Backstory Hazard

When I did my final edit of The Darcys of Pemberley, I ran into a thorny issue all novelists have to address: how to handle backstory, the events that are supposed to have taken place before the action of the novel begins. The reader needs a certain amount for the story to make sense.  Determining when, how, and how much to supply is the tricky part.

How did Jane Austen deal with it?  She took a very straight-forward approach.  In five of her six novels, she served up a heaping helping of backstory narrative (at least a couple of pages of it) right at the beginning.  It makes sense; those events happened first chronologically and have a bearing on what follows.  In Mansfield Park, she starts her account a full three decades before the heroine, Fanny Price, arrives on the scene.

About thirty years ago, Miss Maria Ward of Huntingdon, with only seven thousand pounds, had the good luck to captivate Sir Thomas Bertram, of Mansfield Park, in the county of Northampton, and to be thereby raised to the rank of baronet’s lady, with all the comforts and consequences of an hansome house and large income.  All Huntingdon exclaimed on the greatness of the match, and her uncle, the lawyer, himself, allowed her to be at least three thousand pounds short of any equitable claim to it. (Mansfield Park, opening lines, chapter 1)

Austen goes on to tell us about the circumstances of Lady Bertram’s two sisters and how past events have brought things to the current state of affairs.  This is a simple, logical, and pragmatic way of dispensing backstory information.  Unfortunately for the modern writer, it’s no longer in vogue.  Pride and Prejudice is completely different, however, and a much better example of what is expected nowadays.  After the famous opening two lines, which set the theme and tone, we go straight into the action – a feisty conversation between Mr. and Mrs. Bennet.  So what happened to the backstory?  There’s less of it, and it’s doled out more gracefully, in small doses along the way as needed.

If the story absolutely requires a lot of set-up, the author had better make it entertaining, which reminds me of something I read in Save the Cat, Blake Snyder’s book on screenwritingHe describes a useful device he calls “The Pope in the Pool,” a trick to make the delivery of necessary exposition more interesting.  The idea is that if you put the Pope in a swimming pool (or some other such unlikely scene) the audience will be so distracted by it that they won’t notice they are simultaneously being fed lots of necessary background information that would otherwise be boring.

So, how did I deal with the backstory issue for The Darcys of Pemberley?  I set out with the intention of making the novel stand on its own, to include enough background material so that people who weren’t familiar with Pride and Prejudice would still be able to follow and enjoy it.  That meant providing a LOT of backstory.  I put it in.  Then, with each rewrite, I took more and more of it out again until there’s barely a trace left, most of it in the brief prologue. 

Why did I ax it?  Well, I’d be cruising along through the story like I was rolling down a freshly paved highway in a big yellow convertible on a sunny day.  Then, suddenly, CLUNK.  I’d hit an unexpected chunk of backstory.  It brought the action to a screeching halt just as surely as a tire flattened by dangerous road debris.  It had to go.

So, be forewarned.  The Darcys of Pemberley is a direct and deliberate sequel; there’s no reason to pretend it’s anything else.  If you want to read it when it comes out in a month or two (and, naturally, I hope you will), start reading Pride and Prejudice now!  Additionally, or as a viable alternative, I recommend watching the ’95 BBC film adaptation starring Colin Firth.  That’s the most enjoyable way to collect all the backstory you’ll need.

About Shannon Winslow

author of historical fiction in the tradition of Jane Austen
This entry was posted in Jane Austen, Jane Austen Quotes, Shannon Winslow's writing, writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Backstory Hazard

  1. All excellent points. One of my favorite bits of JA backstory-ing is in “Persuasion” (which, truth be told, is actually my favorite, slightly above P&P). Although she presents us with a few short paragraphs about Anne and Wentworth’s previous relationship as a small info-dump, the back story really unfolds when the two of them begin to reacquaint themselves, and Anne is recalling her love for him bit by bit. Finally, at the end, when he writes the brilliant “You pierce my soul” letter, he describes his constancy and the entire backstory is resolved as you realize he never stopped loving her at all.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Patti! For me, Persuasion comes in second (after P&P), but “the letter” is probably my favorite passage in all Jane Austendom (see A Well-Writen Letter). I sigh just thinking about it again! The next novel I plan to write will have a strong Persuasion connection (see Germ of a Novel post). I can hardly wait until I can get started on it.

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