Monday, January 12, 2009

Q & A 163

What's the deal with back-story?

Back-story is stuff that happened way back when, which the author has suddenly decided you need to know, even though the story has already progressed to now.

You plan out your novel and compile all the information that the reader needs. Then you organize it. If you organize it chronologically, there'll be no back-story. But often authors begin a novel at a point they feel is more likely to hook the reader than the earliest point they want to bring in. Take a novel about Evil Editor destroying the lives of writers. The book begins with EE rejecting an author and the author attempting to murder EE but failing and goes on until the author commits suicide. Standard literary fiction. Now suppose the author feels it's necessary to show a scene from EE's childhood, in which his mother takes away his rubber duckie in the bathtub and gives him a Nazi U-boat. The author could make this scene a prologue and put it first, or it could be brought in later as back-story, like a movie flashback.

If your back-story is the most interesting part of your book, it shouldn't be back-story. On the other hand, if your back-story is boring, dump it or come up with a more interesting back-story scene to illustrate your point. Make one up. Often your back-story is something interesting that can be appreciated only after the reader knows your characters. If so, you don't want to jump into back-story too soon. But too late is also bad:

Detective: The murderer was Professor Plum in the conservatory with the candlestick.

Cop: But . . . how did you know?

Detective: I read his diary in which, six years ago, he described how he had a hatred of tea ever since an incident in which his grandmother spilled scalding-hot tea on his hand. And since the victim was a tea merchant, it was an elementary deduction.
This author should have worked the tea spilling incident in early, when it seemed irrelevant, so the reader had time to forget all about it until being reminded by the brilliant detective, who never forgets any clue.

When possible, you might want to have some secondary character inform the main character of a past event. The event was in the past, but the character is learning it now, at the same time the reader is learning it, so it's not really back-story. It's when the narrator pauses the story to provide back-story that it can become an issue. Readers naturally want to know what happens next, and can grow irritated with repeated flashbacks. So if a large number of essential scenes are set earlier than the beginning of your book, maybe you should consider starting the book at an earlier time. But there are no rules; back story can be in sentence 1:

When Evil Editor was nine, his teacher, Miss Bilgerat, made him sit in the corner wearing a dunce cap just because he corrected her grammar. It was a humiliating punishment he would never forget, and at the age of forty-seven, with a lifetime of failure behind him, as he sat in his van outside Miss Bilgerat's home aiming a bazooka at her living room window, he wondered whether revenge would taste as sweet as he'd long imagined. And he realized: How could it not?
As you can see, if your back-story is well-written and riveting, it's not going to bother us. We probably won't even notice that it's back-story.

17 comments:

Joanna said...

Thank you! That's clearer and more helpful than anything else I've seen on backstory. And points out some things I need to fix in my stories... So it looks as though the main problem with backstory (apart from the possibility of its being boring and badly written, which is equally problematic for the main line of action) is choppiness, jolting the reader out of her identification with the character or her interest in the main story?

I'd be interested in hearing examples of published backstory that did and didn't irritate other minions. I have a naturally digressive mind, so I think some things that bother most readers don't bother me.

talpianna said...

It's also an excellent way to deal with events distant in time. If your story is a contemporary thriller about seeking a lost treasure, you might start with a prologue with the treasure being stolen or hidden centuries ago.

A wonderful use of backstory is Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child's Riptide, which is very loosely based on the Oak Island Money Pit. It opens with the hero, aged about ten, and his slightly older brother sneaking off to explore the island, which is strictly forbidden. The brother is caught in a trap and never found; the hero never quite gets over his guilt because it was his idea to go in the first place.

Fast-forward about 20 years; the hero, now an epidemiologist, is approached by the head of a treasure-hunting consortium which wants to make one last try for the treasure, and offers him a half share just to let them dig (he owns the island).

In the course of the story we get some well worked in backstories: for example, the head salvager briefing his crew about all the failed previous attempts (including the ones that ruined the hero's father financially).

The pirate, on his last voyage, had captured a brilliant spy, architect, and cryptologist sent by the Pope to build a cathedral in the New World. The pirate offers him a choice between death and building the perfect hiding place for his accumulated treasure. A lot of this, and the characters of both men, comes out in the arguments between the computer geek and the historian who are competing to decipher the architect's newly-discovered encrypted diary. One thing we learn early on is that he was determined that no one, including the pirate, will be able to bypass the traps.

The interplay between present, recent past, and distant past is very neatly interwoven. This is one of the best thrillers I've ever read. And there are a few surprises even the architect never guessed at.

Anonymous said...

And then there's "The Five People You Meet In Heaven" which is layer upon layer of backstory. Whole chapters (Eddie's past birthdays)are done in italics, each one supplying another piece of his story (history) that relates to the next "person" he meets. If anything, the reader is (I was anyway) jarred when the narrative returns to the scenes that take place in the present. Maybe this is too wayward an example of "good" backstory, but I had the book handy.

