Write Your Novel In A Year – Week 33: Beginnings, Backstory, And Other Bugbears


Goal setting

  1. Continue writing the chapters or scenes of your novel

Breaking it down

The true start and the false start

Where does your story start? What does page one look like?

As I come to the end of my draft stage and feel ready to attack my messy and chaotic manuscript, I’m looking for a way to rework my opening scene – that scene that must pull the reader in and get them hooked on the story.

I’ll admit I’ve had a few false starts. Like starting too far back from the inciting incident – taking too long to set up the world of the story. And, of course, starting too close to the moment of change – and not giving the reader enough context about what’s going on.

In a novel I’m reading, the first scene takes place as a journalist interviews a man condemned to die in the electric chair. This was a powerful scene to kick off a story – it certainly had me gripped. It made me realise that those big moments – life, death, birth – are always good places to start.

I’ve decided to start my story as close to the point of attack as possible. I’ve created a teaser that gives the reader a glimpse of what will happen just before the major climax at the end of the story.

The good news is that I’m starting in the thick of it, in the heart of the drama – in media res, as they call it. It’s an action scene and it fairly races with action and adrenalin.

The bad news is that it defies all the rules of writing. It’s a prologue – and prologues should always be avoided. It starts off with the weather – during a storm. It starts off with a character alone – another ‘no no.’

However, it seems to be working. It seems like a natural hook for the story. The violent weather, I feel, is almost like another character – an element that is commenting or hinting at the violence that is about to unfold. And the character, while he is alone, is driven by a strong goal – he is on a mission for revenge.

Sometimes you have to throw the rule book out the window and listen to your story, don’t you think? 

Building your backstory

As I work on the earlier scenes in my book, I realise I haven’t addressed a lot of the backstory.

For example, when I look at when Jenna and Matt – my two lovers – met, I know that it happened four or five years ago.

When I look at Jenna’s age, I realise that she was pretty young when she met Matt – which is either a good or a bad thing.

But the big black hole was, of course, how they met. How did they become lovers? How did the relationship evolve? And why did it hit a stalemate or stasis as the story opens?

As I wrote some backstory scenes and notes – none of which I liked, by the way – I realised two things. One – you have to know your characters’ histories down to how much money they have in their bank accounts and their favourite colour. Two – you as the writer have to know these things but the reader doesn’t have to know it.

Well, at least, not all of it. If it’s important to the story in the present, yes, you may need to introduce it through the narrative or as an isolated flashback scene – but if not, I don’t see a reason for it to be in the final manuscript.

Stories live in the ‘now’ – readers want the immediacy, the tension, the flow as if it’s unfolding in real-time. They don’t want to be hauled back into the past. 

Oh those devouring fears

This last week has been challenging – both in my writing and my personal life. The one that causes me the most distress is, of course, my writing. I mean I can always pay my taxes some other time. But the fear that my talent has dried up and disappeared – that’s something that will cause you to curl up in a sorry heap.

On Saturday, I sat down to write a scene and it just didn’t come. I soldiered on and what I produced was a dry, clumsy piece of writing – more like a DIY manual than a chapter in what’s meant to be an exciting thriller.

In archaic English, a bugbear was an imaginary being invoked to frighten children, typically a sort of hobgoblin supposed to devour them. Seeing as though writers are basically children with laptops, I felt this bugbear descend on me Saturday night.

On Sunday, I cleaned bathrooms, washed dogs, and tried not to think about that awful scene. In the late afternoon, I cautiously approached it again.  I took a deep breath and attacked it and it came out a lot better. Sigh of relief! I was safe for another day. 

Timelock — 2.5 to 5 hours

Spend a half hour or hour a day writing your scenes or chapter.

5 Quick Hacks

  1. Imagine your novel as a movie. What would be the scene or scenes that play over the opening credits? This could be a good place to start your novel too.
  2. Write out or roughly plan three or four possible openings – just experiment. Show these to a trusted friend or your writing group and see what feedback you get.
  3. Keep separate folders or notebooks for backstory – and consult it when you write your scenes. If there’s any opportunity to drop a piece in – then do it. You can always edit it out later.
  4. ‘When in doubt, leave it out.’ This is as good advice as any when it comes to backstory.
  5. Distract yourself when your writing isn’t going well. Clean out drawers, read, visit a friend – don’t drive yourself mad.

Pin it, quote it, believe it:

‘Backstory is like creating a “connect-the-dots” picture – you just need the dots. The reader will draw the lines.’ — Jamie Ford

Look out for next week’s instalment of Write Your Novel In A Year!

This article has 2 comments

  1. Debra Campoli

    I Love all your posts! They help me in so many ways but I just don’t know how to get to some of the past posts that I have missed. If there is a way, please post how. I wish I could take your whole course but too many obstacles now in my older age. THANK YOU MUCH!

  2. Writers Write

    Hello Debra
    Please send us an email with SUBSCRIBE in the subject line and we will add you to our daily writing links.

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