Writing Backstory

Amusement Everybody Loves Me, Baby!

Important! RIP Writing Groups 'like' button

Status
Not open for further replies.

Rich.

Full Member
Emeritus
Sep 28, 2017
Spain
I've been thinking about backstory and how best to handle it, and I find my self wondering what you think.

I've also been thinking about the received wisdom of craft in general – learn the "rules" before you break them, show-don't-tell-or-go-to-hell, don't write on a Tuesday when the wind is in the East, that kind of thing.

I'll stop being flippant.

Clearly there is a huge body of craft wisdom that's important to master. There will always be those who do novel things, but most of us (sadly) fail when we try. It's come to my mind to post threads like this one when I find myself musing on a particular aspect of craft and to ask you all what you think, to ask you how you understand the "rule".

So, back to backstory. Received wisdom is to avoid info-dumps, lengthy detours into what happened before, and concentrate on what's happening now. I tend to agree. I tend to subscribe to the Vonnegut school of thought:
Kurt Vonnegut's point 8 of Creative Writing 101 –
Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages. [*]

Unless you're writing a mystery, I suppose. Gah, there's always an exception, right? Frickin' art, so... so horribly organic.

/irony off

What do you think? What's your take on handling backstory? What do you think of the "rule"?
 
As master mistress of giving no backstory at all (!), I think it boils down to trying to get a balance, enough to make you want to read on. I don't really need "as much information as possible as soon as possible"; if I'm enjoying the writing and the voice, I'm happy to keep reading and trust I will get it all in good time. (I think voice is king. If a voice is good enough to hook me, I am willing to go along for the ride).
 
Better to think of writing rules as guidelines. It's fascinating to see famous authors list their 10 Rules, but they're saying what works for them. There's certainly a danger of backstory and descriptions of characters becoming an information dump, especially when it comes from a third person omnipotent narrator. When this happens, I find as a reader that it feels like the story has been put on hold while I get this exposition out of the way, i.e. it's intrusive. To me, it feels like the author has lifted his planning notes on how his character looks and what their history was and plonked them into the narrative, almost as reminder to himself.

It depends on how relevant the information about backstory is to the action to come. I prefer to drip feed backstory, as my characters go about their business, often through their internal dialogue. I do the same in describing how someone looks, rather than listing their physical traits as if they're taken from criminal records or a passport application. This round about way of telling the reader about the players in my story is easy to do from a multiple point of view.

I've just completed the fifth novel in a series, and have gradually cut back my protagonist's backstory through the stories as it becomes less relevant, both to him and the reader. We all live with ghosts in our life, but they fade from view.
 
From a reader's perspective, I prefer backstory be sprinkled in throughout the story. Even then, I prefer to learn it through character interaction or dialogue, as opposed to long paragraphs of exposition written in author omniscient voice. It's difficult to do. Writers have to develop a technique for it, I believe, and then have to commit to using that technique with each story. The "easy" way is to dump it all in there in big chunks. It's a lot more difficult to find ways to dribble it in, and in ways that engage the reader, show characterization, etc. at the same time.

You almost need to think of your backstory as a character unto itself. I was once told to think of my series setting - the town it's set in - as a separate character. The town has a history, just like each of the characters do. It has a sense of self - an aura, if you will. By thinking of my series setting in this way, I was taught to develop the town's history and sense of self throughout the series, the same way I would develop a character throughout each individual story.

If you think of your book's backstory, and each character's backstory as separate entities, I think it makes more sense in how to treat that information as the story progresses. Just as you wouldn't reveal everything about one character on page one, you also don't want to dump the entire backstory into one page.

Hope this makes sense. :)
 
I've had my husband as primary beta reader on my WIP until recently. He's the kind of guy who wants TO KNOW WHAT'S GOING ON! He hated Wolf Hall, because he had no idea what was happening. I'm now having to break away, because of advice from better qualified readers. (He does read fiction, but only really the classics, and doesn't get a lot of contemporary writing.) Withholding back story till the right moment is suspenseful often, isn't it?
But I've used some flashbacks, and that can be pretty icky too. What do people think of them?
 
I try to trickle it in as I go, but I have a bad habit of, when I do get to one of those 'drips' of backstory, making it more of a bucketload dumped on the reader's head. I always have to edit stuff out. And I have a tendency to focus on what happened in the past, rather than why it was important--I think the reader really just needs the 'why is this relevant to what's happening now', rather than the details of what went on (another thing I end up doing in the editing pass). I think this is why flashbacks can get annoying--by their nature, they take the reader through the whole event, rather than just showing the important bit.
 
