Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Backstory Dilemma

Posted by Eileen Astels

There's a lot of talk lately about backstory. Especially regarding the near elimination of it in the initial chapters.

What do you think? Is backstory passive? Does it slow the read for you when you come across a line, or paragraph, or more of it?

I think that's really where the talk is coming from. If we really take a look at what our backstory does to our writing, we'll see that it more often than not does slow the pace and also interrupts the action it's been plunked into the middle of.

For beginner writers, it's even more imperative that we be especially choosy about WHAT and HOW MUCH backstory to include in our manuscripts, and I believe it would be a wise decision to make our backstory work double time for us. Meaning, we need to incorporate it in such a way that it adds intrigue, or an eye-opening experience (ie. huge character trait revealing, etc.) In other words, when you need to include a piece of backstory to make the scene make sense, then include it in as few words as possible, but write it in such a way that it becomes active, too. Keep the story moving forward, despite the fact that you're slipping in past experiences.

A little while back, over on Seekerville, Camy Tang offered a wonderful example of how to incorporate backstory so that it blends in with the scene, and also gives it a double purpose. Check it out. It's a great example to learn from.

Blessings, and write on!



Carla Gade said...

Eileen, thanks for your post. One thing I know for sure is that backstory is something I need to write for myself if not anyone else so I know what I'm doing with my story. That question of when and if it is necessary for the reader is a biggy. I might be strange, but I actually like reading backstory as well. But I am a very curious person. As Camy said in her article she tries to not stop the flow of conversation by telling backstory. I'd like to learn more about how to insert backstory through dialog and other means (prologue?).

Sharon said...

Hi Eileen:
Not sure how I found you but am so glad I did.I am a writer who is middle aged and just now returning to writing.It lay dormant since elementary school more or less.I am loving the return of it but need all the help I can get. LOL Blessings~Sharon

Catherine West said...

Well, again some of this may be speculative. I think it's going to be up to your editor once you get that far. I'm one who loves a bit of backstory at the beginning of a story. I had written my Genesis entry, sent it to my crit partners, and on their advice removed a lot of the backstory I had in there.
One judge's comment: "Backstory is NOT from the devil!!"
So you never know.
At this point I give up trying to please and just write what I know makes sense and obeys at least SOME of the rules!!

Inspire said...

I enjoy reading some backstory. What I don't like is flashbacks.

Catherine wrote: 'At this point I give up trying to please and just write what I know makes sense and obeys at least SOME of the rules!!'

All I can say is AMEN to that, Kathy!

Anna said...

I like some backstory sprinkled throughout the story...but you're right, it does slow the pace. If backstory appears in fairly large chunks, I prefer flashbacks! :) (As a reader!) I guess it just comes back to personal opinion!

Eileen Astels Watson said...

These are all great comments. Thanks, guys!

This is all such a subjective business, isn't it.

I, too, love backstory if it isn't interrupting the flow and is presented in an interesting, lively way. I especially love it when it comes in a big punch line. You know, when a five or six word sentence sums up a huge portion of a character's past that 'explains everything'. Boy, I wish I could write more of those!

Sharon, Welcome back into the writing world! I hope to see you hanging out here lots. And may many blessings reach you through your writing.

Inspire and Anna, you two show just how subjective this business is. One prefers backstory without flashbacks, the other in the form of flashbacks. I guess you guys just prove Cathy's point, you must write how you feel called to write. By doing so you'll minister to those you are meant to.

Thanks for the notes Carla and Cathy. As a writer I need to know all my character's backstory, the tricky part is knowing what part of that the reader needs to know.

Blessings and thanks for all the great comments!