19

So, this probably came up already thousands of times, though here I am. So let me explain...

I have a story I want to tell. I am planning for it to become a novel, possibly multiple novels because of its scale. It's quite a long ride, and I have the characters planned out so far, and I know where everything will go to. But now to my problem:

My story takes place in a "crapsack world", and starts with the MC wandering through it in search of something. So far, so cliché. The thing is, as the reader later on will discover, the world was not always that way, but the MC knows how it was before, and even lived in that world, which looked very much like our own. What's more, he witnessed the event where everything went downhill, where he (and everyone else) was betrayed by a person he had called a friend, and so he swore revenge and to try to revert the results of this event. The whole stuff before this turning point could probably fit into its own book. There is a whole world and society to describe, other characters (of which only two or three will even be alive in the main book I am wanting to write), and much character development for the MC. Especially how the event twists him into the Person he will be for the main part of the Story. But...this is not the story I want to tell.

What I fear is, either I start with this backstory, writing a whole book possibly, for everything to turn bad, and the next book starts with a whole other premise, or I start after this time skip, and introduce the backstory through dialogue, or flashbacks of some kind, which just doesn't fit the scope of this disastrous event.

So my question is, basically: If I as a writer have a backstory that is so long it could fill a book on its own, but is not the story I want to tell but merely results in the main story being there to tell, but still is essential because of this fact, how do I go about it?

Thanks in advance for any suggestions!

Edit: Wow, many great answers and suggestions here, and very hard to pick one. Thank you all for your quick support! As Amadeus' answer is very thorough on the general problem of "how to start a story" that also tackles the question regarding a long backstory, I accepted this answer. The other answers are also great, though, and gave very good suggestions and I wish I could have accepted all of them.

  • I am sorry but the way you explained it sounds very cliche... but... it doesn't mean you shouldn't do it. The standard start of this kind of story is in the middle. Introduce a major character (or the main character), the new environment, the threats of that environment, in an event that is interesting to the reader. – dolphin_of_france Aug 13 at 13:46
  • The basic premise makes me think of Mad Max --- maybe look at how they introduced him? Or Thanos' retelling of his origin (the comics slightly vary). Just a thought - and not hashed out enough for an answer. But good luck nonetheless. – J Crosby Aug 13 at 17:17
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    There's a scene towards the beginning of the movie Spaceballs where Dark Helmet and Col. Sanders describe basically their entire evil plot to rid the planet Druidia of all its oxygen to save planet Spaceball. After the entire explanation, Dark Helmet turns to the camera and says, "Everybody got that?" This is my favorite illustration of exposition, which, briefly, is where you inform the audience of things that have happened without actually showing them happening. Using the "backstory" to influence the...frontstory(?) is often a good way to establish a sense of mystery and intrigue. – John Doe Aug 13 at 17:56
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    This reminds me of The Innocent Mage. There was an entire history of this magical race and how they ended up living in a realm of non-magical folks. The first four books just touch on that and it's not until the fifth book that it shows the backstory. – Weak to Enuma Elish Aug 13 at 23:25
  • A reminder to all commenters: leave answers in answers. Most of these sound like a good basis for an answer, but comments can't be accepted as answers (or edited, or downvoted if they're bad). – V2Blast Aug 14 at 4:43
16

Nearly all stories, including novels and movies and even comic book series, begin with the MC in their "normal world." There is no law demanding that, other than the laws of economics: We want the story to sell!

We authors do this because for centuries, this has proven successful, and stories that try to violate this rule flop. Readers expect the beginning of a story to illustrate how the MC has been living, up until the incident (aka "inciting incident") that disrupts their life and pushes them in a new direction. This introduction to the MC, the setting, and perhaps other characters is the foundation upon which the story is told.

In your case, I believe the "normal world" for this MC is the post-apocalyptic world. True, that was not their normal world ten years ago or whatever, but whatever ended that world is a different story (and probably one that did not have a happy ending).

This post-apocalyptic world is now their normal, and the time that went before is in the past, something to be remembered, longed for, perhaps hated, but that is told through thoughts, dialogue, and perhaps flashback. (I don't personally use flashbacks.)

This introductory phase typically lasts 10% to 15% of the entire story length; it is rather long, and it is ALL before the story-driving inciting incident is outlined or discussed. You say the MC is looking for a McGuffin, typically the need to find this McGuffin would appear around halfway through the first Act, which is 12.5% of the way into the story. In other words, right at the end of the introductory phase.

But we don't want it to be a laundry list of factoids about this unusual world, we want it to be interesting to the reader.

