Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Back story: Too much, too soon?

By Cynthia VanRooy

Ever have the experience of meeting someone at a party and within
minutes youâ?Tve heard about their three miscarriages, the ex-husband
they left because of his drinking, the brother whoâ?Ts in prison, but
itâ?Ts not his fault, his friends got him into trouble, and the uncle
whoâ?Ts suspected of using drugs? Whatâ?Ts your reaction? Do you want
to know this person better, pursue this new relationship further?
Hardly! You canâ?Tt wait get away from this stranger you already know
too much about.

This is the most common mistake new romance writers makeâ?"subjecting
their reader to the same kind of too-much-too-soon information dump.
Itâ?Ts understandable. We want the reader to love our heroes and
heroines as much as we do, to understand why they do what they do.
Our mistake is in wanting the reader to understand before weâ?Tve
given them a reason to care.

If the stranger were your best friend instead, that would change your
reaction considerably to the details they relayed. This holds true
for your fictional characters, too. The reader needs to become
emotionally involved with them, become caught up in the present
moment of the charactersâ?T lives before they can be interested in
anything that happened before the story started.

Thatâ?Ts what backstory isâ?"the events that happened prior to page
one that led up to the story. The most dangerous thing about
backstory is that itâ?Ts boring. Nothing is happening to engage the
reader. The characters arenâ?Tt acting. Youâ?Tre just relaying
information about them in the most uninteresting way

Rather than start your novel with backstory, start with the
culminating action that is the result of that backstory. Give the
reader only as much information as they need to follow that action
without becoming confused. Trust the reader. Theyâ?Tre bright,
theyâ?Tll get it. Honest. Need an example? Story opens . . .

A woman is driving at night. The only things keeping her weary,
hurting body awake are tension and adrenaline. She has to put as much
distance between herself and Richard as she can, but she knows she
needs to stop and rest soon before she becomes a menace to anyone
else on the road. She takes the next exit off the freeway and finds
herself in a small, seedy-looking town, the stores all closed and the
streets mostly deserted. She spots a motel up ahead. She pulls her
car into the parking spot in front of the orange neon lights
proclaiming â?ooffice.â?

With an effort she releases the steering wheel, only to discover her
hands are shaking. She takes a couple of deep breaths trying to get
herself under control, then grabs her purse and opens the car door.

In the office the clerk hands her a pen and shoves the register
toward her. She hesitates and has a moment of panic as she tries to
decide whether to use her own name. No, better not. She signs her
first grade teacherâ?Ts name, the only one she can think of. The
clerk stares at her left eye and she can feel itâ?Ts swollen. She
wonders if it has begun to turn black. The clerk hands her the room
key and she hurries to escape his scrutiny.

Once in her room she bolts the door and puts on the chain before
turning on the light and dropping her bag. Sheâ?Ts so tired she wants
to collapse, but knows sheâ?Tll sleep better after a warm shower to
ease the aches. As she peels off her clothes she notes in the mirror
the bruises blooming on her ribs and hip. And yes, her eye has turned

After a shower that does little to relieve the pain, she is making
her way from the bathroom when the phone rings. She freezes,
clutching the towel tightly around her, her hands fisted in the
terrycloth. Oh, God, heâ?Ts found her already. The phone continues to
peal insistently and she reaches out a trembling hand and lifts the

Nothing confusing here, you understand whatâ?Ts happening, The
passage raised some questions, but thatâ?Ts a good thing. Thatâ?Ts
how you draw the reader in. Who is Richard? Why is she running away
from him? What will happen if he finds her? Is he the one who hurt

To get hooked into this character and this story you didnâ?Tt need to
know the woman ran away at sixteen to escape her abusive home life,
that she lived on the streets for two years, that she got her act
together and worked her way through college, that Richard is a
musician she met in a coffee house where she worked, that she fell in
love with him because of his protectiveness, that the protectiveness
revealed itself shortly as control, and that it turned into the same
kind of abusive behavior she used to get from her father that she had
promised herself never to take again. Whew.

Ideally, that backstory would be fed to the reader a little at a
time, as they needed it. One of the best ways to impart backstory is
in dialog, where realistically the hero/heroine might reveal it to
the other. Dialog, with its action and white space on the page, is
reader-friendly and interesting, as opposed to long passages of
introspection where the character is doing nothing but thinking.

Arenâ?Tt convinced yet you should avoid starting your book with
backstory? An editor once told me if she wasnâ?Tt engaged in the
story by page five, she wouldnâ?Tt read any further before rejecting
a manuscript. Think thatâ?Ts harsh? Sheâ?Ts being charitable. Most
editors make that decision by page three. Some new writers try the
trick of reversing a page in their manuscript when they send it in.
Then when they get it back rejected and the page is still reversed,
they regard this as proof the editor never actually read their story.
Well . . . yes, they did. They read as much as they needed to in
order to know they werenâ?Tt interested in reading any more.

You have three pages to interest the editor/reader in your novel.
Donâ?Tt waste them on backstory. Throw the reader right into the
action. A hundred years ago writers had the luxury of beginning a
story with â?oOnce upon a time . . .â? Todayâ?Ts readers are too
impatient. Toss them right into the garden with a sobbing Cinderella
and her fairy godmother and explain later. Your readers will thank
you for it.


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