NaNoWriMo Tip #6: When your “backstory” should be the story.

During National Novel Writing Month, many an aspiring novelist will start with a great character. He will know his hero backwards and forward, as if he is his very best friend.

He'll describe how the hero looks, down to the cleft in his chin. He'll know about his childhood, his teen angst, his tribulations and his desires.

But now that it's time to give his hero something to do, the writer stalls out.

Why does this happen?

Because in this case, the backstory is the story.

So why not move it front and center?

If you can answer yes to these four questions, then the Muse is trying to tell you (HELLOOOOO!) that the better book to write starts where your hero first intrigued you:

1. When describing your book to others, do you find yourself spending more time describing your hero's past, but get stuck on telling what will happen to him in the book?

2. Is half of what you wrote in your synopsis his backstory?

3. Did it take all of Chapter One to describe your character before you realized you had nowhere to go with Chapter Two?

4. Do you find yourself rewriting the details of your hero's past, because it's more interesting than considering his future?

Take a broad hint: There is gold in the hills of his backstory.

Harry Potter is a perfect example of this. Can you imagine if J.K. Rowling had started her epic story with, say, Book 6 The Half-Blood Prince — when Harry was already at Hogwarts and just realizing his true role in a world turning darker, more sinister? Surely this book in the series and the seventh, could  have been tweaked to stand-alone…

But consider how much was gained by knowing so much more of Harry's backstory.

That's because it was never just his backstory. It was the story.

Bottom line: start at the real beginning: when you first realized that your hero intrigued you.

Maybe it was when he did that old-soul thing at age three. Or when he had his first kiss. Or when he accidently drove his parent's car into the lake.

Not all stories were meant to start where we want them to begin. Sometimes they start earlier, or later.

If you start your story at a point that is most interesting in your character's life, your readers will be sucked along on his journey, too.

So take them along for the ride.

It ain't the prequel. It's the beginning of a wonderful friendship between your hero and your reader.




I've got a question for you: Which character's backstory would you have liked to have read about, as a book?

For me, it is the character of Ethan Gage, in the wonderful historical suspense series by William Dietrich. We know that Ethan once studied under Benjamin Franklin. it would be a hoot to see his antics stateside, before we're introduced to him in Napoleon's Pyramids.

— Josie

4 thoughts on “NaNoWriMo Tip #6: When your “backstory” should be the story.

  1. That is so funny, because I have discovered that it is true! This is my first NaNo, and while I have been writing I discovered that it was easier to get down words on paper when I had a character “remember” their interesting past. It has actually given me new ideas to run with that I would have struggled to come up with otherwise!
    Thanks for all your tips! I am really enjoying them!

  2. Thanks, Kelly! this made my morning!
    One of my “epic novels” (one I’m still working on) has a certain scope and grandeur that came about because the agent I had at the time said: “This isn’t where your story begins. You should start it further back.”
    He was right.
    It is a much bigger, fuller book, because I start it in a different place altogether. Sometimes we have to give ourselves permission to break out of our preconceived notions of where we “should” start our stories. When we do, it’s like coming out of a tunnel: we see a wonderful panorama before us.

  3. So true!
    I have often wondered how an author makes the decision where to start a story, but I guess it is by writing it and seeing what fits best with the plot. Its funny how, as a reader, there is a lot you take for granted when you read a book. But as a writer, you have to make all those decisions that a reader just accepts!
    Lots of new learning for me!

  4. Great tip. In my zombie book I realized I had to start later. We’ve all seen enough zombie movies and read enough zombie books to know how it starts. Something in a lab. Good intentions. Yadda, Yadda, Yadda. I’m happy with my story so far. Maybe I will go back and show her being a bored society matron when the crap hits the fan. Ooooo, more ideas to think about.

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