In two of my books I did this with a doorknob. Think about it - a hand on a doorknob is chock full of dramatic potential. In Brotherly Love a trio of brothers is at their ranch awaiting the arrival from finishing school of their little sister (by choice, but not by blood). The eldest brother is at the window watching as the carriage arrives and his little sister steps down. He reacts to her in a way that is far from brotherly. When she makes her to the porch and out of sight of the window, the older brother watches the door, recalling the little orphan he'd helped raise and wondering how she'd turned into this woman who called to the lover instead of the brother. He watches the knob emotions divided between the brother who knows he's not ready to treat this woman like a sister and the lover who is hard and taut and more than ready to treat this woman to every sensual trick he knows.
In A Sixth Sense of Forever the book opens with the hero chatting with a group of brothers who were his best friends growing up. They floor him by asking him to give their little sister - a girl he's known since she was a toddler - sex lessons. After a vigorous debate, he tells them he doesn't know if it's possible because she'd have to arouse him as a man in order for him to teach her such tender lessons. The hero heads up to her room where he knows she's taking a bath because that's the perfect test of whether she can arouse him. But at the door, with his hand on the knob, he hesitates, and has to acknowledge that he's been lying to himself. He's been running from his feelings for this girl since she was 16 because a family curse means that he can never marry a woman he loves.
The past makes us who we are and explains what we've become. It's no different for heroes and heroines in a romance novel. But a story has to start somewhere and picking that spot is part of an author's job. Creators who get it very, very right can do such a good job at inserting flashbacks or backstory that readers or viewers are sorry the story didn't start somewhere else. I find that to be true on Shonda Rhimes' "Scandal." Last week's episode flashed back to the start of the affair between then-Governor Fitz and Olivia. It was during the campaign. Fitz was unhappily married to a wife having an affair, but he wasn't yet the Prez. HELLO - does that not remind anyone else of Mer/Der on "Grey's Anatomy"? I've always thought that the way we were introduced to Mer/Der explains a lot about how well they clicked for fans. And I think Fitz and Olivia would click the same way if "Scandal" pulled an about face next season and went back to the beginning. Let Shonda come on in Epi 1, explain, and let 'er rip. When the great Ms. Rhimes tweeted the good news about the show being renewed, I replied and asked her why she hadn't started the show back there - in that sweet spot.
Well, Shonda didn't answer my tweet but if she had, I'm guessing that she'd give the same answer any author would give to that question. The answer is - that's where the story started for the writer. I know that, but since I'm "just a fan" of Ms. Rhimes' work, I couldn't help putting my two cents in. But, like I said, the flashback epi of "Scandal" proved just how good Ms. Rhimes and her team of writers is at crafting a story. Fitting in backstory is a real test of the quality of an author's work.
A story must start somewhere but it will never move from that point unless the characters in the tale whisper to the hearts of readers. A reader will never care for a character who remains a stranger. Memories are the key to letting readers understand the characters, but it is a key that must be wielded carefully. Too heavy or too light a hand risks presenting a character in a false light. The only thing more likely to lose a reader than a character who remains a stranger is one a reader later realizes that she misunderstands.
When it's done right, memories or backstory will give a reader a clearer insight and understanding of events about to unfold in the tale. "To look backward for a while is to refresh the eye, to restore it, and to render it the more fit for its prime function of looking forward." ~Margaret Fairless Barber, The Roadmender
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