Friday, January 09, 2009

Writing Exercise


People here always complain about back-story, even when it seems to work okay. So let's show 'em what really bad back-story is like. Write the first 250 - 300 words of a novel or story, and fill it with plenty of horrible back-story. Deadline Sunday at 10 AM eastern. It's okay to make Evil Editor one of your characters if that helps you get started.

9 comments:

Xenith said...

People here always complain about back-story, even when it seems to work okay.

It never works okay in the third paragraph :|

Evil Editor said...

Sounds like we can look forward to an excellent exercise from Xenith.

Xenith said...

Oops. I guess I can put off my rewriting for another day.

writtenwyrdd said...

Oh lordy, I really wish I had time to do this one. Instead, I must paint and do carpentry and lay carpets.

I'm looking forward to reading the entries, though!

Robin S. said...

And after the writing exercise, are we gonna talk about backstory?
Because if you're telling a story in the past tense (mine is), your freaking plot is backstory, in a large-view sense.

And so many classic novels are written in the past tense - backstory woven in, or the story itself, a kind of backstory. I think this whole backstory issue is a bit of a gooser.

freddie said...

Totally agree! I feel like some people read some how-to writing text and then spout its 'wisdom.'. I find many fine openings have backstory.

Robin S. said...

Yep, like the novel Rebecca. The whole damn thing is backstory - and yet, it's a beautifully written sorry that grabs you from the first line (I noticed it's been bandied about with on one of the Back-Story exercises).

And how about Catcher in the Rye?

Joanna Hoyt said...

Yes, and also *Emma*, *The Brothers Karamazov*, The Fellowship of the Ring*, *The Last Unicorn*, *Stones from the River* and *Cry the Beloved Country*.

I suspect that the ideal of a fast-paced line of action flowing steadily forward comes from TV and movies. I don't see why authors should have to behave like screenwriters.

Xenith said...

Yes, and also *Emma*, *The Brothers Karamazov*, The Fellowship of the Ring*, *The Last Unicorn*, *Stones from the River* and *Cry the Beloved Country*.

If we're going to be throwing out examples: "Pride & Prejudice" moves forward from the beginning (there might be some back story in the early chapters but I couldn't see it on scanning). "The Three Musketeers" gives us our main character in a conflict and then drops to the back story. "Dracula" cheats by starting with the narrator travelling, so you could argue it either way but it is moving forward. "For the Term of His Natural Life" (which I don't assume you to be familiar with but it was written in the 1870s & I love it as an 'example book' because partway through the story stops for a chapter and then some describing the characters' destination) starts with three characters in conflict, and thendrops back to give their background; "Wuthering Heights" (which IIRC is mostly back story?) sets up the situation and characters before dropping into back story, "Little Women" lets the characters introduce their who and what. If I want more, I'll go and look at hardcopies and it's too hot for that. But still, while there are plenty of older novels that start with dumping the character's background on the reader, or even their whole life history, the idea of getting the reader involved in the story through action first isn't new.

I suspect that the ideal of a fast-paced line of action flowing steadily forward comes from TV and movies. I don't see why authors should have to behave like screenwriters.

Because a sensible author takes lessons from anywhere useful? :)

Too often, especially in unpublished writing, there is the feeling that the writer lacks confidence in their ability to tell the story properly, and so feels a need to explain everything early on. It never gives me much confidence to continue reading :)

Also, at the beginning of the story, the back story is rarely anywhere near as interesting to the reader as it is to the author.

If I'm reading, I want to know who I'm going to be reading about, and when and where and how, and why should I bother caring. I don't think I'm untypical there.

Once I've come to care for the character/s, then the back story becomes relevant, and therefore more interesting.

But most importantly: the back story can be used to the writer's advantage. What keeps a reader turning the pages? Questions. If you can feed the reader just a little about the characters background, then you're generating questions/suspense/curiosity which gives them another reason to keep turning pages. The classic examples are whodunits -- we find out bits and pieces about every character's background and then at the end, all is revealed.

Why squander that opportunity by dropping it all into the t/h/i/r/d/ /p/a/r/a/g/r/a/p/h/ first few pages of the book?