Friday, September 10, 2010

Backstory is not your friend

I read a few of the New Voices entries and I want to highlight something.

The reader wants the story to be happening now. The writer might need to know the set up, but does the reader? Back story kills the movement of a story and deflates tension.

I love the Donald Maass exercise which says highlight all the back story in the first three chapters and move it to chapter 15, certainly beyond the halfway point.
Reread the first three chapters, what does the reader need to know to make sense of the story? What must be there?  Put in as little as possible.
You want hints. You want the characters to have secrets. You want the characters to be involved in the NOW. Save the back story for the confession time. Allow the characters to have secrets and to have something to confess. When the reader is emotionally invested in the story, then the explanation will be far more heart rendering.

Start with dialogue.
Start with action.
Keep the Back story a minimum.
The reader needs less than you think.

And yes I have suffered from this before!

This is also directed at me as I write this short story. 10k is not long and every word has to count...and other things are more than detailed explanations/set up.


Carol Townend said...

Oh, yes, backstory is a demon I have wrestled with a number of times! Good post, Michelle, and a timely reminder....

Joanna St. James said...

for someone who loves backstory i find this pretty hard to do but I tried it for my new voices entry and it is looking better than it did b4, now just a lil more tlc and it would be good to go. Good luck with your 10k ms

Donna Alward said...

I feel the need to do a post about my troubles with this. I think I shall. Right after I have something to eat!

Francine Howarth said...


As a reader and one-time paid book reviewer for a magaazine, I have to disagree on the "don't do backstory" in first chapter!

If I'm not drip-fed a little backstory on the MCs they are battling my disinterest immediately, and will have to go some to keep me reading on. I really won't give a toss about two people meeting if I know nothing about them.

I have to know a little about the MCs past, like what makes them tick and why they're where they are when they meet. I don't want them necessarily meeting face-to-face within the first chapter, I want to be tortured and kept on the edge of my seat wondering "will they won't they meet" in chapter two.

A writer that can pull-off this type of remote yet mind-blowing opening, "eyes across the room", maybe virtual contact by phone (voice)etc., or perhaps seeing a photograph - anything but the tired old cliche of "instant face-on face and verbal seduction" in first chapter - is a great writer.

As a writer I understand the HM&B rules for their category romance lines, but other romance publishers are less stringent in this ludicrous ruling and more often than not interested in more innovative beginnings!

That said, on occasion one happens across a superb M&B novel entailing innovative opening and meeting of MCs, but being utter cruel and frank I've seen few opening chapters of late from the published sector that have hooked me. Whereas, some of the entries to the new voices have outstanding opening chapters that defy all HM&B rules, and that's what makes them outstanding rivetting reads!

One only has to look at the vast numbers of aspiring romance writers to know that although they love reading romance "they're writing romances" because they're writing what they really "want" from a romance novel. In effect they are being denied "that crucial element" by the "few" (eds) dictating what all those aspiring romance novelists' really want from a romance novel: hence the competitive marketing of romance e-books/paperbacks by independent publishing houses is really causing waves of anxiety at HM&B!

If HM&B don't up their game and step away from rigid guidelines/rules they may see sales fall dramatically, more so now that rumours Tesco are considering setting up their own romance publishing line!



Michelle Styles said...

Francine --

I am going to disagree with you on several points.

First of all I will direct you to the latest quarterly report from Torstar, Harlequin's parent company. There you will be able to see that HMB is doing brilliantly around the world in very difficult economic times.
HMB have been running contests like New Voices since the 1920s. It used to be a huge deal back then.
The point about the New Voices is exercise is to find the best voice that fits the series line, not to find the best single title voice.
As Mr Mills once said -- they would reject Shakepseare, if he didn't fit the guidelines.

Second of all the problem with backstory is not a HMB rule but rather comes from the great agent Donald Maass in his book Writing the Break Out Novel.
The trouble with backstory, particularly when it is introduced far too early is that it slows the pace down and kills tension. If order for backstory to work, the reader needs to care about the why of the characters. They have to want to turn the pages.
And what the author needs to know versus what the reader needs to know is very different.
Maass makes the point and I agree with him that the reader needs far less back story than the writer thinks. And that back story does need to be deployed with a careful drip feed. It is the when does the reader need to know.

