Saturday, May 10, 2008

Redlines Ten: Backstory

Most writers occasionally find themselves battling backstory. This is a battle you can win. Let’s start by defining a few key terms.

What Is Backstory?

Remember the timelines that decorated your high school history text? If you were studying World War One, the timeline began with an assassination and ended with the Allied victory.

Your book can be mapped in a similar way. The first event in the book is the starting point of your timeline. The final resolution of the plot is the end point. Everything that happens in chronological book time between these two points constitutes your plot.

Here is the simplest definition of backstory: every relevant *event* that occurs before your book’s timeline begins is backstory. If the event can be plotted on your book’s chronological timeline (like the battles of World War One in the history text) then the event is plot. If the event precedes your book’s chronological timeline, it is backstory.

Confusion over backstory sometimes results from misunderstanding this definition and confusing bacsktory with narrative summary.

What Is Narrative Summary?

Narrative summary is a technique for compressing events within the book’s chronological timeline. We use it to avoid writing a scene that would focus on relatively minor details.

For example, let’s say your heroine’s car breaks down and prevents her from catching a plane to meet the hero. Perhaps writing a car repair scene with the heroine and a mechanic would slow down the pace of the romance. So we compress these events in narrative summary at the opening of the next scene:

Five hours later, Susan stashed her carry-on bag in the overhead compartment of the wrong flight. She had a new water pump in her car and was finally on her way, but her wallet was five hundred dollars lighter. Damn the mechanic for not letting her call Marco from his shop. She eyed the plane’s in-flight telephones, praying that she would soon be able to reach Marco.

This paragraph weaves details from the current scene on the airplane with the previous skipped breakdown events. The summarized details of the breakdown might have been dramatized in a scene--Susan begging for assistance, worrying about Marco and her flight. These events might even result in a dynamic scene, and would have fit within the plot.

Regardless, the narrative summary is not backstory, even though it contains event information that happen outside the current scene. The events themselves still take place on the chronological time line of the book’s plot. People sometimes use the term “backstory” to describe narrative summary, but that is merely shorthand. The two elements of the narrative remain separate creatures, no matter how they are described.

How To Fix It

Whether you are using narrative summary or backstory, the effect is the same. The forward momentum along the timeline is broken, and the reader is removed from straight narration in to exposition. But the editing fixes are slightly different.

Think again of our timeline analogy. Narrative summary does not interrupt this flow, but merely compresses events on the timeline. If your readers complain about narrative summary, the fix might be creating a new scene to dramatize the compressed events. Alternatively, you might be summarizing irrelevant events like showering and eating. These don’t require summation and can be cut.

If your readers complain about too much backstory, examine the backstory in relation to the current scene. Ask yourself how the *action* of the current scene would be different if the backstory did not exist. If the answer is, “not at all,” then cut the backstory. Backstory is only relevant if it qualifies the current event on the timeline.

If backstory is necessary to explain current plot events, then you cannot cut it. Instead, trim it as much as possible. Give the reader just enough to allow them to comprehend how the past event is linked to the current event. Use a minimal number of words, and return to the story timeline as quickly as possible. The story, after all, is what keeps the reader turning pages.

Special note for romance writers: Internal conflict in romance often has roots in the characters’ pasts, which can lead to misplaced emphasis on the past, even when the current scene provides ample conflict to drive the plot. The fix here requires re-balancing the scene to focus on what is most pressing at that moment on the plot’s timeline. Minimize or cut background information to achieve this balance.

Sequels (rather than scenes) are a more natural place to develop backstory because sequels tend to rely on interior monologue and exposition feels more natural when blended with interior monologue. The key, again, is to use a light touch. Let the character ponder the backstory, but balance the backstory against the current plot, much as you would balance background information.


Redlines One (on paragraph logic faults) can be found here.
Redlines Two (on dialogue sequencing) can be found here.
Redlines Three (on using frames within scenes) can be found here.
Redlines Four (on avoiding the need for "sequel") can be found here.
Redlines Five (on description) can be found here.
Redlines Six (on passive voice) can be found here.
Redlines Seven (on strong verbs) can be found here.
Redlines Eight (on tension statements) can be found here.
We'll skip Redlines Nine because its topic has already been covered in other posts.



