where the writers are
On Legends, Backstory, and the Evolution of a Story

I've been trying to get to writing this blog post for a couple of weeks now, but one thing or another has kept me from it. I decided this morning that I would write it this evening, come hell or high water. So, of course, today while I was doing some work in the attic of our 170-year-old house, I crushed the ring finger on my right hand when a pile of 20-foot-long, 18-inch-wide, oak planks (the kind you can only find in an old house) decided to topple as I was picking up a hammer that I had tossed onto it. Aaaaanyway...the point is that I am having a terrible time typing without that finger. So this post is likely to be shorter and have more typos than it would, otherwise.

I mentioned in a comment a couple of weeks ago that I had written about 3,000 words of backstory for my new project (I'm up to about 7,000, now). I'm writing it in order to better establish, in my own mind, the legend that is the catalyst for all of the action that takes place is the present-day setting of the book. This action takes place about 700 years ago.

I started by creating a character--I didn't even bother to give him a name--who was in a position to observe all of the key events and pieces of information that I would have to know about. As I wrote, I began to realize that not only did this character (whom I eventually named Saen'if ['say-en-EEF']) have a uniquely opportune position from which to observe the story that I wanted to tell, but he also had a very interesting story of his own--and a very entertaining interpretation of it all.

I have heard other authors talk about times when their characters begin to tell the story to them as they write. They simply become the scribe who puts it all down on paper (or in bytes). I had never experienced this before, but as Saen'if began to take shape, his words--and moreso, his actions--began to take the story in a direction that I never anticipated...and it's a much more interesting story than the one I was going to tell.

So here's my dilemma: I have a very interesting new character whom I never intended to include in the book, but I don't want to leave on the cutting room floor. I have a much improved backstory that will make the main story much more dynamic and nuanced. But I also have the present-day story that I still want to be the focus of the project and, frankly, without which the backstory becomes much less interesting. How do I make the best use of all of this?

 I see three options. (Please let me know if you see others.)

1) I can make the backstory a more prominent part of the story. Originally, I intended to allude to the backstory through historical documents and legend. Now I can see weaving it in with the main story as an actual first-person narrative or perhaps a more complete, and more personal, historical document, like a diary or journal (a la Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn series).

2) I can include a chunk of the backstory as an extended prologue. I am usually not a fan of prologues as I often can't figure out why it wasn't just chapter 1. But in this case, it is a very distinct story, with distinct characters, that has direct bearing on the rest of the action in the book. It would also provide some more context for the historical references and allusions that are included in the main story. I'm not sure how the length would play out--if providing enough information to make it worthwhile might make it too long for a prologue.

3) I have thought about the possibility of writing a prequel (although I'd have to do some more exploration to make sure there is enough "there" there). I'm not too keen on this idea, as I think it could detract from the impact of the original book. But I keep it on the board based on something that J.C. Hutchins recently did with the release of his book, Personal Effects: Dark Art. Shorly before the book hit bookstores, he released a serialized, audio version of a prequel novella, Personal Effects: Sword of Blood. Listening to Sword of Blood is what got me to buy Dark Art, and I think a lot of other people had the same reaction. It seems to me that the relationship between my backstory and my book lends itself to this type of treatment. (If only I can pull it off with the style and panache of a Mr. Hutchins.)

Well, that's about all the typing I'm going to do for now. I got the main points out there and I really hope to hear what people think. Have you had this kind of dilemma? (Do you even write backstory that is never intended to go into print?) What do you think would be an effective solution?

In the meantime, I'm going to go back to Saen'if and see what other stories he has to tell. I'll keep you posted on my progress. Now, I'm off to ice my finger.

Thanks for taking the time to stop by.

--

Rob.

Next time: Am I ready to move on to the book?

Comments
1 Comment count
Comment Bubble Tip

Your poor finger--take good

Your poor finger--take good care of it! The first thing I thought when reading your query was "he should write a prequel," but then I wondered if the backstory was long enough to warrant a separate publication. I'm a reader who, when I really love a story, will happily read anything by that author about that story, whether prologues, appendices, or separate publications. Whichever way you go, get it out there so it's available to those who would appreciate it. Susan