Putting Backstory in its Place: First Page Critique

Shutterstock image via TKZ

Shutterstock image via TKZ

Today we are critiquing the first page of a reader-submitted story, titled THE BANK BAR. I’ll add my comments at the end, and then please add yours in the Comments.

THE BANK BAR

The young man had been stalking Sadie for over a month. He sat in his car and watched as Sadie walked home from the store. She didn’t know him. He wanted to make contact with her, but it was too soon. He just wasn’t ready. The only connection he had to Sadie was that he had gone to high school with her older brother. But, they weren’t friends, they didn’t really know each other. He had seen Sadie in a store one day, and knew she was special. Well, special to him. He had no problem attracting girls. He was good looking, smart, in good shape, and was charming. He didn’t have a role model growing up, although if his friends had known his father they would probably disagree.
Sadie was 20 years old, and he was surprised that Sadie was still single. It was 1938, and it wasn’t uncommon for girls younger than Sadie to quit school, marry, and get pregnant; or the other way around. The depression had forced a lot of students to leave school to look for work to help their family. Nor was it unusual for girls to marry someone older. His father was six years older than his mother when they married, and she was 16. But his father was gone now. Good riddance. The bastard had mistreated his mother, and often beat him in a drunken rage. For a long time, there wasn’t much he could do. Things change. A boy grows up. A boy gets bigger, stronger. Eventually, a boy becomes a man. That day came when he finally was able to face his father, and it was no contest. His father would never abuse his mother or beat him again. The neighbors heard that his father left to look for work, and would return for his family. A lot of men had gone off to try to find work. Lord knows there wasn’t much work in Greenville, Alabama. Only he and his mother knew the truth. It was something they could live with, and in fact, preferred to the violence they lived with before his father disappeared. He would not be returning. Ever.

My comments

I like the way this first page sets up a level of tension and expectation in the reader. At first, I wondered why the narrator describes “stalking” Sadie. Once it was revealed that the boy had previously killed his father, I immediately thought, “Uh oh, poor Sadie is next. We have an attractive, charming, serial killer on our hands.” If that’s where this story is headed, I’m interested!

Avoid getting bogged down in backstory and tell-itis 

Unfortunately, this scene suffers from a malady I call “the backstory blues.” The very first line of the story, “The young man had been stalking Sadie for over a month” sets the reader’s focus in the past. And there we stay–mired  in backstory details–for the rest of the page. This problem can be fixed by refocusing the scene to show what’s happening now. Let us see through the young man’s eyes as he’s watching Sadie. Is she a farm girl? Pretty? Vulnerable looking?

Use specific language and details

The language, “Walked home from the store”, is too brief and nonspecific to convey dramatic tension. Is Sadie walking a dusty back road or village sidewalk? Perspiring as she struggles with a heavy bag? Is she walking with a friend, and is her stalker waiting until she’s alone to make his approach? The more specific and “in the moment” this stalking scene can be written, the stronger and creepier it will be. Weave in the backstory elements without losing focus on the here and now.

Avoid weak words

Certain words are inherently weak, in conversation as well as writing. “He ‘just’ wasn’t ready.” “They didn’t ‘really’ know each other.” Edit those out.

Title note

I was a bit confused by the title. Having read the first page, I still have no idea what THE BANK BAR refers to. (A spot for dumping bodies, perhaps?) In this title, both words–bank and bar–can have multiple meanings. This title can be interpreted in different ways, and therefore, it lacks clarity. The title is a writer’s first opportunity to grab the reader’s interest. Make it as strong and compelling as possible. At the very least, the title should give a hint about the type of story that is to come.

Your thoughts?

How did you like THE BANK BAR, TKZ’ers? Please add your notes and suggestions in the Comments. And thank you to our brave reader for submitting this first page!

 

 

 

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17 thoughts on “Putting Backstory in its Place: First Page Critique

  1. I have just a few comments. The voice is drab and dreary, which is fine so far, but as noted by Kathryn, the backstory sticks with me throughout and I never get a sense of where we are as opposed to where we were.

    Some points I want to make:

    1. “He was good looking, smart, in good shape, and was charming.”

    Suggestion:

    Leave out charming. I’d rather you show me this part, even if it comes later. Also, using the word “good” so close in proximity to each other made this awkward. Try using muscular instead of “in good shape” or “handsome” instead of “good looking” to eliminate one of the two.

    2. Sadie was 20 years old, and he was surprised that Sadie was still single.

    Suggestion:

    Change it to, “Sadie was 20 years old and still single.”

    This says the same thing to me, even a bit judgmental, which is what I think you were trying to get at.