What do you think? What's your take on handling backstory? What do you think of the "rule"?
I'm not sure I agree with Kurt's point 8. It strikes me that it will produce a story with no surprises which would make it a somewhat dull read, in my view. I like to be entertained when I read a story. I like the writer to pull the rug out from under my feet now and again.

Surprises often come from the backstory surfacing in the main narrative.

On backstory itself I would say it depends very much on the writer and the genre. Secrets are often hidden in the backstory, to be revealed when the time is right. How much backstory you include in the novel is up to you. Too little and you may not give context to the motivations and goals of your characters. Too much and it can take over and distract from the main story. I'm not sure you can easily get away with none at all.

When I write my stories, as I'm writing the main narrative I am often composing and writing backstory sections as well. Whether they make it in to the
final manuscript depends on whether I feel they are needed. But I write them anyway, even if only in outline form. That way I can understand my characters better.

How I feed the backstory in is also dependant on the type of story being told. Whether I drip feed it in here and there or whether I have large sections as flashbacks or inner monologues, again depends on the style of narrative I'm writing.

Horses for courses in my opinion. There are no "hard and fast rules" to writing that can't be broken.
 
As a reader, if the writing is well done and there are no superfluous passages I’m happy to read back story. In fact, I love stories within stories - like the Arabian Nights. Then again, I also love epigraphs, chapter titles, prologues and even the very occasional epilogue. Give me all the literary devices! But as a writer, I try to avoid including the things readers might hate.

As an aside, what @Carol Rose said about setting being a character is so true. That’s why the first two seasons of Twin Peaks were so engrossing (geeky fan, here), but the third was lacking. The portrayal of that town is a brilliant lesson for a writers. Such personality - dual personalities, actually.
 
I was hoping this would become a lively debate. You're all great. Thank you. :)

I've always understood the Vonnegut quote to mean, make sure your reader knows why this is happening now – which is great advice, except when it isn't.

Withholding back story till the right moment is suspenseful often, isn't it?
Yes, I think you're right, providing you get the right moment right. If I'm withholding backstory because the character doesn't know it, or the narrator doesn't know it, or the narrator is unreliable, or the narrator is in full-on 3rd-person-omniscient-tale-telling mode, then I feel free to withhold backstory and use it to build suspense. But if I'm withholding it without any of those reasons, then it feels like a cheap trick. If I have no cast-iron, story-centric reason to withhold it, then I'm just being annoying. And as a reader, on encountering this, I groan and feel cheated.

That's my feeling, at least.

I guess I basically think this:
... the reader really just needs the 'why is this relevant to what's happening now' ...
Even if that only means: this is part of the mystery I'm building – stick with me, the pay off's a cracker.
 
In my first novel, there was no backstory, at all, so happy days, problem sorted. It was all forwards.

In my second novel, I slipped the backstory (or BS as I shall call it as of now) into dialogue. This particular book was a mother-daughter story and the BS was revealed during the interactions between them (well, arguments, really). I also used an object (a cuckoo clock). The clock had a connection to an important instance between the MC and her father. The MC was rather annoyed at the cuckoo-ing and vented, revealing the past.

With my third novel, well, I'm cheating. I'm revealing the backstory mainly in form of letters in strategic places. They're psychoanalytical letters where the protagonist vents his frustration with his past as he is trying to come to terms with his childhood (letters to his father). A bit like going home and kicking your pillows imagining your boss. So hopefully it works. But I also reveal some BS via dialogue, and the way the characters interact. Not sure I'm making any sense.
 
Last edited:
...backstory (or BS as I shall call it as of now)
LOL! Genius. I'm going to start calling it this as well, to remind me where it sits on the priority list of story. :)

If the backstory is really, truly that interesting, that necessary, that gripping, perhaps it should, in fact, be the story?
 
I try to trickle it in as I go, but I have a bad habit of, when I do get to one of those 'drips' of backstory, making it more of a bucketload dumped on the reader's head. I always have to edit stuff out. And I have a tendency to focus on what happened in the past, rather than why it was important--I think the reader really just needs the 'why is this relevant to what's happening now', rather than the details of what went on (another thing I end up doing in the editing pass). I think this is why flashbacks can get annoying--by their nature, they take the reader through the whole event, rather than just showing the important bit.

I totally agree. Long, drawn-out flashbacks are rarely effective or necessary.
 
If the backstory is really, truly that interesting, that necessary, that gripping, perhaps it should, in fact, be the story?
I guess all the BS could become a potential prequel? A bit like Star Wars?

