In the beginning… no, wait. Before the Beginning…

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Alyx DellamonicaHere’s a conversation I’ve been having a lot lately:

Friend, Fan or Fellow Writer, otherwise known as some lovely person who’s drawn the right conclusion from the lovely, oceantastic cover of Child of a Hidden Sea: So the new book is a pirate book?”

Me: Um… well… yes…

FFF: It doesn’t have pirates?

Me: It’s just they’re reform, rather than orthodox.

(Which always gets a laugh, but it is more deflection than answer.)

Something I see with a lot of newer writers is a tendency to want to front-load all of the backstory for a book or piece of short fiction upfront.

It’s a natural impulse. Even when we tell stories in person, we’ll often want to start with a quick rundown on everything the listener might possibly need to know to understand how you got away with flipping off the boss, or convincing Mom to make the vegetarian soup without chicken stock for once, or winning that free ski trip to the Sahara.

Story, though, is a separate thing from everything you need to understand. And often, the listener or reader needs less than we think.

Think of the story as the mansion we want to explore. Backstory is just the concrete pad it’s built on: important, to be sure, but also chilly, grey, and unvaried. It’s tucked away beneath the walls and finishes for a reason.

Figuring out what you absolutely have to include, and then slipping it in delicately, can take real finesse.

Child of a Hidden SeaSo, case in point: How do you reform pirates? The answer, perhaps not surprisingly, is against their will. On Stormwrack, hundred years or so before Child of a Hidden Sea begins, the people of the five pirate nations were causing havoc around the world. Plunder and homicide weren’t merely for profit; they formed the backbone of their national identity. Who you were in those nations depended largely on your exploits, plus those of your forebears, heirs and assigns. Families and fortunes are built on who you sank, who you ransomed, and what you stole.

This unabashedly bloody-minded national identity led to enough death and carnage that eventually an alliance of nations put to sea to bully the pirates out of business. It worked. But though nations could no longer get away with sinking ships, murdering their crews and stealing all their stuff with impunity, it didn’t change who they were.

At first, there were probably benefits. All sorts of middle aged and older pirates got to retire without dying. They settled down, had families, and passed on their experience to the next generation. Work-related deaths and injuries went down, and the birth rate went up. The Isle of Gold went into international banking, and did not badly.

Eventually, because it was obvious there was no other choice, they joined the alliance of countries that initially came together to crush them.

Then a few generations went by. There were no new exploits to add to those family names. The economies of the pirate nations, now allegedly legit, bumped against the problem that led them to banditry in the first place: their resource base was poor. The pirate youth got restless, and less risk-averse.

Why am I telling you this?

I’ve done my best just now to make 109 years of history not entirely uninteresting. But if I started a book with this, would you read it? None of the above is going to be as compelling as that moment when the attempts to regain their days of glory leads the pirates to attempt an assassination.

The assassination–actually its aftermath–is where my story begins. (Here’s a link to the first chapter of the book.)

Another answer to this how much do I tell dilemma, and one that has fallen to some degree out of fashion, is the prologue. In other words, you start your book with a short chapter set somewhere within that backstory, using it to relay the important bits of the situation. You leave a few intriguing questions dangling, and then jump ahead to chapter one, throwing your protagonist into that assassination, or whatever initial incident is kicking off your story proper.

There are people who say never where prologues are concerned, but I’m not one of them. If they are intriguing, useful, and make a few promises about things to look forward to as the story unfolds, I’m all for them. But if they are summaries–if they’re what I’ve written above–they rarely work. When I have up above is just history, without a point of view character, or any kind of action.

If you have a book or story that’s begun in the fashion of what I’ve written above about Stormwrack’s pirate nations, consider whether you need all that information. Is it more interesting than starting with the attempted murder? Unless the answer’s an unequivocal yes, consider leapfrogging over it, and getting us to the main event.

*****

A. M. Dellamonica has recently moved to Toronto, Canada, after 22 years in Vancouver.  In addition to writing, she studies yoga and takes thousands of digital photographs. She is a graduate of Clarion West and teaches writing through the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program.

Dellamonica’s first novel, Indigo Springs, won the Sunburst Award for Canadian Literature of the Fantastic. Her most recent book, Child of a Hidden Sea, will be released by Tor Books this month. She is the author of over thirty short stories in a variety of genres: they can be found on Tor.com, Strange Horizons, Lightspeed and in numerous print magazines and anthologies. Her website is at http://alyxdellamonica.com.

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4 comments to In the beginning… no, wait. Before the Beginning…

  • Razziecat

    Very good advice! It’s tempting to give the backstory right up front, but hey, there’s a reason it’s called “back” story ;)

    I did write a prologue for something, which featured the main villain before he becomes the bad guy. It’s a glimpse into his psyche, and it’s intended to make the reader feel just a little bit of sympathy for him (because I’m evil like that). The story’s on hold right now for various reasons but when I get back to it, I think I’m going to leave the prologue in. It’s under 1300 words, though it could also be expanded into a short story.

  • […] Today I am guest-blogging over at Magical Words, with a topic that touches both on Child of a Hidden Sea and a challenge that a lot of my students grapple with: how do you get in the backstory? […]

  • I like to start In Medias Res and then sprinkle in backstory later through memory or character exchanges. And it sounds like you researched the age of sail. Quite a bit of that sounds historically familiar to our own pirates. I’m interested in reading this now. I wrote a pirate supplement for a zombie RPG from Eden Studios and had to do a lot of fun research into piracy in the 1600s to late 1700s (and, of course, vodou). I had to research cannons and weapons, money and currency rates of exchange (I had to talk to a gamer friend in England), cargo and how much it all cost (that one was difficult). But it was all still fun. Yet, you tend to need that in an RPG, but not necessarily in a novel.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    Like Daniel, I really like In Medias Res openings, probably too much as I sometimes neglect to provide the “backstory” of a new scene (my book jumps around between 3 characters/storylines and there are usually significant time-gaps between a character’s different chapters).

    However, I definitely agree with you that backstory is, at the very least, more delicious when served out in small portions throughout the story. Still, my first thought in reading your post was: but it seems like my backstories really *are* more interesting than my current story…with the caveat that they’re also darker, so I don’t actually want to turn them into the primary story. In my first book, sprinkling in hints about the backstory is part of the hook I use to keep pulling readers along. So really, this post just made me realize that I would probably enjoy taking the same approach with the backstory for my second book. It’s not (yet) as clearly tied into the plot as in the first book, but I’ve still got a lot of plot work to do with it anyway, so maybe I can use my backstory to give me some direction. So, that maybe sounds a bit sideways, but thank you for prompting the insight. :-D