Friday, November 12, 2010

More on backstory

Jessica Lee said...

I find myself struggling with how much 'past' to reveal. I think a lot of what a character does, their motivations, should be informed by their past and therefore...when being read by an audience, they should to a certain degree figure it out, too. But sometimes that's not always the case, right? I'm not sure how to go about being both informative and clever...and not 'tell' instead of show how the past affects characters.

Good question! Backstory is, as I said, the characters' past, and it's important to the reader as it's important to the characters. But we all know that it can be imparted clumsily or adeptly. As you said, it influences what they do and why they do it, so to some degree, it should show in their actions. But how much will the reader get just from the actions?

1. Hmm. Well, first, I think is the question of what backstory should be revealed. Yes, backstory that has influenced the character -- but we're affected presumably by about everything that has happened to us. And we don't want to tell everything.

Relevance, maybe? Coherence? Like the accountant hero might have been made more competitive by seeing his father (an NFL football player- sorry, watching the Bengals-Bills game, and you want to know what's really irrelevant? A Bengals-Bills game) drop the winning touchdown in the Super Bowl. Would you have him think about that, or flash back to that, or talk about that? Would you reveal that? Would it matter what was going on in the book? (For example, what if the story involved football in some way, or his father?)

2. What's backstory and what's just information? I don't mind-- in fact, I crave-- the little bits of information (not necessarily backstory, but sometimes) that tell me what I need to know to understand this early scene-- how these people are related, say. I should be able to tell from their actions if they love each other or hate each other, sure, but are they brothers or cousins? I don't know why so many writers now are withholding something so simple as that-- "His brother Joe..." "Sandy had been her best friend since grade school." That sort of information is just part of the narrative. Just as you'd make clear that this is taking place in downtown Syracuse, you should let me know what Joe knows and Tom knows and everyone in the book knows, that Joe and Tom are brothers. Why make me guess, and more important, why make me wonder if there's some reason that requires them to keep quiet about their relationship? No, just put in "His brother Joe" and be done with it.

What signal do you want to send? Be careful not to send the message that "this is a big secret!" when in fact it's not a secret at all. That's frustrating and distracting for the reader. So what information do you impart? What if it's backstory (too), like "Danny had been her date to the senior prom."

I tend to put in little informative stuff early, but try not to be obnoxious. Hey, there's a rule! "Don't be obnoxious."

3. And when? I think when is important. Backstory revealed early in the book can be a real problem, I know from experience. I'm thinking that if you want to set up a question to be answered later (like "what happened at the senior prom that still traumatizes her so much she can't talk about it?"), you probably don't want to tell too much too early. So if she takes her car to Sullivan's Auto Repair, and as she's driving in, she sees Danny looking all manly and oilstained bending over a Corvette in the garage bay, how do you set up "question about senior prom"? Maybe she turns around and goes to the Midas down the street. That makes the reader ask, "Why did the sight of Danny make her change her plans?" But how much info do you need? That connects Danny to something that bothers her, but doesn't bring out the senior prom thing. What if she had a quick thought as she drove in-- there's Danny Miller. All manly and oilstained. He was her date for the senior prom. No, best not go here? There's a Midas down the street?

How would you handle that? Do you think the reader needs that "senior prom" mention?



Shalanna said...

You wrote: >>I don't know why so many writers now are withholding something so simple as that-- "His brother Joe..." "Sandy had been her best friend since grade school." That sort of information is just part of the narrative. [...] Why make me guess, and more important, why make me wonder if there's some reason that requires them to keep quiet about their relationship?<<

I believe I know why writers are reluctant to do ANYTHING like this, something that was considered normal in previous decades. It's the "YOU'RE TELLING AND NOT SHOWING" shouts from the critique groups and contest judges.

Well-meaning though they are, these people have been brainwashed with a set of Da Roolz that came out of some workshop and took on a larger-than-life significance. "NO -ly OR -ing WORDS," they intone as they mark up an innocent sentence like "Taking a cupcake from the tray, she smiled uncetainly." "TELLING AND NOT SHOWING," they shout whenever they see "Her brother Tom had never told her he loved her." You can't possibly hope to SHOW everything, but these people have been told that you must and that readers will just stop cold if they encounter such abominations.

A better phrase for the "rule" might be "dramatize instead of narrating," but that would lead to bloated messes. Many times it is better to just drop in a line about how Nell is her neighbor: "She and Nell had a long-standing friendly hatred that had started over a lilac bush at the end of Nell's driveway, a bush that'd blocked her view of the semi she'd backed into early last year." You couldn't possibly hope to get all of the nuance across, but readers will get the gist of their relationship--next-door neighbors who have to put up with one another, but who have had run-ins over this sort of "Mending Wall" issue.

