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Monday, August 26, 2013

The Importance of Old Story for Writers

When authors are told to start in media res (in the middle of things), this means starting with the action, the inciting incident, the new story world.

When a book starts with the inciting incident, it leaves much of the actual old story world, or Old World, to the reader's imagination, flashbacks, or internal monologue cues. I'm going to expound on why I think this cheats the reader, because there is benefit to starting the book with a little glimpse into the Old World.

What Old World Is Not

It's not backstory.

Backstory is everything that happened before your novel starts. If your character is 21, then his backstory would cover his birth, childhood, teenage years...everything up until the scene you open with that he's in. Backstory could even cover generations before he was born, such as family traditions and secrets that affect him.

What Old World Is

Old World encompasses the plans your character has, whether those plans are to change or to keep things exactly the way they are. The character might be completely ignorant of the issue(s) they need to face, or they are in complete and utter denial about it. But this is their life, and it's "working" for them (whether it truly is functional or dysfunctional).

Old World v. New World

There should be some major tension between the New World and the Old World.

Of course, this makes sense. We wouldn't want to read about someone just ho-humming it through their regular, Old World life. That would be b o r i n g.

When the New World breaks through on the page, it interrupts the Old World. Those plans the character had? Toast. Previous goals? History. But the Old World should rear its head occasionally through the book.

The reader might not understand the huge impact the inciting incident has, though, without some Old World first. (Click to Tweet!) This is my primary reason for writing this post, because for a therapist, understanding the environment, the Old World, is just as crucial as knowing the backstory. I couldn't do my job if I didn't know what had been going on in someone's life before they lost their house, or before their father died, or before they were put into foster care.

A Great Example of Old World

Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind starts with Scarlett doing what Scarlett does best...flirting with boys, attending parties, and planning to marry Ashley Wilkes. This was her life, her Old World.

There are arguably two inciting incidents that happen, one right after the other. First, she learns that Ashley is to marry his cousin Melanie. Second, the Civil War starts. Life as she knows it takes a drastic change...which is the New World.

The Old World should complicate the New World in some way, in much the same way the New World obliterates the Old World. What I mean by this, is that the person's life trajectory...the Old World that's in place when the book begins, should be at odds with the New World.

Scarlett just wants things to go back to the way they were...her having tons of beaus chasing after her, attending soirees, having money at her disposal, and having Ashley in her back pocket. She keeps hankering after these Old World relics while the New World plays out...and it disrupts her life further.

How Much Old World do You Include?

No hard and fast rule here. I've seen Old Worlds that were one paragraph of page one. I've seen some that were a few pages. Usually the New World interrupts at some point in the first chapter, but this isn't written in stone, like I said, but a good rule of thumb.

Remember, there's no limit to how much Old World you can retroactively put in a book, via flashbacks or internal dialogue. We're always told to stay away from backstory dumps, so don't take this post as license to put a dump back in.

I Don't have Old World...Now What?

The good news about Old Worlds is that adding them isn't all that difficult. If you've already started your book in the middle of the action, ask yourself a couple of questions:

1) When my character woke up the morning of page one, what were his/her plans before I interrupted them with the New World?
2) What does the character think the story is going to be from page one? (Hint: this should be different from what you as the author knows the story is.)

Once you've answered them, you'll have your Old World. All you need to do is give them a structure and copy/paste it in before your novel. Not as a prologue, but as paragraph one of page one. Just scoot that old paragraph one back a bit.

Let's Analyze

What other benefits would the reader gain if authors showed just a tad more Old World before the inciting incident? Any other books that you'd say have good Old World examples?