Backstory

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by Darcy Pattison

Last week, I made a few comments about backstory, but I wanted to spend more time on it.

Impact of Reading SFF

Many of my thoughts about backstory are shaped by the needs of fantasy and science fiction writing (sff) where the writer creates a world, complete with complex histories and magical norms. The challenge in this genre is to communicate this complexity, without stopping for a history lesson. Orson Scott Card has an excellent chapter on handling exposition (and backstory) in his book, How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy.

Basically, the information is filtered through the main viewpoint character. Specific terminology, even if unfamiliar, is helpful and implication is essential. Often a phenomenon is named, but the explanation isn’t given immediately for what this means. Sff readers understand this as one of the conventions of the genre and don’t mind waiting and pondering the meaning until the right time comes for an explanation. My friend who write middle-grade non-fiction chaffs under the sff conventions, because she feels that the explanation must come immediately and be placed right next to the unfamiliar term. But for fiction, terms can be understood partially in context and the sff reader waits for more.

So, I come from a reading background of understanding huge chunks of backstory through the techniques of implication, slow revealing of complexities, intrigue, and I’m comfortable with a certain degree of ambiguity, as long as I trust the author that the answers will come eventually. It?s part of the appeal of the genre (and why many dislike it!). So, before we even start the discussion of where to put backstory, I?m comfortable with delaying it a while, both as a reader and as a writer. I know that one of the cliches of contemporary stories is a first chapter with lots of immediate action and a second chapter of backstory. But I think stories are stronger if the backstory doesn’t stop the flow of action.

(I wonder if there has been any study of how children of different ages perceive backstory? I’ll have to look this up later! If I find anything interesting, I’ll report.)

Diadvantages of Early Backstory:

  1. Pulls the reader out of the current time flow. “Ideally, all fiction should seem to be happening now.” Sol Stein, Stein on Writing. ?One of the most common ways that inexperienced and even practiced novelists bog down their openings is with unnecessary backstory.? Donald Maass, Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook.
  2. Backstory tends to “tell” a story instead of show it. “Again and again in manuscripts I find my eyes skimming over backstory passages in chapters one, two and even three. Backstory doesn?t engage me because it doesn?t tell a story. It does not have tension to it, usually, or complicate problems.” Donald Maass, Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook. Wow, are you in trouble if a reader (especially an agent like Maass) is skimming chapters!
  3. The use of flashbacks for backstory is often awkwardly handled. More on this tomorrow.

Advantages of Backstory

  1. Deepen inner conflict. Backstory can provide motivation for the conflict, deepen the emotional effects and let the reader empathize with even the villain.
  2. Increase tension. Hinting at backstory, but not telling all makes readers long to know the ?secrets,? too. We read on, to find out what secret is so terrible that it provides the motivation for this conflict.

Usually backstory, especially flashbacks, should be put at a point where it will enhance the tension and conflict of the story. You can think of a story of a collection of scenes, followed by characters reflecting upon the scene and deciding what to do next, which leads to the next scene. Scene, reflection/decision, scene. Often the backstory needs to come in that in-between stage where the character is reacting emotionally to the events of the scene that has just happened. For example, Gloria slaps Joe. So what? What are the readers supposed to make of that? What does it mean? We don?t know. The scene could progress without the explanation until Joe turns around and makes a fast exit. Then, Gloria has the time to react emotionally. That?s the point for a flashback that explains that Joe once accused her of embezzling money and let her stand trial, even though it was Joe who had stolen the money. Ah, now the backstory explains and deepens the tension. But an early chapter that goes into this long story of how Gloria and Joe worked together for many years and Joe was Gloria?s mentor and they even had a brief affair that Gloria?s husband still doesn?t know about?that?s boring stuff. It doesn?t help Gloria make a decision about what to do next. It doesn?t add to the present conflict, even if it does explain it somewhat. First drafts tell the story; revisions find the best way to tell the story. Finding moments where backstory can up the stakes, increase the emotional depths, increase tension, deepen characterizations?these are worthy goals of a good revision.

Tomorrow: Writing a Flashback
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