    3. “It was 1938”

    Start this from the beginning because when you revealed this where you did, I already had Sadie in my mind wearing modern day clothing as a 20 year old. This was a bit jarring and hard to take in the entire backstory you described with the depression era. Clashed.

    • Great point about the 1938 info being needed earlier, Diane. Readers visualize context around a scene, and if there’s an important aspect such as the era, physical characteristic, etc., that is different than what they have visualized, introduced later, it has a jarring effect.

  2. Agree with all the comments so far and just wanted to add what an editor stressed at a SCBWI conference I was at this last weekend. He said the first page and first chapter should be all about intriguing a reader to learn more – asking the questions, rather than answering them. If there’s too much backstory then there’s not much in the way off payoff for the reader reading on and I think this first page illustrate this. Also anchoring the reader in time and place is essential for a historical piece – so right from the start a reader can visualize the time period the story takes place in.

  3. I agree with the comments from Kathryn et al. All the backstory info should come in small bits throughout the first chapter or, better yet, first act. Let the character(s) show us motivation. Telling us their motivation means nothing. It appears that the story starts in the wrong place. Perhaps when the young man and Sadie first have contact, or some other action or interrupted action would be better. I also don’t know yet whose story this is. It’s told through the young man’s POV, so it must be his, but because of the telling and not showing, I have no emotional attachment to him one way or the other. Thanks to the courageous author for submitting this. Good luck.

  4. The problem starts with the passive voice in the first sentence: He had been watching…I would suggest starting with something along the lines of Character Name watched Sadie walk home from his car, just as he had every day for the last month. (Actually, I would rework that example, but you get the idea.) I was also thrown by the appearance of 1938. Perhaps you could introduce this in the first sentence, along the lines of Name watched Sadie walk wherever from behind the wheel of his brand new 1938 Chrysler Imperial, just as he had every day for the last month (or break this into two sentences). This would allow you to introduce names of both character, the time period, and the whole stalker creepiness vibe right off the top.

    Agree with others that there is too much backstory, not enough current story. I advise condensing: cut out unnecessary history/editorializing, and sprinkle it around more. Don’t forget to guard against the passive voice.

  5. Not only is the back story dump off-putting, the writer jumps from one topic to another in almost every sentence. If he or she continues to write in that vein, following the story would be difficult.

  6. I’ve been a long-time reader here and always look forward to the First Page Critiques. This, I hate to admit, is the first story I’ve been unable to finish. I know that must sound terribly harsh, and unconstructive, but there simply wasn’t enough working in this brief opener to keep me interested.

    With that said, there’s just something about this author’s way with words that I find enjoyable. In other words, I wouldn’t have been so harsh if I didn’t feel the writer lacked potential. There’s great promise here, and a great storyteller in the making. IMHO. The opening just needs reworked, for all the reasons mentioned.

  7. I agree with the comments thus far.

    I think the writer has a sense of how to end a scene with a bang, but here the bang is backstory (i.e., that he likely killed his father…in the past.) I think the bang at the end of a scene should be in the present of the story, i.e., something that takes the reader forward. Not that this is the end of the scene, of course.

    Despite having only 400 words to work with in these critiques, I get the feeling that the writer hasn’t studied enough about scene structure nor about Stimulus and Response/Cause and Effect, i.e., the info in the scene is jerky, the thoughts don’t lead inexorably, one to the next. It lacks cohesion.

    If the POV character is a killer (hard to be sure from this bit), then the sense of menace isn’t strong enough. This can be solved by word choice and setting details, etc. Thomas Harris creates menace this way. But maybe he’s just a relatively young man in love with Sadie, i.e., I’m confused and I don’t think I should be with an opening.

  8. just want to encourage the writer to read craft books like those of James Scott Bell and Larry Brooks (contributors to this site) – as another newbie author who went through “First Page Critique” trial by fire a couple of months ago, I know it can be difficult to put yourself out there and take constructive feedback. Don’t be discouraged. You have a story to tell and you can learn how to tell it, but you need to study and take to heart what the contributors above are telling you. They are right – you need to keep us in the scene for several chapters and then gradually work in parts of the backstory. I did much the same when I started out. Oddly, I found that readers LIKE not knowing everything because it keeps them engaged. The time frame of 1938 makes this an original approach so I’d keep that in. You can obviously do some interesting things given that time period (which you already found by having the father going away for work and no one thinks twice about his disappearance) Good luck!

    • Maggie, a long while back, some of the bloggers Here submitted our first pages anonymously for critique. We got raked over the coals, same as everyone else! It’s so much easier to spot issues in writing that is not one’s own, I’ve learned. As writers, I think we have a tendency to “see” the story we’re telling so clearly that it’s easy to lose sight of how effectively we’re conveying that vision to a reader. Thank you for commenting!

