Saturday, 2 April 2011

B is for Backstory-a-go-go

Let me tell you a joke. Two men walk into a bar. And the barman says, “Welcome to the Trapatonni Bar and Grill, first opened in 1932 by Giuseppe Trapattoni, a squat Sicilian who left his homeland with only the shirt on his back and a dream that one day…”

How much more of Giuseppe's story would it take for you to realise the background information had nothing to do with the joke? Not long, I'm guessing.

It used to be different.

Novels used to start with long introductions, family histories and details of past experiences. You have to bear in mind that the novel is not that old an art form. The printing press, affordability, literacy, censorship, lots of things had to align before they started getting popular. And they changed slowly. Even a novel as recent as Lolita starts with pages and pages of family background, childhood escapades and first loves in a very direct manner. Then something changed. Everything began to get quicker. Movies, TV, music, even food, so why not books?

Speed has always been present in our entertainment, thrilling moments of exhilaration, but the pause between those moments was getting shorter and shorter. I think people just became too familiar with the mechanics of presentation. They recognised which were the good bits and which bits were just padding. Of course, when that’s the only game in town there’s not much to be done about it, but people started to have other options. It’s a bit like people fast-forwarding through adverts on their DVR. They can explain that commercials are necessary to fund the shows you love, but nobody gives a shit.

If I’m telling you a joke about two guy in a bar, you don’t need to know the history of the building they’re in to get the joke. You will get a clearer idea of the setting and the situation, but that won’t add to its effectiveness. In fact, it will end up feeling like a delaying tactic because I don’t have a punchline to the joke and I’m trying buy myself some extra time. And that’s how it often feels in a story too. People can tell they’re getting information that will have no bearing on forthcoming events. And they might well be wrong, but they won’t care. Even if you do produce the goods later the signal you’re giving now is one of wasting time and people have gotten very adept at picking up signals (even if you don’t mean to send them out).

There's nothing wrong with backstory. Seriously. It can be a useful, even essential, part of story. But the problem is that usually it’s in the wrong place and not interesting enough. The details you feel the reader needs to be aware of are like any other part of the narrative, they have to engage and interest the reader. They have to be relevant. They have to be more then basic facts told in a dry manner.

If someone you don't know corners you at a party and forces you to listen to their life story the fact that it’s true or that it gives you a clear idea of what that person has been through doesn’t mean you won’t be checking for escape routes. And how long of someone orating at you before you know they aren’t worth listening to? Ten seconds? Twenty? Now consider this, how long before Chatty McChatty realises he’s not worth listening to? Never? Longer? That’s the biggest problem with backstory, the person telling it (or writing it) is the one who finds it hardest to judge it objectively.

Because when it comes to personal history of someone who isn’t you, you have to be interested in knowing BEFORE they tell you. Telling you isn’t what makes the information interesting. Hearing that he was in the army isn’t interesting. Seeing him take down five guys and wanting to know where he learnt to do that, makes the fact he was in the army interesting. Something else has to make you curious first. And then (maybe) you’ll want to know. But that time is not going to be when you first meet them. Not unless they do something amazing first that makes you think, Who the hell is that?

The other thing with backstory is that it’s usually very dull. And it doesn’t need to be. She was born here, lived there, parents did this, she got a job doing that. It’s a job application, not a narrative. Backstory should be a story. It should be interesting. It should be told in an interesting way.

Two men walk into a bar built on the side of a volcano...

If the additional information is unusual it becomes interesting. It should also be noted that the reader will immediately assume the fact the bar is on volcano will be of some relevance. If the joke continues as a normal ‘bar’ joke with no further reference to the volcano, the reader will be miffed. It will seem very odd to have mentioned it in the first place and will actually undermine the joke by distracting from it.  This an extreme example, and obviously if your novel takes place on the side of an active volcano you might want to mention it, but my point is the reader has an expectation based on what you tell them. Which is a good thing, it means the reader is engaged. But you have to be aware of that expectation is, and then you have to fulfil it.

Backstory doesn't need to be removed, it needs to be improved and put in the right place.

In Summary:
1. The worst time for backstory is when you first meet a character. You want to know about them after they’ve made an impression.

2. Listing everyday information about a character’s past is boring. It’s backSTORY, so tell it like one. An interesting one.

3. What you tell the reader should be pertinent to what happens. Either in plot terms or in relation to character. It shouldn’t be there just to add background detail.


Luanne G. Smith said...

I'd like to take this opportunity to tell you a little about myself. I was born in, oh...wait.

Some very good points. Backstory can really drag things down if it isn't woven in at the right moments and in the correct amounts. Nice.

Trisha said...

Backstory - yes, it's something I didn't really know existed until recently, but learning about it has revolutionised my writing. :D

Laura Josephsen said...

Backstory can be so tricky to figure out how to handle, what to put in, where to put it in, how to make sure it gets in when the reader (hopefully) cares enough to know. All good points you've made here!

Charmaine Clancy said...

I agree, backstory, like EVERYTHING in a novel should be relevant.
There's B done :)

Wagging Tales - Blog for Writers said...

Excellent, it knocks spots of mine :O)

Nicolette said...

Excellent post re backstory. Love it.

Katie O'Sullivan said...

Excellent post, Excellent B word!

