Thursday, September 22, 2005

A Bit on Backstory

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:

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


Unknown said...

Actually, your timing is perfect. One of my wonderful critique partners opened a vein on chapter one of my WIP last night for this very reason. I think the hardest thing for an author to do is to go in and cut entire paragraphs, in my case several in a row, to find the real story. So thank you, Brandilyn, and thank you, Robin. It's all good, but it ain't all necessary.

Anonymous said...

You didn't confuse, Brandilyn, you enlightened. There are some passages in my prologue that are backstory. I did a few things right; the backstory is given through dialog and is used as motivation for the current action. But I think there is too much, and holding back on some of it will raise some questions for the reader that I can answer later.

It all seems so clear now! I love "Aha" moments!

Stuart said...

Hehe, this is one of those things I struggle with, and I think I have my opening scene balanced right, though it does contain backstory to an extent.

The reason I have left it there is to make sure that my reader's have an immediately identifiable way to connect with my main character.

My opening scene has my main character standing on the deck of a ship trying to calm his nerves and psyche himself up for a coming battle, and so he is counting off all the successes he has thrown in his detractors faces, while still battling against the fear that, in some way, he won't measure up to his dream.

I *think* it works and has been done in a way to keep what backstory you see moving the story forward & building the tension so that when the fight comes, the reader has as much invested in it as my main Character. But that they have also found the emotional connection they need to be able to go through the story with an 11' tall Saurian. :)

Though I have heard you talk on backstory before and it was awesome and really did help me pull out a lot of backstory that wasn't necessary to that first scene.

D. Gudger said...

Makes a lot of sense. Reading a book with a lot of backstory stopping the action, causes me to forget what's going on in the present. I'm finding a lot of older books pile on the backstory.

Gina Conroy said...

Thanks for the personal post! It helped clear things up for me. I'm getting your cds and hope to be totally enlightened!

Unknown said...

"Holmey" here :) Just wanted to say thanks for answering my question. You're a sweetheart.

Pammer said...

Since I also write suspense I tried to go light on the backstory, but the contest judges (some of them) thought I was withholding info (which I was, but not in a mean way). Thank you for letting me know the "write" way to do it. :0)

Bonnie S. Calhoun said...

Wayne talks about backstory passages in his Prologue. Wouldn't a Prologue be considered backstory. My second novel has a Prologue but it's all action, not much narrative. Is that incorrect...mind you, I'm on the edge and might 'open a vein' over this....ROFL :-)

Anonymous said...

The only thing that still popped out at me was the use of the word bodice. Would a guy really think that? Or would he think sequins on the fitted top?