Meri

Robin S. said...

As you can see, if your back-story is well-written and riveting, it's not going to bother us. We probably won't even notice that it's back-story.

Exactly!! Thank you for saying that, because it seems to me the word/phrase back-story has ironclad connotations of 'bad', and I think that's unfair. And I agree, it's about the writing.

Example - I was thinking as I read this, of freddie's exercise. I really thought hers read so well - that there was only one paragraph over the top, and the rest, I'd have read on.

What's the deal, by the way, with this 'third paragraph' thing people were mentioning? Is that the traditional place back-story is inserted?

Evil Editor said...

Proverbially, good writers put back-story in the 4th paragraph or later, great writers put it in the first two paragraphs, and hacks put it in paragraph 3. But that has never been shown to be true.

iago said...

I'd venture that good back-story is the third dimension that makes your characters real; bad back-story is the stuff you just thought of to explain the otherwise improbable actions of your character at that point in the story...

Whirlochre said...

Great post.

And riveting is the key. Same as the quality that makes the stranger on the bus fascinating as opposed to some guy who told me their life story in 5 minutes.

Joanna said...

And then in SF/F there's a certain amount of necessary backstory (or info dumping? is there a difference?) explaining how your world works, as well as whatever is needed to give depth t individual characters. I sometimes struggle with working that in gracefully. But I've seen it very well done.

Robin S. said...

Hi iago, Good to see you! I was wondering where you were. Missed your (shining?) face around here.

EE, I hadn't heard about that paragraph thing before.

Actually, I never really thought about these 'history' or background of ruminative parts of a narrative before as negatives, or even named them 'back-story' as I was reading, to be honest. If they worked, the words simply flowed on with the rest of the narrative.

Evil Editor said...

Back-story is part of the plot, and included to help us understand the story or characters.

Info dumping is harder to pull off unobtrusively. It can work in dialogue, if there's a character who doesn't know how the world (or whatever) works. If all characters know the info being conveyed, it's an "As you know, Bob..." situation. In general, if the way your world works is important, you should show it in action and trust your readers to figure out what's going on. Pausing to explain things to your readers will only annoy most of them.

fairyhedgehog said...

In general, if the way your world works is important, you should show it in action and trust your readers to figure out what's going on. Pausing to explain things to your readers will only annoy most of them.

That's absolutely true and also extremely hard to pull off. Some of the worst science fiction I've seen has been full of info dumps.

It takes skill to write in such a way that the reader can make inferences without getting confused. Maybe that's why it doesn't always happen.

Dave F. said...

I'm having a bad time putting words to my thoughts about backstory. I know it when I see it and if it bores, I stop reading.

A flashback is backstory. But why does a successful flashback work and not bore? Because it is interesting or filled with action, or an emotional high point in a story.

A memory is backstory. It's harder not to make memories awful because they are shorter and more compact. It's too easy to say "The character remembered his dead father and that was significant." YAWN ...
It needs to be more like: "All the while Billy and Harry sat with heads down and slumped shoulders listening to the Mary's lectures about fighting on the playground, thoughts of the same lecture from her mother haunted her. "Have I become my mother the harpy? My mother the nag? My mother the intolerant?" That's more interesting.

Chris Eldin said...

Nothing to say. Just thought this was particularly funny.
:-)

RW Glover said...

Thanks a lot, that cleared up the back story-story for me beautifully.

Regarding mean teachers -- Mine, Miss Welk, constantly tortured me about my spelling in grade school. I bided my time, and when she finally went to the big classroom in the sky, I went to her estate sale and bought up her hat collection. I now wear them at halloween or when ever I feel the need to channel a grumpy, aging, Loretta Young who is disguising a small mustache and a bad hair day.

My Motto is: Don't get even -- get odd.

Xenith said...

What's the deal, by the way, with this 'third paragraph' thing people were mentioning? Is that the traditional place back-story is inserted?

People = me.

We had a run on new beginnings where the third paragraph was either backstory or stopping the story to set the scene.

I worry it's a New Writing Rule that someone on some blog/forum had made up! Maybe even originating from someone innocently saying "start the story before laying down backstory/setting the scene"!

Of course, it's most like just coincedence, but one can't be too vigilant against new Writing Rules.

Xenith said...

And then in SF/F there's a certain amount of necessary backstory (or info dumping? is there a difference?) explaining how your world works,

Noooooooooooooooo.

Anonymous said...

Hmm, I agree but I recently saw "Slumdog Millionaire" and was surprised how backstory made up the bulk of it.

Of course, scenes from the present were interspersed, but it was the backstory that pushed the story forward. And I, like millions of others, adored the movie.

What are your thoughts on this, EE?

I suppose movies have the added advantage of showing the backstory, with visuals and audio, which can make it more engaging.