Thanks for the reminder, as I re-read the opening to my WIP and realize the reader doesn't care enough to want to know THAT. Yet. Well, hopefully yet ;-) Got to make them care FIRST.

the writing pad said...

Great post, love the parallel drawn with the telling of a joke. From now on I'll always have that delayed / distracted from / doomed punchline in the back of my mind when deciding how to deal with the backstory!
(Oops, have I gone on to 'D'?!)
Thanks and all best

Laura Pauling said...

I think newbies are so scared of backstory they don't put in in. But without it there is no way for the reader to connect with your character. It's just a matter of using relevant backstory! Great post.

Jan Morrison said...

Wonderful post - I learned that in writing a novel I had to tell my self the story first and that I might need the back story so I would know what was pertinent and what wasn't. That's what revision is for to my mind. Tell the story to the next person and you'll see that you don't need it or just traces of it - "the first man put his hand flat on the polished oak of the bar and sighed" We now know the bar is taken care of and probably not too sleazy.
Jan Morrison

MTeacress said...

You've made some excellent points and I agree with you. :)
Thanks for coming by my blog. Have a lovely weekend!

Patricia JL said...

Great B post, definitely an important topic in terms of writing. Got the cogs in my brain turning.

So is there a punchline to your joke? ;)

L.A. Colvin said...

I have a lot of trouble making my backstory fit and not feel like info dump. great post!!

J. D. Brown said...

Bravo! Loved your thoughts on backstory! And you have a very entertaining voice, might I add. I struggle with writing a strong beginning and I know it's because I stubbornly cling to backstory that should not be there. I don't do flashbacks or narrative, but I do have this horrible habit of writing scenes in chapter one whose soul purpose is to show background that is then never again mentioned. If only I had begun writing 20 years ago, when that was still acceptable.

jabblog said...

Most interesting! Being loquacious in conversation in life can be interesting but written into a story it must be trimmed and relevant. I think there's an awful lot of padding in some novels - perhaps the writer has been commissioned to write 70,000 words but has only enough story to fill 55,000. Problem!

Kimberly said...

Awesome post. 1 or 2 lines here and there is okay but info dump is definitely boring.

mooderino said...

Thanks very much for all the comments so far, very much appreciated.

Misha Gerrick said...

Nicely put! I like your version. You even covered some aspects that I didn't.



dolorah said...

When I start a novel, I want to know the name of the MC, what the situation is, and something for why I should "care". Some people mistake this why I should care question for the need for backstory.

You can tell me MC is prowling through the streets of Vienne, about machine gun down the fiend that killed his entire family, and there you have it. MC, setting, situation, and why I should care.

Action, plot, and character building all in one line.

I do love backstory, and want to read it, but yeah, it has to be appropriately timed in the narrative.

An excellent post Moody.


Maple Seawright said...

One reason why I like some novels is because they started off with a short yet strong scenario that reveals a lot about the character. That's a great way to do a back story.
Social Science Medley

Susan S said...

I completely agree! Weaving backstory in as you go, in appropriate places, makes it something the reader starts anticipating like the chocolate chips in a really good cookie. Great example, too - I would never have thought of explaining this through an analogy to a joke but it works really, really well.

I found you through the A to Z Challenge and I'm glad I did!

Southpaw said...

Great reminders.

A-Z Fellow Challenger
Holly Ruggiero’s POV

Heather Henry said...

Wow, really great information. I'm not a writer, but I could see how this can even relate to life. Now I know why so many people are bored when I'm talking to them. haha!!
Very useful and wonderful post
Have a great weekend!

J.L. Campbell said...

Well said.

KM Nalle said...

I try and remember to write about the extraordinary rather than the ordinary. Helps keep the story part intact without boring the reader with boring info.

Catherine Denton said...

You got me laughing. What an awesome word picture! *raises right hand* I swear to never overwrite back-story again.
My Blog

Brianna said...

Hi there! I got here from the A-Z list today. Read this post and found it very enlightening! So I scrolled through some of your other posts and discovered a treasure trove of information! Wow! I am very excited to read your posts on A Kiss Before Dying!

Elizabeth Mueller said...

What a great eye-brow-raising point! Thanks for the reflection. :)

♥.•*¨ Elizabeth ¨*•.♥

Murees Dupè said...

Good point. Guilty as charged, but will correct it. Great post and thanks for stopping by my blog.

Ellie Garratt said...

A round of applause for such a brilliant post. Thank you!

Ellie Garratt

Alleged Author said...

Excellent illustration about the pitfalls of giving too much back story!

Melissa Dean said...

Great post! Thanks for commenting on mine as well. I guess great minds think alike! I'm a new follower, too. Good luck and I look forward to reading the rest of your posts.

RosieC said...

Great post. I like the way you've framed the information here. Well done. :) And thanks!

East for Green Eyes

Joyful Minimalism said...

I once experimented with letting characters speak about the backstory, just a couple lines to sketch it. They were interactive and it felt really cool. I usually hate it when backstory takes up pages and pages, and most of it isn't even necessary. I usually cut most of it out of second drafts

Langley Cornwell said...

Very good point. I know I need to edit more and this confirms it. Thanks.

mooderino said...

Thanks Deidra, that's very sweet of you.
warmest regards,

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