Monday, March 4, 2013

The First Five Pages Part 3, Backstory

Backstory. Shakes head.  We can't have a discussion of the first five pages without talking about backstory.

Everybody hates the thought of squeezing backstory into the first chapter. Or anywhere. Nobody likes long passages of narrative explanation. And conversations about backstory sometimes sound as much like info dumps as the narrative explanations do.

Sigh.

So how DO you get backstory in?

The best way to get in backstory is to have a scene that illustrates it.

What? A whole scene for backstory? Really? How can a scene illustrate something that happened in the past?

It's okay. This is a concept that was difficult for me at first too. It's hard to imagine a scene that illustrates backstory because backstory is the past. Or, worse, backstory is usually something the hero/heroine won't talk about or wants to forget.

But you can do it. You just have to think really hard. LOL And you also have to make sure your backstory scene moves the plot forward.

For instance, I'm writing a book wherein the hero and heroine inherit a grocery store together. (Yay! Yes, I'm finally writing it.) The first scene of the book is the hero and heroine meeting in the lawyer's office. They are enemies with a past. I could have written a two-page explanation of how his grandfather bought her father's store for way less money than it was worth and he left her best friend at the altar. Instead, I wrote the scene where the will is read. From the way they treat each other, it's clear they hate each other. The "why" (backstory) is almost given in an argument. They dislike each other so much they can't help getting in a dig or two. But the lawyer doesn't want to hear it. He is there to give them the terms of the will. Period. So we get snippets of "why" in his thoughts.

Damn his grandfather for making him work with her! He hated her and her mom with all the passion he could muster. Not because they'd accused his grandfather of cheating them. But because their gossip had made his life even more of a hell than it already was.

Snippets are SHORT and, in this case, those snippets are provided in thoughts drowning in emotion. Not only do we know she and her mom accused his grandfather of cheating them, but also we just learned his life was a living hell. And we weren't bored with narrative explanations. We got four lines dripping with anger and frustration that help us to empathize with him -- all wrapped up in a scene that moves the plot.

The great Alice Orr, editor, agent and author, once gave a talk wherein she explained that backstory should be sprinkled in like seasoning. Only when needed and only in the right amount.

So that's the sprinkle version. Short bursts in thoughts that connect to the character's emotions so that readers can connect to him or her too, played out in a scene that causes the character to REACT -- to have those emotions -- even as it moves the plot.

The second way to get in backstory is through confrontation.

The wonderful editors at Harlequin Romance (Mills and Boon in London) taught me early on never to substitute the explanation of backstory for a good old-fashioned confrontation.

The lawyer in my first scene wouldn't tolerate my hero and heroine fighting in his office. LOL But the first time they are alone, their emotions boil over.

He pointed at her. "Stay away from me."

"Fine by me but it's going to be awfully difficult to run a business together without talking."

He squeezed his eyes shut. He was officially in hell, working with the best friend of the woman who'd accused him of fathering her child, forcing him out of town when he left her at the altar. Forget about the great Hyatt/O'Riley grocery store feud. He was hated for more important things. Things that stirred up more gossip. And she was at the center of that lie. "Fine. We'll talk about celery and lettuce, stocking shelves and scheduling employees, but everything else is off limits."

She rounded on him so quickly he stopped dead in his tracks. "Like I care about anything else going on in your life. Your name might be Donovan but you're still a Hyatt. I'd cross the street before I'd come within six inches of you, but your grandfather obviously wants a chance to make amends for what he did to my dad and I'm not too proud to take it."

AND don't we find out a lot about both characters in THAT little passage. Again, backstory is peppered into his thoughts. But better backstory comes out in their fight. They don't like each other. They aren't afraid to push each other's buttons. Each wants to set down ground rules. But she's also a scrapper. And she's not too proud to take his grandfather's "apology" of a sort for "stealing" the store from her drunk father. She's got the upper hand and she knows it.  She's getting half her family business back. He's getting the glorious opportunity to work with her. LOL

And I've totally avoided long narrative passages of backstory.

So basically that's the two ways of getting backstory into your book. First, in short NECESSARY bursts of information woven into true emotion. Second, in a scene/argument about their backstory. Something that is a REAL SCENE, not a fake scene that gives you an opportunity to get information to the reader that will still "read" like an info dump. But a necessary step to move the plot.

The argument I wrote above is part of the "Logical Next Step" of the opening of the plot. They inherit the store, they go to the store immediately after the will reading to more or less check things out and the resultant argument flows naturally.

And maybe those are two good words to remember about backstory. FLOWS NATURALLY. If your bit of backstory doesn't flow naturally into the piece you're writing, maybe it doesn't belong there.

Happy Monday

susan

1 comment:

Elisabeth Grace said...

Great examples to demonstrate your point! Thanks for this post!