Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Lesson 23: Backstory and Back to Maass

We’ve taken a break for the last few weeks, but it’s time to continue working our way through WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL WORKBOOK, by Donald Maass. Picking up where we left off, puts us at lesson 23, Burdensome Backstory.

Once again, Maass stirs up controversy with his no-backstory-in-the-first-fifty-pages rule. Fifty pages? No backstory? Quick, sit down and put your head between your knees. I don’t want you or anyone else passing out while reading this blog.

Kidding aside, Maass makes a good point. Backstory placed too early in the story bores the reader. Added later, once the conflict--especially inner conflict--has been established, backstory develops and deepens the conflict and thus enhances the story.

Maass’ rule goes counter to what gut instinct tells us, as writers. After all, we want to establish who our hero or heroine is early on. As we craft those first scenes, we’re getting to know that character and the backstory seems important. Yet, we have to remember: what the writer needs to know to create the story and what the reader needs to know to enjoy the story are two different things.

To ensure we create compelling and multi-layered characters, writers must be aware of their characters’ past as well as what happens in the present. Thus, introducing backstory makes perfect sense to the writer, but a reader only wants information necessary for the story to unfold. When we withhold backstory from the reader early on and drizzle it in lightly once they’ve established a relationship with the character, we end up with a more powerful and effective tale.

When in doubt, add backstory sparingly after the first fifty pages. Only reveal information needed for the story. Anything else, withhold completely.

Happy writing!

Wishing you abundant blessings!
Debby Giusti

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