Hold the Backstory to a Minimum

Once you deliver that commanding first sentence or paragraph, you still have the challenge of keeping your readers’ interest. You can’t let them down, either by ignoring that lead-in or by totally reversing the tone the beginning has invoked. Neither can you distract them from the current action by breaking into a history lesson – also known as the dreaded exposition.

Many writers, myself included, make the mistake early in our writing careers of trying to squeeze entire decades of a character’s history into a few paragraphs all at once. That can get very boring for readers. We’ve taken away many surprises they could have discovered on their own, one surprise at a time.

You should definitely know your backstories for all main characters, good guys and bad guys. How else can you build even the vaguest of plots? Exactly what you do describe on those next pages depends, in large part, on what your book is about, as well as the tone you have already set.

Crime fiction may require building suspicion or doubt about the protagonist; or just plain describing the murder victim – again, not with the entire backstory in one basket. Action adventure may call for some tricky encounter with the bad guys or bad creatures. It may call for a description of packing a survival kit.

If you have set an ominous tone, stick to menace or threat. If your opening began with humor, weave that humor into your text – whether that is cynical, slapstick, or dark humor.

Let most of the backstory reveal itself as a result of character interactions in those first few chapters. Spread the backstory over actions, dialogs, introspection. And that is not easy.

I don’t pretend to be an expert – I’m still struggling to master the art. But here are some resources that may help you out.

How to Weave Backstory into Your Novel Seamlessly  by Brian Klems, Writer’s Digest

Story Engineering by Larry Brooks

Beginnings, Middles, and Ends by Nancy Kress

Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card

In the Beginning: The First Sentence

“They’re out there.”

You don’t have to be paranoid to see this sentence as a warning of some kind. That’s the opening line of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, by Ken Kesey. When you discover that the next few paragraphs describe a patient in a mental ward you are not surprised.

That first sentence sets expectations for the tone of a book.

Though it should probably be one of the last items you finalize before your book or short story is finished, it can be the most important sentence in the entire work. Potential readers usually glance at the first page and, if I can judge by my own actions, decide then and there whether or not to buy the book.

“It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife.”

This line starts with a little sarcastic humor and suggests that this story will lead to some kind of romantic adventure. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice delivers the goods, admittedly mostly to women. But it’s a great book.

“She was so deeply imbedded in my consciousness that the first year of school I seem to have believed that each of my teachers was my mother in disguise.”

A little bit of humor, a touch of confusion and dismay, and you have the first sentence in Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth. And it seems perfectly logical that, within the next couple of paragraphs, the bitter protagonist is speaking to a doctor.

Some writers can start immediately with that surefire hook the minute they put pen to paper – or fingertip to keyboard. Some of us work our way up to that sentence, once we’ve written a few pages or gone deeper into our protagonist’s character.

Of course, your story can take the exact opposite tone of what your first sentence implies, but that’s like smashing your reader in the face with a pie. It might be funny for a second, but it just hurts and makes him angry.

I usually go back to the first page (75? 100 times?) and revise the first sentence and paragraph as the story matures. It’s also important for me to compare the tone of that first sentence to the last sentence – but I’ll talk about that in another post.

And lastly, I can’t resist, had great fun with this one!

“It’s a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.”

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, by Jane Austen and Seth Grahame-Smith



Four Steps to Structure Your Book

When I began writing my first book (now out of print, working on digitalizing and republishing), I didn’t know that it would be a book. At the time, it was a fun story about characters in a Dungeons & Dragons game I made up.  A few of the players who created the characters weren’t happy about the “embodiment”, if you will, of their characters. Choosing to play a character one way in a live game and then seeing those actions on the printed page created quite a discussion when I presented the story. And some of it was not happy talk. I, on the other hand, had a whole lot of fun.

It finally dawned on me, “Hey! I can do this! I can make this a BOOK.” And off I went on a very bad start. Some of the bad stuff was still there when the book was published. But thanks to prompts from a friend, I got seriously organized. That organization and structure were the secrets to my completing the book.

  1. The first thing I did was get index cards, and create a character card for each main character, a city/place card for every important location, a racial/ethnic card for each race (yes, it’s a fantasy book and I was enamored of Tolkien’s multi-racial world), a term card for each key “foreign language” word I invented (no way do I have the talent of Tolkien, so words only, no real languages).
  2. The second thing I did was draw a map – using a few colors – adding rivers, lakes, mountains, cities, islands, etc. I used lined graph paper (I know I’m dating myself, but this was just at the dawn of the digital age) to help with perspective and taped several pages together to help see my “world” in one piece. I knew where characters were going and how they had to get there.
  3. The third thing I did was create a time line on a very large accounting tablet. The time line began before the book’s starting point, so I created back story for the main characters in a way that I could see what happened to Character A at the same time a specific incident happened to Character B. That book contained a LOT of exposition. Knowing what I know now, I would have used that information source to hold back a lot of the exposition. I would have doled that history out fewer times and in much smaller bits – and held back a lot for the sequel. It was a fantasy/adventure book, of course I planned sequels.
  4. The last, and most important, thing I did was actually follow the plan to maintain consistency throughout the book. The combination of time line, which was really the plot line, map, and detailed cards WERE my book. Everything, everyone was there, just waiting for me to pull them together in print.

Don’t get me wrong, I ended up changing a couple things; I still struggled with character development and dialog; I still worried about what I should or should not keep in the story; and I still made mistakes. I couldn’t get an established publisher interested. I lost money on co-publishing. I had to pay to get my materials back and return the copyright to me. I have no idea how many people actually read the book or liked it.

But I did it. I finished a book that followed a multi-character,  structured  plot line.  And I was proud of it. Still am.

You can do the same – even using digital versions of my pencil and paper treatments!

When the Climactic Scene Isn’t Quite Right

I’ve been working on this novel for a couple of years now…yes, years. (I let my day job and the DVR get the better of me most days.) I have completed everything but that climactic scene. I just can’t get it right.

All fiction writers find themselves in the same predicament at one time or another. I’ve long since given up on perfection – just not in my game plan. BUT, each scene has to feel right – feel true to my characters’ journey through the storyline.

I’ve built up the tension through several chapters. The “big battle” comes at just the right time and all main characters have their roles to play. My protagonist must be pushed to her limits, must battle internal self doubt and false confidence as well as the external threats, both physical and mental, of the antagonist.

I’ve written the scene, at least in part, four times already. Each time I found something wrong with it, not enough emotional turmoil, not enough spectacle, too many characters involved, it occurs in the wrong location, and so on. Something is just not RIGHT.

I’ve sought inspiration from books of all genres, and many were, indeed, inspiring. Oddly enough, though, I must admit that history, science, and paranormal studies in the form of books and TV shows (love that DVR) have provided quite a bit of fuel this past week for my desperate brain.

I think I’m on to something now. The plan for lunch time all this week is to work on that scene. And I’m going to get it right. Eventually.