Backstory

Sometimes one word can change the way you think.

The word I’ve been thinking a lot about is “backstory” – the events that happen before a novel (or short story, TV show, play, or movie) begins.

I suspect that many would-be authors have difficulty with this concept. In fact I know they have difficulty with it, because I’ve read their manuscripts. The hopeful writer (often a friend or a friend-of-a-friend) has visions of bestseller status and fat royalty checks arriving in the mail.

And then I deliver the bad news: Nobody is going to publish your book.

Often the first page signals that a manuscript is unpublishable. Here’s the giveaway: Inexperienced writers usually start a book at the beginning of the story. A man and a woman meet at a bar. Or a wife dies. Or a man loses his job.

Slowly, like a train departing from a station, the story builds up speed and power. And during that slow build-up, readers lose interest and go on to something else.

If you’re a novice writer, it may never have occurred to you to start your book later in the story. And then you hear the term “backstory,” and you start thinking about it. And suddenly you’ve taken a giant step towards becoming a professional author.

Experienced writers choose a starting point that reveals character, relates to their theme, or starts the action moving. Or – better yet – does all three.¬†Background information (the “backstory”) gets introduced later, after readers are hooked.

Little Women is a great example. The famous opening line (“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug) doesn’t explain who Jo is, who’s there with her, or why there won’t be any presents this year. What it does – very effectively – is pull you into the room where the four sisters are thinking about the bleak prospects for this year’s December festivities.

Think how different the book would be if Louisa May Alcott had begun it this way: “Jo March was born in 1838, the second of four girls, to a loving New England family beset with chronic financial problems.”

I can’t recall every being taught about backstory in a writing class – or ever talking about it myself when I used to teach literature. But it’s an intriguing concept, as well as a counterintuitive one.

Common sense tells you that books should never confuse their readers. The plot, characters, setting, and theme have to be crystal clear if you want to sell your book. You can’t let too much time go by before you explain what’s going on.

And therein lies a paradox. If you pause to introduce your characters and explain what’s happening and why, readers won’t bother to turn to the next page. Back goes the book onto the bookshelf, never to be opened again.

The trick is to work your backstory into your opening pages so skillfully that the story never slows down – not even for a second.

How can you learn how to do that? Simple. Go to your bookcase, pull out five or six novels you’ve enjoyed, and read the first page of each one with an eye to backstory. How did the author pull it off? Look and learn.

And then try it yourself.

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