Write in the Now: Plot vs. Backstory
There’s a famous quote by Salman Rushdie: “I am the sum total of everything that went before me, of all I have been seen done, of everything done-to-me.”
And that’s very deep and very true. People grow and change in response to the world around them and their choices are definitely affected by the things that have happened to them before. Nothing happens in a vacuum. It’s a wonderful lesson to learn. That said, it can also be a bit of a trap for the unwary writer.
As an editor, I’ve read a LOT of manuscript submissions that are so focused on “everything that went before” that they forget about “what’s happening right now.” They center all the action and drama of their story on things that happened in the past. Secrets hidden for years, betrayals that happened long ago, and heartbreaks and trauma suffered before the story starts. None of these things are bad in and of themselves, and in fact, all of them can be quite useful tools for storytelling. But, the trick to using them is that you have to make these things important in the “now” of the story.
You need your action and drama to be part of the main plot, something that ups the tension and keeps the action moving forward. It’s fine to learn that someone betrayed your main character years ago, but it only matters if that betrayal effects what’s going on in the moment they learn of it. Both your main character and their betrayer have to be active in the story, and important to the current plot. It’s hard for readers to become invested in the actions of characters that they’ve never met or seen on the page. If they haven’t been important to the story thus far, I, as a reader, probably don’t really care about them yet. And even if I do already care about the characters, I’m probably not going to care about a betrayal that happened before the story even started, unless learning about that betrayal changes how the main character reacts to things that are going on right now.
Plot is made up of all the action and events happening right now, on the page, in the moment. Everything that happened before the story starts is merely backstory. And backstory, no matter how cool it is, is never going to be as interesting, immersive, and important to readers as something that is happening right now. If it happened in the past, then we already know what the effects are. We know who lived and who died and who fell in love and who broke up and there’s no tension or uncertainty there. But if it’s happening right now in this very moment, then it has the potential to matter. The results are not set in stone… things could change. They could go horribly wrong, or wonderfully right. And that’s the uncertainty that will keep your reader’s invested and turning the pages.
Look hard at your story, and make sure that all of the important events are happening on the page. If all the action and drama happened years ago, and we are just dealing with the fallout… then you need to find a way to bring that drama forward into the now. And if you can’t, then maybe you should consider backing up a bit and telling us that story, you know, the one with all the action and drama, first.
Readers want to experience the important moments, and see the characters grow and change, not simply be told that these things once happened in the past.
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