There should be no backstory within the first 50 pages, a seasoned editor explained to a panel at Arisia last month. Other authors on the panel had varying ideas: three chapters, fifty pages. And while all of them are seasoned writers and have successful careers, I think they might have missed something the political scientist in me did notice: but what’s the context?
Or rather, what’s storybuilding vs backstory? Backstory, in simplest terms, is what occurred before the opening pages of the book. It might be a scrapped opening woven in later scenes/blurbs, a massacre a 100 years ago, some dude randomly running away from the Dark Lord with the Pick of Destiny, etc. It’s all of the events that precede page one. Now, I would agree. The first 50 pages double spaced isn’t really more than 3-5 chapters depending on your chapter lengths. But the context is important. Conflicts don’t happen just because. Just because is the bad answer to why King Larazza wants Empress Jaina to join him in taking over the Morezzo Republic.
“Empress Jaina, join me. Together, we can take over the land.”
“Now, why would I do that?”
“Your logic is impeccable. Tally ho, let us engage in wanton slaughter, teehee.”
People rarely do things just because. Just because is why your Dark Lord makes no sense after killing CHAR_NAME’s hometown. Context is important. And the other caveat is this: how far away from Earth is the setting? I noticed several of these writers wrote historical fantasy of varying degrees. Well, yeah, I don’t necessarily need to understand the players in the greater political game if I’m following a blacksmith’s son turned militia man. But the majority of novels I read, fantasy and science-fiction, use what I call storybuilding.
Storybuilding is a mixture of relevant worldbuilding, slips of contextual backstory, all filtered through the character’s perspective. This doesn’t mean you go into a 1000 word info dump about the minutia of Archoness Nashandra’s mysterious five year conquest. How does the character relate to the setting? And how does it affect the opening scenes. People don’t just exist as soon as they pop on the page. And you can have a sad scene where a barber fails to save his brother’s wife in childbirth, but if the barber is a Gorgonzo alien, I need to understand how this world works in piecemeal slips. The unexplained reference, mention of important characters, how the character feels about Mommy’s unfathomable conquest in context of her current circumstances.
If I’m writing a DND homage about five adventurers coming/going from a previous adventure, I don’t need a ton of detail at first. But if I’m writing a political tragedy in the vain of GGK, I need/want context to it. It’s depth vs interest. I want to be interested in the action-adventure, I want depth/context with the tragedy. It’s the importance of liking a meme-quipping rogue for a chapter vs observing the failed negotiations of a foreign ambassador about to be killed for a crime she didn’t commit. Different genres have different levels of context/beginning storybuilding.
Food for thought.