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.
Good point, John.I just finished “The Black Swan of Paris” and one of the truly enjoyable things about it was the way in which the author weaved the backstory into the main part of the story. The setting is the occupation of Paris during WWII, and everything really hangs together. If the story were condensed only to the plot line, a great deal of what makes it enjoyable would be gone.
In Fatal Cure, we’re also seeing the story being more enjoyable because of it’s links with the backstory about Joe and Weezy in earlier novels.
Thanks, John. Yes, and one of the things that animates your stories is your experience and knowledge about foreign service. (Readers: John’s published work is Crosshairs on Castro, fiction that weaves the reality of Kennedy-years Cuba and a good thriller plot.)
Deacon King Kong?
Gotta get that.
I don’t think you’re cookie cutting your critiques. It’s only when something isn’t working that we start trying to figure out why. And I know I’m guilty of wanting to plug people in, a la Matrix, and download the whole history all at once. Reader’s, it seems, don’t care for the experience, and you’re right to call someone out on it if they’re doing it. Oddly enough, if what McBride wrote didn’t feel like an info dump, then I don’t think it was one.
Yes. I guess why, in this art form like others, there are rules … a good art is knowing when they’re important but also when to break them.