The easy way to do this is to start with a minor daily-living-problem for the MC, not the inciting incident. Just like all of us, daily living can present little problems to be solved, and that can be interesting. The morning alarm fails to go off due to a power failure during the night, and you wake up already late for work. Your phone isn't charged. Your car won't start. The milk for your morning cereal has gone sour. In general, something disrupts the normal routine, but it isn't life-altering, just a problem you can't ignore.

That is what we give our MC. They have some normal routine you need to imagine, and then something goes wrong. That tells us where to start the book: I start with the character's name, doing something in their normal world, and often introduce this "inconsequential problem" in the first paragraph or two. The reader has something interesting to follow, the MC dealing with their problem, and the author uses that to begin the introduction to both the MC and the setting.

Your story starts with an MC already accustomed to navigating their post-apocalypse world. But the MC has memories and understanding of the pre-apocalypse world, that still informs their actions today. Those come into play as needed. But as the author, you can make some of those memories needed by devising the right kind of "inconsequential problem", e.g. maybe the MC is trying to find rechargeable batteries for a device, or looking for something somebody would trade food to get. perhaps he broke his blade, and is looking through rubble for material to make a new one.

The backstory may be interesting, but I'd think of this like a person's childhood: We read an awful lot of stories about adults, that have a backstory we learn almost nothing about. For example, what do we know of Dumbledore's childhood? Or Captain Kirk's? Presumably they were six years old, and went through puberty, and had first romantic kisses and virginal sexual experiences, momentous turning points in their lives. But in literature and movies they come to us fully formed. Just like in real life, we meet new people, already adults, and judge them by their looks, words and actions now, and once in awhile, we learn a few elements of their backstory.

Even in the first Harry Potter, Rowling introduces the magical setting while talking about his parents dying, then skips over ten years of childhood to get to the story.

Your pre-apocalyptic world is metaphorically the "childhood" of your MC; and we meet them in metaphorical "adulthood", the "childhood" incidents that shaped their beliefs, morality, skills, intelligence and knowledge are done deals.

To the extent those earlier times matter to how the MC behaves, tell us about them. Otherwise, like meeting a person in real life, let us judge them in-the-now, as we are wont to do: based on appearances, words and behavior. As readers, we will include in our judgment their thoughts, emotions, and memories.

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    +1 for "The easy way to do this is to start with a minor daily-living-problem for the MC" – Andy Dent Aug 14 at 17:35
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    +1 for very thorough answer on the general Problem, as well as added suggestions for how to generally introduce the MC and comparing this to Meeting a Person in real life – Pharguin Aug 15 at 6:25
  • I also like how this somewhat discusses the 4-act story structure of a “descent into hell”: identify the main characters as taking a journey into the Unfamiliar, then start before they have started that journey, explaining why they felt the need to go to hell in the first place. Also works for East Asian style “kishōtenketsu” (ascent into heaven) stories, you may not need to express why someone would want to go to heaven, that is self-evident, but you still want to identify that that’s what they are doing and start a bit before it. – CR Drost Aug 15 at 16:53
23

You should definitely tell the story you want to tell, and not some backstory that leads up to it. You are not starting your story at the point that would make sense if you were writing a comprehensive history of your fantasy world. You are starting your story at the point where your chosen character arcs, or the interesting situations you are putting your characers in, start. You gradually reveal as much of the backstory as is necessary for us to understand the characters and their experiences, choices, etc (and, often, no more than that).

You should not worry too much about the beginning (as in, the first page or chapter of the story). The beginning is often [based on what I've heard from authors talking about their process] written last. Oh, you usually write a beginning to your story first--but then you go back and re-write it. So you should be fine starting anywhere that's OK for your flow, even if it does not fill in the backstory well, then writing the rest of the book, and then going back and figuring out how you actually need to start.

You should not try too provide all the backstory. Basically any fantasy book you read will have a huge amount of backstory that is never told. And, what is told will come gradually, as it is relevant to understanding the characters and what happens with them as the story progresses.

You need not even worry too much, while writing your first draft, about providing all the backstory necessary for us to understand the plot. You can add that in when you edit the full draft, in a future iteration. Initially, provide the backstory that makes sense in terms of showing us the characters--what motivates them, what shapes their personality, etc. It will be easier to fill in the gaps when you have an actual draft to read, analyse, and find what's missing in it.

An extra point: don't try to "save up good ideas" for other novels in a series. Ideas will come to you. Use as much of your best material as you can, to make this story as good as you possibly can.

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    @Pharguin, this could be redundant, I wanted to add on that "start in the middle" is common advice because that's how we communicate. In a typical conversation, people can pick up on enough context clues to understand the pleasantries that came before, and the middle is the meat of the convo, where things are interesting. Same goes for storytelling and other relevant social dialogues. – kanoo Aug 13 at 22:40
18

When asked some variant of "Where do I start?" my mom likes to joke "Start at the beginning, go all the way through the middle, and when you get to the end, stop." In this case, that might make sense.

