Skip to content

Backstory: A Case Study (Cline vs. King)

I’m a picky reader. I’m not shy about it. If I start a book and it doesn’t grab me quickly, I’ll put it down. I don’t know where I get it from ; my dad feels duty bound to finish any book he picks up. Not me. Books need to prove they deserve my time.

So I was on a train between Rome and Salerno last week (yeah, that’s bragging), and I started Ready Player One, a science fiction novel by Ernest Cline that’s apparently all the rage. And, if I hadn’t already promised someone that I would read it, I would probably have put it down.

It’s a short book, fewer than 350 little paperback pages. So it says a lot that the vast majority of the first 70 pages is backstory, with a couple of dialogues thrown in. Once I got past page 70, the action picked up and I actually started enjoying it. Before that? Drudgery.

Much of the problem is that it’s such a very simple plot for such a very complex milieu. Not much has to happen to carry the story forward, but if you’re going to understand any of the plot devices or riddles, you have to know all about the intricate culture and history of the world. This means that the author has to spoonfeed you every little piece of information for the action to make any sense.

To the author’s credit, very little of the information in those first 70 pages is Priority 3 information. You really do need to know most of it for what follows to make sense. But the end result is that the majority of  the beginning of Ready Player One is spent explaining the past, with very little time spent in the present. I wanted to put it down because I just didn’t care.

Which is disappointing, because the second half of the book is actually pretty good. If he’d hooked me from the beginning, I would have had no problem getting there.

I finished Ready Player One. I lay back on the hard, little hotel bed trying to figure out what the author could have done better. I couldn’t cut any of the backstory without weakening the book. I couldn’t add any action just for action’s sake. We just needed more–more character, more drama, more story.

Then, on the plane from Rome to DC, I started 11/22/63 by Stephen King. Oh, man, what a difference.

Ready Player One is Ernest Cline’s first novel. 11/22/63 is Stephen King’s umpteen millionth. It shows. I read the first five pages, leaned back my head, and sighed. This is what I was missing.

11/22/63‘s plot is every bit as complex as Ready Player One‘s in all the same ways, because the milieu of each book is inundated by the cultures of previous decades. And yes, the first 70 pages of 11/22/63 is largely backstory. But King does two things differently. First, most of that backstory takes place through dialogue, which, as I’ve mentioned before, is much more engaging than narrative. If Cline had found a way to deliver his backstory through dialogue instead of narrative, it would have kept my interest.

But what really got me was those first five pages. Before the backstory, he had a prologue with a scene from the protagonist’s life. It was simply a beautiful scene. It showed us the main character’s personality and exactly why we should love him. It led directly into the main plot. It even introduced a refrain that appears periodically throughout the rest of the book (“I’m not what you would call a crying man.”). It was essentially the perfect prologue.

Cline’s prologue was just more backstory, a scene that showed the personality of a character who was already dead when Cline started talking about him, and that character was just awkward. Then we started Chapter 1 with a main character who was basically flat throughout the first half. After all, it’s hard to develop a character when you’re spending most of your time describing things that happened before he was born.

That prologue symbolizes the difference between an okay book and a really good one. Character first, idea second.

I don’t know your book, but based on my work as an editor, there’s a pretty good chance there are ways you could be handling your backstory better. I provide you this tale of two novels as a demonstration of what to do and what not to do.

What should you not do? Inundate your reader with thick backstory without first giving us a reason to care about your real story.

What should you do? First let your readers really fall in love with your characters in the present, then worry about explaining the past. And when you do give us that backstory, don’t give it all as narrative. Use dialogue. Use internal monologue. Fill that backstory with character, so that we see it through the eyes of the people we’re getting to know.

Because your book is about them. Everything else is just a tool.

This article took two readthroughs.

Comments are closed.