1. Nicholas C.
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    Nicholas C. Active Member

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    The Backtrack Approach

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Nicholas C., Nov 26, 2011.

    What are your thoughts on beginning a story with your MC in some sort of tumultuous situation and then spending the next several chapters developing the characters and showing how they got in that situation?

    The best example I can think of off the top of my head is Fight Club... For those who haven't read the book/seen the movie -- the narrator begins with being tied up with a gun barrel in his mouth on top of a building that is wired with explosives. From the second chapter onward, it explains how he got there.

    How do you feel about this approach as a reader?
     
  2. Link the Writer
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    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

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    I don't mind that approach, as long as its well done.
     
  3. Tesoro
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    Tesoro Contributing Member Contributor

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    You mean the entire book is about how he got there? Or just the following chapter/-s? I've read another book with the same approach (as the first option) but in a totally different genre, and it wasn't bad at all. I guess as with everything it's about how you do it.
     
  4. Nicholas C.
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    For my WIP, no, not the entire book. I'm tentatively planning something like chapters 2-7 as the bactracking part. The rest of the book deals with what happens in and after the aforementioned situation.
     
  5. Nicholas C.
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    Nicholas C. Active Member

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    duplicate deleted
     
  6. joanna
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    joanna Active Member

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    I like the backtrack approach because you can hook a reader from the start, and they have to read on to understand how the characters got themselves into whatever mess they're in.

    Many of the best books I've read start this way, even on a small scale, i.e., you start with a ridiculous sentence ("It was five o'clock when Jenny realized every last one of her chickens had escaped and pecked her poor, sick husband to death") and then in the proceeding paragraphs describe prior events and people and relationships.

    One of my stories starts with a death and goes on to describe the events leading to it.
     
  7. fiddlefinger
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    fiddlefinger New Member

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    Hello from a newbie

    I think it makes a change from most ways which hide the outcome until the end. It's a similar thing with Columbo on TV. We always know the suspect is guilty all the time but we watch to see how Columbo finds out.
     
  8. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I think it's risky. My first concern would be making sure that the background is interesting _in itself_, rather than purely as background. My second concern is that the writer might be over-concerned with explaining rather than telling the story and allowing the reader to make the connections.

    Done well, it could be a very fine voyage of discovery; done badly, it could result in the reader abandoning the book shortly after the beginning of the backtrack.

    ChickenFreak
     
  9. Nicholas C.
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    Nicholas C. Active Member

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    Yeah, I think you're spot on here. My biggest concern is that the second, third, and fourth chapters are going to be too sharp of a drop in pace.
     
  10. picklzzz
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    picklzzz Senior Member

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    I would think mostly the reader would forget how it all began. I loved Fight Club (one of my favorite books), but I forgot how it started when they came back to it. I guess if done right and perhaps with some reminders through the backstory, it could prove interesting. I just hate when there are too many flashbacks and forwards that I lose where I was, especially if I don't read it all in one sitting. Then, if I have been reading for a few weeks, I will have totally forgotten where we were and lost interest. This happens from time to time.
     
  11. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    it's done all the time in the mystery/thriller genre especially... and other genres, as well...

    what matters is not how you start a novel, but how good the writing is... any start can work if the book is written well and no start will make it, if it's not...
     
  12. Link the Writer
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    Link the Writer Flipping Out For A Good Story. Contributor

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    I actually had an idea like this. It would start at the very end, obscured so the readers wouldn't know what had happened. All they know is that the MC is in a church praying and the rest of the story pretty much explains how he got to that point.

    So, basically, like mamamaia said, it can be done as long as its done well.
     
  13. Drew78
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    Drew78 Member

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    Fight Club had a brilliant hook (though I confess I did not buy the book, but I still thought it had a brilliant hook). I tend to feel that it wasn't a matter of the author trying to make it work as much as it was the author saying, "Here's a really cool idea on how I can hook the reader." This is what we must all be constantly thinking about. We have to ask why anyone would want to read past the first sentence, past the first paragraph, past the first page, etc.

    I can understand why you asked this question, but perhaps an even more critical one is this: What works best? What makes a reader pick up my book and decide to take it and shell out 9 bucks for it?

    Sometimes this approach works, and sometimes it doesn't. You must ask yourself why you want to write in this format? Is it to do something experimental, or is it because in your opinion as a professional writer that this is in your readers' best interest?

    Drew
     
  14. Nicholas C.
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    I personally think that it is in the reader's interest (well as far as my story goes, that is). I think that starting mine out at the traditional "beginning" would make it feel somewhat slow getting off the ground.
     
  15. UberNoodle
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    UberNoodle Senior Member

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    I want to read that chicken book!
     
  16. Nicholas C.
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    Nicholas C. Active Member

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    For any of you who may be interested -- the first chapter of my novel using said approach is posted in the Writers' Workshop under sub-forum "Novels". It's the one titled "The Diabolist". If you're looking for something to review, or just feel like reading something, by all means :D
     
  17. Kallithrix
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    Kallithrix Banned

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    This is actually a well established approach - after all, Homer used it for the Odyssey! It starts with Odysseus being shipwrecked on the island of Calypso, then he comes ashore on the land of the Phaeacians and tells their King how he came to be in his current situation - the next six books are spent getting us up to speed until we come back to the point where his narrative commenced, then the story continues onwards again. This is a literary technique the Roman poet Horace termed 'in media res' - jumping into the middle of things. Since then it has been used extensively to varying degrees. So it's completely fine, and if done well is actually a very effective narrative framing device.
     
  18. lostinwebspace
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    I read a book called The Keepers, which used this approach where the story was mainly set in present day, but it would go back to the MC's youth several times. One of those times lasted more than 100 pages. Doesn't sound like a good idea--after all, keeping a reader's interest in a flashback can get dicey--but the author did his job right. All that to say that it can work if you can make it work.
     
  19. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    yes, 'in medias res' is one of the most common [and effective] techniques employed in writing fiction...
     
  20. agentkirb
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    agentkirb Contributing Member

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    Yeah... especially a lot of the TV crime drama shows seem to do that. I think you end up seeing it done almost once a year per show. Really overdone IMO.

    But again, you do it right and it can work. I don't think it's enough to just put the guy on top of a roof with a gun in his mouth and all of that because as a reader you know the guy is going to live and that someone is going to show up at the last minute and save the day. It has to be something strange IMO. Although I also think you could accomplish the same type of effect with foreshadowing.
     
  21. Ettina
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    Ettina Active Member

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    Personally it kind of annoys me, because I don't like knowing more than the protagonist does. But many people are fine with that if it's done right.
     
  22. lostinwebspace
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    lostinwebspace Active Member

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    The show Flashpoint does this almost every episode. I wouldn't do it just because they do it, though. It's a rather mediocre show.
     
  23. Kallithrix
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    Kallithrix Banned

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    And also see episode 13 of Firefly, 'Trash' - the pre-credits prologue shows Mal sitting naked on a rock in the desert. He simple says sarcastically 'Yeah. That went well.' Then the beginning of the episode starts 72 hours earlier to show the events leading up to that point. It's a nice framing device and a good twist at the end when the prologue turns out to be not all it seems...

    Man, I love me some Firefly :)
     

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