Thursday, June 21, 2007

Slipping into Something Comfortable

The Siesta,
Frederick Arthur Bridgman,
oil on canvas, c. 1890.

On my daily cruise around the 'sphere, I see backstory criticism raised again and again.

It's generally accepted that great blocks of backstory slow the action to the point where readers may be forced to twiddle their thumbs waiting for the writer to get on with the story - which is generally accepted in most cases as Not A Good Thing.

I wonder if other designated Wiffenpoop(f)) problems - like the meditation in front of the bathroom mirror and the reverie recount of the dream-upon awakening - is rooted in the determination to present backstory.

I wonder if the temptation to dump facts in by back-hoe at the very beginning, to build Rome in a day, might be alleviated if the writer viewed backstory - not so much as simple history, as essential context, as background, as back - but as a forward thing, as a trail of breadcrumbs, footprints to follow, as a technique for suspense.
Such revision of the building codes, however, requires a writer to view backstory as mortar, not as pre-fab sections or piles of quarry stone.


Sam said...

It depends on how backstory is treated. I don't like infodump - when a great deal of information is dumped on the reader using some sort device like musing in front of a mirror, as you pointed out.
But sometimes back story can be woven into a tale and it's terribly interesting, like in 'The Lord of the Rings', when there was a terrific amount of backstory to be absorbed. One of my books, 'The Secret of Shabaz', is based on backstory and I had to set the action upon it without making it slow the book down. I actually wrote the book on purpose that way - it was a sort of challenge, and it came out all right.
It was a tricky book to write, but fun.

kmfrontain said...

Yep, backstory. It's always a chore to work it in and to find the right time in the narrative it should be worked in. I had necessary backstory for my recent release, I spent more time working on the first three chapters to whittle it backstory down to an appropriate, streamlined amount than I did the rest of the story. I think Sam is right. When it's necessary and interesting, it's ok to have it, but the trick is finding the when and how much.

Bernita said...

I'm definitely not advocating no backstory, Sam, and I don't think critics are either.
Very necessary.
"Woven in" is, I think, the ideal.

The question is, as Karen points out, when and where and how much.

Anonymous said...

We carry our pasts with us at all times. For the most part, its influence is revealed as we move characters through the present. A sentence here and there of backstory can do the rest.

I think the problem is when the whole story grinds to a halt like a traffic jam with flashing yellowing lights: "Warning, Backstory Ahead."

Bernita said...

I wonder if a writer is more susceptible to backfill when a story is more plot than character driven, Jason.

Rick said...

Wouldn't a character-driven story lends itself - or tempts its author - to backstory just as much? The character's whole life up to that moment becomes grist for the backstory mill.

But now you also have me wondering how our concerns with handling backstory play into the old, old idea of in medias res - that a story should start in the middle of the action. The whole first half of the Odyssey, as I recall, is technically an infodump - Odysseus filling in the king of Phaiacia on his adventures, from when he left Troy till Nausicaa finds him on the beach.

If an infodump is big enough, it becomes the story.

writtenwyrdd said...

I try to think of it just as you describe, Bernita, but when you write fantasy it often is a part of the rough draft for a while, just so you don't forget about it!

What I attempt to do is to consider how much of what I tell gives a hint, or some thought vector upon which I launch the readers' expectations.

If I am successful, when the reveal occurs, the reader gets to feel smart because I fed them just enough info that they could anticipate the statement when it comes. They feel smart instead of being surprized by a red herring swacked across the face.

Not that there's anything wrong with red herrings; that makes the work more challenging, too. I mean the bad red herrings that you inadvertantly drop.

Jaye Wells said...

It's helpful to think about real life here. The first time we meet someone we don't sit them down and deliver a monologue about our lives up until that moment. Throughout the course of a relationship, we learn details. As we become comfortable, we might share more. But rarely is infodump an effective way to begin a relationship with another human. Or a reader.

Gabriele C. said...

For me, it's one of the fun parts of writing to sneak the backstory in in bits and pieces without interrupting the story. It can become a narrative tool, even, to add a layer of mystery/anticipation, whatever. :)

Bernita said...

Rick, see Jaye's comment. Excellent comparison, Jaye!
Come to think of it, I tend to look at people funny who want to inform me of their entire life story right off.

Regarding the Odyssey - that's what it is up-front, a report, a travelogue, a series/collection of adventures, in effect.
Would you say each individual adventure is full of backstory?

I think you are right, Written. It's draft stuff, waiting for the appropriate place.

Bernita said...

Exactly, Gabriele.
Like handing the reader sucessive pieces of a puzzle.

Dave said...

