Backstory & Beginnings

“Back when people had actual attention spans–the golden era being 1774 to 1879–a novelist could take a long time up front laying out the history of a character.” I love James Scott Bell’s voice in The Art of War for Writers. I don’t think I appreciated that statement until now.

Back in June, the maZoë Book Club read Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Vern.  Since he’s designated as the father of steampunk, and I’ve got a work-in-progress that has a hint of it, I looked forward to reaFile:Jules Verne.jpgding some of his work. Now, I’ve seen and loved 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea–thanks Dad! (who used to look a little like Captain Nemo himself) But reading it is entirely different story than watching the film. So I picked up Around the World in Eighty Days and started reading. Page after page after page, and we were still reading about Mr. Fogg’s peculiar habits. Ack! Printed in 1872. Yep, the golden era of attention spans. Still, it was a good read, and I’m glad I plowed through the beginning.

But today, we are told we can’t write like that, for obvious reasons. (Although some of us balk at that) We need to start with action and dribble in the backstory as we go along. Isn’t it interesting how “rules” go viral? Show don’t tell,  comma here, no comma there, no backstory, etc, but Bell says:

Give backstory the proper respect, and it will help readers bond with your characters.

Dribble, dribble, dribble. But even with backstory, and anything else pertaining to storytelling, I think it really depends on how the author does it. If we look at the opening chapter of Harry Potter and The Sorcerer’s Stone, what do we have? A whole lot of backstory among other things, but one thing is clear. We are intrigued and drawn in by her way of telling the story. That is the art of storytelling. Some people don’t like her style, so some of y’all might be yawning. But that is okay. Reading is an adventure that we bring our experiences into for our own unique journey.

Bell suggests we only use relevant backstory, “what is useful for establishing empathy with the character”, and that we weave it in through the dialogue or within the action taking place.

So what say you? Do you agree or disagree? How long is your attention span?


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