Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Story and Backstory

I am soon to begin some revisions on a novel at the behest of my agent. While I've been whining to a few friends that these revisions will either "dumb down" or otherwise harm my beautiful, sensitive story, it occured to me this morning that what my agent suggests is nothing more than removing a lot of backstory from the beginning of the tale and fitting it in later on.

Neither he nor I have put it quite like this before, because a) my agent isn't a writer and he just gives me his instinctive "gut feeling" comments, and b) I hadn't realized until very recently that my protagonist's youth wasn't the story, but was in fact backstory. It was quite an epiphany when I realized this. The actual story doesn't begin until the very last scene of the first chapter (and I write fairly long chapters, so my readers have to get through 60 pages before the tale begins to kick into gear).

While my protagonist's backstory is eventful and colorful and gorgeously-written (I tell myself), it does delay not only the beginning of the book's central action (which, frankly, I don't mind because I have read a lot of that sort of book), but also the protagonist's central desires and the motivation for his actions throughout the rest of the book. So I'll do some restructuring in July and August.

This might sound like another exhortation to grab your reader in the first sentence and not let go, but it's not. Nor is my agent asking me to do that. One of his comments, about 40 pages into the ms, was "I'm willing to read more about your MC's youth, but not much." It's fine to give background, set the scene (especially in alternate-world type novels; mine takes place in the 16th century, so some setting is necessary for the action to make sense), introduce characters. But, at some point you have to be telling a story and letting the reader know why they're reading your book.

So the point (finally) is that you need to think about where the actual story begins, and not lard on too much setting before that. Begin at the beginning. There is always a sort of "Chapter 0" before your book starts, and you should move as much of that as you can into chapters after the beginning. I'm going to work my MC's youth into later chapters (like Chapter 2 and 3, I think) so that readers will have met the main players first, found out the driving forces behind the action, and then get the history. I hope.

How do you know where your actual story begins? I think there is a sort of "story present," the "now" of the story when it seems to be happening, for the reader, in real time. Does everything that happens outside of that "story present" need to be cut, or shoved into the story and revealed along the way of the "now?" Not necessarily. Some writers, like Jhumpa Lahiri in "The Namesake," tell stories in chronological order, more-or-less, though "The Namesake" begins with a birth and then, while the mother is at the hospital delivering the protagonist, the story loops backward in time to give us the backstories of the protagonist's parents. Geraldine Brooks does something similar in "March," and this is the sort of thing I'll be doing with my own book.

In other words, be prepared for an editor or agent to tell you that your wonderful prologue needs to be moved into the body of the story, and be prepared to do that work.


  1. I think that layering in a character's backstory later can often result in an even more beautiful, sensitive story, highlighting just how eventful and momentous those events are.

    Of course, it has to be done with great care—never too much, and with extremely judicious use of flashbacks, if used at all. But starting our books where our stories start makes them even more engaging for our readers, and then they're even more willing to hear about what happened in our characters' youths (as long as those events are interesting and inform the current story, of course).

    Good luck with revisions!

  2. Scott, you beat me to the punch about addressing the problems I saw from reading your email you sent me the other day. I'll just answer some of it here I guess!

    I was going to tell you that I thought your problem wasn't dumbing down the story, but getting to the STORY. I have gone through a long road to discover this problem in my own work. Especially with Monarch. It's all about that Dude, I Don't Care post I put up last week. Because honestly, most readers don't care about your protagonist's childhood... UNLESS it bears a huge amount of weight on the ACTION of what's happening in your current story.

    In Monarch I kept adding in scenes from this huge flashback that happens a week prior to the beginning of the story. I thought I needed it, but I don't. I need ONE scene from it that has to do with how the character deals with another character in the present. And that's it. I'm working on that scene right now actually, and it's kind of working as a flashback. But it's the only flashback in the book, and I'm thinking that it works pretty well. We'll see what Davin says, haha.

    It took a lot of guts and pondering to cut out some of my favorite parts of my book, but I came to the conclusion that my readers simply did not need to know most of what happened in that past. Short summary, brief memories, feelings, etc. work instead of a prologue or flashbacks.

    Sorry this is so long. I should have just emailed you! Anyway, Scott, I think that you're doing the right thing, and that in the long run, you'll see that telling your immediate story is what your readers really want. I can see how frustrating it would be, though, for your agent not to explain things in writerly terms. Now wouldn't it have been better for him to just say, "Dude, I don't care about his backstory. It's slowing down the good stuff. Just cut it!" Well, maybe that would've been has harsh, who knows. :D

  3. Back story...ug. Can't tell you how many books I've read that just go on and on.....sometimes I don't go on and on...I close them.

    In my own writing, I've been guilty of the over-done backstory...and while I never realized it while staring at my screen...I did realize it when I read the opening chapter aloud to my writers group. Man did I go on and on!!! Huge lesson learned though!!

  4. Third Draft Revision Stage - eliminated the Prologue and incorported those parts into Chapter One! Why? I read that many agents don't like Prologues. In re-reading mine, I knew that bits and pieces could easily be incorporated into Chapter One without taking anything away from the manuscript, but adding so much to the first chapter. Go figure.


