I’ve been thinking about this as I revise the opening chapters of my WIP: I kind of hate backstory. Well, that’s not strictly true. It would be more accurate to say I have a love/hate relationship with it. I LOVE imagining backstories for all my characters, scribbling notes to myself about their childhoods, families, most embarrassing moment in high school, favorite food, first crush–I could (and do) go on for pages for every one of my characters. What I struggle with is figuring out a) how to work that backstory in without pulling focus away from my story, which after all is unfolding in the now of the book world, not the past. And b) just how much of the backstory to put in. Because backstory is just that–in the backseat to your book’s story. Which means you just can’t include it all.
Last week, Evan Marshal and Martha Jewett said that one of the common ‘fatal flaws’ they see in manuscript submissions is ‘Loading the beginning of a novel with background and/or explanations, rather than hitting the ground running with action.’ To me, that’s a tricky balance. You want your opening to be action-packed, interesting and exciting enough to pull the reader in. But action without heart is (to me) kind of soulless. As a reader, I want an opening page and/or chapter that not only pulls me quickly into a story, but also makes me fall in love with the lead characters. And for that, I think you really do need at least a touch of backstory. It’s hard to understand who any character is, now, unless you have at least a glimpse of what’s shaped them into the person they are when we meet them on page one. Anyway, I can’t claim to have all the answers, but here are a couple of techniques that have helped me and that I’m trying to keep in mind as I work through revisions: [Read more…]