Friday, September 23, 2005
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 One I hope every unpublished BG will take on.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.