The First Two Pages: “Backstory” by Charles John Harper

In April 2015, B.K. Stevens debuted the blog series “The First Two Pages,” hosting craft essays by short story writers and novelists analyzing the openings of their own work. The series continued until just after her death in August 2017, and the full archive of those essays can be found at Bonnie’s website. In November 2017, the blog series relocated to my website, and the archive of this second stage of the series can be found here.

Whenever that word “backstory” comes up in my creative writing classes, it always seems to be in reference to a problem. Students reading a draft may argue that a character doesn’t seem fleshed out —could we get a little more of their backstory? Or else it’s the opposite: a plot is slowed down by too much backstory, the narrative momentum dragged to a halt by flashbacks and exposition and… And so it’s great to see Charles John Harper, a finalist for this year’s Edgar Award for Best Short Story, making the word “Backstory” the title of his nominated tale—and in the essay below, he even talks about how much backstory he puts into his first two pages (“seven paragraphs of it”!), what would likely be a “no-no” in a creative writing course, but as he explains, there’s a reason behind the decision, some payoff ahead….

Charles has had short stories published in both Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, and in addition to his recent Edgar Award nomination, his story “Lovers and Thieves” was selected by John Sandford for The Best American Mystery Stories 2017. You can find out more about him and his work at his website.

Charles’s essay is part of a short series highlighting some of this year’s Edgar finalists. You can find William Burton McCormick’s essay on “Locked-In” here and Donna Moore’s essay on “First You Dream, Then You Die” here. Congratulations as well to two other finalists: Gregory Fallis for “Red Flag” in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine and Tim McLoughlin for “The Amnesty Box” in Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms.

Please use the arrows and controls at the bottom of the embedded PDF to navigate through the essay. You can also download the essay to read off-line.


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