Third the reason why you have the meet early in a series romance is that there isn't much room for bridging conflict as there are very few subplots due the length of the books. You need to get the main story started and it can't start with out the Meet.
If they don't meet, why not. What needs to happen before the meet? And how can you make it so tense that the reader has to keep turning the pages?

Francine Howarth said...

Hi Michelle,

My point is we are living in the 21st century not the 20th, therefore what was good for the 1920s re Mr Mills or Boon, is that times have changed, peoples tastes have changed, and we as readers expect more thrill and drama from a romance novel.

50,000 words I admit does limit scope for indepth feedback, but I maintain drip-fed feedback is vital or the reader just feels like a fly on the wall watching an action scene: nothing more, because the MCs have no substance.

Who can't remember the MCs names from Gone with the Wind or Pride & Prejudice?

Who can remember the MCs names from Titanic?

Yes all three were made into movies, but the last one is not so easy to remember. I couldn't think of either character name without looking it up, but could remember the stars' names.

I can remember characters from Barbara Cartland novels and those of Georgette Heyer, but I'm damned if I can remember the character names from the last HM&b novel I read: a week ago). I can already remember some of the characters from chapters 1 of New Voices entries read on the first day, and have read loads since. So what makes characters stick in one's head and others float off into the blue?

Answer because something about the story, the characters, and the opening was different and memorable!
rest my case

Michelle Styles said...

Francine --

You have missed the point entirely. The post is about not doing an info dump.

You do need to create memorable characters but part of creating memorable characters is knowing how much back story to feed in. Too much back story and people's eyes glaze over and they skim read.

If you didn't have ANY back story, the story would not make sense. So what is the minimum you need in the first 3 chapters? It will be far less than you first think. It always is.

Far too often authors do back story dumps in early drafts. I know I do. The question is when do you tell the back story. The answer is when it is going to pack the most punch and give the greatest emotional impact.
At the moment, I'm writing a 10k serial, the characters have to be well rounded etc but I don't have the word space to do much more than paint with a broad brush.

There is a lot that goes into creating memorable characters and that is a whole other post. Actually it is a whole series of posts. And there are ways to show bits about characters without telling the whole backstory in the first chapter.
And it is too bad that the last HMB did not speak to you as much as you hoped. I will guarantee that to some reader somewhere it will have done.

But I seem to have hit a raw nerve with you and I'm sorry for that.
The thing with best practice etc is that you have to understand why it is best practice and why you are deviating from it. That's all.

Francine Howarth said...

Hi Michelle,

Not a raw nerve by any means, and I'm not geting at you. I just think too much pressure is put on aspiring writers of romance in the "How To" stakes regarding "How To books".

I think real-time workshops are a great idea, because the voodoo aspect of "How To" is less intimidating. Let's be honest you have someone in front of you explaining the ups and downs and pitfalls that often as not ensnare a new writer.

Whereas with "How to Books" an aspiring writer is usually at home and struggling to equate the "do it" and "don't do it" aspect of knowing when less is more or less too little, and just how much a reader should be told while a character is often kept in the dark. I love the latter by the way.

To be honest a lot of the "How To" books are a bit like that of a magician's art of smoke and mirrors: keeping the audience in awe of the master's art, and retaining confusion as to how the magic is really performed!


Caroline said...

Wise word as always Michelle. Good luck with the 10k story. I've been leaving comments left right and centre about too much back story - and some chapters don't even introduce the hero. But saying that all my comments may come and bite me on the you know where when I post up *my* entry -lol. And kudos to those that have already - much braver than me at the moment! Caroline x

LindseyHughes said...

The more I read about 'backstory' the more confused I become. It would really help to have a single definition to which everyone subscribes.

Love this whole post!

Michelle Styles said...

Lindsey --
The technical definition of backstory is everything that happens to your characters before the first page of your story.
If directly referred to, it can be handled as either flashbacks (direct or indirect) or narrative action. It needs to be written tight or you will slow the story down.

LindseyHughes said...

Thanks Michelle - brilliant definition because easy to remember