Start at the beginning of your story, not at the beginning of your universe.

What's the tale you want to tell? What's the journey for your MC? That's where you start. The backstory can be woven in later, or not, as the story (the plot) requires.

Remember that Tolkien made up a literal universe and mythology, from creation through several thousand years of history, just to give his characters a place to stand so they could speak the language he invented. That backstory eventually became The Silmarillion, which is another novel, but only the important parts were referenced in the Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit.

By all means work out your worldbuilding. But if it's not important to the plot of your MC's tale, leave it out.

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    I suspect that joke comes from the last chapter of Alice in Wonderland, where the White Rabbit asks the King where he should start in presenting his "evidence" to the court. "'Begin at the beginning,' the King said gravely, 'and go on till you come to the end: then stop.'" – Thing-um-a-jig Aug 13 at 18:42
  • @Thing-um-a-jig Does it? I'll have to ask my mom if that's where she got it from. It wouldn't suprise me. :) – Lauren Ipsum Aug 13 at 19:00
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    And if readers seem sufficiently interested in the backstory: prequels are a thing. – Chronocidal Aug 13 at 22:40
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    +1 for reminding me of LotR – Pharguin Aug 15 at 6:22
9

As far as we know, in our Universe all stories could start from the Big Bang. Or from the primordial soup if we want to stick to living beings on planet Earth. Does it make sense to do so?

Imagine having a conversation in which you want to relate about an interesting event that you witnessed. At which point of human history would you set the start of your narration?

Now you have a story that you created, where you control all the events. You then realize that certain events logically depend on prior events, and earlier situations. As a writer you need to know these because you need to establish a logical sequence. As a storyteller you do not need that. In fact, when telling a story you only need to know the facts, not the reasons behind them.

There are two very different processes at play. On one hand you construct your story and establish causality, on the other hand you narrate it and simply observe facts. Knowing the facts allows you to show them to the reader. Ignoring why the facts occurred helps you stay clear of telling the reader.

So, kudos for your backstory. Keep it for another book. Now show us what happens in the actual story.

6

Have you considered telling both stories at the same time? Alternate chapters between the old and the new world.

How the two worlds are related to each other can be left open in the beginning and explored throughout the story. You could even hide the fact that the respective protagonist is in fact the same person until later-on as a twist!

Once the relationship between the two worlds has been established you can use alternating chapters to link events in the old world that motivate decisions in the new world in a flashback like construct.

Alternating chapters also allow to create tension via cliff-hangers at the end of a chapter because the next chapter will be in the other world so the resolution will have to wait until the chapter after that.

  • I really like this idea--this would make for a very gripping story if well-done. – bob Aug 14 at 23:40
  • +1 for the idea of alternating, with an added twist. Will definitely think if that could fit my narrative! – Pharguin Aug 15 at 6:27
  • @Pharguin This was done in, for example, Oryx and Crake and The Selected, both of which sprang to my mind as soon as I saw your question. In both stories there's a double narrative, one story set long after the apocalypse and one set before or immediately after it, woven together to enrich the tale. – Rand al'Thor Aug 16 at 6:59
2

I have frequently made use of a systematic approach to story writing and structuring that can be scaled reasonably well against a few writing styles. I've found that applying the concept has made the process of starting a story far easier as it helps to reduce 'decision paralysis' during the initial writing stages.

It is important to keep in mind the core goal of the concept: Deciding "How much is actually needed: Does something add to the story or merely add to the word count." so that you can adjust the idea to tailor the system specifically to how you write best. [And it is also useful to consider that how you 'write best' for one story may not actually be the same as for a different story.]


Trying to design this as a set of hard and fast rules does not seem all that practical, so instead they will be presented as a bit vague. - Take things with a large grain of salt, use or expand on what's useful to you as an individual writer, and ignore things that seem to hinder you.


Break your writing down as works best for you, and begin rating it in various ways while keeping in mind the goals: Establishing whether or not "Things are helpful to the story as a whole", and deciding "Are things lacking from the story."

[While you are at this you may also want to keep an eye out and make notes on things that are helpful to writing/world-building, but which might not be directly helpful to the story itself.]

Your 'specific' rating system may be simple, just +/- by things or simple 'notes to self', or be built out into some kind of complex spreadsheet system with detailed scoring entries, but the key point is that you capture enough information that makes sense to you such that you're able to begin making better decisions.


How to apply all of this to beginning a story?

This will really depend on how you find you write best.

