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Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Time And Place For Backstory

There is a time and place for backstory and the beginning of your novel is not it. Beginning with backstory is a good way to get automatically rejected by many agents and editors. However, backstory is not the same as a prologue. Backstory is talking about something that has already happened where a prologue is something that is happening~even if it's in the past. The difference is action. Most agents and editors want the story to start right away. Readers want a sense that something is happening, there is something at stake, and there is a way to save what is at stake.

The inciting incident should be as close to the beginning of your novel as you can get it. This doesn't mean it has to be in the first chapter so long as what comes first is pertinent to the story and is exciting, suspenseful, or interesting enough to start the novel with. Not sure what the inciting incident is? It is the event which occurs and sets the entire novel in motion. Example: In Harry Potter it was the arrival of the letter from Hogwarts.

Backstory should come in later, after the reader is invested in the character and is hooked enough to keep turning pages. Only then will they tolerate or enjoy the lull of backstory. At conferences, workshops, and on blogs I've heard many agents advise that you should wait as long as you can to put backstory in your novel. Most say they don’t mind seeing it after five pages, even more say they prefer it after ten pages into the novel. I've found that waiting that long is a lot harder than it sounds. The key is to hook the reader quick and get them wanting to know more. As soon as you accomplish that, bring on the backstory!

For advice on backstory and more from editor Anica Rissi check out 9 Must-Follow Manuscript Rules.

17 comments:

  1. I'm checking out the article~ thanks! I agree that backstory can be digested better later in the novel. It makes sense to keep the reader engaged in the present action.

    Great post:)

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  2. Excellent post, Heather. I hadn't heard that tip about 5 pages and 10 pages before. I'm going to go count my opening pages before backstory hits right now -- uh, oh - nervous.

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  3. Excellent point. I hadn't heard the tip of 5-10 pages either. I honestly thought it was later. And it is sooo hard to write an inciting incident that makes sense without backstory and explanation of how the character(s) got there. However, if they're engaged, readers are more than willing to keep going even if they don't understand everything. And done right, this need for understanding KEEPS them reading.

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  4. 'The difference is action', I like that Heather. I think a lot of new writers confuse prologues with back-story. Sometimes, though writers just throw back-story on a page and label it a prologue, which is also not goo. But action is indeed the difference. Great post!

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  5. Those 9 must follow rules are great, thanks for sharing. I wrote a ton of backstory in my first novel. Thank you critique group for pointing it out!

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  6. Fantastic post, Heather! I'll be checking out the article for sure! :-)

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  7. Great post as usual, Heather. I like the tip about 5-10 pages... thanks!

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  8. You'll love the article Tamika! It's full of great insight.

    Thanks Linda! I found that infor about 5-10 pages on the online live conference chats with agents and editors. It's great to know!

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  9. It is tough to write an inciting incident without a bit of backstory isn't it Kristi? And you're right, it's all about getting them engaged!

    Thanks Lindsey. It struck me about the difference being action and that's when I knew I had to write a post about it!

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  10. The 9 rules are fantastic aren't they Julie? Don't feel bad. There was a lot of backstory in my first novel too! I must have cut 5000 plus words of it!

    Thanks Shannon!

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  11. Thanks DL! I'm glad you liked it. :-)

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  12. I read a great post on this recently based on one of Donald Maass's book. Something about cutting out you backstory and place on page 50. Chance are you won't need it at all.

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  13. Stina, so true, Donald's books are full of great advice!

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  14. Backstory, in my opinion, should be sprinkled in small doses, and even then not until somewhere after page 40-50....with very few exceptions. (One being stories where the past *is* part of the story and this is usually done in 'then' chapters [vs. 'now' chapters])

    For what it's worth: I'm not a fan of prologues.

    Wonderful post.

    Happy Thursday, Heather. :)
    Love,
    Lola

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  15. Sprinkled in small doses, I like that Lola, a lot! Thank you. :)

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  16. Thank you Heather! I am rewriting the first 2 chapters and I will remember to do this. I thought I wanted to ground the reader as to why she was feeling the way she was. But you are so right! I love it when you're right.
    Thanks also for the Writer's Digest link. Excellent!

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  17. I love it when I'm right too! Wait, what was I right about? LOL! You're welcome. I'm glad I could help.

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