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'10 Authors Insider Tips

Cooking Up A Storey
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Character Profiles
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Be Bad to Be Good
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FictionCraft
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The Music of Words
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Your Fictional World
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'10 Smutters Lounge

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Lucy Felthouse
Neve Black
PS Haven
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Tresart L. Sioux


Cracking Foxy
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Fly the Unfriendly Skies
Coffee Time
Castrated Words
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The Fashion Industry
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About the Closet
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His Cold Eyes, His Granite Jaw
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FictionCraft

by Louisa Burton

Tweaking the Fictional Timeline:
Backstory and Foreshadowing

 

When you write a novel, you create a timeline that begins on the first page and ends on the last. It's like laying down a road from Point A to Point Z that your reader can travel as you guide her on her journey. Along the way, things will happen, events that take place in your story’s real time, the fictional present.

This linear progression of events is the gist of your story, but from time to time, it's likely your reader is going to have to pause, get out her binoculars, and look back down the road at events that took place earlier, or up ahead to anticipate events that haven't yet occurred.

Backstory. This is all the stuff that happened in the past, before Chapter One. Backstory needs to be conveyed from time to time so that our readers will have a better grasp of the events of the front story, or of a character's motivation.

Inexperienced writers sometimes begin the first chapter by playing out the backstory, or worse, telling it rather than showing. They call this "setup," and it is almost always a colossal mistake. Making your reader sit through background information before you launch into the actual story is like turning the lights down in a theater and opening the curtain, only to make your audience watch the stage crew move furniture around and set out props for twenty minutes before the actors come out. Ideally, your novel will begin during—or immediately before or after—the inciting incident that launches the story. This means that your backstory, even critically important backstory without which the front story can't be completely understood, must be communicated somewhere other than at the very beginning of Chapter One. There are three main ways of doing this.

Your first option, and a good approach if you really do need to feed this information to your reader asap, is to salt it into the action, dialogue, and narrative in such a way that the reader can absorb it without being yanked out of the story. As literary agent Pam Hopkins put it, in discussing opening hooks, "While I love a strong opening sentence, for me, a true hook is being thrust into the story and making an immediate connection with one of the characters. I don't like a lot of set-up or backstory at the start. I want to find myself thirty pages into it and realize that, while I know a lot about the story, I don't quite know how I learned it."

There's a reason first chapters are often rewritten numerous times. It can take a number of drafts to work in these bits and pieces of backstory unobtrusively while maintaining the story momentum and establishing that all-important empathy with your protagonist. Chapter One of Ken Follett's wonderful medieval saga Pillars of the Earth begins like this:

     In a broad valley, at the foot of a sloping hillside, beside a clear bubbling stream, Tom was building a house.
     The walls were already three feet high and rising fast. The two masons Tom had engaged were working steadily in the sunshine, their trowels going scrape, slap and then tap, tap while their laborer sweated under the weight of the big stone blocks. Tom's son Alfred was mixing mortar, counting aloud as he scooped sand onto a board. There was also a carpenter, working at the bench beside Tom, carefully shaping a length of beech wood with an adz....

In these five sentences, we learn that our protagonist, Tom, is a master mason and a man of some responsibility, given that he has a staff working under him. He has a son who's old enough to be pitching in, which gives us a rough idea of Tom's age range. We can visualize the hubbub of activity taking place in this bucolic setting on this hot, sunny day.

Ah, but those of you who have read Pillars of the Earth will recall that the book actually starts not with Chapter One, but with a prologue. This is your second option for communicating backstory, but I consider it an option of last resort, since polls have revealed that most readers don't read prologues. They've been burned by too many prologues that aren't remotely entertaining because they aren't part of the story; they're information dumps. And sometimes the information they're imparting isn't even that relevant to the story, or doesn't need to be communicated up front.

If you decide that you've got backstory—a whole, discrete chunk of it, not bits and pieces of information—that absolutely must take up residence in your reader's skull before she starts Chapter One, then write a prologue, but don't call it a prologue. Slap a date on there, or some cute title, or nothing at all. If you want it to be read, just steer clear of the P-word.