"Framework/Skeleton/Planner" type writers may find such a system helpful to start rating simple notes or vague "ideas". Maybe brain storm things and sifting things into three piles: Story, backstory, trash/fluff. Keep rating ideas from the 'Story' pile and highlighting shortfalls until you find something that feels like a useful starting point.

More "Exploratory" type writers can use a rating structure to essentially 'begin anywhere', and then apply a review process to ask and answer the question of "Does more need to come before this?" to help zero in on a story's beginning.

And nothing says that your initial ratings have to be 100% correct: There is nothing wrong with changing your mind and doing major rewrites afterwards.


The main takeaway is to find a way to focus yourself towards making useful decisions, and to be able to begin getting words on paper/file.

Initial drafts won't be perfect, and usually aren't even all that good to be honest, but the process of thinking about a story eventually needs to transition into actually writing the story if you're ever going to finish it.

2

Your MC reminds of of Roland Deschain from Steven King's Dark Tower series. He was born in a world that had it's faults but which was generally stable and peaceful. Then the world "moved on" despite Roland's best efforts to hold things together. He witnessed and participated in the events that destroyed the world he knew and replaced it with a darker, grimmer shadow of itself. He was also disconnected from time in a way that meant that most people he met didn't remember the old world and had only heard of it in story.

King started the book series late in Roland's story, long after the world had moved on. You could say that the books start at the beginning of the end of Roland's tale. They follow him through a finite, critical series of events that determine his fate and the fate of the universe.

But King didn't ignore Roland's long and interesting past. He worked in flashbacks to the time before the world moved on. With them he was able to illustrate the ways that Roland and the world had changed and why.

It worked for Steven King, so maybe it would work for you. Just be careful not to include so many flashbacks that they overshadow the present.

  • That's a very good example. Welcome to writing.SE! Take a look at our tour and help center pages if you haven't already, and stick around! – Galastel Aug 16 at 18:08
1

While having an in-depth backstory is good - and essential for series and novels - from the way you speak of your writing I feel you may be limiting yourself.

I have the characters planned out so far, and I know where everything will go to.

Characters grow through the story. Good characters grow as a result of story events. Great characters grow independent of you, as they are part of the world you've created.

While the backstory sets the tone for the story, it shouldn't box it in.

When I began writing, I would make "profiles" for my characters:

This is Elliot Fitzsimmons. 30 yo M. Easygoing, OCD, rides motorcycles. He's quiet unless it's a topic he enjoys then you can't shut him up. When he was 10 years old...

You get the point. I always reached a place where I began to tailor the story to fit my perception of the character. The story became dry and stale, character backstory got in the way of plot, and nine-times-out-of-ten it went into the "Meh" folder. Once I adopted a more loose character profile my writing drastically improved. Now instead of thinking 'this is what Elliot will do', I ask myself 'what would Elliot do?'

The reader doesn't need to know every detail of the backstory of the world or the character. Good character development, narrative, and plot should give the reader all the tools necessary to fill in the gaps using their imagination. If certain backstory events are integral to the story - where the story would be worse off without them - I usually do one of two things:

  1. Use dialogue to reminisce or otherwise describe the backstory. Sometimes a little break from the action (I call them "campfire moments") for the characters to discuss the world is refreshing. In your case - there is plenty they could talk about. You can replace dialogue with things like newspaper snippets, journal entries, notes, etc. but this can get cliche fast so be careful.
  2. A chapter that only takes place in the past. It could be a total non sequitur or involve a character from the main story but really make the most of this chapter because if you go this route you don't want to keep jumping back unless you're doing a story that takes place across multiple eras. Personally, I like using this method as the second chapter, especially in darker stories. First chapter drops you right into whatever "crapsack" the MC is in. Second chapter is a whole different vibe.

It's fantastic that you have so much backstory but I would recommend focusing on the current story first. Let descriptive writing, dialogue, and the other things we discussed earlier be your reader's conduit to the backstory. Let the reader gather the details as you take them on the adventure. Try not to spoon-feed.

One last thing. Don't be so certain that the events you've planned for your characters will be what actually happens to them! A well developed character can sometimes surprise even the author.

  • Welcome to Writing.SE! That's a good answer, though some "plotters" might disagree with you. I'm a discovery writer myself, so I don't disagree, but I'm told this doesn't work for everyone. Still, something to consider. I've fiddled with your formatting a little: the greyed out thing doesn't look as well on mobile devices. It's meant for code, where line breaks are meaningful. Take a look at our tour and help center pages, and stick around! – Galastel Aug 15 at 17:05
  • Thanks @Galastel my usual home is Stack Overflow (I'm a little code format happy), glad to be here! Totally agree though, discovery writing is not for everyone. It sure is rewarding once you finish a story in this manner though! – SentientFlesh Aug 15 at 17:25

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