Back-story is not story

I've returned to blogging about what I learned at the Surrey International Writers Conference a couple of weeks ago.

I went to a workshop by independent editor extraordinaire Lisa Rector of Third Draft New York City. It was called The First Fifty Pages and here are some of the notes I took. It was truly an inspiring workshop and on the last day I also went to her workshop called the 11th hour Checklist which was about how you need to look at your manuscript before you send it out. That's a future blog post waiting to happen.

Story is the culmination of conflict and change. You need both internal and external change. The promise that you make to your readers is that things will be profoundly different at the end of the story. The story begins with the first moment of change or conflict and has to matter deeply to your characters right off the start. Then you repeat the pattern – what are the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th moments of change and conflict - and are they in the first fifty pages? Your story is the turning point when things shift for your protag and antag.

What are the consequences for the character if they fail and if they succeed? They have to give up something to get something. Conflict drives the story. True conflict is both external and internal. How can you build on the conflict you’ve created? Does it need to be resolved? Is there a secondary conflict? How can you make the conflict bigger?

Commanding openings grabs our attention and are written with intention. They put the important stuff on the page immediately and show that the writer has a plan and is setting it up on the first page. You need to be deeply invested in your story and we need to know why this character’s story needs to be told and why it matters. The first page sets out the promise. It sets out the tone and type of conflict, voice, event – here’s what this story is about – if you don’t deliver what you set up you lose the reader. The reader needs to know what kind of story it is and why. Set up is not story, and back-story is not story. Story starts when then is a change in the character’s life.

True dat! That is something we all need to remember.


Sue Hyams said…
Interesting stuff and makes me run for the notebook. I always start in the wrong place so this is helpful!

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