Friday, March 23, 2012

Some Might Say... shoes and wedding dresses don't quite go together. Just like some might say backstory and novel beginnings don't quite go together. We're all entitled to our opinions, which there are plenty of on this topic. The general consensus is that backstory does not belong on the early pages of a novel. But, and this is a BIG but, even those opposed to backstory in novel beginnings think there are exceptions to this rule.

Many of you know how much respect I have for literary agent, Donald Maass, especially if you've read my series on THE FIRE IN FICTION. (If you haven't, you can access the posts from my sidebar). Anyway, here's what he has to say about early backstory:

Backstory is the bane of virtually all manuscripts. Authors imagine that readers need, even want, a certain amount of filling in. I can see why they believe that. It starts with critique groups in which writers hear comments such as, "I love this character! You need to tell me more about her!" Yes, the author does. But not right away. As they say in the theater, make 'em wait. Later in the novel backstory can become a revelation; in the first chapter it always bogs things down.

But there are exceptions.

Maass goes on to highlight an example from the opening pages of Robin Hobb's ROYAL ASSASSIN in which character Will Fitz engages in an interior monologue exploring his motives. It is littered with backstory. If you'd like to read the full example, it's on page 208-209 of THE FIRE IN FICTION. Maass explains that this backstory works in the opening pages because it expresses the character's inner tension.

Maass concludes his example with this comment (which I feel sums up the whole topic of backstory in a nutshell):

To put it more simply, Hobbs uses the past to create present conflict. That is the secret of making backstory work.

Okay, I don't know about you, but I'm really sick of the subject of backstory. This is my last post on the matter. least for now. I can't promise the topic will never be brought up again on this blog. But I can promise it will be a while before I mention it again.

But I would like to hear any of your final thoughts. How do you feel about backstory on the early pages of a novel? What makes it work? What makes you want to put the novel down?

I'll be back next week to discuss an entirely different subject. Not sure what, but I'll be back. Until then, have a fabulous weekend!


Mary E Campbell said...

I think wedding dresses and tennis shoes should go together. As long as the dress is long enough to cover them. It's your day - be comfortable. I think that's the key to back story too. It needs to be there in bits and pieces or cool little tidbit reveals, but mainly hidden for the first little while by action.

Carolyn V said...

I'm trying to figure out how to write a second book without adding very much backstory. It's harder than I thought it would be!

Terri Tiffany said...

I have been told over and over to rip it out but then I read a great novel with it in and I go back to it and use it for the present hopefully the way he suggets. But do like some!

Sarah Tokeley said...

I don't mind a bit of backstory in the beginning, but in the work I'm currently revising (which was the first novel I wrote) my first chapter is stuffed full of it.

I guess I've learned something from all those blogs I've been reading since then :-)

Elizabeth McKenzie said...

You can put fancy tennies up with fancy ties and wear them under long dresses. My daughter-in-law wore flip-flops under her dress and they were all decked out.

I enjoyed your post on backstories. I think some can be worked into narrative and some by actions. In Bum's Rush I have my main character saying and doing out of date stuff and wondering where that came from. The, of course, he remembers his dead mother used to say or do that. I think back story is important, but I know authors who go way overboard. Try reading Dean Koontz. You can skip over most of the stuff he writes and not miss a thing.

Anonymous said...

I don't really care for backstory in the beginning of a book. That's when I want to know what the characters are doing at the moment and get a sense of who they are now. It would have to be used sparingly, or else it would turn me off. I've put books down with too many initial flashbacks or ramblings about the past because they pulled me out of the story.

Jennifer Shirk said...

It's tough. I wish there was a magic formula to follow. I guess it's a matter of balance so that you don't slow your story's pace. I let my critique parnters blow the whistle for me. LOL

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