24 September 2007

The Dreaded Backstory

Eliza Tucker
Here's a classic post from Eliza Tucker.

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 smoothly, 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, multi-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.

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.

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?
  4. And readers: what do you prefer? Prologues? No prologues?

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