Friday, September 23, 2005

Backstory--Part II


I wanted to tie up some discussion about backstory, then next week we can move into subplots. First, however, for two days’ running I’ve forgotten to answer a BG’s question about the ACFW Genesis Award next year (formerly Noble Theme). Yes, Wayne, you are right—the top five scorers, regardless of category, will go to Pub Board at Warner Faith. Which means, first of all, that not all first place winners will go to Warner Faith, because the contest encompasses more than five categories. Second, it means that if one category scores lower than others, its first place winner might be beat out for Warner Faith by a second or even third place winner of another category.

If you think about it, this is exactly how the contest should be. It means that only the very best in the entire contest will be presented to Warner Faith. As far as placing first, second and third in a category, each writer will continue to compete only with other writers in that genre. These placements themselves are wonderful awards and are recognized in the industry. But to be sent to Warner Faith, each writer is competing with every other writer in the entire contest. Now that’s a challenge. One I hope every unpublished BG will take on.

Now—backstory. First, to put Bonnie at ease--no, prologues aren't necessarily backstory. They can be--and usually should be--as action oriented as chapter one. If you're starting with a prologue, that's obviously your opening scene, so it better be mighty compelling. Follow the Don't rule for backstory in a prologue the same as you'd follow it for the first chapter.


In his comments from yesterday, Stuart said he needs a fair amount in his opening scene in order to explain motivation for his (rather unique) character. Sounds like you’ve woven in backstory in the right way, Stuart. Certain stories do need more at the beginning than others. My Don’t rule isn’t to negate backstory totally. I’ve simply found it the best place to start. If you teach yourself to really dislike backstory, you’ll use it only when you absolutely have to. Under that scenario, you’ll be surprised how much you can cut out.

In the class I taught, I admitted my struggles with the first chapter of Violet Dawn. (Remember the opening line, which y’all critiqued months ago?) This scene required more backstory than usual, because, frankly, everything that happened to Paige before that first line could fill an entire book. And she’s very quickly going to be faced with dire circumstances, and in those circumstances will make some very bizarre choices. Only they’re not bizarre to her—in fact they’re her only choice. But a rational reader who knows nothing of Paige is gonna think she’s insane. So I had to spend some time building this motivation, which will not begin to pay off until the second chapter.

Yet because of my Don’t rule, I added every little piece with much kicking of cabinets. Had I not approached the challenge this way, I’d easily have had a page or two of complete story stoppage. No way can I afford that. So I wove what’s needed into Paige’s thoughts, using them partly to motivate her next action. But again, most of the motivation supports chapter two and beyond. At first I tried to move the backstory to chapter two for more immediate action payoff (and to get it off the opening scene), but I found that didn’t work at all. By then we’re deep into action, action, action. Paige doesn’t have time to be thinking all that much. Backstory there, even used correctly, slowed the story. Nope. It had to go into chapter one.

Even now, with all my work on that scene, I wish I needed less backstory. But I’m not sure I can get away with much less. However, the editors are now reading it, and maybe they’ll point out some things for me to change in my rewrite (which will hit next month, Lord help me).

In the end, because of my concern with that first page of chapter one, I decided to add a prologue. The prologue is very short—a scant printed page in a book. I discussed my reasons in class, and I don't have time to go into it fully here. In short, I wanted to immediately establish a dark tone to the story through characterization of the antagonist. I like this prologue and think I’ll keep it. We’ll see what the editors think.

I tell you all this to show you I struggle as much as anybody. In fact, I probably struggle a lot more than anyone who doesn’t use the Don’t rule, because writing too much backstory can be all too easy. For your own stories, therefore, the ultimate judging of success in your opening scene isn’t necessarily a complete lack of backstory. It’s—did I use the absolute least amount needed? And even then, remember—you may need less than you think. This is where the fresh eyes of a reader can be so helpful, because after working so long with a scene, you just can’t see its weaknesses any more.


Any more questions/comments, please leave 'em. I'll address them Monday and then most likely go right into subplots.

Happy weekend, BGs.

8 comments:

Gina Holmes said...

Though I'm hoping I won't qualify to compete in The Genesis contest, (I hope to get a contract), I'm so excited about it. Bypassing a query, a proposal, and the acquisitions editor is huge.

I do wonder though for those of us who write in genres other than what it seems Warner Faith puts out, supernatural thrillers?, if it might not be smarter to aim for a category they would be more apt to acquire. Though that goes against my new motto of 'I'm going to write my story and let the chips fall where they may.'

margie said...

Thank you for the back story lessons. On one of the critiques I received back from the Noble Theme contest this year said I had too much back story in my first chapter. I thought I had woven it into the thoughts of my heroine, but now that I have a little more teaching in the matter, I feel ready to go back and tackle that problem.

Stuart said...

Thanks for your comments Brandilyn. :)

And I too hope to be inelligible for the Genesis contest next year.

But if not, I think I have just the thing hatching in my head to go crazy on it with. ;)

C.J. Darlington said...

Thanks for sharing how you still struggle with this issue, Brandilyn. It encourages me to know that it's always gonna be hard, but if we keep honing our craft our stories will grow stronger and stronger. Those who succeed never give up.

Pammer said...

Thanks Brandilyn. I like your Don't rule and tend to follow such myself. A friend said, it's not so much what the contest judges think of the one chapter (although I did get some markdowns for telling ALL in the first chapter) as it is what the editors think of the whole wip that is important.
I will follow my instict and some fabulous teaching (grin)and try to keep as much backstory out of the opening as possible.

Pammer said...

Correction: I meant to say, I got marked down for NOT telling all in the first chapter. Maybe I should go back to bed before I try to do any revisions today. :0)

Wayne said...

These backstory comments are going to help me with my wip - thanks!

Gina, I though the same thing - we writers of the supernatural won't appeal to Warner Faith. But that won't stop me from writing what I feel He has called me to. We know there are other publishers out there that want the type of books we're writing.

I don't think that should disuade us from entering the Genesis; we get some critiques of our work, and - hopefully - strengthen the quality of the suspense category in the ACFW contest, helping the organization continue to break free of the "Romance" moniker.

Hopefully we don't scare the judges too badly in the process. Or maybe, hopefully we do. :)

Dineen A. Miller said...

Wayne, I think you're dead on. Write your passion, tell a good story. That is what I heard over and over again at the conference. And the trend is leading to more Supernatural Thrillers, I think. Have you looked at what's on TV lately? It's there, too. I can't imagine Warner falling behind. Go for it!