Thursday, February 4, 2010

Backstory...How Much and Where?

Is backstory a bugaboo for anyone besides me?  When I wrote my first novel, my ICL instructor wanted the first chapter to be mostly backstory so it would lay the foundation for my MC's relationship with her father.  Okay, my original first chapter became my second, and I wrote a whole new first chapter.  Now, however, no matter how much I revise it, I don't like it.  ( my instructor did.)

So, I tossed that first chapter, began my second one again as the first ( see how confusing this all gets?), and now am trying to work in the backstory.  Only I'm finding that I can't do it all in one chapter, so that means more revision in terms of adding elements of the backstory into several chapters.

Let's talk about what the "backstory" really is, and why...or is important.  No matter where you begin your novel, your characters, most especially your MCs, have a backstory.  I mean, come on, they didn't just spring up out of nowhere, did they?  Well, maybe in your head they did, but they had to have come from somewhere, didn't they?

When you begin a story, what are the first things you think of?  One: what is it that your MC wants? Two: Who or what is going to keep her from getting what she wants?  Three:  What kind of conflicts, both internal and external, is she going to have to overcome to get what she wants?  Four:  What relationships and what incidents/events/issues/ is she going to be involved in while trying to overcome her conflicts?  Five:  What is the end result/resolution going to be, and how is she going to come up with this resolution?  So...where does the backstory fit into all of this, and what effect, if any, will it have upon any one of these five elements?

A story rarely has just one plot, especially if it is a novel.  The subplots that you weave into the major plot can often explain some of the backstory, but the question is, where do you begin this part of the novel?  In my story, the overall  theme was relationships: those between my MC, AJ, and her father, and between her, her best friends and the new girl in town who is out to "destroy" AJ's life in any way she can.  In order for the readers to understand the relationship AJ has with her dad now, and why it is so hurtful to her, they have to know what kind of relationship she enjoyed with him in the past.  In other words, what was the backstory about AJ and her father?  But to put all of that into the first chapter was boring.  At least, it was to me, therefore it probably would have been for the reader. So it had to go some place else.

One of the "rules" of writing is that every thing you write has to move the story forward.  Every scene and every chapter has to move the story and it has to develop the characters in some way.  So you need to work your backstory in by virtue of either conversation or action.  Here's an example from my novel:
AJ's two best friends, Julie and Jaime, are in her bedroom when Jaime asks AJ why her father is never home any more.  AJ is hesitant to tell them, as she believes her father doesn't love her and the family any more, and uses his job as an excuse to be gone.  But she tells them some of what has happened in the past, and why he seems to prefer traveling to being at home.  That is the first of the backstory, and it is brought into the story through dialogue. can't let the dialogue take over, and just spew backstory all over the place.  Then it becomes nothing but an information dump.  B O R I N G !

So it's a little at a time.  For one thing, if you leave important parts out, to be told later, you leave both the characters and the reader hanging.  What's going to happen next?  Did AJ and her father have a fight?  Will her father make her sell her beloved mare?  Et cetera et cetera.  The reader wants to know more about AJ's past connections to her father, just as her friends do.  But she tells them only a little, then changes the subject and there is more action in the scene.

This is the way backstory should be told.  A little at a time.  Layer it.  Weave it into other parts of the plot where it might be the least expected.  That builds up the tension and the suspense, both for the plot at hand, and for things that have happened in to past to make the present more exciting. And because it leaves the reader in suspense, at the same time it moves the whole story forward.

The next time you are confronted with where or how or even why to start your backstory, think ahead.  What does the past have to do with the present, or even the future, of your MC? What is the theme of your story, and what effect can or does the backstory have upon that theme?  Go from there.  Work the backstory into the present in the form of dialogue and action, but do it in spurts.  Do it where it seems to fit in the most comfortably.  Weave it like you were weaving a rug, where you cannot see the seams between backstory and present story.

It will be more challenging, but it will also be more interesting to an editor ( and your eventual readers), and it will add to the tension and suspense of your overall novel.

Think about it.  Let me know if it works for you.

1 comment:

  1. Great post and timing--my Seventh Sin of Novel Writing is about backstory and info dumping, too!

    (And I can't believe your ICL wanted you to stuff your first chapter with backstory!!)