Friday, October 25, 2013

A History of Backstory

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
manuscript. Readers go cross-eyed soaking up all the details only to discover that, in the end, very few mattered to the story.

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?


V. Gingerich said...

Good post, love the "bottom heavy"!

I can see how this could so easily happen.

It's like when your coworker talks on and on about her kids, how cute it is when Tony chooses his own outfit and how funny he sounds when he tries to say "peanut butter."

When you're so in love with something, every tiny detail is amazing. When you haven't even seen the kid, can you maybe just finish that order so I can take it to Table 7 and then take my lunch break?

Bonnie Grove said...

Wanderer: Exactly! Bang on example. Thanks for that.

Debra E. Marvin said...

This reference to backstory as a ghost is very clear for me. (oh that sounded dumb, I don't mean spectral...)

I like to think of it as something floating around the edge of the page.

cherryodelberg said...

Tall order; but it must be done. "sift through time and pluck out the details that directly effect the story...." - and I agree - it's very freeing to write the entire backstory -and a matter that takes great finesse and excellence to cut it later.

Henrietta Frankensee said...

There is a saying, 'You can't write the beginning before you write the end." In my story there is a character that showed up at the end of the first draft and did the pivotal thrust to eliminate the bad guy. So in subsequent drafts I put him in wherever I could to create his backstory. Now I find the story is, at least in this present editing section, all about him!