Tag Archive - Backstory

The Secret Formula to Writing the Commercially Successful Novel

I’ve been writing novels for more than three decades, and while I have learned a lot about how unpredictable the market is, there are some specific characteristics that have consistently set apart novels that see success. You’d think every informed novel-writer would know what these are.

Here’s the thing:

I critique more than 200 manuscripts a year (95% novels). Even the best ones seem to be missing the key ingredients for a commercial best seller.

Why is that?

Because few writers have learned the specific elements that identify a great novel with great potential. And many of those elements are not what the average fiction writer is taught.

Sure, you need a great plot, an intriguing and fresh premise, terrific characters. And your scenes need to be tight time capsules of “show, don’t tell.”

But a terrific commercially viable novel has so much more. And few books or writing instructors teach what these essential elements are.

Continue Reading…

Handling Backstory in Dialogue in Your Opening Pages

So many new writers start their books with pages—even chapters—of backstory. They want to tell the reader all about the creation of their fantasy world. Or they want to make sure readers understand every nuance of Mexican politics in 1956 because it will be critical to the plot on page 103. They want to make sure the reader understands every feature of time travel or cloning in the year 2133.

Then their editor suggests that instead of including all this material in the opening chapters of their book, they should just reveal the backstory through dialogue. Aha, the author thinks, dialogue—of course! After all, dialogue is a great way to open in media res and cut to the good stuff. But instead of jettisoning their precious descriptions and explanations, they essentially put quotation marks around the same ponderous material.

Problem solved, right? Wrong.

None of your characters should talk like the narrator. And readers still don’t want a backstory dump—even in dialogue. Often the attempt to stuff backstory into dialogue results in long, tedious monologues instead of more believable two-way conversation. Continue Reading…

Too Little Backstory Can Be a Fatal Flaw

This week wraps up our look at Fatal Flaw #4—Too Much Backstory. Writers are admonished to ditch the backstory in their opening chapters, and over the past four weeks our editors have explained why.  They’ve brought to your attention all the violations of backstory dumps that writers often succumb to, for such passages bog down or stop the present action of a scene. (If you haven’t read these four very helpful posts, start with this one here.)

We’ve looked at the need to balance the important details, via dialog and narrative, so that backstory is “sprinkled in” with a few lines here and there in order to convey necessary information. This is the most effective and subtlest way to tell readers what you think they need to know, and often takes practice to get good at this technique.

The best way to get the hang of how to do this is to grab your favorite novels (preferably cheap paperback editions from a used bookstore) and a yellow highlighter pen and mark up all the lines of backstory the author includes in her scenes. Great writers will have a nice little sprinkling throughout, with maybe an occasional larger passage (a paragraph or two) when it’s needed and in just the right place. Continue Reading…

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