Letter From The Editor - Issue 68 - April 2019

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  Writing Advice by Mette Ivie Harrison
November 2009


My 14 year old has been struggling with her first novel this year. It's YA fantasy with a prologue and italicized legends of the past, both classic fantasy backstory devices. She wanted to know if there was some neater way to deal with backstory, some "secret" that published writers knew about how you tell all the stuff that the reader needs to know to understand what is going on when the real page one begins. Unfortunately, I had to tell her that there is no "secret." That is, there is no special technique that makes all problems of backstory disappear. Published writers can not link into the brains of readers and download data anymore than anyone else can (we hope!). What any writer has to do is make the backstory into story. It's not a secret and it's not a trick. It's just hard work.

I was recently reading the twentieth novel in a beloved detective series. The first fifty pages of this book were padded with backstory about this character or that one, getting the reader back up to speed on events that happened in the last nineteen novels, since few of us are going to be rereading all of them in order to get ready for the new one. I was disappointed, however, at how the author felt little need to tell a story with the information. The front story was going along, and then a character popped up, and clunk -- two pages of backstory. Sloppy writing, in my opinion.

Writing a novel is not like writing a dissertation, in which case you should feel no obligation to entertain the readers because they will number exactly five, the members of your committee, and they are inevitably the ones who made you add all the boring parts, so they deserve to have to plug through four hundred pages on Goethe's accent and his rhyme. Writing a novel is like teaching a classroom of Kindergarteners, who are inevitably going to be more interested in the color of what is coming out of their neighbor's nose than anything you have to tell them, unless it is pretty damn good. You need to make those 5 year olds laugh. You need to make them scared of what will happen next. You need to make them believe that the story is about them or their next door neighbor or their mother or someone they know very, very well.

A line or two describing a character's features -- acceptable.

A paragraph describing a character's genealogy -- maybe.

A page describing a character's role in the last apocalypse -- destined to bore.

In fact, one of the strange truths about backstory is that more can feel like less. If you put things in scene, use dialog, add a few important details, and just let it be a story, you can often get away with a good chunk of a chapter that is really backstory, simply because it is entertaining. It may not move the front story forward, but there are times when a break from a relentless plot can be a good thing, can make the reader even more ready to get back to it. I wouldn't leave the heroine hanging from a branch off a cliff while telling a story, but you get the idea.

In fact, stories within stories are an important part of fantasy. They are an important part of any kind of literature. What stories we believe in tell a lot about who we are. Sometimes the story within the story is useful because it can highlight themes or hint at future events the way that a prophecy might. But more important, you can tell a story just because it is a good story, just because you know how to tell a good story.

There are books that have to be read at a breakneck pace, with only the central plot. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is one example of this. The story is about what happens in the games. Only one person survives. Who will it be, of the twelve? That drives every scene of the novel.

But there are also books that are leisurely read, opening up a new view of the fantasy world with every chapter. The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss is one of these. The reader finds out about every detail of Kvothe's life history, about every character that he meets. The readers learns about the legends of the land, sometimes through the simple device of the plays that his parents put on in their troupe, or in books that Kvothe later reads when he attends the university. Nothing seems to be too small to be included in the story. But what matters is that the reader wants to know what happens next, even within the story of the backstory.

One of my favorite books is The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner. Those of you who read this column regularly know this already and may get sick of my references to her. I hope not. I think there are many things to learn from her storytelling. There are some good sections of her first novel that are taken up with telling folk tales from the people of Eddis. I love them because the thief himself is such a mysterious character and the folk tales give a glimpse into his world and really, into himself. He is always hiding, but when he tells his stories, he comes out of his shell. Or he pretends to, at least. But there is no attempt on the part of the author to disguise these bits of back story as anything else. They are in italics, set apart from the rest of the text, and nothing else really happens in the background as the thief is telling the story. But the stories are interesting in and of themselves. They are little gems, little short stories within the novel. I think any one of them could sell in a magazine. If you think about your backstory that way, I think you will have better luck. Take it out, look at it as an independent piece, and make sure that it is worth reading on its own terms.

But don't feel obliged to put every detail of the world you have created into one book. Storm Front by Jim Butcher, the first in the Dresden files, (yes, again!) is a great example of backstory restraint. There is nothing wrong with teasing the reader a little. I think that is part of the joy of the reading experience, though if you are only teasing the reader and not doing anything else in your story, then I think you will have problems with readers feeling cheated. It is only because I have read all the other Harry Dresden books that I know how little of Harry's backstory is in the first one. It is eked out, story by story, throughout the whole series. As an author, you may not know if your first book will ever sell, if you will ever get to tell the rest of the series. That doesn't matter. It's not an excuse for telling everything at once. A scene here or there is what you want to do.

Thinking that the reader wants to know everything at once is a big mistake of beginning authors. Readers only want to know enough to understand most of what is happening in the front story. They are willing to suspend their questions if the story is interesting enough, if the characters are different, and if things that are unexpected are happening. A few basic rules of magic will suffice in the first few chapters. Then you can get into the details of the exceptions to all the rules. There is no need to tell the architectural plans for every building the hero will be entering, or to explain the history of three civilizations before the one that is currently reigning.

I tend to write backstory as necessary and while I cannot recommend this method because of the numerous drafts that I have to write as a result, it does have the advantage of making sure that I don't cram my books full of character studies and histories just because I know about them and want to put my research to good use. Even if you are doing a lot of that world building work before you start to write the first scene, put it aside before you begin. You've done the work. Trust yourself to remember what you need, when you need it. But don't work your novel around trying to fit in everything that you know about your characters and your world.

A common feature of fantasy novels is a protagonist who has only just come into his or her power, and therefore is learning with each page turn, just as the reader is. Then it makes sense to tell information as the character learns it. But be careful not go too far with this. The reader isn't trying to actually learn how to do magic and will not want to read large chunks of magic books or spells. The reader wants to see what happens as a result of those magic spells that are being learned. What mistakes happen? What are the consequences? A wise teacher of some kind will, of course, be on hand to give a few hints. I am annoyed by wise teachers who withhold information from the pupil (and thus, from the reader) for no apparent reason except to make the ending more surprising. I think it is far more interesting when the teacher simply doesn't know, or is wrong. A bright pupil can be going beyond what a teacher has learned in every area of knowledge.

A character from our world entering a fantasy world is another way to easily disguise backstory, because everything that is new to the reader will also presumably be new to the main character. Again, be careful. A few details about setting will suffice to intrigue. Then story must take precedence. A reader doesn't care what color the sun is in another world unless the sun is going to fall into the ocean in the imminent future. An exaggeration, perhaps, but not too much of one.

If you are telling a story in media res where the characters have long been part of the world they are in, and are adults who already know what their own capabilities are, there are still mysteries to unfold. In a sense, I might argue that every novel is a mystery. Not every novel is about a murder and who done it, but there is often a mirroring between the protagonist and the reader, so that the two discover things together. That is what reading is really about, discovering what the story is. Writing is the reverse, in a way, so that writers put the puzzle together piece by piece in a way that allows the reader to always have a glimpse of some part that is interesting in itself, in addition to the way in which it fits into the larger whole.

Read more by Mette Ivie Harrison

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