I picked up NIGHT STUDY by Maria V. Snyder as a possible book for my Is Our Writers Learning? blog series, but as I gave up after two chapters, that won’t fly. Which is not to say I didn’t learn from it, but obviously all I can analyze is the beginning of the book (cover art uncredited, all rights with current holder)
Night Study is the Poison Study series and while I’ve started many series midway through without difficulty (e.g. The Alchemical Wars), this was not one of them. Snyder makes zero effort to ground new readers: the first chapters had a lot of talk about recent events (some evil wizard trying to kill the leads and growing poisonous jungle plants through the use of a greenhouse) but very little that gave me a sense of setting: I have no idea of what the world is like, what the protagonists have been doing, what the politics or factions are. Nor did I gather anything about the lead protagonist couple (one assassin, one wizard) other than that there’s a wizard trying to kill them and that the woman is pregnant. Neither of them displayed any driving goals or direction (the same problem I had with Swords and Scoundrels). The story itself had no narrative drive (e.g., stop the wizard before he kills again!). In fairness, it’s a successful series writer’s privilege to cater to her established fans, and possibly if I were a Poison Study fan I’d have loved this. But I’ll never know.
All this did get me thinking, however, about what sort of backstory you need, if any, to kick off a book, series or not. Some stories frankly don’t:
•Her life was ordinary until one day the unexpected happened! This is the protagonist who starts off ordinary. Barry Allen. Buffy. The Pevenseys in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. A romance novel protagonist before that moment the lightning bolt of love hits. They’re regular folks just like us, so beyond basics—job, personality, friends—they don’t need much backstory. We can give it to them—a tragic past, a dark secret, an unusual career, four previous husbands—but making them seemingly plain folks can work fine.
•Everyone knows their story. Some characters aren’t ordinary but they’re still familiar. Private eyes, for instance–the PI in a trenchcoat is such a familiar figure, writers can probably use them without providing any background detail (check out any 1950s paperback PI for examples). Ditto the super-hero with a secret identity: I was always glad to read old stories explaining Flash’s, Green Lantern’s, etc. origin, but as a comic-book fan the idea of someone using powers to fight crime didn’t need much explaining. A homicide cop, a super-spy or a cowboy are all recognizable types which saves us some work.
Other characters do require more history, which requires a balancing act. In one scale, we need enough backstory, setting, history to have a basic grasp of the character and his world. In the other scale, we don’t want to bog down the story with info-dumping or flashbacks. We don’t have to flesh in all the details up front (damn, my scale needs more pans) but we can’t skip crucial details: if a reader doesn’t learn until halfway through the book that the protagonist has terminal cancer, the reaction may be dismay or outrage (“There wasn’t the slightest hint of this before!”).
That of course, is where judgment and storytelling styles play a role. in Impossible Takes a Little Longer, for instance, I establish early on that KC’s mother is dead; she got her powers from her mother’s ghost; and that her father did something horrible. In the second chapter I reveal that he murdered KC’s mother. In the third chapter I introduce details about KC’s self-destructive teenage years. Hopefully it all feels like expanding on the early hints rather than throwing in twists.
For a book I didn’t finish, that was pretty educational.