Literary Liaisons

A blog about writing and all things story…

Control the Back Story Urge to Purge

SO much history – so little time!
Modern readers have been transformed by instant gratification story telling; elaborate and stunningly visual video games, crimes solved in 50-minutes on TV, and movies that take their breath away – it suffices to say, contemporary reader’s have elevated expectations. I’ve mentioned before that it’s critical we writers learn from screenwriters because our readers want cinematic writing. IT gets more apparent every day. That means we really have to get straight to the story IMMEDIATELY! No pussy-footin’ around.
A few years ago I had Bill Johnson (author of A Story is Promise, and others) review a novel I’d written. He told me it started on page 50. I nearly choked; “what about all my fascinating back story?” I asked… well, maybe not quite like that, but it’s what I was thinking. To wit he said; “Nobody cares about the back story until they care about the character.” This sent me on a (now) 7 year journey to reveal character in as few words as possible, and to tell a story without back story dumping. I still struggle with the urge to purge, but I’m getting there. Part of getting there is in recognizing that your story may not start until page 50… if you’re lucky.
A few years ago at Donald Maass’s Breakout Novel workshop in Vancouver BC, he told us many of the books he receives don’t get going until chapters 3 or 4 and that generally he sees a minimum of 25 pages of setup and back story first.
One exercise we Maass students did was to go through the first several pages of our novel and remove back story or useful narration, and then chose only a couple brief sentences that contain a back story fact that we felt was critical in the opening chapters so the reader would understand the story. Then we rewrote the scene so that these BRIEF sentences were revealed by the protagonist in dialogue to another character – which is the best way to reveal back story anyway. This SOUNDS so easy…doesn’t it?
For a control freak like me it’s been a hard lesson to learn; to trust my readers by resisting the urge to tell them the back story for fear they won’t get it. And I’m still working on it.

Some first scene tips for controlling that ‘control freak’ back story urge:
Show what your character desires, needs, hates, or loves and what their obstacles or vulnerabilities are– if and ONLY if it’s important to the story, in the first scene. This is where the skill of our craft comes into play. Write with intention. Understand why you choose the words you choose and what they have to do with the character and the overall story. Only reveal what matters to the story, not what’s fascinating to you, but what’s critical to the story.
In the first five pages of my novel, Once a Warrior, I reveal the most critical aspect of my main protagonist’s nature in the middle of a conflict, in 3 words (no back story). Of course until it’s published I can’t tell you what those 3 words are, and the specifics aren’t the point. The point is that I’m conscious of those three words, the power they have, and how they (revealing his true feelings) ultimately turn the story. Those 3 words inform his every step and every decision that follows right up to the very last page. Without these 3 words there would be no story. This took some time, therapy, coffee, wine and a lot of chocolate (all vital writing tools) for me to discover.
So, what do you reveal about your protagonist in the first scene that will hook your readers and requires little to NO back story?

4 comments on “Control the Back Story Urge to Purge

  1. Jack
    May 8, 2012

    Thanks for reminding us, Mindy.

  2. Phoenix
    May 8, 2012

    Mindy, you've done it again – educated and entertained your audience. Thank you!

  3. Phoenix
    May 8, 2012

    Mindy, you've done it again – Educated and entertained your audience. Thank you!

  4. Stephen Hayes
    April 26, 2012

    I was once told that my story didn't really begin until page thirty-seven. I was crushed, but when the anger and pain subsided I realized they were right. I imagine this is a lesson every writer encounters.

Comments are closed.


This entry was posted on April 26, 2012 by in back story, Bill johnson, Donald Maass.
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