Watch your backstory

I mentioned before the modern requirement that novels begin with a hook. This is the opening bang that grabs the reader’s attention so that he stands a chance of getting to the rest of the book in this age of the short attention span.

Most real stories don’t start with a bang. The stories we hear at parties don’t begin with a crescendo; they build to it (if we are lucky). Jokes don’t begin with a punch line. But we have to look party acquaintances in the face, making it awkward to walk away from their stories after the first sentence.

Nobody thinks you are rude if you walk away from a novel because it doesn’t hook you right away. That’s the advantage polite society has over novels.

The good news for novels is that the hook doesn’t have to be explosions and frantic action. It can be an unusual situation. It doesn’t have to make the reader’s heart race, so long as it makes him curious. The example I used before was that of a character burying a dead body.

Opening with an unusual situation can be more appropriate than actual fireworks for many novels, but it comes with its own baggage. The unusual situation has to be given context; it’s baggage needs to be unpacked. Inside its baggage is a very harmless-looking bundle called backstory.

Backstory never looks, to the author, like something that could blow up on him. There are no lit fuses or open flames. Backstory merely needs to be explained, but if it feels, to the reader, like it is being explained, the result is an explosion of boredom. That’s the anti-hook. Goodbye reader.

Not all backstories are created equal. Some are easier to finesse than others. If the person burying the dead body is a serial killer, the unusual scene can be explained by his future actions. Less background information is necessary.

minimal backstory required

The professional grave digger doesn’t require a great deal of backstory to put his actions into context, and he is probably a more sympathetic character than the serial killer. (Photo: John Vichon)

The situation doesn’t have to be unusual for the character, only for the reader. If the situation is unusual for the character, it will likely require more backstory.

If the character burying the body is someone who never imagined themselves doing such a thing, and will not likely make a routine of it, then the author has to spend more time going backward. How did this character end up in this unlikely spot? This brings heightened danger of putting the brakes on the story as well as confusing the reader.

Backstory is one of the most difficult elements of storytelling to pull off. Yet, when the only people who are allowed to start a story at its beginning are those we can’t gracefully escape, it is necessary. Making the opening scene unusual to the character as well as the reader makes the backstory even more difficult the navigate.

But there is a silver lining.

Novels in which both the reader and the character begin in an unusual spot, have the potential to be the most interesting of all. They can foster a bond between character and reader that the reader is not likely to form with a serial killer. If the author can sprinkle in the backstory carefully enough to interest and enlighten the reader, the story’s potential is well on its way to being fulfilled.

I hope to master the art of backstory someday, because I’m not that much into serial killers.

There are only three parts of your story to worry about: the beginning, the middle, and the end

I’ve moved on to my second proof copy of A Housefly in Autumn. This incorporates all the changes I made to the first proof. I normally go through four or five proofs before I am satisfied that the book is ready to be presented to the public.

In the first proof copy I made numerous changes, none of them major. A few of them were actual errors, but most involved making sentences more efficient. It’s amazing, the little things you don’t see until the manuscript holds like a real book.

The first proof had me worried about typographical errors and other embarrassing occurrences. I feel better about that stuff now, but the second proof brings its own worries.

These are big picture worries, about the overall execution of the storytelling.

Beating up the proof copy

My wife’s proof copy is already taking a beating, and she’s only just begun.

If you break a story down into beginning, middle, and ending, that leaves only three parts to worry about. This reduces the number of worries and gives you more time to worry over each thing.

I most recently obsessed about the middle. Before the first proof, I rewrote much of the middle, trying to transform parts that retained too much “telling” into more “showing.” Since this novel has a large oral storytelling component, in which a character literally tells a story, there were some limits to how much of this I could do.

I’m not saying I won’t obsess about the middle again, but since I just finished doing that, the middle will have to go to the back of the line.

For now, I’m focused on worrying about the beginning. It is an axiom of modern fiction that you have to grab the reader by the throat at word one and not let him breathe until he is irretrievably engulfed in the story. This concept is so well revered that a fair percentage of books now begin with explosions or with characters burying (or digging up) dead bodies.

Those incidents aren’t appropriate for this book, so I’m toying with adding a flash forward to an action-packed scene at the beginning. I need to do this without it seeming too much like a cheap gimmick. It also needs to fit with the historical setting, when people began a story at the beginning, regardless of where the bridges were set to blow.

If I can’t figure out how to work in some page 1 fireworks, I guess I’ll have to hope that my beginning is interesting enough. Meanwhile, I’ll worry that it’s not.

I have not spent much time obsessing about the ending. I’m pretty comfortable with it, except for maybe the last couple of pages. I haven’t found time to worry about a mere page or two, but I will at some point.

Do the last lines bring home the points I worked hard to make throughout the book? Or are they relics of the book this used to be, before it matured and added meat to its bones? These are the questions that await my future obsession with the ending.

Maybe that will come with proof copy number three.