07 January 2007

Backstory

You've got a cast of characters, you've got a basic story, you've got some subplots. You've taken the time to get to know your characters and to explore your environment, both fictional and historical. You sit down to start your rough draft. You develop your voice, and everything's going pretty smoothy, considering this is one of the most difficult parts of the creative process.

But with every well-developed character comes a history, sometimes sordid, sometimes plain. Either way, your character has skills, she's been places, she's seen stuff, and she thinks a certain way for a reason. And if you've got your reader hooked at all, they're going to want to know about all of this.

This is tricky, though. You want to convey the full, muli-layered masterpiece that is your tale, but
you don't want to sacrifice the prose, flow or voice. I've found that Anne Perry can get away with injecting pages of backstory in her books, but I'm no Anne Perry. So here are my questions to you:

  1. What books have you read that have seamlessly filled the reader in with character or social history?
  2. Do you have any rules that help regulate the insertion of backstory?
  3. Do you think prologues are the best way to build the character or social history?

As for me, I just read Sara Gran's Dope and felt as if I had a good understanding of everything, even though I couldn't point out a single instance of "infodumping". It helps that I know the city so well, I'm sure, and that the 1950s aren't totally foreign to me.

With my WIP I've set a rule about backstory: all backstory has to be said in 100 words or less, and each instance has to be at least a page apart. It's not a hard and fast rule, of course, and it may sound extreme, but I need it. I tend to dive long and hard into backstory, and I don't like flashbacks much.

I rely heavily on prologues, but I don't like it. I do try to maintain voice between prologues and the ms-proper.


3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Backstory while vitally important to the novelist, is much less so to the reader.

Unless the knowledge is absolutely vital to the opening of the story, do not use prologues. They need to add something besides backstory. For example, if the reader's first view of the hero is unsympathetic, a prologue can be used to show that the hero is capable of being redeemed. A lot of movies use this device.

And too early backstory is a tension killer. The only reason for backstory is to move the actual real time story forward. I think Donald Maass, who happens to be Anne Perry's agent btw is very sound on this point.

There is a difference between what the author needs to know and what the reader needs to know. It is also the timing of the backstory. Does the reader need to know everything at the beginning? Or can you withhold backstory? There is nothing worse than table dusting scenes to kill pace.
Withholding backstory until the reader is absolutely gagging for it is a great way to build tension.
And finally if you do find you need gobs and gobs of backstory, are you starting the novel in the correct place?

So in colclusion, while backstory is important, you need to decide twhen to reveal -- generally if at all possible, sometime after the middle of the book.

carrie_lofty said...

Also, readers are programmed to expect that -- eventually -- the story will unfold. Comments I've received on the first three chapters of my WIP are along the lines of: I don't know exactly what's going on, but it has good energy and I expect you'll reveal all in time. We, as authors, have to trust that the readers will stay with us long enough -- which is easier to do when they're curious.

Anonymous said...

What books have you read that have seamlessly filled the reader in with character or social history?
I haven't read any recently that did not.

Do you have any rules that help regulate the insertion of backstory?
It totally depends on the story and characters.

Do you think prologues are the best way to build the character or social history?
I don't use prologes