Two questions from yesterday—from our two Ginas. Gina One asked about backstory. Well, hey, you get a post just for you. Gina Two asked if it’s okay to let editors know other editors are interested in the same story. Answer—yes. Nothing raises the attention of an editor quite like knowing someone else might beat them to the punch. Well, okay, maybe a few other things raise it more, but there’s still truth in that statement. Besides, if a manuscript is submitted to more than one editor at a time, it’s common etiquette to write “simultaneous submission” at the bottom of the cover letter.
So. A few highlights on backstory. I can’t go into this with the detail that I did in class. If you remain really interested in this topic, you should look into buying the CDs. I used examples from the work of those in the class, and examples always help to bring the point home. By the way, two things about these CDs. First, I receive no money for the sale of them. Proceeds go to the recording company. This is a good thing. I can urge people to buy the CDs without feeling self-serving. Second, in case you’re wondering about buying all four CDs of the class, the first day of instruction focused on character emotions. Jennifer gave us the purchase link in her comments: http://www.conferencemedia.net/
1. I have kicked myself to a high standard regarding backstory in the first few chapters of my books. My rule is simple: Don’t. Granted, I do this because I write “seatbelt suspense,” and my readers expect a fast start. Other genres have a tendency to be more lenient with backstory. But I urged the class not to fall into that leniency. Writing backstory is just too easy. It allows us to write less than a really compelling opening scene. What if you held yourself to the Don’t rule? How would it change how you construct your first scene?
2. We make the mistake of looking at backstory only as a way to answer reader questions. That’s part of its function. But we should also use backstory to raise reader questions. Often, a good sentence of backstory will raise more questions than it answers.
3. To me, backstory is anything that isn’t current action. That’s a very strict definition. In this definition, even description can fall into backstory. Well, too often it does, because we stop the current story to describe. That’s very different from working description into current action.
So start with the Don’t rule. Hold to it. Add backstory kicking and screaming. It should be a last resort.
4. Backstory is necessary only when it is absolutely needed for the reader to understand the current action. Note the penultimate word: Current. The bit of backstory may well be needed somewhere, but it is needed here? Don’t be afraid to leave questions in the readers’ minds. Questions keep readers turning pages. Your goal shouldn’t be to answer questions right away. Rather, your goal should be to delay the answers as long as possible. I’ve often seen bits of backstory that answer questions better left hanging until the middle of the book. And even if you think the backstory is needed to explain current action, think again. We tend to think readers need more backstory than they do.
5. When backstory is necessary (and a certain amount of lines usually are), don’t stop the story to go into author narrative. Many times entire backstory paragraphs can be negated with one carefuly written sentence, or even phrase. Find a way to weave the brief backstory into the current action, either through conversation or thought. But be careful with the latter. I’ve seen plenty a transition into “thought” that quickly becomes a full paragraph or more of narrative backstory. Be careful weaving it into conversation, too. Would the characters really say that to each other? Or is the dialogue really the author speaking to the reader, filling in information? Readers pick up that kind of stilted dialog in a heartbeat.
6. Here's the key to weaving in backstory as thought in the right way: the thought should serve as motivation for the next character action. Those of you who have Getting Into Character may remember the chapter on "Action Objectives." These are the changing goals of a character as he moves through a scene. He starts with one Action Objective, which results in a certain action taken. Conflict arises, pushing him off the path to achieve that objective. Another objective arises to deal with conflict #1. Result--another action taken. Conflict #2 arises. A third objective arises to deal with conflict #2. Result--a third action taken. Etc. A good sentence of backstory provides motivation for the next Action Objective, which leads to the next action.
The Don’t rule is a hard standard to follow. ‘Course, you know me—I find everything about writing hard. But I think this one’s tough for everybody. It’s why so many people fail to handle backstory well. Far easier to fall into, “Wait, reader, I gotta tell you this and that, and the other. Okay, now we can return to the real story.”
When I employ backstory in an opening scene, I've done so very deliberately. Most of the time, it's to motivate current action. Once in a while it will have a less immediate payoff. In that case, it will serve as foreshadow, perhaps toward the ultimate twist in the book.
You may read these rules and wonder, “So how do I weave in bits of backstory the right way? And how much is right?” These questions can’t be answered without examples of the right and wrong way to do it. This is where the CDs would come in handy for you.
Questions? Bring 'em on. I know I've just skimmed the surface, and I fear I've confused more than enlightened. Those folks who asked for the subplot conversation—I haven’t forgotten you. We’ll get to 'em eventually.
Read Part 2