Monday, August 17, 2015

How to Break the Rules: Never Start With Backstory

Any writer who has put their work out there or read a writing advice blog or two has likely come across some rules of writing. Maybe Kurt Vonnegut’s 8 Basics of Creative Writing or Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules or this collection of rules from modern writers at The Guardian. Or maybe you shared a piece of writing and someone responded with “You can’t do that.”

But if you’ve done any amount of book reading and analysis on your own, you know that many published books are exceptions to these rules. Because as any good space smuggler can tell you, the rules were meant to be broken.

“You say smuggling, I say a fun game of hide-and-seek.”

One of my favorite topics to talk about at conferences (the idea for which I readily admit I stole from Cameron McClure (with permission)) is How to Break the Rules. So I’m doing a mini-blog series about just that. Today we have a rule that folks have often heard from me during my Twitter reading of queries on #querylunch:

Rule #2: Never Start With Backstory

Backstory is everything that happens in a character’s life and world before the actual story begins. For example, my backstory includes: my great grandfather was the worst cattle rancher in west Texas and I am the eldest child of three and when I was 14 I first read Harry Potter, and all these things shaped who I am today. My world backstory is, well, all of history. Not all of it has shaped me personally, but it has all shaped the world into what it is today.

Of course if I were to write a novel with me as the main character, chances are slim that the death of Joseph Smith or my ancestor’s poor ranching skills would get a mention, even though my birth would be impossible without either of them. (Unless you ascribe to the Trousers of Time theory, but theoretical physics is straying a bit past our theme.)

So when writing, it’s key to figure out which bits of research and/or character- and world-building should be included, and when. The answer to the latter question, despite many a prologue, is almost always, “Not at the beginning.”

Backstory works wonderfully in a gradual build. Bits and pieces throughout the manuscript connect slowly into an overall picture of the world and characters, like the creation of a snow bank. Whereas throwing all of that information at the reader from the start is like being hit with an avalanche.

And yet some writers pull it off wonderfully. Consider the opening of N.K. Jemisin’s The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms.

     I am not as I once was. They have done this to me, broken me open and torn out my heart. I do not know who I am anymore.
     I must try to remember.
      My people tell stories of the night I was born. They say my mother crossed her legs in the middle of labor and fought with all her strength not to release me into the world. I was born anyhow, of course; nature cannot be denied. Yet it does not surprise me that she tried.
      My mother was an heiress of the Arameri. There was a ball for the lesser nobility — the sort of thing that happens once a decade as a backhanded sop to their self-esteem. My father dared ask my mother to dance; she deigned to consent. I have often wondered what he said and did that night to make her fall in love with him so powerfully, for she eventually abdicated her position to be with him. It is the stuff of great tales, yes? Very romantic. In the tales, such a couple lives happily ever after. The tales do not say what happens when the most powerful family in the world is offended in the process.

This is almost entirely backstory; the main character’s birth, her parents meeting, none if it is happening now. Most of the time, nothing makes my eyes glaze over like a character telling us about the night they were born, yet here, I’m immediately drawn in. Why?

Here’s what I think: The opening is full of tension. This isn’t just a story but the protagonist trying to remember her life, because it’s being torn from her. It’s a high stakes version of when you wake up in the morning and desperately try to hold to the threads of your dream before it slips your memory completely.

The opening also brings up immediate questions. Opening pages need to make the reader ask questions that they want answers to. So the first segment makes us wonder, “What is happening to her?” It sounds bad. Second segment has a mother trying to prevent her child from being “released” on the world. So we go immediately from “What terrible thing is happening to her?” to “What terrible things must she have done?” Then the third segment gives us a broader scope, a quick and sweet love story but without the pretty ending. So what does happen when you offend the most powerful family in the world?

It’s also gives us so much character- and world-building in less than a page of writing. Linger too long on backstory, even intriguing and tense backstory, and the reader’s mind is likely to wander.

Jemisin knows the rules, but she also clearly consciously breaks them. Her backstory is infused with as much stakes and tension as the rest of her work, and so her rule-breaking makes the story all the better.

What do you think about “never start with backstory”? What books do you know of that break the rule well?

Amy is a sci-fi/fantasy geek and literary agent who works at the Donald Maass Literary Agency in NYC. She represents all flavors of speculative fiction, especially works diverse in any and all respects (see her website for details). She has an unending love for bizarre supernatural critters, in-depth world-building, characters in emotionally dire straits, Megan Whalen Turner, and Reese’s Pieces. And yes, that’s a knitted Dalek finger puppet.

Where to find Amy: Twitter, Website

1 comment:

  1. Thank you. I just found what I need after a long time searching. Tomorrow, I will wake up early and do something new