Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Backstory

One common problem writers face is when and where to put backstory. Too much, too soon, and it becomes the dreaded info dump and the story falls flat. We know this, yet often we can't resist the urge to cram the main character's entire life story into the first twenty pages.

"Ooh, I'll make it a flashback!"

"He can be dreaming... it'll be a recurring dream about his traumatic childhood."

"Two characters who haven't seen each other in years will catch up over coffee."

You know what I mean. I've struggled with backstory in my memoir. The story is about me and Ibis, so it gets a little fuzzy for me where to draw the line. I'm sure there are parts I can drop later in the story - that's one thing I'll be looking at in my next round of edits - and some of it I can just drop.

Mysterious Matters, a mystery writing blog, makes an interesting point about backstory:

...extensive backstory kills any momentum the narrative may have built up, destroying the suspense. Think about it this way: When you meet someone at a cocktail party, don't you run for your life when he starts to tell you his entire life story? You're concerned with the here and now, not with the name of his first-grade teacher. The more you get to know him, the more interested you are in hearing more about him--as long as he has not bored you silly. That's when bits and pieces of the past become more intriguing.

This is an excellent way to look at it. No one's saying the information itself is bad, just that we should rethink how we present it. We don't want to put the reader to sleep in the first ten pages.

21 comments:

Janna Qualman said...

Great pointers! A little bit goes a long way, it sounds like, expecially in the beginning.

aaroncrocco said...

Melanie, this is a great post and I agree with it wholeheartedly. I think you can intro a charactar and then two or three chapters in, get a lot of the backstory out to the reader. Of course you can drop tidbits in here and there until you get to that point.

Melanie Avila said...

Exactly. I think I'm doing a good job of pacing myself with my current wip - just giving its and pieces as the story progresses.

Turkey Lurkey said...

I did this a little with my first WIP. The first chapter took place 20 years prior to the rest of the story. As the chapters unfolded, the reader would get this a-ha moment when they realize how the first chapter tied into current events.

bunnygirl said...

As a general rule, if the reader needs lots of backstory to understand what's happening, you've started in the wrong place.

Trust your reader to be able to figure things out from relatively minor clues, and remember that not every detail of someone's past is relevant to the story.

You as the writer need to know just about everything about your characters. Your reader only needs to know enough to enjoy the story, and you sure don't want to alienate your reader by making them think, "Why is she telling me all this?"

Nadine said...

Thanks for this post! It made me take a closer look at my wip and I am definitely doing too much background at the beginning. Thanks for the advice!!

Zoe Winters said...

hehe amen!

Jenna said...

Good topic Mel!

I like backstory delivered in small, relevant chunks but never through a "staged" conversation and never, ever through a dream :).

I tend to like backstory delivered as exposition in the "reaction" part of the scene (if you subscribe to the whole Scene and Sequel writing method...which I'm not sure if I do but it is a very interesting method) or in the character's reflection on something that just happened.

I like how Mysterious Matters puts it, "When you meet someone at a cocktail party, don't you run for your life when he starts to tell you his entire life story?". Same goes for bits of their "backstory" people feel the need to squeeze into conversations when they aren't really relevant.

bunnygirl you make some awesome points!

Melanie Avila said...

Bunnygirl, I like the comment, "Why is she telling me all this?" That really puts it in perspective.

Melanie Avila said...

Turkey, my memoir opens at one point, then jumps back a couple years and goes from that point, so I worry it's ALL backstory. I don't know.

Melanie Avila said...

Nadine, you're welcome. I was struggling on what to write and came across this post. It really helped me.

Melanie Avila said...

Zoe, :D

Melanie Avila said...

Jenna, I really need to read these writing books you have. I've never heard of the Scene & Sequel thing. So the backstory in my wip is through reflection, so hopefully I'm doing it right!

Jenna said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jenna said...

Let's try this again...I messed up the link.

Scene and Sequel is from a book, a pretty old book which I had a hard time getting into, but Randy Ingermanson breaks it down really well at his website...

http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/art/scene.php

Jenna said...

It looks like it keeps cutting off the end of the link...

http://www.advancedfictionwriting.com/art/scene.php

Melanie Avila said...

Thanks Jenna!

spyscribbler said...

I have trouble with backstory, in that I don't use it much at all. I tend to know it, but when I use it, it doesn't work. I haven't really found a way to make it work, yet.

lostgirl said...

What I do to keep myself from info dumping the back story is this: I write it all down. Every boring laborious detail in a play by play that will never be interesting to anyone but me and sometimes not even I care once it's down. But having actually written it.. I can control my urges to write in more than what needs to be peppered throughout a manuscript.

Melanie Avila said...

Spy,I wish I had that problem!

Melanie Avila said...

LG, that's a good idea. I'm like that where sometimes I just need to get it all out. Maybe I should consider doing character sketches, then it'll be there when I need it.