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a question on length : FAQs • Writing Forum | WritersDigest.com

a question on length

Frequently asked questions. Go HERE and read the first thread.
Brina
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a question on length

Postby Brina » Fri Apr 11, 2014 4:49 am

Hello again. I asked a question before about submitting and resubmitting work. The answers I received were so helpful and I thank you all again to those who offered their advice.

Today I have a different question: about how long should the back story be page wise? I am writing to an adult audience and the last thin I want to do is bore my readers. However, the history of the world my main character finds herself in is important to understand the war that is taking place. With breaks in the monologue, the whole back story is five pages long (about 3,000 words). Do I need to be worried?

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Re: a question on length

Postby cynfranks » Fri Apr 11, 2014 5:51 am

Maybe my answer won't be so helpful, but here goes. I see a lot of talk about Fantasy being allowed extra leeway for world building. This goes against the grain with me. I think it's not good to say, "the backstory goes here." Maybe it's the playwright in me, but I have an abhorrence of exposition. I would work the backstory into the story so the story is always moving forward.

I'm currently writing a novel that falls into the Fantasy genre, but I don't see this as a problem, the reader 'discovers' the world as the characters do. I understand it may be more difficult if the the character grew-up in the world, but I still think I'd find a way to make it part of the story. For me I think describing the world without the description also advancing the story is what separates Fantasy I like from Fantasy I don't like.

That and character filtering :D

I'm sure my esteemed colleagues will have better advice. This is only one writer's opinion.
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Re: a question on length

Postby TerryRodgers » Fri Apr 11, 2014 5:54 am

I'll let others answer your question about back story, what I want to point out is the 3000 words. If you have formatted your novel correctly, there's no way 3000 words would be only 5 pages. The average is 250 words per page with the outside of maybe 350 words per page. That puts your backstory chapter anywhere between 9 and 12 pages, closer to 12 if you use a courrier font. Are you double spaced with a font size of 12?

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Re: a question on length

Postby pls » Fri Apr 11, 2014 8:53 am

I find backstory (at the very beginning of a novel) longer than a half-page or so to be distractive. Why not get right into the story and work in the backstory as you go?
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Re: a question on length

Postby updog » Fri Apr 11, 2014 9:23 am

I agree with Cyn and PLS. Backstory should be revealed naturally as the story unfolds.
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Re: a question on length

Postby MookyMcD » Fri Apr 11, 2014 9:25 am

I don't write fantasy or sci fi (or anything else where there is a lot of worldbuilding). That said, I still have characters who are being introduced moments before a life-changing event takes place. People whose prior lives and backgrounds and current living situation and everything else still need to be told (to the extent they impact the story or plot).

I'm with Paul on this. I think the goal (probably unachievable) is to work backstory and worldbuilding in through things that don't make the reader even realize that's what you are doing. Next best is a sprinkling of clauses in sentences, so there is never a point that the story is halted for one of those things. When that won't cut it, a sentence or two in a paragraph not dedicated only to worldbuilding and backstory (and a handful of paragraphs without such sentences between paragraphs that contain them). That's as far as I'd be willing to go under almost any circumstance.

The alternative (if there is a huge amount of backstory that absolutely must be included) is to start in the present (the story present) and let the main story run for a while, telling the backstory through flashbacks. Mario Puzo effectively crammed an entire novella of backstory about Don Corleone's childhood and rise to power into The Godfather. But the book still opens not long before the Don's death. His example is particularly brilliant (IMO) because of the way he used the backstory excerpts to control the pacing and tension in the main story.

Wow, this turned out a lot longer than I planned. Short answer is, I'd avoid a 3,000 word info dump at the beginning of anything.

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Re: a question on length

Postby James A. Ritchie » Fri Apr 11, 2014 10:44 am

If it really is backstory, either write a prologue, or work it into the story as needed. Chapter one, page one, really, should start the story itself, and show character.

First you have to make the reader care, and then you can work in necessary detail about backstory. I can't find anyone to attribute this quote to, but I firmly believe it's true. "Until we know what a character wants, we don’t know what the story is about. Until we know what the stakes are, we don’t care."

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Re: a question on length

Postby MookyMcD » Fri Apr 11, 2014 11:47 am

I agree with the overall sentiment in James' post, but urge caution about thinking a prologue is the solution. 3K words of backstory is a problem, whether you call it a prologue or not. If someone skips it, Chapter 1 needs to still work (which means you really didn't need 3K words of backstory to begin with). If someone reads it, the caption "Prologue" is not permission to bore them with 3K words of backstory.

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Re: a question on length

Postby pls » Fri Apr 11, 2014 1:16 pm

Harry Turtledove's "How Few Remain" is a perfect example of how to work backstory in as you go. Turtledove's alternate history stories obviously need backstory to give the reader the changed history s/he eventually needs to know, and in this novel, he opens with Abraham Lincoln in 1881 on a train headed west to give lectures. Turtledove has Lincoln reflect on the Union losing the war, the changed economic conditions in the South, who are now supported by Great Britain and France, etc. No boring prologue here, although he does offer a map of the two nations as a frontispiece.
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Re: a question on length

Postby mammamaia » Fri Apr 11, 2014 1:52 pm

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