I despair because THIS IS WHY ALL THE BOOKS I PICK UP AT BOOKSTORES ARE SO BLAND. They're all the same! They all begin with a rip-roaring Event and swirl into lots of action in the opening, but the author can't possibly sustain and build even MORE tension on top of this as the book continues, so eventually there's a sudden slacking of the line and readers know the fish has escaped the bait. But agents and workshop leaders continually insist that there's No Time For That Sort Of Thinkin' Rot and that readers are like the viewers of action films. I do not think that all readers are impatient like that. In fact, when I show my work to people who love to read, it clicks with them. The publishing industry doesn't hear the click.

So everybody goes on making their books into the same book. Yawn.

Anyway . . . that's why you see people avoiding the simple "drop a line into the narrative" solution. And it's a shame. But then what do *I* know?

Don't answer that. . . .

Shalanna said...

Oops, I forgot to answer the Danny question. Yes, I think I would prefer the brief mention.

"As she pulled into Midas (hoping the first touch of a mechanic wouldn't turn her car into a useless hunk of scrap gold--if gold could ever be considered "scrap" in the sense that those TV commercials claimed it could be when they exhorted viewers to "Send in your scrap gold for big bucks!"), she spied a familiar crack. The mechanic glanced up, and her heart skipped a beat. It was Danny Rugg, the same Danny who'd pinned an orchid to her prom formal and then ruined her life. Slamming the transmission into reverse, she sped away, hoping to find another brake shop before her master cylinder failed entirely."

This way readers don't have to guess.

But the new trend is to let readers try to figure everything out from implication. You aren't supposed to explain that the reason Rosie burst into tears might be that her great-grandmother has just died. You are supposed to let readers figure it all out. This can be exhausting. Also, readers can guess the wrong thing! Often I get notations from various readers saying they didn't understand why Biff would steal the spaceship . . . and it all means that I failed at implying that this is really Biff's spaceship that had been saucer-jacked a week before, and that Biff now sees his chance to get back to the planet Martogh before xillps go off sale at X-Mart.

I could have explained it easily in narrative. But that is out of style. And as soon as a contest judge encounters ONE instance of this, your scoresheet becomes a dwindling ember. We unwashed can only assume that agents and first readers read in this same way. After all, "trained RWA judges" who are published must know how the industry thinks.

But we despair of ever sneaking by an innocent little "Bob hadn't brought a cake in to work with him since the time he set fire to the laser printer by sending that photo of the flaming sword. But here he stood, grinning as he held a three-tiered coconut-covered behemoth in front of his smoldering cigar."

I prefer to err on the side of informing readers. It may not be the right choice, but it's mine.

Edittorrent said...

S-- As usual, it's a matter of figuring out what works for the reader right there. There should be only one rule: What conveys the best experience for the reader is what you should do. :)

And that is NOT going to be the same for every story in every situation. That's where voice comes in.

The Rules are quite useful as a general guideline (esp as so many contest judges believe in them), but writers ought to understand the reason for the rule, and then see if it's right here, or if there's a better way to achieve that aim. I wouldn't discard these supposed rules either (you just have to read a few submissions from the slushpile to know how very, very useful they are :), but the first job of an author, I think, is to decide to use what works for this scene and chapter and story, and don't use what doesn't work.

:) I'm with you on informing readers. I kind of think readers should know what's relevant and known to the POV character unless there's some reason for them not to know, and it's the writer's job to get them that information in the best way.


C.L. Gray said...

What did the Bengals ever do to you?

Jessica Silva said...

I'd say it depends on how relevant the prom night is to the story--in comparison to just Danny himself. If she's avoiding Danny or if she's avoiding what happened that night.

On one hand, it could be strong as: "Danny Miller works here? Why didn't I know that before? There should be a Midas down the street. I'll just go there instead."

We get it that she's avoiding him.

Then we could do: "Danny Miller works here? I wish I'd known that before. If I see him, I'll just have to think about senior prom all over again. I'll just go to the Midas down the street instead."

Then we get that she's avoiding the prom night (and him by extension).

OR I could be all wrong. I think it works either way, too--that she's avoiding the prom night (and thus Miller)--or avoiding him BECAUSE of the prom night (and thus mentioning the prom as the reason to avoid him). It really just depends on what's more important for HER.