Men on the internet being wrong

Susan DeFCreative Writing, Writing resourcesLeave a Comment

It wasn’t so long ago that I shared with my newsletter, a comment left by a Man Who Shall Not Be Named on a recent article of mine for Jane Friedman‘s blog, in which he (man)splained why taking a stand for what you believe in your fiction was impossible without committing the sin of Bad Art.

I couldn’t disagree more–and I’ll admit, I experienced a certain glee in using the work of one of the ostensibly apolitical authors he lauded (Lorrie Moore) to demonstrate exactly why he was wrong.

Last week, I published an article on Jane’s blog entitled “How Can You Tell If You’re Starting Your Story in the Right Place?”–and yet another fellow felt the need to weigh in on why I was wrong.

The post itself is about why starting with the inciting incident of your novel often backfires, because we as readers don’t yet know enough about the context of the story to  understand that event, or know enough about the protagonist to care about what happens to them.

Are there exceptions? Sure.

And they almost universally involve starting with the inciting incident and then backtracking in time, in a way that A) fills the reader in on the basic context of the story and B) gives the reader a reason to care about the protagonist.

Bringing that up would have been a totally valid objection to the point I was making in this post–which is that your inciting incident should generally arrive in the story as soon as those key things have been established, whether that takes 3 pages or 30.

But that wasn’t this guy’s objection. His objection was this:

Back-story generally kills a story. 30 pages of back-story anywhere in a book is not a good idea. Starting a book with 30 pages of back-story is a terrible idea.

Which led me to wonder if he even actually read the post. Because that post is all about using the OPENING ACTION of your story to communicate the context of the story, and to give us a reason to care about the protagonist.

It was not about hitting your reader over the head with (for example) an exhaustive history of the starship mission your protagonist happens to be on, their fraught relationship with the chief engineer, or why they feel they can never live up to the example set by their famous mother.

I share this because it’s actually a widespread misconception in fiction–that backstory kills story, and the solution is to just cut it.

You know what really kills a story? No backstory.

Without backstory, your characters do things, but we don’t know why they do them, because we don’t know who they are, what they want, and why.

Without backstory, things are happening now–and they might be quite dramatic things, in fact, but we don’t know enough about the context in which they arrive to care.

Backstory communicates context, and context encodes meaning.

And yet it’s a common refrain in creative writing programs across the country–I absorbed this edict in my own MFA program–that backstory in general is to be avoided.

In reality, what you actually need to avoid is communicating it poorly. You know, via:

  • infodumps.
  • “spontaneous” recollections on the part of the protagonist that have nothing to do with what is happening in the present moment.
  • people sitting around and staring out of windows and, you know, just sort of reviewing the whole course of their lives.
  • all-knowing Victorian-style narrators filling us in on Everything We Need to Know

Communicating backstory via action unfolding in the present moment is a vital skill for any fiction writer, especially at the beginning of a story. (For excellent examples of this, look at the opening of virtually any movie.)

And the trick here is to choose opening situations and events that allow you to fill the reader in on that vital stuff in a relatively invisible way–not with big hunks of explanation (what Ursula K. Le Guin calls “expository lumps”) but with little sprinkles of this critical stuff, as needed.

It’s not easy to dial this in, I know–the perfect amount of backstory and context to share with your reader in your opening pages, communicated in exactly the right way.

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