I’ve been reading a few threads on writers’ forums lately about backstory. Some say to completely cut out a prologue or beginning chapters that are ‘backstory’ and weave backstory into the book. Call me naive, uninformed, a rebel writer, but I question some of these rules, that they should be strictly followed and a writer must never stray from following them. I’m meeting up with new writers that are so paranoid, afraid of using a word ending in ‘ly’ or the word ‘was’, or backstory to the point they are stifled in their writing and have lost the joy of it. I recall sitting in a writers’ critique group a few years ago, and the conversation being not to use flashbacks. Now I'm hearing, use them.
Who makes these rules? It’s like eggs. First, they are bad for you. Don’t eat them --- too much cholesterol. Then a few years later we are told to eat eggs. They are high in protein and nutrients. Sigh.
I was looking at some of Nora Robert’s novels in this regard. She is the most successful romance author in ABA, and not doing too shabby as JD Robb. For example in her novel River’s End, she begins with a prologue where her heroin, Olivia, witnesses as a child the murder of her mother. The next four chapters that follow introduce the reader to her aunt and uncle that become Olivia’s guardians in 1979. Then the next chapter picks up in 1987, then after a few chapters, the novel is set in 1993.
Nora moves the reader through a time line --- from beginning to end. I wonder if some writers would say that all the chapters set before 1993 were backstory and should be woven into the book. Personally, I like this style of writing. I want to read a story that begins at the beginning and ends with the end. I feel the tension mounting in the story, questions arise as to where these circumstances will take my hero or heroine. More than often, novels that introduce a moment of flashbacks jerk me out of the story, and I feel like I’m in a tennis match being lopped back and forth --- past --- present ---- past ---- present.
If Margaret Mitchell started Gone With the Wind at the time of Melanie’s labor, think of what would have been lost. . . the garden party at Tara, Scarlett and her spoiled attitude, her meeting Rhett for the first time, the start of the Civil War and the young men racing off to join up. Now, she could have had Scarlett reflecting back to those moments, but would that have made the novel the blockbuster it became?
I think of Jane Eyre. Bronte begins the novel with Jane living with her cruel aunt after her parents and uncle have died. She is mistreated, misunderstood, and unloved, shoved aside and not accepted as part of the family. Her aunt's cruelty and hatred if further felt by Jane when she is sent off to a gray, dismal girl’s school.
If the book began at the time Jane accepts an offer as a governess and goes to Thornfield, and Bronte wove Jane’s past into the story, I think we would miss out. Jane's experience in childhood is what molded her into the kind and gentle woman she grows up to be. Bronte's style is indeed masterful and we can learn so much from authors whose novels have remained bestsellers for decades.
I realize these are classics and the rules have changed. But these books will go on to be classics for years and years to come, and most of our books. . .well, will go the way of the wind. I’m not putting down weaving backstory into a novel. I’m just saying that both ways can work depending on the skill of the writer. For a writer to truly become masterful it takes work, and you can never believe you've so 'arrived' that you don't need to improve or grow. Pride can lead to a fall. A humble heart keeps you open to learning.
Keep writing. Keep growing.