Backstory and Where to Start

I’ve always thought about my story as taking place at a certain point in the timeline of events in the story world, even though of course I’ve developed a lot of backstory for all the characters. I was really starting in the thick of the action, right before a big showdown (relatively speaking – a book’s worth of events leading directly to the showdown). I’ve read that starting ‘in media res’ is a popular and effective strategy, and apparently that’s what I was drawn to before I ever started thinking analytically about it. The problem was, there was too much background to explain, to make it clear how the characters had got to this point, and why it mattered.

Although I think the basic action plot of the story is pretty linear, the main characters have complicated histories with each other and with the villain, with changed allegiances and secrets. There’s also a fantasy element to the story which complicates things quite a bit. Four of the characters aren’t human, and the overarching conflict is based in non-human history and politics. The way that the human characters get drawn into this conflict, and discover the other-worldliness of it, is one of the interesting bits of the story (I think). However, this is all a lot of  background information to work in to a fast, action-packed plot without slowing it to a convoluted crawl! Figuring out how to handle this has been one of my biggest challenges so far.

Early drafts had my characters delivering cringe-worthy info dumps to the “new” character, the one who hadn’t been a part of all the previous action of the backstory. This started as a walk-and-talk near the beginning of the book, featuring lines like “This is going to be hard to swallow, but he’s not entirely human.” A later draft had a “story time” for the same “new” character about How This All Began, but much later in the book, when she had seen enough craziness to actually request some backstory and exposition.

In my last draft before the current one, I started writing out scenes from the backstory. I experimented with weaving them into the existing plot. I still think this is a really interesting idea — you can use the Past scenes to increase suspense between scenes, and also play with the reader’s perception of “current” events. Depending on what you reveal to them about the past, they’ll see the current scenes in a different light. It was overwhelming trying to figure out the best way to do this, though, and the big problem remained: slowing down the action. I really wanted the book to be a fast, exciting ride, and no matter how interesting the Past scenes were, they couldn’t be as gripping to the reader because they took place in the story’s past.

(Recently I discovered the Gentleman Bastard series by Scott Lynch, and I was very interested to see him using this back-and-forth-in-time structure. He succeeds really well in doing just what I wanted to do: enhancing the Now plot with new information from the Past.)

So last July, I decided to try something totally different. I took out all of the new backstory scenes I had written and put them into their own book. I thought about if this part of the story could have its own interesting, book-worthy arc, and decided it could! This (pretty simple) solution seemed crazy at first, after so many years of looking at my story from the same point in time, but the more I went with it, the happier I was. I think spreading the story out over more words, and more books, lets me introduce all that important non-human information much more naturally and gradually, and gives me a lot more room to show the characters and their relationships growing and evolving.

In fact, a little while ago I realized that I need *a second* book before I get to the events I originally started with. “Man, I’m out of control!” I thought when the idea first occurred to me. “Drunk with power! Wanting to spend forever writing this series of books!” But I think I’m on the right track, because I’m more excited about the story now than ever. And when the reader finally gets to the big showdown I originally started with, hopefully it will be much more interesting and exciting for them!

How have you handled backstory and deciding where to begin your story?

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