Monday, March 22, 2010

WHEN TO USE BACKSTORY

In his book, Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook, Donald Maass suggests that too many manuscripts end up in the slush pile because of backstory overload. As writers, we think if we don't include enough background, the reader won't understand the protagonist's motivation or actions. But what we end up doing is stopping the story dead by boring our reader. How many times have you struggled with the opening of a good book because the author couldn't curtail the about of history? And when was the last time you met someone, who within the first moments of being introduced, told you everything about themselves? Come to think of it, I did meet a girl once who felt the need to share her life story.  I remember her face and even her name, but I don't remember what she said.

Backstory (history or background) is a literary device that we writers use to add drama to our stories. Think, Sophie's Choice. Do you remember that moment when it was finally disclosed how, during the Nazi occupation, Sophie was forced to choose which child to send to the gas chamber? Her son or her daughter.

Either through memories or flashbacks or just narrative recollection, backstory lends depth to who the protagonist is and why he's in his present predicament. Unfortunately, if used wrong, it weakens the story. The secret is to know when to add it.

Remember the first time you met your spouse. Do you think you'd be together today if s/he had told you everything within that first meeting? No. It took time to hear his story, to learn his secrets. For instance, my husband discovered my fear of heights during the construction of our current home, some 20 years after we'd met. He asked me to climb three levels of scaffolding to help him paint the window frames. Why did it take that long for him to find out that I was afraid of heights? The subject had never come up before.

Sadly, there is no secret formula for knowing when to apply backstory and when not to. The trick is to entice your reader with red-herrings. If possible, try to hold back for at least the first three chapters. A hint here or there is fine, but don't feel the need to bog down the story by stopping to reveal too much too fast. Let the story unfold.

In Dead Witness, Valerie witnesses the execution of two FBI agents. As the shock wears off, she thinks about the agents' families. Why? Because Valerie's parents died when she was fourteen; she understands that kind of pain. That information is revealed in chapter three, but not elaborated upon. She remembers the night the police came to her door, but how and why her parents died still isn't revealed. And though she thinks of her parents often, it's not until chapter seventeen that her brother Aidan adds to the suspense by admitting to a friend he was wrong about his dad's death being a contract killing. Finally, in chapter twenty-one, Valerie explains how and why her parents died.

In one of my current WIPs, my detective is grieving the unsolved murder of his wife six month previous. Her death has nothing to do with the current investigation, but its impact on him never leaves. In my first five drafts, I struggled with how much information I should reveal to my reader. It was only when I used deep POV that I was able to understand how much he would naturally let surface.

Backstory can be burdensome but also vital to your story. As with all other aspects of writing, listen to what your critique partners are saying, get your hands on a copy of Donald Maass' book, and revise, revise -- revise.

Happy Writing!

20 comments :

  1. Good job on this one. I never liked boy bands & The Backstory Boys were the worst. Wait - maybe they were the Backstreet Boys. Whatever - don't like backstory much - reading or writing. Too much detail is boring. In cases of sequelitis - it's tempting to re-tell too much. I've battled that a bit but me & my delete button maintain a very healthy arrangement. Hah!

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  2. I like your sensibility, Dave. Or is that sensitivity? Hmm, it doesn't matter, you slay me every time. And that I refuse to delete. Or is that cut?

    Thanks for stopping by. Hope all is well down there in the heat?

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  3. Wow - me & the word sensitivity in the same sentence. That is a first.

    All is very .... Spanish down here. Hitting the 80s (Farenheit not Celsius-heit). Can't wait to get home - only 11 months to go.

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  4. I had to smile when you mentioned those people who give you their entire life's history when you first meet them. So true!!

    Of course you're right, Joylene, about not bogging the reader down with too much history all at one time. Some things do need to be included, however, but sprinkling it in around the story is the proper way to do it. I know sometimes there is a temptation to give out too much too quickly. The trick is learning when to do it and how much.

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  5. Have fun, Dave. You're on an adventure.

    @Laura -- hi! Isn't it amazing how many on the best seller's list don't follow that advice? Not mentioning any names... but I struggled through one recently who did the very thing our editors wouldn't let us get away with. Makes one wonder why no one is willing to correct the big moneymakers.

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  6. My copy of Mr. Maass' book arrived, so I'm doing the exercises twice, once on my own and again with you, Joylene. Your explanations help so much. Thank you for doing this. Thanks to Mr. Maass for giving his permission. Kudos to him and you!

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  7. I also purchased a copy of his workbook. I'm thinking of buying the first book too. Has anyone else? I'd be interested in hearing what the difference is between them.

    Thanks for sharing these exercises, Joylene. I'm new at writing fiction, and between the two of you, I'm learning a lot.

    Michael

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  8. @Cynthia, I'm glad you bought a copy. It's a great workbook, and I guarantee you'll be glad you have it.

    @Michael, thanks for stopping by. Good luck with your writing. I'm excited for you.

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  9. Great post, as always, Joylene. Backstory is such a headache to do well. It's funny how too much info can creep in where it shouldn't be and wasn't intended. So much of who my current MC is and what happens in the story is a result of a past incident, and as I've been revising I've been finding info dumps that I didn't realize I'd written! Good thing I'm revising!

    A note to Michael -- I read Maass's "Writing the Breakout Novel" first and would highly recommend it.

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  10. Oh, sorry. I meant to add for Michael that the first book inspired me with its what and why, while the Workbook provides the how.

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  11. Thanks, Carol. I'm going to buy the book too. I like knowing the what and why... along with the how.

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  12. Excellent post. I've been meaning to pick up a copy of this book too. Better do it now before I forget again.

    Cheryl

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  13. Thank you, Martha and Cheryl. I'm finding Don Maass' book a big motivation. I keep reading these exercises and realizing how much I can enhance in my current WIP. Every exciting.

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  14. Backstory... A lot of submissions I read have authors placing backstory in a prologue, probably leading to them not getting positive responses to their queries. I'm a big fan for weaving stuff that's relevant, back into the story, either in dialogue, or VERY short bursts of narrative summary (no more than a sentence or two at a time).

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  15. Thanks so much for stopping by and commenting, Nerine. Because if anybody understands this stuff, you certainly do.

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  16. Jo. This is something I always wondered out. When I write, or read a story, I feel I need some background info on the character to help me better understand them. I can relate to what they do, or say, much better then. I understand the story may lag if you say too much, but adding a little at a time might be enough.
    Thanks for the info.
    Sharon

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  17. Sharon, that's why instincts are so important. That voice inside of you knows when something is off. Sometimes I may not realize what but I still listen and eventually it'll come to me that I'm doing something very particular wrong. Generally, it's using passive voice. However, since switching over to deep POV I'm getting better at showing the story through my MC's experience.

    Thanks for dropping by.

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  18. Great post! Tell me what's relevant in as few words as possible and happy. I try to do the same in my writing. (Sometimes this leads to not saying enough.) As already said, revise, revise, revise.

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  19. Hi Cher. Glad you like it. Happy revising.

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