If you want to hear good stories then listen to my dad. Watch the way his frozen blue eyes narrow like he is telling you a secret you can’t wait to hear. Listen to the way the inflection in his voice changes whenever he gets to the good part. When you’re rolling on the floor he’ll cross then uncross his legs and give a little laugh with a snort.
Any childhood friend I have ever had can remember any story my Dad every told them. The set-up is that great. I have bumped into people I haven’t seen in fifteen years and they still can tell you almost verbatim one of the many stories he tells. Some of the lines he comes up with would send Elmore Leonard looking for a pen.
As a writer I want people to remember my stories like that. It’s the goal. I want my kid to be haunted by my words from someone they have never even met.
My Dad is not a writer. If I asked him what a plot device was he would try to tell me what aisle it’s located at in Home Depot. He doesn’t know the difference between telling and showing, but his stories float by. When he starts to tell a yarn he could give you backstory for a few generations, and while that works great on the front porch it will get you rejections slips if you sent it to the rags in that formation.
A new generation of writing has emerged. Trust me, I have read it. Those days when “it was the best of times, and it was the worst of times” is over now. If your first paragraph is all details of physical descriptions of surroundings soaring in on a bird’s eye view, then you’re going to crash.
I am not saying backstory is bad. I think it’s very appropriate at the right time. I just want to see that turmoil. I want to know what makes him feel icky on the insides and why. But I want my cake and I want to eat it to.
If I pick up a book or scroll through a blog and the first thing a story starts out with is:
It was the first day of spring. Butterflies danced around the pasture as the cows bellowed in the field. Grandma said it was going to be a good planting season. Of course she couldn’t see with the milky white cataracts over her eyes, but she could still feel the sun on her face. In fact she hadn’t been able to see in years. When my brother was a baby she would have to sit in the chair before my mother would let her hold him….
Who cares? Myself, I like a good knife fight, or a car wreck. The backstory is important but give it a little time. In short stories you have very little time to get where you want to go but in a novel you have time to build those relationships. I like minimalist like Cormac McCarthy and Hemmingway, but give me Ron Rash or Steinbeck any day.
The point is I don’t mind a little extra set-up if the payoff is worth it but you better keep my attention in the scene. So when you write your beginnings remember to watch out for backstory because it bogs you down.