Fatal Backstory

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“She stopped and remembered her home town and how it felt to be ten years old when she moved. . .”

I checked out two books-on-tape yesterday and tried to listen to them. The first one started at a certain point, then immediately went into a flashback, within the first page. Ditto for the second.

Yes, these are published books; they are books-on-tape. But I didn’t make it through the first chapter of either.

Fatal Backstory and Flashbacks

The best explanation of why this type opening is fatal comes from David Morrell in his book, Lessons From a Lifetime of Writing. The chapter entitled, “The Tactics of Structure” . A normal story timeline should be Event A, Event B, Event C. David Morrell, Lessons From a Lifetime of Writing

The structure of these openings, however was B – A – C. In fact, one of the stories does this endlessly through the first chapter. The story opens with a young man on a journey, with an appropriate set up of his environment, mode of travel, eventual destination, etc. Then, he closes his eyes and remembers the sights and sounds of his home town. Back to the present with a grouchy traveling companion and a few bits of dialogue. Then, back to his father’s life, his father’s rise and fall in his profession, his father’s hopes that his son would follow in his footsteps, and finally, his father’s death, leading to this journey. Back to the present with the grouchy companion.

We have B1 – A1 – B2 – A2 – B3 – A3 and never even get to C.

How did this pass through editing, I wonder? Nothing has happened. I’m bored with all the flashbacks and back story. If all that was important to know at the beginning of the story, then the author started at the wrong place in the story. It should have been A- B- C. Start the story with a scene showing the successful father at work, then his death, then the character’s decision to travel, a scene saying goodbye to Mom, etc.

At the beginning, we simply need to meet the character on his/her journey and understand the present situation.

Where to put Back Story?

Literary agent Donald Maass recommends putting it much later in the story, after page 100, at least. You only put the information in when it affects the current story and deepens the current emotions. Otherwise, weave in tiny bits and pieces (that’s OK) but leave out scenes and these boring, “he closed his eyes and pictured his home town.”

5 Comments
  • Jean Reidy
    July 9, 2009

    But when it works, it works. I’m listening to MISS SPITFIRE on CD and back story comprises much of the opening pages. And so far, the story is enthralling. So I’m scratching my head and trying to figure out what makes it work so well.

    Flashbacks seem to fit in my current WIP, but I want to write them right. So I’d love to open the discussion on when and why back story works.

  • Darcy Pattison
    July 9, 2009

    I think it does work sometimes, but usually it’s a character story and the story is ABOUT what makes the character tick. And it’s a story that doesn’t make use of scenes – again, because it’s about character.

    Is that what MISS SPITFIRE is like?
    Darcy

  • Jean Reidy
    July 10, 2009

    Ooh, good point, Darcy. Yes, MISS SPITFIRE is a character story — and so is my current WIP.

  • Livie
    May 2, 2010

    But what if without backstory the main character appears to lack the sympathetic qualities required for readers to root for him. In my WIP, I have the MC in action, in the middle of tension, with a lot at stake right from the start. Because of this he’s angry, and even thought I have tried to ground this anger by simply stating why he’s doing what he’s doing, readers of the first chapter seem to lack any sympathy for him. So without some sort of info from the past, how can I make him more sympathetic, truly his motivation are honorable? But with backstory, I can seal the deal. But I can’t use it because then my novel will end up on an editor slush pile. So these rules about back story seems to be a trap in publishing industry and with readers. Because without some point of reference (backstory) for this character, they can not be invested in his success until page 100?

  • Darcy Pattison
    May 2, 2010

    Maybe you could start at a different place?
    Maybe you can give him a heroic quality from the start?
    I don’t know what to do for your particular novel; however, I do know that in general back story should NOT be in chapter 1. It’s a problem you have to solve.

    Darcy