Episode 30

The Art of Writing Backstory

We are continuing our journey through the three-act structure today. I hope you wrote a killer hook last week. This week we’re looking at Backstory and your Act 1 Trigger. The US Department of Justice versus Penguin Random House trial gave their closing remarks, while you and I played catch at the back of the courtroom.

Music licensed from Storyblocks:

“More Jam Please” by Raighes Factory

“Paradise Vibes by Jon Presstone

“Samba Dream” by Sleeping Ghost

“Casa de Frio” by Jon Presstone

“Summer” by Mikael Manvelyan

Transcript
Rosemi Mederos:

If you have plot bunnies coming out of your plot holes, it’s time for a writing break.

We are continuing our journey through the three-act structure today. I hope you wrote a killer hook last week. This week we’re looking at Backstory and your Act 1 Trigger. The Writing Break cafe is open, so let’s head inside.

Following his on-stage attack, which we talked about last week, Salman Rushdie is no longer on the ventilator and is on his way to recovery. The suspect, you know, the one who pleaded not guilty, said that he is surprised Rushdie survived. The suspect also admitted that he only read a few pages of The Satanic Verses.

The antitrust lawsuit filed by the US Department of Justice against Penguin RandomHouse finished its third week. Both sides gave their final tongue wags . A verdict is expected in November.

Understand that I am not an acquisitions editor. I am a developmental editor and a copy editor. I go where the story takes me. So, let’s leave the data analysis to the judge and find the story in this lawsuit.

In their pre-trial brief, the US Department of Justice claimed that the merger of Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster was “likely to diminish overall output, creativity, and diversity among books published.”

They also wrote that it could “mean that fewer authors will be able to make a living from writing.”

This is why they claimed that they wanted to stop the merger, but in just three weeks we would learn that the US Department of Justice was an unreliable narrator. As each side presented their case, it was clear that the main focus was on the business of major book deals, not on output, creativity, and diversity.

hers. It shouldn’t have. In:

In 2007, that’s 53 years later, Barzun said, "I've gotten so disgusted with baseball, I don't follow it anymore. I just see the headlines and turn my head in shame from what we have done with our most interesting, best, and healthiest pastime. The commercialization is beyond anything that was ever thought of….Other things are similarly commercialized and out of proportion, but for baseball, which is so intimately connected with the nation's spirit and tradition, it's a disaster."

Even though Barzun turned his back on baseball, he wasn’t wrong about it being a reflection of America. This lawsuit, which claimed to have been filed in the name of creativity and diversity, came down to securing the book deals that panhandle money for the rich.

One baseball term that kept getting tossed around during the trial was “farm teams” in reference to smaller publishers. This has upset many people in the US publishing industry, partly because they do not understand baseball.

Some of them are upset because they think this is calling their authors inferior and their books low quality.

Some of them are upset because they think this is saying they cannot be considered the final publishing house for writers.

What is true is that the Big Five often look at smaller publishers and try to lure their bestselling and/or most talented authors away with big advances and other incentives.

In that sense, they are farm teams. This is how Stephen King started, and he testified against the merger. The trial also mentioned many successful authors who stayed with their smaller publisher, even when the Big 5 showed an interest in them. One example they gave was Mary Roach, one of my favorite nonfiction writers.

Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster executives testified that a big advance doesn’t ensure a bestseller and that they hypothesize about rather than predict the success of a book.

That is good news for you. Amazon was mentioned as a competitor, and I think self-publishing is the biggest farm team in the league. Publishing houses look at successful self-published books for talent to scout.

I will update you on this trial again when the verdict is in. In the meantime, keep writing, keep publishing, and keep knocking it out of the park.

Links to these articles can be found in the show notes of this episode and on writingbreak.com.

The author we are spotlighting today says that visiting Barnes & Noble when she was younger inspired her to be a writer. I expect we will see her books among the shelves one day. But, I have visited an independent bookstore not far from where she is currently living that is a unique gem, so let’s head there together.

Old Florida Book Shop in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, is an antique bookstore specializing in buying and selling old and rare books, vintage magazines, and historical maps. This small picturesque bookshop has floor-to-ceiling wooden bookshelves, and the bookshelves are so deep that the books go two and sometimes three rows back. There is a rolling ladder, of course, as well as Tiffany-style table lamps, antique rugs, and a piano. Some of the books are locked in glass cabinets, so enticing, and there are storefront books selling for $1. The store owner is usually on site, and the staff members are helpful. Just don’t touch the maps at the back of the store without asking first. I learned that the hard way.

