Beginning with Backstory

B.K. Stevens

We all know we’re not supposed to do it. But I did it anyway.

Almost all Creative Writing 101 classes caution us against beginning with backstory, and so do most books on writing fiction. In Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel, for example, Hallie Ephron offers a definition and a warning. “Backstory is information about how a character arrived at this particular place and time,” she writes. “It’s a sure sign that the novel is written by a novice when a load of backstory is dumped into the opening chapter.” I don’t doubt she’d say the same thing about a load of backstory dumped into the first two pages of a short story. In Telling Lies for Fun & Profit, Lawrence Block credits his agent with giving him “the best advice I ever received”: “Don’t begin at the beginning.” These “five precious words,” Block says, made him decide to switch around the first and second chapters of Death Pulls a Doublecross, so that the novel now begins with the protagonist lugging a body wrapped in an Oriental rug through the streets of New York City, with not a word of explanation about how he came to be in possession of the body in the first place. Now, that’s avoiding backstory.

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