Backstory kills novels. Passive verbs (those pesky ‘be’ verbs) deal fatal injury. Excessive ‘ly’ descriptors deal crippling blows. Ah, but today I speak of backstory.
Look at me; I can really talk about this. My first novel starts out with a whole chapter sprinkled with backstory. And a very excellent critique reviewer pointed it out. Did I listen? Of course not. At least not as first. I really needed that backstory in there because that’s what the protagonist was leaving behind. All that backstory never got mentioned again.
Don’t you hate that word?
But, I fear she was right. Is it an amateur type of mistake? Probably. I don’t have that much experience, but I’m getting there. Here’s the deal. In the process of building your world and giving your characters the background to fill out their personalities, we do tend to desperately want the reader to see the whole picture we see. We feel it’s the most necessary thing in our story. I hate to say it. Backstory is not all that.
You need to let the reader know that MC had a horrible upbringing? Of course, his horrible upbringing led him to the terrible mistake he just made, which this story is about. But the reader doesn’t want all those gory details. The reader only wants to know how MC is going to deal with it right now. However, a light smattering of specific details – and I mean only two or three lines – is usually all we need to get inside that MC’s head and heart and know what drives the story.
Read budding authors who have recently self-published their first novel. While many of them are excellent stories beyond belief and you wonder how in the world no agent gave them a chance, look deeper. A whole slew of them are packed with passive verbs and long winded backstory. That’s what killed them for the agents.
So take a minute to analyze your work. Is the plot in place and does it fit at least one of the related genres? I mean if you have a hero quest, you have one type of plot. A romance has a completely different one. Mystery, still another. So what happens when you write a SciFi murder mystery, where the main character is headed off across the galaxy in search of [fill in the blank] and she falls in love with an alien?
I’m not going there, just check your plot before you go any further.
Oh, I was harping on backstory, not plot. Ask yourself this question. Does that bit of backstory point directly to the goal of the main character? If not, cut it or rewrite it in one sentence!
Can you spend pages on one scene, filling the finite details of the history of a rock? I love, love, love the long picturesque scenes so amazingly done by Jean Auel in the CLAN OF THE CAVE BEARS series. In VALLEY OF THE WILD HORSES she writes a scene which takes up several pages just describing one simple little fossil shell. I hungered for more and that scene has remained with me for decades. Trust me, folks, I’m not Jean Auel. And it shows. For now I must keep my details to a minimum.
I write horses. I can spend all day talking about what happened to make this particular horse the way he is. I can spend an entire chapter on how the main character, who is trying to rehabilitate that horse, is trying to overcome the problem. I’m truly a horse whisperer and I have been since I was about ten years old. And I have rehabilitated many horses. But I’m not Nicholas Evans. By the way, did you know he’s still selling the Kindle version (of THE HORSE WHISPERER) for $9.99?
Oh, I digress again! Does the reader want to hear all I have to say about harnesses or bridles, or Arabian horses, or even mustangs? Do I need to install the history of a particular style of training? I can only wish. It’s a niche genre, so I’m told.
However…When I set about trimming, tightening up, cutting and rewriting, I was showered with stars. You love your scenes and you’re proud of your extensive knowledge. And just what, exactly, does that have to do with the plot? Make sure you can answer that. And do your trimming.
Long winded backstory with all the past tense verbs, and too many ‘was’, ‘just’, ‘very’, ‘so [happy, excited, scared, worried, etc.]’, ‘that’, and all the other hot words that make a reader want to toss the book in the Goodwill Box, need to go. The history needs to be cut back to the bare bones and then sprinkled sparingly throughout.
I have the urge to get on my soapbox about techno-babble, but I’ll save that for later. For now:
- Read your manuscript as if you just checked it out from the library.
- With your trusty highlighter, mark every spot that goes back in time. Don’t stop and try to fix it, just mark it and read on as fast as you can.
- When you’re done with that, do a word search for your favorite ‘hot words’, and just highlight them, quickly.
- After you’ve finished those two simple things, then you have something to work with. Get into your revision with a purpose.
For a look at my first novel, written under a pen name, where I learned the truth about backstory, here is Big Hearts, by Eve Connelly on Amazon and Kindle, http://tinyurl.com/qfmdozf
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