and guess what? You still have to start with Chapter One.

Patricia C. Wrede tells us:

It is the job of the first chapter to get your readers to care about the main character, or at the very least, to be interested enough in the character to keep reading.

Chapter One is the linchpin of the entire story. Chapter one supports everything else as a foundation. Chapter one is, by far, your hardest working chapter. It is no surprise that it is also the hardest work.

Look at all the things the first chapter must do:

  • Make a promise
  • Orient the reader
  • Establish character
  • Set up the plot
  • Show the world
  • Make us care
  • Keep us reading

Solving the Story Bootstrapping Problem with a promise

Chapter One needs to promise the reader that it is worth them continuing. The promise is the cheque that the first chapter writes and the rest of the novel has to cash.

A really good promise is whatever it takes to make the reader excited to keep reading. If you make your promise well, you don’t need to establish backstory, character, or pretty much anything else that does not fit in Chapter One.

Conceptually, the promise solution to the Story Bootstrapping Problem is similar to Linguistic Bootstrapping only on the scale of a single novel. You need to give the reader the tools to infer, deduce, or discover backstory right before they need it.

The promise might be a striking statement, an intriguing idea, a dastardly deed – almost anything can be your promise (depending on genre). How well the promise solution works is entirely down to your skill as a writer. Sorry, there are no easy answers here today.

Aristotle’s Poetics says that we need to stage our story from Pity to Fear and, finally, Catharsis. So we need to show a character unjustly suffer in some way. In otherwords, Aristotle suggess that we use Chapter one to make the reader pitty the main character.

Think how Harry Potter starts. Pitty the abandoned boy, we most certainly do.

Orient the reader and make them want to stay

I’ve never read any Steinbeck but I have it on good authority that his introductions were almost all description that went on for pages and pages. These descriptions were so good, so rich that, as the reader, you want to go and live there – right now.

If you can orient your readers to the point that they get lost in your world, then they will stay long enough for you to introduce them to characters and plot as you wish. This orientation might be harder than the pity route but should (at least in theory) work just as well.

Strong orientation is, potentially, a great solution to the Story Bootstrapping Problem. Again, this is down to your skill as a writer. That level of captivating detail is probably not something I could attempt right now.

Solve the Bootstrapping Problem by establishing character

Another route into the bootstrapping problem is to establish a strong sense of character. Someone that the reader feels deeply attached to. That is, I think, why sequels work so much better than episode one stories. If we have been following a series we already know the characters.

Aristotle’s suggestion could also be taken to mean that we should hook a reader (or listener, or playgoer) by opening a story with a reason to pity the character. By this, we could say that you must have a reason to feel empathy for the character’s plight.

To make this work, the reader needs to be able to think “that could be me”. Even if they do not consciously think it.

You might try to make your hero an everyman or put them in a common situation that goes uncommonly wrong.

It can help to show that your character is charismatic. Some might say that this was vital. This works in much the same way that we make friends. We meet someone and like them even before we know much about them. For our story, we need enough like to let the relationship between the reader and the character bloom. To do that the reader needs to care about the character early on.

Whatever else you do, you are almost certainly going to need to put your main character on the stage in Chapter One. It will help your story no end if the readers are interested in what happens to them.

Bootstrapping with a character readers care about gives you time to get the plot going. Of course, how well this works depends on you as a writer. There are no shortcuts here.

Bootstrapping vs Plot

In a plot-heavy story, sometimes you simply need to lay the bare facts before the reader.

The danger of going in plot-first is that if you do this wrong you may commit the crime of info dumping on your poor reader. No one wants that. Info-dumps are a storytelling fail.

Getting the facts in early can work well as part of the “start at the height of the action” framing device. Let your plot be like a locomotive charging along and taking the reader with it.

Remember though, framing devices are just devices and they will not hook your reader alone. Only your skill as a writer can do that.

How do you solve the Story Bootstrapping Problem

I am currently figuring out how to bring a lot of emotional baggage into a story from before the story started and have the reader care about it as much as the characters. I am not sure I have figured that out yet. If you have a good answer, pick up some easy reputation points on Writers’ Stack Exchange with your insights.

  • How do you solve the Story Bootstrapping Problem?
  • What approaches have you applied and how did you get on?
  • What makes your Chapter One really work?

Share your insights with us in the comments section below.

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One thought on “Getting to grips with the Story Bootstrapping Problem

  1. If you’re deep into “show don’t tell” as a guideline then you can assume your reader is smart and imply quite a lot of backstory in the descriptions. Rather than five paragraphs of talking about the war and being injured and the long recovery then maybe this:

    Smith frowned at the men – boys really – in their smart uniforms. He restrained himself from rubbing at his aching leg where the bullet had torn through.

    Liked by 1 person

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