Jeanne: The Least You Need to Know

I‘ve been reworking, for approximately the hundredth time, the opening scene to The Demon’s in the Details, the second book in my Touched by a Demon trilogy. (Look for it on Amazon in October.)

Now that I’ve figured out what the book’s about, I’m rewriting my first scene, yet again, to open that story.

And I’m once again struggling with this question: How much backstory belongs in that first scene?

Do we need to know that Rachel Blackmon, the mother of my protagonist, Keeffe, is dead?

Do we need to know that Keeffe was just fourteen when Rachel died? Or that Rachel died as a result of a malfunction of a da Vinci robot that nicked her iliac artery, causing her to bleed out before the hospital staff noticed, leaving Keeffe with an abiding distrust of technology?

Do we need to know that Rachel was a world-famous artist and that Keeffe has risked losing everything she values to follow in her mother’s footsteps?

Do we need to at least suspect that Keeffe’s step-mother is a she-demon from Hell, on a mission to destroy Rachel’s legacy?

These are all significant facts, but we don’t need to know every one of them on first meeting. Reading all this stuff in the first scene is kind of like meeting someone with no boundaries, who gives a play-by-play of their horrible divorce in the first thirty seconds after you say hello.

I’ve read rules of thumb that say “No backstory in the first three chapters.”

According to Donald Maass in The Fire in Fiction, “Later in the novel, backstory can become a revelation; in the first chapter it always bogs things down.”

Jenny Crusie’s rule was, “no backstory, ever.” (If this seems impossible, I invite you to read Bet Me, Jenny’s Rita® award-winning romance that takes place firmly in the here-and-now.)

The rule I strive to keep around backstory is, “put in the least your reader needs to know.”

The less backstory you load into the early chapters of your book, the more story questions there are to intrigue your readers.

On the other hand, readers need a place to stand. They need to know the environment they’re in—the place and the time. They need to know who the players are, and they need to know what’s at stake.

And despite Jenny’s stellar success at writing a book with no discernible backstory, most of the time you can’t really know the characters, or understand the significance of the stakes, unless you understand the significance of these stakes to these characters.

A police detective working to find a kidnapped child is under a lot of pressure. If that police detective  previously screwed up and let a kidnapped child get killed, he’s under even more pressure. If he lost his own child to this same kidnapper, he’s in a pressure cooker with the lid locked down and that little rattle-y thing going nuts.

So maybe that’s the answer. Choose a situation where just the basic premise—police detective works to find a kidnapped child—is sufficiently engrossing. Then you can layer on additional information to intensify the situation–this police detective screwed up a previous case, resulting in the child’s death. And then the final touch: it was his child.

So maybe I don’t need to figure out how much backstory to put in. Maybe what I really need to do is figure out if I have a strong enough premise to make a compelling starting point.

What about you? If you’re a reader, how much do you like to know at the beginning of a book? If you’re a writer, how do you decide what goes in the first scene or chapter?

*The Least You Need to Know is also the title of a fabulous book of short stories by Lee Martin, professor emetitus of English at The Ohio University. It includes a story of the same name. If you love top-notch short stories, I recommend it.

4 thoughts on “Jeanne: The Least You Need to Know

  1. I think where some writers go wrong with back story is that they think backstory is an all or nothing thing. They feel compelled to tell the ENTIRE backstory story, rather than a one-liner that grounds the reader, hints at backstory, and provides intrigue. Using your story as an example, you could have a paragraph about mom’s sudden demise at the hands of technology, or you could include a one-liner that says something like “she’d never trust technology again.”

  2. Good point, Justine. I also know I’m going to have to wait until the whole book is solid, especially the climactic scene, before I really know what belongs in scene one.

  3. Discovery draft? YES. Write that backstory down, down, down. There’s something about getting it in printed form so you can read it back that helps the whole story gel.

    But where you are? Cut it out ruthlessly. Save it for the interviews. Only if it impacts the here-and-now should it go in — and it should be woven in, not wedged in in an infodump.

    I will say, though, a story-within-a-story can be an entertaining tangent. One of the best/worst examples was 1001 Arabian Nights. Sometimes I got hopelessly lost about which level I was in, but generally, if the diversion is very entertaining, and merges back into the main story well, I’m more than good with that — I love it.

    • “Where I am” is actually still in discovery. My process isn’t as clean cut as Jenny’s, especially when the second half of the first draft was sketchy. Like, charcoal drawing sketchy.Which is why I’m back at the beginning, figuring out what goes where.

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