This week, we've been looking at where a story begins. It isn't long into the discussion that the question of backstory rears its head.
Often, where the story begins is lost in the netting of all the important bits that happened before the story began.
Writers are often accused of backstory dumping, particularly at the beginning of the novel. I say it isn't a problem that the writer wrote pages and pages of backstory. It's only a problem if the writer leaves those pages in the manuscript.
Why is backstory dumb and boring?
1) Because it's TMI about a character we don't love yet. Readers need to get to know the character before they want to know more and more and more about them. I'm reading Davita's Harp by Chaim Potok. There's a character called Mr. Dinn who appears throughout the novel, but it's only in the last 1/3 of the book that his character steps forward and takes a more central role. And it's in that last 1/3 of the book that Potok tells us what Mr. Dinn looks like. Before then, it didn't matter what he looked like. It only mattered what he did.
2) Because it's too easy to include all the stuff about a character's past that isn't relevant to the current story. If you'll allow me to quote myself: "Writers too often include story-irrelevant details in their
3) Because readers want to be haunted, not bombarded. If you think there is something in the backstory of your character that needs to be explored and understood, you're right. John Truby refers to it as ghost. The ethereal, gossamer ache of a single broken bone. The skilled writer touches that break once, twice, three times in the story. Each time the meaning of the bone deepens, shifts, haunts a little differently. When the story is done, it's that one ghost that stays with the reader.
The writer's task is to shift through time and pluck out the details that directly effect the story and forget the rest.
How can you tell if you've overwritten backstory?
How do you find the good bits?
Have you read a book recently that was bottom heavy with backstory?