Backstory That Matters

Backstory That Matters

Yeah, so like considering I’ve been in the writing scene for a number of years (I refuse to admit how many) you would think by now I would have a better handle on the fundamentals. Or maybe it’s the difference between knowing a thing on an intellectual level, and really understanding a thing on a molecular level. Maybe that’s just me making justifications.

Writing2

Be all that as it may, here’s what I’ve come to understand in the last few weeks. If you had read my last blog post, you’d know I’ve returned to my fantasy WIP. One reason was because scenes were playing in my head so often that I had reached a point where I needed to get them on the page. So I banged out scenes one and two pretty darn quick, and I was pretty darn pleased with them.

Critique group saw things a bit differently (and yes, that’s an understatement). First off though, I will qualify and say that overall CG was pleased by my return to fantasy and with my story in general. I won’t bore you with the details of where they saw gaps and other assorted problems, except for this . . .

Backstory.

Like adverbs, I love backstory. Like adverbs, backstory should be used sparingly. Backstory should also be used purposely and when it’s germane to the real-time story. Yes, yes. We all know that. DOH! Or so it seemed. Apparently for me, this was one of those places where knowing a thing did not translate to true understanding and so that knowledge did not make it into my oh-so-lovely pages.

How rude!

Or better yet – how stupid. So I went back and looked at all my marked up pages and here’s what I now understand. All of the backstory I included matters. I got that much right. At some point all this information will need to be imparted to the reader in order for the plot and the character’s actions to make sense. Story and Character logic, you see. But I was doing what so many novice writers do. I was frontloading the information and I was doing it via introspection and narrative. Bor-ring!

Bored

I will state for the record that when you are world building knowing where the line is between what needs to be known up front and what can wait until later can be quite difficult to discern. Thank goodness for critique partners who are all too happy to point that out, and I meant that last part with no sarcasm, real or perceived.

Now stick with me here, because my ramble up to this point leads me to deep POV. This is a writer’s tool I have always struggled with, but again, as I read the marks on my manuscript, I came to understand that introspection and narrative crept into my story because I was distancing the reader from my characters. I wasn’t delving deeper and taking the reader along the ACTUAL journey with my character. In other words, I was TELLING the readers about what was happening using introspection and narrative. What I needed to be doing was SHOWING them what was happening, and what better way to present that information than by using deep POV?

So, circling back around to the backstory that matters, what I needed to be doing (and which I hope I have now done) is to introduce the backstory in real-time only as it pertains to what is actually happening at the precise moment the reader is first learning about it. If I can’t get the backstory in during real-time, then the next best method is through dialogue. And only as a last resort should backstory be introduced through introspection or narrative.

 

Lorinda Peake

Lorinda Peake wrote her first ditty when she was ten on an English seashore while visiting her British grandmother. From then on, her family either acted in or were treated to plays, skits, or commercial spoofs. In school, she wrote poetry, fables and short stories.

Years later, she tossed down a particularly bad novel and thought, “I could do at least that well.” She’s been pursuing the elusive published novel ever since. Recently, she joined a group of fellow writers who decided to cajole, bully, encourage, and sometimes baby each other along towards the publishing goal by setting real and measurable writing objectives with “motivational” consequences for non-attainment.

Lorinda loves a good romance – all the more if it is wrapped in a great fantasy setting. She lives on the Texas Gulf Coast with her husband of 34 years.

7 thoughts on “Backstory That Matters

  1. Yup, spot on, Lorinda. Backstory matters, but only where it counts, if that’s not putting too fine a point on it. And the thing is, I could see in your pages where the “extra” backstory is super-important! Just not… there.

    And your remedies are on the mark as well. I frequently catch myself writing something as introspection and then think, “Hang on. This should be come out in dialogue. There’s a character right there my protagonist can say it to!” Did that just today, in fact.

    Great and timely article, Lorinda.

  2. And sometimes, you can have the backstory as a thought while the character is saying something else. That “two levels” thing, 😉

    1. Ah hell, Gail. You’re getting entirely too deep for me. I’m still figuring out how to get my frontloaded backstory OUT OUT OUT. For now, anyway. 🙂

  3. Backstory that matter is such a fine line, whether you are world building or writing contemporary or historical – we have to know enough to care about the protagonist, but not so much that it slows the pacing. Enough to understand the problem without loosing the interest in the solution. I agree that all of the backstory in your pages is important, but I also believe that we can identify the hero’s immediate problem (a stalker) without knowing why she happened to be in that position at this particular time. But, I have complete confidence in you and I know you will get everything in the right place at the write time. I love this story and I can’t wait until that day when you publish and share it with the world!

    1. Thanks for the thumbs up – although I’m still very dependent on Crit Group. It’s hard for me because I love backstory and I don’t mind a slower than normal start to a story. Apparently though, that is NOT the preference of most readers. Go figure!

  4. There’s two things working against us (us being insecure writers). One, we LOVE backstory. For one thing, knowing all those events that happened to our people before page one is necessary for us to be able to properly capture them on page and do their story justice. Yes, it’s super cool to know that she was stood up on prom night and therefore will never, ever wear a formal gown again, but if your story takes place at a summer camp in upstate New York, this fact if probably not germane and doesn’t need to be shared. If, on the other hand, her camp win’s a national grant and she’s required to doll up and go to D.C. to accept her prize, then the struggle is real and needs to be shown!

    Two, as writers, we often don’t trust our readers and therefore feel like we should spell everything out from the beginning so they’ll continue on the path with us. Which, when you think about it, is stupid. As readers, we wouldn’t keep reading a book that jumps back into the past at the bottom of page one, but somehow, when we’re wearing our writer hats, its seems perfectly logical.

    Ah, well. Guess we shouldn’t expect to much mental stability out of people who not only hear voices in their heads but often have lengthy conversations with them as well!

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