Friday, September 24, 2010

What I Learned About Backstory, Thanks to James Dashner

One thing I've had drilled deep into my mind since beginning the whole agent search:

Avoid backstory. (At least, at the beginning.)

While searching for evidence that this is, in fact, a very common complaint about most people's first chapters, I discovered this quote by Mike Farris:

"Strong beginnings start in the middle of the story. You can fill in backstory later. I like to see the protagonist in action at the start so that I get a feel for who the character is right off the bat. We often get submissions with cover letters that begin: 'I know you asked for the first 50 pages, but the story really gets going on page 57, so I included more.' If the story really gets going at 57, you probably need to cut the first 56."

I think most writers have made this mistake before. You just pick a place for the story to start, and you think it's the right place, but as it turns out, you discover the real story about fifty pages later-- and yet, in revisions, it feels like too great a task to chop up those first fifty pages, so you don't. You may not even be consciously lazy about it. Sometimes the mere suggestion of removing that much content from your manuscript will just shut your brain down.

To me, too much backstory suggests a lack of confidence in the strength of the story. If the story is strong enough, it will carry the reader through the first pages even if they don't have a clear sense of the main character. Often we incorporate a lot of backstory because we think that if the reader connects with the character like we do, the strength of the story doesn't matter as much. That is, of course, not true. I know I've said this before, but it's still true: backstory is like water-soaked jeans. It sags from your story's butt, weighing it down.

(Here at my blog, I like to use classy, sophisticated similes.)

If you want to see a good example of backstory being completely unnecessary in the first few chapters, read THE MAZE RUNNER by James Dashner.

Summary (from Goodreads): When Thomas wakes up in the lift, the only thing he can remember is his first name. He has no recollection of his parents, his home, or how he got where he is. His memory is black. But he’s not alone. When the lift’s doors open, Thomas finds himself surrounded by kids who welcome him to the Glade, a large expanse enclosed by stone walls.

Just like Thomas, the Gladers don’t know why or how they got to the Glade. All they know is that every morning, for as long as they could remember, the stone doors to the maze that surrounds them have opened. Every night, they’ve closed tight. Every thirty days a new boy is delivered in the lift. And no one wants to be stuck in the maze after dark. The Gladers were expecting Thomas’s arrival. But the next day, a girl arrives in the lift—the first girl ever to arrive in the Glade. And more surprising yet is the message she delivers. The Gladers have always been convinced that if they can solve the maze that surrounds the Glade, they might be able to find their way home . . . wherever that may be. But it’s looking more and more as if the maze is unsolvable.

And something about the girl’s arrival is starting to make Thomas feel different. Something is telling him that he just might have some answers—if he can only find a way to retrieve the dark secrets locked within his own mind.

First of all, I am officially recommending this book. Giant rubber stamp of Veronica Roth approval (in case that means anything). It's suspenseful, intriguing, and well-constructed. I am a big fan of uncertainty in books, and The Maze Runner does uncertainty extremely well. I was constantly asking the obvious questions: Why are they contained in a giant maze? Why would someone do something that terrible to a bunch of kids? And then the less obvious question: IS it terrible? And then every other page I'm thinking: yes. No. Yes. No. YES. No? What the heck is going on?

And in case you were wondering if the payoff of this mystery is worth sticking around for: OH YES it is.

But back to backstory. As you can tell by the summary, the only thing we know about Thomas in the first chapter is that his name is Thomas and he just woke up in a place called the Glade. Actually, that's the only thing Thomas knows about Thomas. There is no backstory at all. We don't know where he came from, what he looks like, who his parents were, or anything that happened to him in the fifteen years prior to his arrival. And it doesn't matter. You devour the story anyway.

Throughout the book, as Thomas gradually discovers things about his past, we discover them, too, and rarely has the unraveling of a character's history felt so satisfying to me. But even if I had never learned anything about Thomas's history, I still would have finished the book, because the story itself was strong enough to carry me through it.

So. If you find yourself tempted to include a lot of backstory in the beginning of your story, you probably suffer from one of two problems:

1. Your story is not strong enough on its own. You require the backstory to make it more interesting. Maybe, if you find the backstory so interesting, that's where your story should be. Or maybe you just need to rip all the expectedness from your story and overhaul it. Either way, don't be discouraged. When I say "it happens", I mean it. It happened to me. And it wasn't easy, and I mourned over it for awhile, but it led me to break out of my box and write Divergent, which was the best thing that ever happened to my writing life.

2. You don't have enough confidence in your story. And I think this is equally as likely. The best way to figure it out is to remove all hints of backstory from your first 30 or so pages and see what you have. And maybe you'll find that it's still interesting. That the voice is distinct. That the character is engaging. And hopefully, your story will be a heck of a lot lighter and quicker than it was before.

It's not that backstory doesn't have its uses, because it does, particularly if the advancement of your plot depends on the unraveling of a past event (which, by the way, is a dangerous game to play). But you want that backstory to emerge in small pieces throughout the story, not to be frontloaded onto your manuscript, weighing it down. And if you want to figure out how to do that, read The Maze Runner, and take note of where and how Thomas's history surfaces.

Actually, even if you don't want to figure out how to do it anyway. Because THE SCORCH TRIALS comes out October 12th, and how can you resist a book with that title, really?


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