Monday, April 2, 2012

B is for Backstory

Backstory is a tricky thing - without it, the reader is lost and can't make sense of current events. Too much of it and the pacing stalls. The reader might even put the book down. So, where's the balance? I'm still figuring that out myself, but one thing I'm sure of (at least for Young Adult) is that backstory does not belong in the first chapter.

I'm the type of writer who thinks a lot about a new story, but doesn't start writing anything down (other than a general story arc) until chapter 1. And what I've learned about my technique, is that chapter 1 should pretty much be deleted from the manuscript. But that's okay. Writing that chapter wasn't a waste - I wrote it for myself, to get my bearings in a new world and to solidify the characters and the voice.

Once I've deleted chapter 1, I go through chapter 2 and highlight any backstory. I analyze each line to determine whether or not the reader would still understand what's going on if the backstory was removed and if so, it gets cut. Then, I create a new document to put that cut backstory in for possible future reintegration. In the end, there might be one or two lines of backstory in chapter 2 (which now becomes chapter 1), but there won't be any flashbacks, or summaries of past events.

Also, if I get feedback from CPs or Betas about a slow chapter, I use the same method of highlighting the backstory to see if that might be the problem - if I haven't made the reader care about the backstory, then it will slow everything down and it really doesn't belong in the MS.

Here is a super helpful blog post on How to Write Backstory without Putting the Reader to Sleep

How do you deal with backstory in your writing?

18 comments:

  1. That's a really good way to deal with backstory.

    I used to be a "must get it all out in chapter 1" type, until I realised how terrible that actually is! Now I know how to weave it in without going too far.

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    1. Me too! It's hard, because I feel like I need to write it all down (if only for me) so now I don't even fight it - I just go back later and fix it :)

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  2. Great post, and funny timing! I just did a post on Chapter One after spending the whole day reworking my first chapter. And of course editing out backstory is playing a key role in that rewrite!

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  3. It is so hard figuring out a great balance with how much to put in backstory and where. I've learned to weave it in and out, but there are some parts in chapter 1 I just can't leave out (so I tell myself).

    Great post!

    Happy Monday!

    Jaycee's A-Z

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  4. Great advice. Back story is such a difficult thing to get right while keeping the story moving forward. I'll definitely be back to read more of your tips.

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  5. This was so interesting, with great tips for aspiring writers :)

    I'm following you now and looking forward to more tips!

    Nikki – inspire nordic

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  6. Oh my gosh. Every time I draft a new MS, I tell myself, *this* is going to be the one where I don't have to delete the first chapter and a half.

    I'm always wrong.

    But you're right, they're NEVER a waste. As long as we figure out where the story really starts, eventually. :D

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    1. I do the same thing, haha. But it seems like it really takes a bit of writing to slip into the right voice and really fall into the story telling.

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  7. I actually end up including such little backstory that I end up tripping over myself later.

    This means:

    I hint at some event that happened to lead my character here, but don't go into detail. Let's call this event "ABC."

    Later, I write about event "BCD" - but A is not mentioned because A no longer happened because "D" is a much better event than A.

    Then I finally write about "EFG" and say, "Wait, what happened to ABC? Or D?" But it doesn't matter because "EFG" is a MUCH better back story.

    I don't usually worry about this continuity error until I get into editing mode though. Because then my characters have changed accordingly, and I know which back story is best for them. It ends up being some combination of "ABCDEFG." But hey, that's what I get for pantsing most of the time.

    I agree that there shouldn't be much back story in the first chapter. Maybe one or two lines, and that's it. This is something that I still struggle with - so I love your idea of throwing the first chapter away.

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    1. Not enough backstory can be a problem too - but CPs and Betas would catch that. And it's easier to add it in later than take it out (imo).

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  8. The Harry Potter books are such a great educational tool for writers, and I think here is a case in point. Look at the first book, HARRY POTTER AND THE PHILOSOPHER'S/SORCERER'S STONE. If you've read book 7, you know the backstory. But in that first chapter, Rowling gives us sufficient to know the circumstances by which Harry is left at the Dursley's. She doesn't attempt to answer every question (Who is Voldemort? Why did he kill Harry's parents? What is the meaning of the scar? etc.), but at that point we can understand the current scene without those answers. Yes, we WANT those answers, but that's what keeps us reading on.

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    1. That's an interesting example - I've read a lot about how the first chapter isn't really a first chapter at all - it's the dreaded prologue disguised as chapter 1. But yes, I completely agree that it's super important to make sure enough details are given to make the reader WANT to know about the backstory. It seems to be a very fine balancing act between giving the reader that backstory when they want it, but not giving them so much that you put them to sleep. And the Harry Potter books definitely didnt put anyone to sleep ;)

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  9. I read this post and "C" critiquers - they go hand in hand. I had backstory in my first chapter that I didn't even realize was there until someone pointed it out to me. haha.

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    1. I have the same problem sometimes too, haha - just too close to spot things sometimes but when my CPs point it out it's like Doh!

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  10. In my superlong Russian historical novel, there are bits of backstory in the first chapter, but in that case, it's important establishing information and part of an expository narrative set-up. Minus that important information, the reader can't fully understand some very vital things about the double protagonists and might very well assume the wrong things about them. Then again, it's a long saga with a slower-paced, more literary style. Sometimes it's necessary to understand where a character is coming from from the jump, or his or her motivations or actions won't make any sense or could even seem cruel or unsympathetic.

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    1. I agree, but I also know that some readers (including agents and editors) will put a MS/novel down if there is too much backstory in the first chapter, unless the backstory can somehow be its own hook. I think it also depends a lot on the genre - in adult fiction it seems the writer can get away with a lot more than in YA where the hook has to be almost immediate and the pacing needs to be much quicker.

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