Thursday, March 24, 2011

The Backstory Backslide


Newton’s Law of motion states, “An object that is in motion will not change its velocity unless an unbalanced force acts upon it.” Let’s not be that force. Let’s not cease the moving flow of our works.

Plot and characters must move forward for a reader’s eyes to do the same.

Some images come to mind when I think of what encountering too much backstory feels like for a reader:

Clogged drain
Dam in a river
Red light when you’re anxious to get somewhere
Kite stuck in a tree
Shot duck

A refresher: Backstory = everything that made your character who he or she is, the tragedies, the triumphs, the lost slipper to kissing the prince. It’s everything that got the MC to the first page of the novel.

The temptation every writer faces is to catch the reader up to speed. Out of kindness we want the reader to be in the know so we squirt an abundance of cheese spray at them. You know what that stuff tastes like—artificial and if we squirt too much we make it so our readers won’t be hungry for more. We Cheez-it.

What’s the fix? One of the best ways to keep fingers flipping pages is to avoid massive dumps of backstory. We need to become intentional about where we splice in the story before the story.

Every time we integrate a character’s history, the psychological or emotional explanation for why they act as they do, we slow the story pace. There’ll be moments to incorporate nuanced complexities of our characters and their motivations, but learning to accomplish this through dialogue, and other nifty tricks will help our novels breathe without the asthmatic frustration of backstory.

In her post about backstory yesterday, Jody Hedlund asked two excellent questions that serve as excellent checkpoints:
Does the information add to the plot?
Will it help move the story along somehow?

Getting in the habit of asking those two questions during the writing and editing process will help move the work along.

And you all know how much I like to move it, move it!

Do you like to move it? And what do you find tricky about backstory? (If you’ve discovered solutions, please share those as well.)


*photo from Flickr

9 comments:

Rebecca Bradley said...

My current and first WIP is the first in a (hopefully) fairly long running crime thriller series, so my backstory can be fed in very slowly as it doesn't all need to make it into the first book.

I find the odd sentence can be very helpful. you don't notice it's back story, but it just adds something. For instance, my MC is in the middle of something important when her phone rings. She looks at caller display, see's Dad then puts it back in her pocket. A hint of backstory, but not all at once, the readers will have to wait to find out that piece of information.

Jody Hedlund said...

Thank you for the mention today, Wendy! I think the amounts of backstory we need to reveal will likely differ from story to story and from genre to genre. But I really do aspire to share it in bits and pieces throughout. And I'm still learning how best to do it!

Keli Gwyn said...

While it's important for a writer to know her character's backstories, much of what happened before the story began doesn't need to appear on the page. When I meet a gal pal for lunch, I want to hear what's happening in her life now, not five years ago. I feel the same way when I "meet" an author's character.

Sure, sometimes what happened to a character before the story began affects the here and now. That's when I'll work in a snippet of backstory. My backstory dumps, however, of which I have more than I care to admit, will remain hidden in my early manuscripts residing in the deep dark recesses of my hard drive.

Wendy Paine Miller said...

Rebecca, Awesome! I smiled when I read your tip because I've tried it. Hope it works. Little things to drop clues to the reader, yes. Great point.

Jody, I'm there with you, learning away. I loved your post. Had to link to it. You brought up excellent points (as I can see I wrote in two different ways b/c I'm sleeping as though I have a newborn with all the sicknesses around this house). ;)

Keli, I know what you mean. You made me think about how cool it is when someone already knows my history and we pick back up where we left off with that ease. I guess in a way that's what we want to do with our readers...present a voice that suggests they already know the characters in some ways w/out having to go back through what happened five years ago. If I'm not making sense I blame it on lack of sleep. ;)

~ Wendy

Mary Vee said...

I especially like this phrase:
and other nifty tricks will help our novels breathe without the asthmatic frustration of backstory.
"asthmatic frustration" nicely done.
You entire post demonstrates a wonderful writing style that doesn't need to depend on backstories to communicate.
Well done:)

Sarah Forgrave said...

Ha, Wendy! I had to guffaw when I read your cheese analogy (yes, I just used the word 'guffaw').

Would you like to hear my analogy about backstory? Since we're both mommas, I think you can handle it. :) It's sort of like when I'm in a hurry to get going somewhere, I've packed all my kids' things, have them loaded in the van, and then my daughter gives me a toothless grin as the smell of poop floods my nose. Talk about backtracking. Boy does it stink.

Wendy Paine Miller said...

Thanks, Mary. I love encouraging and being encouraged by other writers!

Sarah, Lovely image or should I say smell! :D But as a mom, I get it. I so get it.

~ Wendy

Christine said...

I think this is the first article I've read that said to use backstory. Everything else has said to avoid it like the proverbial plague.

I've tried to fit backstory into dialogue. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. I'm more proficient at disguising it than I used to be.

Thanks for the great post!

Pepper said...

Wonderful reminder, Wendy. Lots of backstory tends to end in lots of telling.
AND...
It's so easy to dump it in, even when you don't mean to.
Argh.
I love Jody's two questions. Concise, but attention-grabbing.
Thanks for sharing