Thursday, September 16, 2010

Myth Busters #3: Backstory is Booooring

We have all heard the mantra to stay away from backstory. It kills the story, bogs it down, overwhelms the reader with useless facts that are better left unsaid.

And if you put all of those things together, you would probably be right, it does kill your story in those proportions.

But here is the Myth Buster #3 for today: Backstory is not boring.

If used properly.


The biggest little word in the English dictionary and you need to keep this in mind today or really with any topic we talk about. IF you do it right. IF the reader likes it. IF it fits in the particular scenario and on and on it goes. There is always an IF in life.

Backstory is a powerful tool. And that is just how it should be treated-- like a tool.

I just finished reading Susan May Warren's workbook on how to take your writing deeper and wider, coincidentally titled: Deep and Wide. In this book, she talks about backstory and how to use it. (By the way, I highly recommend this book, it is an excellent resource. Okay shameless plug over)

When you first start your novel you are so excited for your reader to know your character. To understand what makes the tick. Why they do the things they do and just why they are here in this particular moment in time that warrants a book.

But the problem with that theory is that the reader doesn't care and by dumping a bunch of backstory on them at the first part, you are cheating them out of thrilling reading experience.

Think of it this way: say you just met me on the street and I instantly start in on my life story. "Hi! My name is Casey Herringshaw. I was homeschooled for 12 years, raised sheep in 4H for 9, live on a small farm, love to write and have a pension for knitting. I have created lovely garments and have won numerous ribbons for them. I can't wait to find the love of my life and settle down and raise a family....."

Would you really care? Would you really want to know that right after shaking my hand for the first time? No. You don't care, because it means nothing to you. You don't know me yet, you want to learn those things a little bit a time.

Which is the same way with your reader.

Here is the reason for backstory: for you. You as the author are the reason there is backstory because if you don't know your character, you aren't going to be able to portray them to the greatest advantage. They will be flat and dull to not just you, but also to your reader. So for your character to come alive for your reader, he/she must be alive for you.

Now some backstory is necessary for your reader to know. They will have to understand what makes them tick at certain times in their life. But here is what Susie said in her fantastic book: drop them like breadcrumbs on a trail for your reader to find and nibble on a little at a time. Don't drop a complete loaf, not even a slice, but one breadcrumb at a time.

With each crumb dropped, your reader will become more intrigued and if you have created your characters right, it will push them to keep reading, to not give up on this book, but to find out why they just acted the way they did.

But 80% of the backstory you learn about your character will not make it into the story. We all have little quirks in our life that makes us who we are, but most of those quirks are just that and don't need to have an explanation telling your reader why. Let the reader at that point just enjoy them. Because an explanation just kills the fun of seeing the character's quirk

Before we close, I want to share one little excerpt from my last WIP. This is an example of leaving a bread crumb sampling of backstory. See if you can pick it out and then let's talk about it in the comment section. I am looking forward to it.

Right before this scene below my heroine Jenna, was physically sick all over her bathroom. (please know that is completely unedited and raw material, yeah I know, working on that. :-)

I finally got the mess cleaned up, but the smell still lingered. Even over the smell of Lysol antibacterial cleaner and harsh dish soap, the sick smell of myself filled the room. I light a candle and then instantly put the lid back when my stomach took another tumble. I had a long day ahead me, I could feel it.

I grabbed my outfit for the day. A ruffled white shirt, burgundy suit coat and matching skirt and slipped into my black flats. All purchased for a bargain price at a local store. 75% off. I could feel good about how I dressed at least.

The blouse dived low and I studied myself in the mirror. Twisted one way and then another, surveying the view from all directions. I chewed on my lower lip and squinted again at my reflection.  It wasn’t like I was surrounded by criminals all day. But being married had given me a whole new perspective on my attire, well that and the little problem that had manifested itself onto my bathroom floor this morning.

I grabbed a silk white undershirt and layered it under my shirt. Much better.

Grabbing my keys and purse, I marched out the door, determined to face my day. A midget before a sumo wrestler. I wasn’t about to lose either.


Anonymous said...

Interestingly, I was thinking about back story today as I read the first two chapters of a best seller. But the backstory was intertwined beautifully within the current events so I never felt bogged down. Like you said, when done right, it does work for the story, and importantly, the reader.

Casey said...

I agree Lynn. I am reading a book by a bestseller right now and there is quite a bit of backstory all right at the beginning, and while I am not totally agreeing with her doing that, I think it works okay in this instance. But it almost verges on too much too fast. I want to care for the character a bit more first.

Thanks for coming by the Alley today!

Rachel said...

I have to completely agree with you on the "breadcrumb backstory" idea. Your character must have a backstory - otherwise they won't be an actual character! - but it's impossible to give away all the details right at the start without overwhelming the reader and completely putting them off. Plus, where's the fun if you don't draw it out?

Casey said...

EXACTLY Rachel! You said better than I could have. :) When you meet a character you don't want a blizzard of facts, and like you said, there is mystery and intrigue and drawing the facts out and making the reader wait. It keeps them reading too, especially if it is really good backstory.

Thanks for stopping by today!

Sherrinda Ketchersid said...

I'm not good with backstory. I like to dump it, I'm afraid. But I'm learning...or at least, trying to! Good post!

And that book is definitely on my wish list!

Casey said...

Make sure it is at the top, Sherrinda! It is so good! But then anything by Susie is bound to be great. :) I was really guilty of the info dumps in my first story, but hopefully not so much in the second. Here's to hoping I learned something from the first time around!