Sunday, June 30, 2013

CREATING BACKSTORY BY RITA KARNOPP

My first thriller, Atonement, opens with a serial killer with his victim . . . letting the reader into his world and mind.

 He bent her finger back . . . all the way back. It cracked loud and final. He shuddered with excitement and anticipation. She cried for forgiveness, but the duct tape muddled her words and screams. He hated tears. How useless.

He slid the sharp, long, Bowie knife from the sheath on his belt. A jolt of excitement shot through him. He preferred using a larger knife on bigger fingers. How could he not enjoy the feel of the heavy righteous blade in his hand? The worn leather handle fit his palm. It was meant to be his. Happiness filled him for the first time in weeks.


Who is this killer? What reasoning drives him to cut his victims fingers off? What has happened in his past that would give him fulfillment from such an act?  I won’t answer those questions in my opening pages. Why not? Because I want to reveal the answers in the backstory.

Backstory has been described as a set of events created for a plot, offered as preceding and leading up to that plot. It is a literary device of a narrative history all chronologically earlier than the narrative of primary interest.

I think what they mean is it’s the ‘baggage’ of our life up to this point.  A backstory shares key elements— that may be depicted and revealed in a novel —affecting timing, reaction, input, support, and even shock value.

Backstory helps to corroborate the setting as well as events and makes the reader care about what happens to the characters.

But be careful: Backstory by definition takes the story backward and when you think about it – then it halt forward action.  No matter how careful you are – when that story screeches to a stop . . . you reader my decide to stop reading.

Too Much, Too Soon -  Too much backstory in the opening pages can be the kiss of death.  I always resort to the comment, “No one waits for the action to begin.”  Writing  page after page of backstory at the beginning to set-up the story is not a good idea.  I know you’ve read them - you have to force yourself to keep reading – because you are convinced the information must be important.  I will actually start skimming – waiting for the story to begin.  This is not a good thing to have happen in your story.

Then there are the books that get off to an exciting start and just when I’m totally invested . . . the story stops to feed me backstory.  What??  I’m frustrated and anxious to find out what happens…and you’re making me wait???  No!

Guess what, there is plenty of time throughout the book to feed in information the reader needs to know about your characters.  Keep that story moving forward – make the reader turn those pages.

If you find yourself typing backstory and it seems to be going slow . . . guess what . . . it feel the same way to your reader.  A good rule is sneak background in a little at a time without halting the flow of the story. 

Tomorrow – let’s discuss timing and managing the backstory.

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