Thursday, 23 April 2009

Backstory - wrestle it to the floor and sit on its head

In the first novel I wrote, Torbrek, I had huge problems with info dumps in the first chapter. As a novice, I had no idea anything was wrong until I joined YouWriteOn and readers told me about it. I struggled with it for months; eventually I put most of it in a prologue set three years before the start of the story - then I deleted the prologue and didn't reinstate the information.

Sometimes on Authonomy I tell a writer he has a great wodge of backstory plonked near the start of his novel. And all too often the response is along the lines of, 'The reader needs to know this because of events later in the story.' Which reader would that be, then? The one who put the book back in its jiffy bag or back on the shelf when she got to the dull bit?

Richie Dowling posted this excellent advice recently:

'My definition: "backstory" -- the relevant events in a character's life that happened before the novel (or whatever) begins. It's not the same as a character biography, where you detail everything about your character--but only use a fraction of the information in your novel.

Backstory may refer to one or two important events, which have relevance to the current story.

For example, in the film The Name of the Rose the character of William of Baskerville has an important backstory--he was a member of the Inquisition. During a trial he disagreed with the chief inquisitor, was tortured and forced to recant. As a result a man he knew to be innocent was burned at the stake.

How is the information imparted in the story? Bit by bit. There are hints of something important in William's past. I can't remember the exact sequence but the Inquisition comes to the monastery. We learn that William was once a member. Finally, when the boy is begging William to help save the girl he loves, William reveals the full story.

The key to good backstory is that it has to be dragged kicking and screaming from the characters. This is information they don't want to reveal, but the reader wants to know.

In Star Wars, Darth Vader didn't just say, "Hey Luke Skywalker, that name rings a bell, I think I'm your father." It was saved until the very end of the second film when Vader is trying to force his son to join him and overthrow the Emperor. Save the backstory for important moments in your plot, and use it to create revelations which turn scenes from good to bad or vice versa.

But then what you're doing is called a "set-up" and the reader is clever enough to spot them, which is why you have to hide your "set-ups" and have them accomplish two things. Remember Raiders of the Lost Ark? The opening sequence? Indy is double-crossed, betrayed, almost loses his life jumping across a pit, is chased by a giant stone ball and escapes, only to have the statue taken from him by his arch nemesis. He's then chased by a horde of spear-waving tribesmen before finally making his escape in a sea-plane. He freaks out when he sees a snake in the seat and we laugh because we think, "Boy, what a day! Everything has gone wrong for this poor schmuck and now the pilot's pet snake is in his seat!" We don't notice that this is actually set-up for later on in the film when Indy is trapped in a tomb filled with snakes.

If Indiana had merely said at some point in the film, "Geez, I don't like snakes" we would recognise it as a set-up so it wouldn't work. Disguise your set-ups by making them work hard and accomplishing at least two different things.'

Sunday, 12 April 2009

How Not to Write a Novel

I love this commercial - and what I've seen of the book is amusing, too. It's on my shopping list. Click here to read a bit on Amazon.

(I'm worried about the pink poodle's knees, though. They look all wrong.)

Friday, 10 April 2009

Voice - your greatest asset

A year ago I went with my writer friend Anna to a Romantic Novelists' Association talk, given by the agent Teresa Chris. What stuck in my mind was her emphasis on the importance of voice for a novelist.

She also wondered whether writers' groups and writers' courses conspired to make authors less individual, and damaged their voice. A novelist struggling alone in his garret was more likely to retain the unique qualities that would eventually make his work saleable.

It's interesting that Eve White, answering unpublished writers' questions, makes the same point. You can read her answers here. She says, when asked what mattered most, 'A fresh voice. Style is most important. One can learn structure and plot, but not style.'

Wednesday, 1 April 2009

Gold Star for CaFS on Authonomy

Catch a Falling Star got a gold star on Authonomy today - the second one I've won on the site (the first was for Torbrek...and the Dragon Variation, though admittedly there was much less competition to get to the top of the charts in those days).

This means CaFS will receive a crit from a Harper Collins' editor at the end of April.