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Warning: Rookie backstory mistake shown to cause rejection letters.

Rejection letters happen to everybody. And it’s easy to feel helpless, especially when the rejections keep coming even after you do everything you can to ensure that your manuscript doesn’t suck. But there’s no need to flounder around in hopeless despair. Today I’m going to help you avoid one rookie mistake that could be the source of your rejection letters.

By “ensuring that your manuscript doesn’t suck,” I simply mean that you have applied the fundamentals of writing and story craft: You can string a sentence together, your premise has emotional appeal, inherent conflict, and rising stakes, and you’ve created interesting characters and put them into challenging situations.

Assuming you’ve done all that, the problem comes with how you show your characters to the reader. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen a writer sabotage an otherwise interesting and engaging novel by including a whole lot of backstory about their characters. When this happens, I can just feel that prospective agent putting the manuscript into the “no thanks” pile. Frankly big, indigestible lumps of backstory make me want to put the manuscript down too.

Here’s the thing: you may well have spent hours figuring out your characters’ histories in endless detail. You’ve done it so that you can understand what makes these people tick, what their emotional baggage is, and how they’ll respond in any situation. Good. That’s how you keep them realistic and believable.

But that doesn’t mean you need to put it in the book.

If you’ve been writing novels for any length of time, you’ve probably heard that advice already. Long passages of backstory interrupt the action. They kill the pacing. They bring the story to a dead stop. That’s totally true. And that’s one reason your manuscript will land in the “no thanks” pile.

Unfortunately, backstory is a double-whammy: Backstory creates a second, deeper problem that has nothing to do with pacing and momentum.

When a literary agent picks up your submission, they’re just like you and me: they want to get involved with the story. They want to be engrossed. Captivated. But even novels that execute on all the fundamentals of writing and story craft can fail to captivate an agent because of backstory.

It goes like this. A key technique for keeping readers engaged, interested, and turning pages is to raise questions (again, advice you’ve probably heard already if you’ve been writing novels for any length of time). If something you write makes the reader wonder something about your story, they’ll keep reading to find the answer.

Just about the strongest form of question you can raise—the most compelling type of hook you can employ—are questions about your characters. What happened to them when they were eleven that they won’t talk about even at age forty? Why do they take a seven mile detour on their way to work every day? Why do they insist on leaving their shoes untied? Whatever the question is, if you’ve raised it in the right way, readers will be really curious to learn the answer. Usually, because the answer has to do with whatever deep-seated emotional issues the character is grappling with. That’s powerful stuff. Readers love those kinds of mysteries.

And don’t forget, agents are just readers who have the power to help you get published. So keep them interested by raising questions about your characters.

With that in mind, the problem with backstory should be obvious: Backstory answers all the questions, often before the reader even thinks to ask them. Backstory destroys the mystery. Backstory leaves them with nothing left to wonder about your characters.

Remember, it’s the characters who drive the plot, not the other way around. When you include a lot of backstory, you give away more than half the game right there; readers—agents—may still be mildly curious to know what’s going to happen, but if they’re not curious about the characters as well then there’s very little reason for them to care. Five pages into the novel and the story may as well be over.

As a writer, you must exercise an extraordinary amount of restraint and caution in what you tell readers about your characters, especially early in the book. I’ll go as far as to say that if you include more than a paragraph of backstory about anybody in the first 5,000 words of your novel, you should cut it. The more you control your impulse to explain everything about your characters, the more you deepen the mystery, captivate your readers, and engross them in your story.

You must create and preserve your characters’ secrets. You must do this to keep readers curious. You must do this so that later, at the right moment, when the reader’s anticipation has been built up as high as you can push it, you can finally solve the mystery.

This is another reason why beginnings, those first few scenes and chapters of a novel, are so hard to write. It can be a challenge to find the delicate balance between saying something about your characters, but not too much. Yet you must do it, and creating mystery is a great guideline for how: Whatever you say in those critical opening pages, make sure it creates mystery rather than destroys it.

Don’t make a rookie mistake. Cut the backstory, unless you like those form rejection letters.

Addendum: I just finished reading Rebecca Stead’s Newberry-award winning book When You Reach Me. It is a textbook example of creating and preserving mystery by eliminating backstory. And a hell of a good book as well.

August 28, 2009 16:41 UTC

Tags: character, backstory, mystery, curiosity, openings

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