Anonymous said...

Thanks, Theresa, for that clear description of narrative summation and backstory and how to deal with them. We get criticism of too much dog walking, so this was a timely article.

I have a further question about backstory. Your point was to reduce it and have it reflected upon by a character in a sequel. My question is: can the backstory be dramatic with lots of emotion, if handled through a tight 3rd POV of the reflecting character? Ex: A suicide attempt of one of the MCs as remembered by her psychiatrist, to expose to the reader why the psych and the MC are estranged [the husband disallowed the continued contact and insisted on a new doctor]. Should that be trimmed or allowed to build and carry some tension of the story, even though backstory?

Anonymous said...

oops -- I meant to get a reply link going by ticking the box. Sorry. Will do that now.

Ian said...

I dealt with backstory like this in a strip in my webcomic. I always picture that flashing on the bottom of the screen in movies when the backstory comes out.

I'm really bad about including too much backstory in my own stuff. Fortunately I can save everything I cut out and turn it into another book. LOL


Edittorrent said...

Jan, you're going to hate this answer: it depends. Yes, you can write backstory as a flashback scene. Yes, that can be very effective. But before you do, ask yourself this question: Why are you presenting this scene as flashback? Would it make more sense and give more impact if you moved the opening of the book back in time so that the "flashback" is now one of the first scenes in real story time?

Think about it. You may decide that you're opening in the right place and that this is truly scene material. In that case, go for it.

But I generally caution against dipping into a lot of backstory in genre fiction because it can become a crutch, and a heavy one at that.

Ian, write anything you want in the early drafts. You have total freedom then. :) Smart man, trimming it back in revisions!


Anonymous said...

Oh well! ;-)
Yes, it needs to stay because otherwise the story goes back three years and the focus is the present. I guess we'll take our chances. We did move it to a sequel chapter where I think it works better than where it was nearer the opening.

Now, the *first* book has WAAAAYYY too much backstory that's gotta go. And I have about -- oh -- 40k words to cut, so won't be a problem. hee hee

writtenwyrdd said...

I am struggling with the issue of writing dual stories--one essentially backstory, the other the 'real time' story. It's been driving me crazy trying to make what is essentially two novels be one. Reading your post has reinforced the 'what does it add' question I'd been trying to ignore. Now, I am thinking I may not be able to make my story structure work successfully. Still going to try, though! I really don't want to write the prequel!

green_knight said...

Quite often backstory is moving the real story forward. Characters need to resolve differences before they can form new relationship, the background of a victim offers the solution to a mystery or psychothriller. Writing down events in the order they happened would not have the same effect, would not create the same tension.

Backstory doesn't work when it's in the form of an infodump; but I've seen it used very successfully where the present-day story would raise questions (such as 'who are these people') and which will then, partly, get answered by summing up the backstory. This works particularly well in first person when it would be natural for the narrator to remember stuff and when a strong voice ties things together.

An example I've read recently starts with a graduation dinner, and branches off into how the main character met her boyfriend, her previous relationships and why he's The One, why she chose that particular degree and what she hoped to do with it, a description of the flat she'd shared with her boyfriend, and a brief biography of her older sister. All of these are interspersed with interactions at the dinner table, brief flashes of how people behave now and what their relationships are. When the dinner is over, you know a lot about the main character and the book has answered the question 'who is this person and how come she's celebrating with these particular guests'. AND THEN they move in with his mother and Stuff Happens and the story develops mostly in a forward fashion.

The point is that you can create a greater sense of movement and bring in more seemingly unimportant strands when you use narrative summary - whether of current events or backstory. A full scene has a certain weight and wants justification; in summary it's easier to sketch things that you later explain (or not).

By fully dramatising something you flag it for the reader as important - while a few lines of summary are easily overlooked. When used with skill, this will increase tension and create those moments where something hits you out of the blue, and on rereading you find that all the clues had already been there.

(If only the execution were as easy as the theory...)