I am experienced in nonfiction—I wrote a book on the subject, in fact—but when it comes to fiction, I still have a lot to learn. My first novel is coming out this month (The Case of the Exploding Speakeasy), and though I’m getting a lot of good reviews, I am not sure I’m ready to teach about fiction.
With that disclaimer, let me share an observation I had when reviewing a potential client’s fiction manuscript.
When I suggested he “lighten up on the backstory,” he wanted to know what I meant by that.
Backstory is the term used for when you share a little of a character’s history—the story that preceded the current story. Sometimes it’s
done in a flashback, but more often it’s done in narration. The problem with backstory is usually too much, too soon—it is very
tempting to tell (remember, show, don’t tell) a lot about the character’s background in a big chunk of text, very early in the story. But why
does the reader care about your character’s history before you’ve gotten them to know and care about the character? Far better to break
up that history and intersperse it into later parts of the story.
The issue of backstory is one of my bad habits, I’m finding. I tend to use my character’s history as a way of introducing the character,
which, I think, is a rather old-fashioned way of writing fiction. Jeffrey Archer does it all the time, at least in his short stories, but somehow he gets away with it.
Then there’s stories like “The Gift of the Magi,” in which O. Henry starts out with “One dollar and eighty-seven cents.” We are told
that Della scrimped and saved to get it. That’s the first paragraph. In paragraph two, she flops on the couch and howls. O. Henry has sparked our curiosity. Now in the third paragraph he can give us the backstory of the character, because it starts to explain why she’s crying over $1.87. He does all this with a teasing, tongue-in-cheek style that almost seems to make a game out of bending the rules of narration. Wow—wish I could write like that guy!
David E. Fessenden is a literary agent with WordWise Media Services and an independent publishing consultant. He has degrees in journalism and theology, and over 30 years of experience in writing and editing. He has published several nonfiction books and written hundreds of newspaper and magazine articles. The Case of the Exploding Speakeasy, his first novel, reflects his love for history and for the Sherlock Holmes stories of Arthur Conan-Doyle. Check out Dave’s blog: www.fromconcepttocontract.com