  5. Michelle: The funny thing is, while I was writing the outline for my next novel, I instinctively put the 2 MCs' backstory into the fourth or fifth chapter, once the action was well underway. Alas, I wrote "Horatio" as I went along and didn't have a master plan so now here I am, doing some major restructuring.

    You're right that it takes guts to hack out chunks of beloved prose, but I've done it plenty already for this book, and I'll be doing it again. I just need to find the right place to put the necessary background back into the story. We'll see how that works out.

    I think a common pattern for this (so common that I can see it in action when I read books) is:

    1. Introduce Protagonist in "story present" and aim reader at Inciting Incident.

    2. Backstory.

    3. Inciting Incident.

    4. Rest of book.

    Sometimes 2) and 3) are reversed, but not often. Anyway, that's likely what I'll do. It's all just about structure, not content so much.

  6. very timely scott. i'm restructuring my WIP right now to start "in the middle." (James scott bell calls this something..."en media res?") something like that. sounds like what your describing. at least i know i'm not alone... :)

  7. Wonderful post, Scott :).

    I had this exact same experience when I was doing my first couple of revision passes on my manuscript. What I thought was chapter 1 ended up being broken up into chapters 6-7 and pushed much further back.

    This was difficult to see at first, but I believe the manuscript is much stronger for it.

    Congratulations on your own revisions! It's hard to do, so kudos!

  8. Jeannie: "In media res." It means "in the middle of affairs," and yes, it's a good way to start. My favorite use of this has got to be the start of Milton's "Paradise Lost," where the book begins with Satan being hurled through space after his defeat in Heaven. It's a simply amazing passage, and catches the reader up in the action right off.

  9. I'm actually one who puts a book down if it doesn't start in the current story world, ie backstory clutters the first pages. I need to be grounded in the current story to WANT to hear about the back story for clarity's sake.

    Happy editing, Scott!

  10. After three or four drafts, (there's been so many I lose count) I did the same thing. It added so much by taking away the backstory. 16th Century, huh? Is it historical fiction? Cause I'm a sucker for H.F.

  11. This is an interesting post for me, Scott, because one of the things I appreciated about your opening was the opening scene, the slower pace that acted like an appetizer. It helped me to revise my first chapter, against my "usual" reactions. And, afterwards, when I revised my first chapter again to start more in the action, it sounded, in Michelle's words, "too forced." But, I'd agree that this sort of setting up opening shouldn't be too long, and perhaps 60 pages is a bit too long. The story has to start if you want to be interesting. Hmmm...then there's Anna Karenina, where the first few chapters have little to do with Anna, right?

    I think you don't need to necessarily start at the start of the story--that sounds dumb, but hopefully you get the point--as long as there is some sense of pull. An auxiliary conflict might suffice, although I've never managed to do that in my work.

    My own book is half flashback, so obviously I thought this sort of reasoning was valid. I've wondered what would happen if I went chronologically. It probably would be boring.

  12. Davin: My agent likes my first pages; he just thinks I take too long to get from Wittenberg to Denmark. I really haven't had a lot of time to think about what I'll actually do; I just have some vague ideas, really. I'd like to keep the eels, because that image recurs.

    Your book works the way it is. I like the two alternating timelines a great deal.

  13. Amy: I've taken Shakespeare's "Hamlet," moved it from the middle ages to the years in which Shakespeare was writing the play, and written a skewed version of it from the point of view of a minor character.

  14. Scott, it's funny how we learn, huh? That you instinctively avoided this problem in your current novel. I obviously didn't learn from that mistake from my first novel to the second, but the amazing thing about this whole blogging/writing/networking experience is that I'm solidifying these things in my head. Writing about them in posts and sharing the experiences makes a huge difference, I think.

    I tried to follow that pattern you listed, but it didn't work for Monarch. Well, it's kind of turning out like that, but I never actually SHOW the inciting incident. I think it works. We'll see. This is all so confusing.

  15. Michelle: This current revision is both informative and humbling, to realize that I couldn't see something so basic wrong with my novel after five major revisions and several years. Huh. Luckily, my agent likes all my backstory and I began with a hook, so it's just a matter of moving things around, not being told my book is teh suxor. But still. My genius credentials are taking a beating over this one.

  16. Scott, humbling is a good word for that. Oh my goodness is it humbling to see things so huge. This is why I was so embarrassed after the beta read of Monarch a few months ago. Humbling.

    I still think your genius is sparkling and looming. No worries.

  17. This has some real relevance for me. My prior draft was 120,000 words. The current draft is in track to close out at 80,000 words. That leaves 40,000 words of backstory. "Word-vomit" would be another way to describe what I'm cutting. That's the words that pour out of you with little regard to thought or inspiration.

    One thing I found in sifting through my backstory is that there are many fascinating details about the histories of minor characters, but they are only fascinating to me. When I first wrote those parts, I thought it added depth to the characters and positioned their motivations, as minor as they were, to a level that could not be questioned by the reader.