Now that we are here, let’s run our fingers along the spines, point out interesting inscriptions and marginalia to each other, and then meet today’s independent author.

Allow me to introduce you to Noy Levi, an author from Florida. She first began writing 5 years ago when she wrote a script for a literary fair, and it was then that she fell in love with writing. Since then she has published two poetry collections: "La Vie D'Amour'' and "Pacts & Promises". Her poetry is about overcoming hardships in friendship and love. She has a podcast called "The U-NOY-Verse" that is nearing its season finale, and she has plans to begin writing a third book in the near future.

Look in the show notes for links to her books and her podcast.

And now, let’s head to a nearby beach for today’s writing tips.

10:10

In the last episode, I gave you pointers for writing your story’s opening hook. I hope you found the time to work on it and that you are proud of what you wrote.

In this episode, we are looking at Backstory and Trigger. We have talked about backstory in past episodes.

The backstory is the history that brought the character to the point in the book in which we meet them. This can be presented in the form of dialogue, memories, flashbacks, or exposition. Just remember that exposition tends to be the weakest way to bring the reader into the story.

You do not have to put a character's entire backstory into one place in the beginning of the story. That could overwhelm or bore your readers. Put in what you think your readers absolutely need to know in order to connect to the character and understand the plot, and remember to keep the story moving . Additional backstory can be added throughout the story.

The first act should include action that helps the reader begin to understand your protagonist’s goal, flaw, and situation, and a bit about your protagonist’s personality or mode of thinking.

Additionally, you can add in some foreshadowing. Depending on your genre and your story, you might need to do some world building, character introductions, and so on. You should introduce characters as soon as possible, making sure that it feels natural to the story.

Watch out for forced scenes or unnatural dialogue.

And, of course, you’ll need to include your Trigger. A trigger is a moment, usually a shocking one, near the end of Act 1 in which the protagonist becomes overcome by their flaw and begins to have second thoughts about what course of action they should take or about themselves. This is not a time for the protagonist to make a decision or take action. It is a moment in which something happens that attacks the protagonist’s flaw. For example, if they are insecure, they’ll feel more insecure.

In short, it looks as though the character is getting further away from being able to do the thing.

Take some time this week to map out Act 1.

Think about the scenes you will need to write to bring Act 1 to life. A scene is where a character sets out to do something and it either happens or doesn't happen. Simple as that.

Consider what you want to reveal or the meaningful action you want to happen in each scene, and then write that down so that you remember once you begin writing. This is just a note-taking task, not full-on writing. If you find that there is no true reason for a scene–that is, it won’t advance the plot in any way–you might have to cut it out.

Remember that you are working on getting the protagonist closer and closer to the Crisis, which we will talk about in next week’s episode.

Before we go, let’s take a moment to overthink about backstory.

Backstory can be incredibly hard for some writers. There is so much to tell, and you want the reader to know it all. In past episodes, we’ve talked about how boring that can be for the reader. Furthermore, placing just the right amount of interesting backstory in just the right place is an art in and of itself. One thing that will get you crucified by your readers is a convenient backstory. For example, your protagonist is cornered in a dark alley in the middle of Act 3, and that is when your audience finds out that your protagonist has a black belt in judo.

Sometimes you have to place some backstory information early in the book so as to not write something that ridiculous, and this is when foreshadowing comes in handy. It is okay to hint to the reader that you might see a street fight somewhere down the line. If you’re lucky, you add in the backstory as foreshadowing, your reader forgets as they’re reading, and then is elated when it all comes together.

I know I am giving you a lot of information and not going too much into detail, so if there is anything you have questions about, let me know.

Get those Act 1 scene notes jotted down, and remember, you deserved this break.

If you would like us to visit your favorite independent bookstore, feature your favorite independent author (even if it’s you), or discuss something you’re overthinking about, please email me at podcast@writingbreak.com.

Thank you for making space in your mind for The Muse today.

Writing Break is hosted by America’s Editor and produced by Allon Media with technical direction by Gus Aviles. Visit us at writingbreak.com or contact us at podcast@writingbreak.com.

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Rosemi Mederos

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Rosemi is the founder of America's Editor, a book editing company.
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