Tuesday, February 21, 2006
Writing Tip: Backstory
The other day a dear novelist brother and I got into an email yin-yang (we do this all the time; it’s good mental exercise.) He was making a case for including some backstory in the beginning of a book because it aids in character development and reader sympathy. I’ve recently adopted a “no back story in the first 30 pages” rule because I think you can develop reader interest and sympathy through present action.
(Hey--it's an art AND a science.)
Here are some of my comments. If you want more on his side of the argument, you’ll have to read his blog. (VBG) (Um . . . he hasn't blogged on this. So you're stuck with my side of the debate.)
He said that lots of good writers put backstory in the front of a book . . .
Well, of course backstory can be put in the first 30/50 pages and still result in a good book. I could also lose weight eating a slice of chocolate cake every day. BUT—is it not better discipline to try and do without it? To arouse reader interest in the current conundrum and save the backstory until later?
I’ve been trying a new exercise when I teach. I pick up published books, manuscripts, what-have-you, and I tell the class to raise their hands the moment the writing provokes a question they want answered.
Some manuscripts go on for paragraphs, even pages, before a hand goes up. For some, I don’t even finish the first sentence before I see hands across the room.
It’s the dramatic question that keeps a reader reading. It’s the passing-by-a-car wreck effect—we don’t know who’s in the car, we don’t have any connection whatsoever, but, by golly, we just have to know what happened and how bad it was.
I’ll admit that there is perhaps a time and place for back story up front. In fact, the entire beginning of MYSTIC RIVER is an event from the grown protagonist’s childhood.
I was a skeptic at first. After all, I’d written dozens of novels and never paid a bit of attention to “move the backstory” idea. Until someone challenged me to do this:
Take your WIP. Highlight all backstory in the first couple of chapters. Then cut it and move it. (I didn’t say KILL it, just move it beyond the 30-page mark.)
Now—doesn’t the front part move faster? And some of those little “asides” of important back story—might some of them work better as a fully-fleshed out scene later in the book? We should be learning about who your character is from what you’re showing us in the present action. Give us revealing details, particularities.
I’m betting that nine times out of ten, your story will improve because you moved the back story. Unless, of course, you’re doing something like the author in Mystic River.
Try it, you’ll like it! Or I’ll eat my hat.
To which my dear brother promptly replied, “And I’ll bring the salt!”