A Budgie Called Doris – The Perils of Backstory

I am consistently amazed by how little backstory you need in a first chapter. I know! Who’d have thunk it? But it’s true. The reader does not need to know as much you think they do.

The reason I’m concerned with backstory is that I’ve been wrestling with the beginning of this chess ms and as I was reading over the last few iterations, I realised something. I’ve fallen into the old backstory trap too. As in detailing EVERYTHING that has led up to the moment my hero and heroine meet. Oh, I tried to kind of feed it in all subtle-like but there were still paragraphs of explanation. Paragraphs, people! And fundamentally none of those paragraphs needed to be there.

As a friend of mine shared with me last week, a bit of advice she had from somone else – you need to start the story when the water boils. You do not need to start with the heroine choosing the pot. Deciding whether to use hot or cold water. Finding the right top for the pot. Turning on the element. Putting it on the stove. Setting the timer….etc, etc. Get the idea?

It’s very tempting to put everything in that first chapter. Because you know all about your characters and they’re so interesting, you want the reader to be interested too. Plus you think it’s vital that the reader knows the set-up otherwise how will they understand what’s going on? Actually, readers (and I say this completely as a reader) are very forgiving with setup. If the story grips them immediately, they’re not going to worry about why the bad guy is chasing the hero. Or why the heroine’s company is going down the tubes. They’ll trust you to explain it eventually. All they need to know is that the bad is chasing the hero and that the heroine’s company is going down. What they want to know is what does the hero/heroine do about it? At least, that’s what I want to know.

Say, for example, you have a hero whose major conflict is that he had a budgie called Doris who died in a tragic birdbath accident because he left her cage open once when he was a boy. He never got over it and now he refuses to love anything for fear of losing them and also has a terrible fear of water. Now, say your opening chapter starts with his goal of wanting to buy the heroine’s bird sanctuary. But she doesn’t want to sell for reasons of her own. Now, you could start this with the hero talking to a colleague about how he’s tried to buy up all the bird sanctuaries in the area but hasn’t managed to land this one. Or you could start it with the hero musing moodily out the window about how this tricky heroine has manage to elude him yet again. Or you could start it with him looking in the mirror and reflecting on how handsome everyone tells him he is but he doesn’t think so but he kind of likes the way the light shines on the artfully messy spikes of his blue-black hair ( do NOT do this one btw).
Or you could start it with the hero having to row a boat over a lake to get to the heroine’s house so he can talk to her in person.
Hint: three of these starts are detailing putting the pot on to boil. One of them is the pot boiling.
In the fourth, in one fell swoop, you have the hero trying to overcome a fear (conflict) to get the sanctuary (goal) because he’s a perfectionist and he has all the sanctuaries in the area and this is the last one on his list (motivation). You don’t need to go into the reasons why this is. All the reader needs to know is the above. Of course they’ll be thinking ‘why is he rowing?’ ‘Why can’t he just call her?’ ‘Why does this matter to him?’ But that’s all stuff that will become clear in the story as you go on.

Anyway, that’s probably a very bad example, but I reckon a good excercise to do is to take out ALL the backstory in your first chapter, then read it as if you don’t know these characters or their story. Then put back only what you need in order to make sense of it. Nothing else. The rest you can feed in as and when you need it later.

Easy eh?

*Jackie rubs hands as another writing problem is easily solved* * contemplates rejections*
*gives up and tries macrame instead*

15 thoughts on “A Budgie Called Doris – The Perils of Backstory”

  1. Firstly, poor Doris……

    Secondly, great post. My problem at the moment is I’ve forgotten to put the back story in! I know them so well that it’s perfectly clear to me why they think they can’t have each other but to the reader….not so much. So now I need to go back (back into time) and start sprinkling little seeds of backstory so my story will blossom into…(excuse me I just need to vomit now)

    And you just know that someone is going to read your post and go: hmmm that’s not a bad idea for a story! The Virgin’s Budgie Smuggler

  2. Elissa – the Virgin’s Budgie Smuggler!!! Okay, I’m copyrighting that right now!!
    BTW, are you possibly talking about your NV chapter? You know that’s smoking hot right?? And I did not feel the need for backstory for that first chapter. All the questions I had made me desperate for the next one!

  3. awesome analogy! Will have to go and have a read through mine and see what i can do 🙂
    And i really liked the way you described the row boat, goal, conflict and motivation thing. Awesome!

  4. Great post and I do love this line – “…him looking in the mirror and reflecting on how handsome everyone tells him he is but he doesn’t think so but he kind of likes the way the light shines on the artfully messy spikes of his blue-black hair.”

    LOL – I think there may be some non-romance readers who think HMB would publishe this!

    Can’t wait to read “The Virgin’s Budgie Smuggler” – sounds like a winner to me 😉

  5. Kerrin – no worries. It’s a tough one to figure out actually – I still do it with EVERY story, as in totally fail to figure either the goal or the conflict or the motivation. Sometimes it’s all three!

    Joanne – hey you! Yeah, don’t you like the hero admiring himself? Sometimes closely followed by running his hands through his silky, soft coal black locks. 🙂
    Lol re Virgin Budgie Smugglers! It’s got to happen eh? Maybe next New Voices…

  6. Do NOT google images for Virgin’s Budgie Smuggler. (At least not with your mouth full of tea.)
    Great post. It makes good sense when you put it like that!

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