Background Fails

Today I want to talk about my current editorial fixation: Background. I had lunch yesterday with one of the top thriller/mystery editors in the biz, and at one point we compared notes on what works in his market and what I found worked in YA. In both genres, the answer was pretty simple: Plot rules, background fails.

Over dessert (I know, we were naughty), we both lamented the submission we see and reject over and over: the one that opens with a big, slam-bang action scene followed by about 50 pages of background before anything equally exciting happens again. Generally, that background takes three overlapping forms: backstory about the characters, description of the setting, and sharing of research. And usually, you can tell from the tone that the writer feels this background is very, very important to your understanding of the opening scene.

But really, 50 pages? There’s a reason why it’s called a thriller—it’s supposed to thrill you with an exciting plot. Why do we need to know a character’s personal history if that character isn’t really doing anything? Why paint a beautiful atmospheric picture of the Florida everglades if nothing actually happens there? Why describe in detail how a jet fighter works if it doesn’t get off the ground? Where’s the thrill in that?

Some say you start with a bang then slow the tempo so you have room to build—I say, why not keep up the tempo and build higher? After that big opening murder, I’d much rather watch the killer run and the detective chase than learn about the killer’s sad childhood and how the detective’s wife left him. In other words, let me know the characters by being shown (hint, hint) what they do than being told (get it yet?) who they are.

Here’s a little exercise I learned at a writer’s conference: take a look at your first 50 pages and cut any and all background material you find there. Then, either connect what’s left to the rest of the plot, or fill out the story with action scenes. I have a sneaking suspicion that not only will your manuscript be more gripping and fast-paced—thrilling, even—but that when you go back to fill in the background, you’ll find you it barely even miss it.

4 Responses to Background Fails

  1. Aonghus Fallon says:

    Is this always true, John? ‘Breaking Bad’ follows the format you just outlined. It has a dramatic first scene, with the character being pursued by the police, but the remainder of the episode constitutes background (according to your criteria) as it establishes why a nerdy science teacher ended up cooking crystal meth in the first place.

    Similarly, ‘Lost’ intercut the characters’ situation with countless flashbacks yet was still watched by millions of people. I’m not disagreeing with you per se. In fact I do think you need to have very good reasons for using flashbacks/background(the character’s background should have some immediate bearing on his current situation) but would never discount it entirely.

  2. Thanks for the advice. I was thinking about this today because, even though I’m in the middle of my novel, I just got out of one big action-y sequence and my outline called for a lot of description of the next setting, and I’ve realized that in this case, it wouldn’t add anything to the story, but just bog it down before I get to the next exciting thing. I’m planning to either write it much shorter than I had intended or to combine that setting with an earlier scene. I think I avoided this well enough at the beginning of this novel, at least!

    @Aonghus: At least in the case of Lost, those flashbacks were, as you said, intercut with the other scenes. It wasn’t a case of one exciting opening scene followed by 35 minutes of Kate eating toast. Whatever was happening was usually important or interesting, too, so I don’t think it was quite what John meant. Background on the characters is important and can be done well, but it’s awkward when it’s presented as someone’s life story over 50 pages rather than worked more seamlessly into the narrative.

  3. I think it was Elmore Leonard who said to cut out the parts that people skip. When I find myself getting bored with a book, it’s usually due to excessive backstory and setting descriptions, so I cut everything out of my own ms that I felt was unnecessary. I tend to be a bare bones kind of writer anyway so I’m always fleshing things out after the first draft. With my new ms, my CP’s actually suggested I add more detail and history. I did, and they’ve promised me it’s not boring in the least. We’ll see. :)

  4. Curt Scroger says:

    Facebook has taken the because of quake together with, hardly to become merely a means to get caught up with college or university or maybe a highschool neighbors.

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