My writing friends are good at telling me what’s wrong with my manuscript.
“Give more backstory, more introspection” are two comments I routinely receive from members of my writers’ group, as they critique the third manuscript in my trilogy. They have not read my first two books. I begged them not to, because I want them to analyze this manuscript as a standalone book. Having no history to rely on while they evaluate my prose, they find holes that would leave a first time reader crying, “Whaaaat?”
When they began appraising this manuscript, these readers did not know the characters, their relationships, or the conflicts played out in the first two books. They were meeting the characters for the first time and knew nothing about them. Consequently, their comments on the opening chapters were an interesting mix.
Brilliant and bewildering
Here are some of the remarks I received on the first 40 pages:
-“You had me on the first page.”
-“The pacing feels good at this point.”
-“The dialogue is terrific throughout.”
-“I love the strength in all the female characters.”
-“Wonderful mastery of the basic craft of writing.”
-“The plot moves along extremely well.”
-“Great way with descriptive phrases.”
-“The way you use slang from that period adds a lot to the dialogue.”
-“Fast paced, full of action.”
Encouraging comments to let me know I’m on the right track, but the following observations proved even more helpful:
-“I need a clearer understand of Tess and her motivations.”
-“I feel the novel tips toward not giving enough insight into Tess’ thoughts.”
-“Remind me of the relationships between characters.”
-“I have a feeling of being dropped into the middle of a novel rather than the beginning of one.”
-“Tess is a very adventurous character. I would really like to know what is gong on within her and not just without. Some reflection on Tess’ part could allow me to be more invested in her as a character.”
-“There are lots of places to drop in backstory, even if it’s only a paragraph. I think if I knew a bit more of their past events, I would feel more invested in the present story.”
-“Explain [Tess’] attachment to August either with exposition or flashback.”
If these readers had perused my first two books, they would understand Tess’ motivation and her relationship to the person she’s trying to rescue in this third manuscript. But they did not read those books.
What is obvious to me as the author, and obvious to someone who read the first two novels, is not obvious to readers who are meeting the characters for the first time.
The big fix
Backstory makes my protagonist’s motivation clear. Backstory is tidbits of information from the first two books injected at moments when Tess has time to reflect on her past and the people who are important to her.
The thing about backstory is not to overdo it. Robie Macauley and George Lanning write in Technique in Fiction that “only that part of then that is important to, that has a bearing on, now is worth being told.” In other words, include only those snippets from the past that are needed to explain a particular present situation. A couple lines. A short paragraph. If the backstory doesn’t clarify while moving the plot along, leave it out. Don’t bore or confuse readers with an information dump.
Slice, Dice & Splice
An information dump is a paragraph of explanation dropped shortly after a new character appears. I’ve encountered some that read like a This Is Your Life expose, revealing birth, parentage, education, employment, romance, best friend, worst enemy—sometimes with multiple flashbacks. This hunk of info stops the story faster than a wrench thrown in the printing press.
In Don’t Sabotage Your Submission, Chris Roerden suggests taking the backstory that is essential and chopping it into bits and pieces, then splicing those bits into places in the plot where they are necessary. Essential and necessary are key words.
Backstory and introspection help pace the novel.
They offer not only a breather from rapid action but also a time to get to know and understand the protagonist; her relationship to other characters; her values; her wants; her fears; why she acts and thinks the way she does.
Once I filled in backstory and resubmitted those first chapters, I received feedback like this:
“I am completely invested in Tess now that I understand her better.”
What more could an author want?
(Previously published May 16, 2012 as a guest blog on Sheila Boneham’s website Writers and Other Animals)