And make it story. Give it an opening hook, play out a scene where something actually happens, make it compelling. Follett's prologue for Pillars, which is dated "1123,"begins:

     The small boys came early to the hanging.
     It was still dark when the first three or four of them sidled out of the hovels, quiet as cats in their felt boots. A thin layer of fresh snow covered the little town like a new coat of paint, and theirs were the first footprints to blemish its perfect surface. They picked their way through the huddled wooden huts and along the streets of frozen mud to the silent marketplace, where the gallows stood waiting....

Prologues are usually shorter than the average chapter and involve events that occurred well in advance of the opening of Chapter One, but that's entirely up to you. The only really important consideration is that it reads like story and serves a purpose.

Your third option for shoehorning backstory into your novel is to write one or more flashbacks, which can be brief paragraphs, full scenes, or even whole chapters. If you write a very long flashback, especially one that spans more than one chapter, make sure your reader remains aware all the way through that she's reading a flashback, otherwise she could lose the linear path of the story. Long or short, it's a good idea to start your flashback with the past-perfect "had" to make it clear that you're stepping back in time. Do this for a sentence or two, then switch back to garden-variety past tense, because too much past-perfect can cause indigestion. You may want to use past perfect at the end of the flashback, as well, to bring the curtain down on it. Flashbacks, especially longer ones, can begin and end with scene break; this can be useful for clearly establishing the jump back in time, but it isn't necessary.

It's considered unwise to insert a flashback very early in the story, mainly because of the risk of confusion on the part of the reader. My feeling, as always, is if it works, do it. In Pillars, there's a flashback on page 18, which is fairly early considering it's a 943-page novel. Moreover, it's the backstory of a character—Ellen, a fugitive from justice who lives in the woods with her son—whom our protagonist and his family have only just met in the middle of page 16:

     Tom wanted to know more about Ellen. He wondered whether she might be persuaded to tell her story. He did not want her to go away. "How did it all come about?" he asked her vaguely.
     She looked into his eyes again, and then she began to talk.

[Here, Follett inserted a scene break.]

     Her father had been a knight, she told them; a big, strong, violent man who wanted sons with whom he could ride and hunt and wrestle, companions to drink and carouse into the night with him. In these matters, he was as unlucky as a man could be, for he got Ellen, and then his wife died...

Notice how Follett wrote the first sentence of the flashback in past perfect (Her father had been a knight...) before returning to past tense (...he was as unlucky as a man could be, for he got Ellen...).

Foreshadowing. There are times when you might want to hint at what is to come in your story, in order to create a sense of anticipation, amp up the suspense, or otherwise keep the reader invested in what's going to happen to your characters. Foreshadowing is generally more subtle than the conveyance of backstory. I mean, you could adopt an omniscient point of view and say thus-and-such is about to happen, but why employ such a ham-handed technique when you can intrigue your reader with subtlety?

Laura Kinsale's Flowers from the Storm is an excellent historical romance set in Regency-era England. The novel opens with our hero, Christian Langland, the rakehell Duke of Jervaulx, leaving his mistress’s house during the night, only to encounter her husband returning home unexpectedly. As the husband confronts Christian, challenging him to a duel, Christian begins to experience something odd:

     An unpleasant tingling numbness in Christian’s right hand made him realize how hard he was gripping the stair rail through his glove. He let go, but the feeling of pins-and-needles grew worse and a strangeness seemed to wash over him, as if the stair beneath him shifted without moving.

These strange sensations become more pronounced; Christian’s thoughts grow bleary. He tries to make sense of what he’s feeling. Perhaps his mistress poisoned him, but why? What the reader quickly realizes, and anticipates with a sense of mounting dread, is that he’s headed for a stroke. Christian, of course, is entirely unaware of this looming cataclysm. We know something he doesn’t, and the fact that a character with whom we deeply empathize is about to have his world turned upside down keeps us turning the pages.

As always, it’s all about keeping your reader turning the pages.

Louisa Burton
September 2010


If you have comments or questions about this column, please send them to Louisa Burton

Read more of Louisa Burton's FictionCraft in ERWA 2009 Archive.

______
"FictionCraft" © 2010 Louisa Burton. All rights reserved.

About the Author: Louisa Burton is a multipublished author of some two dozen erotica, romance, and mystery novels for Bantam, Berkley, Signet, NAL, Harlequin, and St. Martinís. A former publishing professional who is in love with the sound of her own voice, she has also taught numerous fiction writing courses and workshops. Way too much info about her current project, the Hidden Grotto series of erotic fantasy, is available at LouisaBurton.com.



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