Thursday, April 8, 2010


Due to popular demand . . . okay, only Lady Glamis and SJ Duval wanted to know this, but, still, what the people want . . .

Pitfall #1: Don't put extensive backstory in your first pages. This is part of the article 10 Fiction Pitfalls by Sam McCarver in the May 2010 issue of The Writer.

In his words . . .

Writer's sometimes provide extensive backgrounds on characters and situations before really beginning their stories. But long narratives can be dull openings. Instead of backstory, take the reader directly into your story. Show your main character facing a challenge in a scene with other interesting characters. Agents and editors must be intrigued by the main character, know that person's goal, and like the story's direction early - or they won't stick around. A writer may say, "It's slow at first, but wait until page 10 - that's dynamite". Put the dynamite up front.

A backstory might begin, "Harry Black inherited a law firm from his father and built it into one of the largest in Boston", then discuss family, home, etc. Instead, begin with action:

Harry Black jumped to his feet, shouting, "Objection! Not supported by fact." Judge Powell glared at Black, saying, "This courtroom has good acoustics, Counselor. So don't shout, and sit down." he gave Black a wry smile. "By the way, your objection is overruled."

Now the story has begun. (p. 26)

Okay, we all know, or should, that backstory is a no-no. Don't bore the reader with extensive backstory in the beginning. Start with action, drama, something other than all the minute details of the main character that led up to the action/drama.

As for me, I try to intersperse a bit of backstory throughout the first few chapters. A tidbit here, a tidbit there, everywhere a tidbit, but not a long narrative passage telling you all about the main character before anything happens to the main character.

I mean, how much better would The Wizard of Oz have been if it had started with the house falling on the Wicked Witch of the East? I mean, picture it, the house crushes the Wicked Witch of the East, Dorothy steps out into Oz and then, throughout the course of the first chapter or two we learn she had run away from home, a cyclone struck, and now she found herself in a magical land. The backstory - everything that happens before she lands in Oz - really isn't important. Yes, it's needed, but not in a huge narrative . . . well, at least not in my opinion.

How do you handle backstory? Long narrative passages? Brief bits here, there, and everywhere throughout the first chapter(s)? Do you inject backstory at all? Can a book exist without backstory? Can Dorothy crush the Wicked Witch of the West, befriend a Scarecrow, a Tinman, a Cowardly Lion and defeat the Wicked Witch of the West all without backstory? Hmmmm . . .



Claire Dawn said...

I have to rework my second novel for exactly this reason. I tried to fix the backstory problem with a prologue of sorts, but then after all that action, the story couldn't just go back to back story... long way to go.

Stina Lindenblatt said...

I recently critted an assignment for a classmate in a writer's workshop. It was for the first 500 words of her novel. She dumped big chunks of backstory into it, which I cut out. She didn't like that and told me it was necessary to show it was SF. Okay, I didn't get that from the backstory and it slowed the opening to a complete stop. As in I wanted to stop reading it. ;)

Anonymous said...

You've got me pegged. My first chapter grinds to a screeching halt after a fairly intense prologue. I constantly fight with writing the story verses writing what makes the character who he is. The story should win but my dang character begs to be understood. He's going to have to learn to wait.

Scott said...

Claire - I believe Prologues are just as bad as backstory. I eliminated the Prologue from one WiP and interspersed that info throughout the first chapter of the WiP. Things seemed to work much better that way.

Stina - doesn't a reader know a book is SF because of the section of the bookstore? : ) If it slows the opening, cut it, is my philosophy.

Myliteraryquest - see my comment to Claire. My suggestion - drop the Prologue and intersperse pieces of the info into the first chapter and/or first few chapters. Personally, I don't want to know everything about the characters I read right away. I want to learn things slowly . . . kind of like when I meet real people. : )

Lady Glamis said...

You're going to rewrite Wizard of Oz? Whoa, good sir.

I can see where you're going though, and I agree that it could probably have worked out that way, but then you wouldn't get the amazing black and white to color symbolism and all that jazz - and wondering, is this a dream or reality?

Anyway, I think back story has its place, and if worked in well, it can most certainly come at the beginning. Just depends on the writer. Yet again, another "rule" that irritates me to no end. Sometimes I think writers just make up rules in order to talk about how THEY write and what they think is best, forgetting that there is no right way to do it.

I like your way, though, to put back story in bit by bit through the beginning.

Scott said...

Lady Glamis - no, I'm not rewriting Wizard of Oz, I was just using that as an example. Ha!

I agree that backstory has its place, and I think every author needs to decide on their own where that 'place' is within their project. For me, eliminating the prologue and interspersing the info throughout the first chapter worked much better. For others, probably not so much. The prologue for Gay Gavriel Kay's "Tigana" totally sets up the main conflict of the story and, in hindsight, allows the reader to understand what the main characters are fighting for within the novel. Without the prologue, the backstory, the impact of what is lost and what the characters are fighting for, would be totally diminished.

Elana Johnson said...

I think I break this rule. Is it a rule? I think it is, I hear it all over the place.

Yeah, I break it.

My opening scenes aren't very exciting, and I write in a dystopian world that lives inside my own head. So I start a little slower, grounding you in my world.

By the end of the first chapter, I think I have you, which for me, is usually only about 5 pages.

But yeah. I go slow in the beginning. I do put in a lot of world-building and backstory.

Oh and flashbacks. My novels are riddled with them. RIDDLED. Blog about that!

Scott said...

Elana - thanks for the idea for a new post: the misuse of flashbacks by Elana Johnson. Ha! Kidding. I use flashbacks, but only brief snippets, rarely more than a few sentences. I'm crazy like that sometimes. : )