  9. First, kudos to the brave writer. It takes courage to lay out your hard work for others to critique.

    Second, this is all good material, but it belongs in a file named “Character Development.” As a writer, you require this info to create compelling characters with believable goals, fears, dreams, motivations, etc. What you’ve written is not wasted, it’s simply misplaced.

    Think of this work as if you were a psychologist making notes on a patient. Write similar background studies for all your main characters. From these character sketches, you will find conflicts arising between the needs and wants of the protagonist vs. the needs and wants of the antagonist. That is your plot.

    Then put your characters to work, each following their own conflicting, burning desires, as they confront each other. I’m guessing he wants her, she doesn’t want him. If he doesn’t keep his past secret, he faces prosecution. Perhaps she is a threat b/c she can figure out his past. And off your story goes….

    Don’t be discouraged. Nothing is wasted in writing. You simply need to find the right place to use it.

    • Well said, Debbie! I have one project for which I wrote four chapters that wound up being “false starts”. They weren’t a wasted effort, however–all of that material ended up being absorbed into the story in other places, eventually.

  10. I don’t mind backstory. In fact, without backstory, Stieg Larrson’s Millennium Trilogy (which includes The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo) might have flattened out in the first book to be an unremarkable tale.

    My current WIP has a lot–a LOT–of backstory. It all takes my protagonist right down to her victories. How does a 4’11”, 98 pound red head get to be a military police officer? And how does what she was and did as an MP help her in her final two battles of the story? Ah, yes. The place of backstory.

    But even as it is used here in The Bank Bar, it is a bit much for me. All of the backstory elements could be saved for later in the story. (One blogger suggests that no backstory should be used for the first 50 pages. I cite the blogger’s comment only because I don’t agree with it.)

    My own opinion is that, because this is a tale of mystery and/or thriller, the tension of the moment needs to be heaped up if we’re going to believe that there is a possibility of killing(s) somewhere down the road. Perhaps the guy stalking Sadie is bleeding from a gut shot wound. (Yes, that IS gut shot wound–not gun shot wound.) And he fears this may right now will be his last chance to get ole Sadie. Maybe–and I don’t mean this to be awful or insensitive–he has diarrhea; it is getting worse, and he’s having to maker the decision whether to watch Sadie or run for a rest room. At any rate, I would use some device that intrudes greatly into his reason for watching Sadie. I think this much backstory here intrudes upon the urgency of his task.

    As for the voice, as another poster here has said, it is weak. In my opinion, the weak voice works against the fact that the viewpoint character is or was a killer. The late Foster-Harris, professor of journalism in the school of journalism at the University of Oklahoma, once handed me back a story assignment we had submitted the class meeting before. “Have the character Say dammit!, when he takes the round in his shoulder. Otherwise, we don’t see the intensity of his pain, or the depth of his emotion.” Now his comment worked against my own personal grain. I am a born again Christian. In my own life, I don’t go around saying Dammit. But in the society that Professor Foster-Harris knew, that expression, said that way, worked much better than the comment I had for the character. These years later, I still struggle personally with how much profanity, sex, and other stuff goes into my stories. I struggle with how deep to take it. Does she take her clothes off in front of her boyfriend? How else is he going to see the scars or the tattoos? Could the scars or tattoo of a young, naked woman he has asked to be his wife, interfere with his feelings for her, if he’s an Oklahoma boy? It might. If he’s an Angeleno, no problem. If he’s from certain parts of New York City, ” ‘ey! Whatsa matter for da scar on your whatchee?”

    But, all in all, I’m anxious to see what happens between the stalker guy and Sadie. In my world, he gets his when Sadie runs him down, too terrified to do anything else. In my wife’s world, he finds he can’t do what he wants to do because he’s fallen in love with Sadie.

    Backstory and voice have a lot to do with love or mayhem.

  11. I agree with the previous comments.
    For me, backstory aside (& previously covered), it was ALL tell and no show and it all felt very distant because of it. I think this is fine as a starting point – the stalking – but I think if it were re-written from a “show” perspective it would suck me in quick and up the tension/fear factor that others were bemoaning.

    Unfortunately, because of the “telling” I found myself skipping along for something to catch me… and I missed that this was set in the 30’s completely. 🙁

  12. I’m in complete agreement about the backstory, the “tellitus”. Cut it.

    Also, the weak words. “Had” is used nine times, including in the opening sentence, which is never a good idea. “Was” is used no fewer than eighteen times, including three times in one sentence. This is a red flag for a likely had-was extravaganza to come.

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