Tuesday, July 20, 2010

July 20, 2010

Backstory is everything that has happened to your character/s before chapter one.

The problem with backstory is simple. It slows down the story before it ever has a chance to get started. It tells too much about the character. It gives away too many elements of the character that are critical to the story.

Think of it. How often do you meet a person and automatically know everything about them? You don't. You learn who the person is very slowly over a period of days, months, and sometimes years. Your story is the same way. Allow the reader to get to know the character slowly, through snippets. Backstory should be woven throughout the manuscript. Peppered in to give the story some spice at just the right time.

So why is it so easy for a writer to fall into the backstory chasm? Many times it’s because, subconsciously, you are trying to get a handle on who your character is, where they came from, and what kind of upbringing they had. You see, what you’re really doing in those first chapters is a character sketch!

You could also be struggling with where to start the story. I’ve often heard editors encourage a writer to cut the first chapter, or even the first two chapters, because after those chapters comes the *real* story. In other words, those first chapters are filled with backstory that is unnecessary to the *real* story. The same solution is applicable. But don't throw those chapters away, cut and paste them into another document and keep it. You will need to refer back to it throughout the writing of your manuscript.

Remember, a reader wants to be swept up and carried away to a different world with different characters, and they don’t want to wait until chapter two to get there. This is why it is up to you, as the writer, to find the perfect place in which to begin your character's journey.

Let's look at some examples of backstory within the first paragraph of the first chapter:

Example 1:

Belinda froze in place. Ever since she was six she knew this would happen. Her father had always warned her she should be careful on the prairies during thunderstorms. Tornadoes could occur at any moment. And they could kill. Just like the wedge shaped one that had killed her mother when she was six. And that’ s when she’d had the premonition. The one that told her she, too, would be killed by a tornado.

Example 2:

You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille. Garrett Thompson flicked on his turn signal and wished the tune coming from his radio was the song with the same line, instead of his reality. His Lucille, however, was really called Lucy. She would have hated being called Lucille.

Garrett eased into the right lane ahead of a Mac truck going far too fast. He kept his eyes on the vehicle until he knew it would slow. His mind sifted back over the events that led up to Lucy’s goodbye. She wasn’t the prettiest girl in the county, but she sure was the smartest and the kindest, though her tantrum twenty minutes ago sure supplied evidence to the contrary.

Example 3:

Thimblewyeth was a young woman of fourteen. She enjoyed listening to westerns and old-time radio, despite being a child of the twenty-second century. Even her mother, steeped in her own generation of 2182, couldn’t understand Thimblewyeth’s delight in stories over a century old. But her father understood. He was tall and had a pot belly, but he listened to Thimblewyeth talk of cowboys and range wars as he worked on his aircar or tinkered with the programming on their robutler, who could never seem to get the morning coffee quite to her father’s taste.

Three very different examples. Are these, in your opinion, good starting points for the story. Why or why not? Which of these examples relies too heavily on backstory? What would you do to change these pieces to make them acceptable?

S. Dionne Moore is a multipublished author of both cozy mystery and historical romance. Find out more about her and her books at http://www.sdionnemoore.com.


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