A question I hear often in critique groups is, “Is this moving the story forward?” An ancillary question is where to insert backstory … the events before the time of the story that contributed to its direction or, more often, a character’s development.
And we writers are told by a thousand how-to books that we need to grab the reader in the first line. Get things moving. Bottom of first page is too late.
I have been reading two stories in my critique group from gifted writers who work humor into every line. I keep feeling pressured by conventional wisdom to suggest moving the story forward.
Then I began reading Deacon King Kong, by James McBride. Literary fiction, to be sure, so anything goes by way of structure, but the book starts with the obligatory precipitating event—but then gives the reader twenty pages of double-over-laughing backstory. Which brings up the question: Why do we read, anyway? For pleasure, right?
I guess I’ll cut back on the cookie-cutter critique and just enjoy my friends’ prose.
I took a great short course on backstory at the Cape Cod Writer’s Conference last week. Michelle Hoover, the teacher, is a fine writer (literary fiction – The Quickening) and knowledgeable instructor. I really needed the course.
She remarked to us that we control some part … maybe 60% … of what the reader gets out of a story, and that we ought to embrace the creativity and life experience the reader brings to the reading. That’s something I forget, particularly when wrestling with plot. Her notes for the class remind us, “The biggest mistake most beginning writers make is the belief a reader must know this or that about what occurred before the character’s present moment. The fault is generally due to the following: 1) the author’s distrust of the reader’s intelligence; 2) the author’s distrust of his/her own writing ability; 3) the author’s inability to give up control; 4) the author’s nervousness about beginning his/her own story …”
Ouch! I suffer from all of the above. Does the reader really need to know exactly what stop loss insurance is and how it’s calculated to fully understand the plot line of Hack the Yak? Or am I just a lazy, controlling author?
There. 1,000 words gone. Easy. Just like a good healthy …