    Now I understand those parts to be word vomit. They do still have some relevance to me, but they never will to the reader.

    NOTE: I watched MEAN GIRLS the other night, and that's where I got the term "word vomit." If you haven't seen MEAN GIRLS, you should. Very funny. It's so fetch.

    After I watched it I realized that the fact that I didn't like TWILIGHT doesn't hinge on my inability to empathize with teenage girls, which I thought at first. I just didn't empathize with Bella. I totally empathized with Cady.

  18. Rick: It's nice to know you have a feminine side you're in touch with. I haven't seen "Mean Girls" nor have I read "Twilight." I'm waiting for the translation of Nietzsche's "Twilight of the Mean Girls."

    My backstory is there to show my protagonist's motivations. My big epiphany today is that it is backstory. I thought it was story. I was wrong. Huh. I don't give my minor characters' backstories; they exist only in the "story present."

  19. Rick: I just realized that, even if I cut out some of the backstory, I have planned to add new scenes (expanding some narrative summary into dramatized scenes, mostly), and once again I think by book will actually end up longer after a revision, rather than shorter. I'm sure you haven't noticed that I tend to be wordy, but it's true!

  20. Ha, Rick! I'm glad you can still empathize with teenage girls. That would be very sad indeed if you were left out of that world.

  21. Thanks so much for this discussion. I'm revising and sometimes feel like such an idiot. But, as Michelle said, I learn a lot from reading blogs like this and posting. Everytime I have to think about it or talk about it, I get a little closer.
    I find that any time I read a WIP out loud to fellow critiquers, I know when backstory has dammed the river. I can feel myself want to hurry through the passage.
    Recently on another blog, a writer said her younger sister won't even read narrative, she just skips to the dialog. That's extreme but really says something about books veering too far from the action.
    I tried starting the novel I'm working on now at several different points. When I tried in media res, I found myself wanting to throw in a lot of backstory to explain stuff. So I went back to an earlier starting point but looked to increase tension and foreboding in other ways.
    Anyway, I'm no expert, and I really appreciate this discussion.

  22. We all abhor cutting our beautiful words. I do anyway. However, I've found the story just gets better and better when we have these epiphany moments. Now you'll start the story where it's intended. :)

    I started my MG novel (the one I just finished)WOOHOO, anyway, I started it in the middle of the action, thinking I'll really grab them. Then an editor told me we need a reason to care about the characters, I guess it has something to do with the age of the reader. So I had to write a new chapter one.

    I believe you're on the right track and I know it will be worth the work. :)

  23. Wow. The Literary Lab is a cool place to hang out. Writers talking about writing.

    I will probably make a jumble of what I want to say, but here goes:

    We never quite know what we are going to write until it is written. (Yeah, I know, duh...but bear with me). Some people outline...some don't...regardless of if an outline exists or not, the actual words do not...until they are written, of course.

    For me, when I am writing, no matter how much I think I know about my characters, my plot, my whatever, new things are *revealed* within the act of writing.

    It feels almost magic.

    And that is why sometimes the story doesn't start where you started writing. You began writing to familiarize yourself with your story, but you might find the story begins later. Sometimes it begins before you did. These are HARD changes to make in the writing because when you mess with the beginning (the way YOU introduced your own self to the story) your internal editor goes "No! No! No! Don't touch that!"

    At least mine does.


  24. One of my students read my completed manuscript and said, "It was great, amazing story, really well-written, but ..." And then she offered me some suggestions that were valuable, insightful, and infinitely useful. I think she saw something in my eyes, though, because she said, "You know, you can't be married to your work like this!" I think she really set me up for accepting constructive criticism.

    Hope your revisions go well : ) Sounds very interesting!

  25. Storyqueen: You're right; even with an outline, the story isn't there until we've written it, and sometimes we discover new things while we write (if we're lucky, we discover really cool things that change the direction we were going). Over the course of five revisions I have changed who the protagonist is, changed his allegiances, merged a few characters and expanded others. Somewhere along the line, the beginning point of the story moved while I wasn't looking! It's like trying to stack mercury, sometimes.

  26. Robyn: Davin and I were talking about cutting our beautiful words a month or so back, and we've agreed that if we were bright enough to write well once, we'll be able to do so again once we've cut out the passages that must go. I think, frankly, that I have been mourning for the prose I'll have to cut, but now I'm in the acceptance phase. At some point, I'll actually be in the rewriting phase. For now I'm just in the talking about rewriting phase, which is fun, but not so productive.

  27. Well done backstory enriches a story. Haven't you ever read a book and found it rather thin? If you were to scrape it, you'd find bare rock just a centimeter or two beneath the soil. Other books, you feel you could plant a whole garden in, they're just that rich and deep and real.

    But admittedly, there are good reasons not to squander all the backstory in the first few chapters.

  28. Fortunately, I'm perty dern sure that I avoided the backstory problem by creating a one-page prologue (labeled so) about an important birth then starting chapter one with the baby turning 10. I rarely mention the time between 0 and 10, but I say enough that the reader will understand what happened during that time.


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