I've take to overwriting chapters or portions of stories just so I know each character's backstory. It's lots of words that have to be cut, but "cut" I do well.

That was my first thought when I read your post. Backstory is the history of the characters or the setting or the "world-building" that the author hasn't hidden away. We need that backstory for drama and irony.

One book I remember that clearly has lots and lots of backstory hidden in it is Eco's Name of the Rose. Eco takes pages and pages to explain the history of the times and the significance of various portions of the story - and he makes it fascinating and engrossing.

Bernita said...

Think writing backstory in draft is a good practice and allows one to select pertinent factors and avoid plot/motivation holes.
Have the feeling, Dave, I should repeat that I do not advocate the elimination of backstory.
Very necessary stuff, to provide "drama and irony" as you say, as well as other effects.
On the other hand I found Name of the Rose, tedious and precious beyond belief. Felt he used it as substitution.

Charles Gramlich said...

Interesting way of thinking about it. Let the backstory be more organic, if I'm reading you right. I'll have to give it some thought.

raine said...

...a forward thing, as a trail of breadcrumbs, footprints to follow, as a technique for suspense.

Excellent way of looking at it.

Getting the backstory across without info dumping IS tricky. I've been known to be guilty of this--probably done in a flurry of writing in which I don't want to stop and measure the crumbs out carefully, lol.

You always give me pause to think, Bernita.

Jon M said...

In series books, back story can be irritating but I guess it helps readers who have not caught previous books. Then again, couldn't they just read them in the right order?

MissWrite said...

My personal opinion on backstory is it's like someone's interest when they say 'well tell me about yourself'. If you start out with 'Well, I was born at 9:15 am after 21 hours of labor in a log cabin in the woods..." it will take you a long time to get up to the present and the person that asked will have died from boredom. Most of it is just not pertinent to any story. My feelings are that anything really important is better handled 'in story'... sort of like:

Jaime and Paul looked up at the massive building where Connie was insconced in heavy labor. Jaime looked at her watch, and then Paul's worried face, and gave him a nudge. "Don't worry, it won't be as bad as all that."

"My mom went through 21 hours of labor. She thought it was as bad as all that."

"Yeah, but Connie's not in the wilderness."

Something along those lines. The reader now knows that Paul was born in the woods... well could guess that, and it was a long horrible labor. Even if it's not truly nessecary it's more fun, and it does give a bit of a clue to the character's reasons for worrying etc without being borning backstory.

Bernita said...

It can be part of the story, Charles, rather than a separate lump.

Thank you, Raine. I have been guilty of it too.

I think series books are a special case, Jon.

A very good example, Tami.

Nicole Kelly said...

I, personally, love it when the backstory is one of the main mysteries of the novel.

Actually, I think trying to incorporate backstory in unique ways can give rise to extremely interesting story style. In particular, I was thinking of the movie "Memento."

December/Stacia said...

A difficult trick, indeed...looking at it that way might help!

Bernita said...

Yes, Nicole!
I do too. Hadn't thought of it quite that way - as one of the mysteries. Thank you.

Perhaps because we've been imprinted with "once upon a time," December. Hard to shake.

sex scenes at starbucks said...

Backstory is often eliminated in solid revision because the writer does it in the first place as early draft authorial discovery. We find ways to show how the past informs the story and character through demonstrating present behavior, rather than insisting that the character himself dwell in the past.

But I'm not a backstory nazi. Some is required, always, just like when you get to know a real person you learn their history. It's part of the joy of knowing someone, be they ficitonal or real.

Scott from Oregon said...

I often like stories that start at the end and then are permanent backstories leading you to where you started.

The movie Big Fish comes immediately to mind...

Bernita said...

Yes, indeed, SS. A character with no history ceases after while to be a mystery.

I would think that might be very hard to pull off smoothly in a novel, Scott, without the reader being very conscious of "technique."

Dave said...

I understand, I understand.
The Name of the Rose is like the saying "A face only a Mother could love." It's a hard book to enjoy. Eco forces the reader to live the monastic life and perform penance in his church (the book). Not to mention the punishment of putting allegories in the three or four languages he uses in the narrative.

spyscribbler said...

I like that thinking! I was just pondering, today, how I love it when authors use a tidbit of a backstory to frame the hero's description of something in the present. Especially when that bit of backstory is actually a story in itself.

LadyBronco said...

I like back-story when it is hinted at, or detailed briefly in order to tantalize the reader in trying to figure out how it will tie in with what is going on in the present.

Bernita said...

I am not enamoured with that sort of 'force," Dave.

An excellent way to insert backstory, Natasha.

Especially when another character is the stand-in for our curiosity, Lady B.