Writing Tips & Tools

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Lesson 24: Low Tension - Part 2

by Bonnie Calhoun

Today we continue with Donald Maass' Writing a Breakout Novel.

What I am going to endeavor to do here is present truncated versions of each of the lessons in the workbook. This will by no means suffice as an alternative to reading the book...or the workbook. I hope it piques your appetite to buy the books. They are invaluable reading and reference!

Today's lesson is in Section TWO: Low Tension: Part 2.

This lesson deals with burdensome backstory! This is one of the most common ways that an inexperienced novelist...and even sometimes the practiced ones...bog down their openings.

You may think that backstory tells things about a character, that we just have to know...LOL...sometimes it can, but that still doesn't make it necessary. We don't always need to know all of these facts, all at once, or right in the beginning.

Backstory doesn't tell a story, have tension or complicate problems. However once problems have been introduced, backstory can be artfully deployed to deepen them. It can be particularly useful in developing inner conflicts.

Force yourself to withhold the backstory stuff. Having it in the first few chapters always feels awfully necessary. But it is not. It may be more useful later in the story. If when you get there you find you don't need it after all, then maybe you didn't need it in the first place.

Step 1: In the first fifty pages of your novel, find any scene that establishes the setting, brings the players to the stage, sets up the situation, or that is otherwise backstory.

Step 2: Put brackets around this material, or highlight it in your electronic file.

Step 3: cut and paste this material into chapter fifteen...Yes, chapter fifteen
NOTE: Over and over authors bog down their beginnings with setup and backstory. The fact is, the author needs to know these things, of course, but the reader does not. The reader needs the story to begin.

Follow-up: Now, look at chapter fifteen. Does the backstory belong here? If not, can it be cut outright? If that is not possible, where is the best place for it to reside after the midpoint of your novel!

Conclusion: Backstory is less important than most novelists think. If you must include it at all, place it so that it answers a long-standing question, illuminating some side of a character rather than just setting it up.


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