Here's something on BS I learnt from my acting days, taking BS to different angles:

I went to a method school where we did tons of research into our characters to prep for our performances. Basically we took what was in the text and built an entire life around our character. If there wasn't much in the text, we invented tons of BS. Some actors went as far as deciding what their character had for breakfast and whether or not their toilet paper was 'cushioned', yaddy yaddy ya. Initially, I thought: what a load of nonsense. If the author hasn't put it in, it's not important. Then I thought, argh, it's sooo important, I can't live without BS. Then I came to the conclusion that, well, the toilet paper idea is a bit extreme but ... in other words, I settled on a combination, depending on the play.

BS does flavour story telling. I subsequently went to a Meisner acting workshop (an offshoot of the Method). We had to improvise a scene, anything. It didn't matter what the scene was about. We were purely reacting to what we found in each other. Actor A was in the room with the audience while actor B had to enter later. The first time we did this excersise, actor B entered with no BS on their mind. Just enter stage left and go. What happened was that they entered as themselves, as the actor-daarling, with nothing going on in their eyes. Second time round, the teacher told the entering actor B to think of something, anything, before going on stage. Maybe they just had some good news about a lottery win, anything. And guess what, actor B arrived on stage VERY VERY differently. Their eyes were playful, sparkly. They had a baseline to act from. What I'm saying is that even if we don't use all the BS in our novels, I think it will still flavour our writing. It gives us our baseline.

I'm not sure if BS is truly necessary in every book. I think it depends on the kind of story one is writing. Either way, I doubt it's the BS-all and the end all. What matters most is that the actual moment, the scene, is truthful. The story needs to move forward. In real life, we meet people but most of the time we don't know that person's BS. That doesn't make them any less interesting, nor does it change the way we live life with them. They just are who they are, and their BS reveals itself as we get to know them. I feel that stories are very much the same. And if I hear too much BS from someone when I meet them, well, I tune out.

But what do I know. I'm probably talking BS.
 
In The English Patient, half to two-thirds of the book is backstory, told in large chunks of flashback. Without it the story would just be a badly burned man with no name who convinces a nurse to give him an overdose of morphine. A much less interesting story than the one that was written.
It went on to be a best seller and a major film. Backstory, even in large chunks, can't be all bad if it's written well enough.
 
In The English Patient, half to two-thirds of the book is backstory, told in large chunks of flashback. Without it the story would just be a badly burned man with no name who convinces a nurse to give him an overdose of morphine. A much less interesting story than the one that was written.
It went on to be a best seller and a major film. Backstory, even in large chunks, can't be all bad if it's written well enough.
I haven't read / seen it, hence my following question: But does giving it that much weight turn the backstory into the third protagonist? (Carol mentioned something similar.) I'm not saying it's a good thing or a bad thing, I'm just wondering out of interest how influential it can be without becoming too domineering ... (I'm currently trying to decide how much to reveal in mine)
 
In The English Patient, the backstory is the story and therefore it is relevant to the story. It is a jumbled time line narrative told as flashbacks and reminiscences. The "real time" parts of the narrative are in some ways quite mundane until you start to understand the history of what has gone before.
Everyone has a different approach and advice I have heard and read elsewhere also says that you should hold back your secrets as long as possible to keep up tension. So as I said in an earlier post, horses for courses.
 
In The English Patient, the backstory is the story and therefore it is relevant to the story. It is a jumbled time line narrative told as flashbacks and reminiscences. The "real time" parts of the narrative are in some ways quite mundane until you start to understand the history of what has gone before.
In that case why wasn't it told in the past if the past is that much more intense? Or is it a cause (in the past) and effect (in the future) kinda thing? Is the real time used as a vehicle to tell the tale?

I'm going to have to read it now.
 
In that case why wasn't it told in the past if the past is that much more intense? Or is it a cause (in the past) and effect (in the future) thing? It would make the real time a vehicle to tell the tale.

I'm going to have to read it now.
It's both. If the story was told in a continuous sequential time line the dramatic effect would be much less with the climax coming far to early in the book. Also many of the reveals that happen in the book would be ruined by presenting it in time order.
 
It's both. If the story was told in a continuous sequential time line the dramatic effect would be much less with the climax coming far to early in the book. Also many of the reveals that happen in the book would be ruined by presenting it in time order.
Def must read it now. :)
 
In The English Patient, half to two-thirds of the book is backstory, told in large chunks of flashback.
So you might even call the now stuff a frame story, or maybe they're parallel stories. It's question of degree.

Backstory, even in large chunks, can't be all bad if it's written well enough.
Absolutely. And that sums up any craft argument, doesn't it? If it's written well enough...

It's often tricky though, figuring out exactly what that means in practice.
 
That's an awesome example of when to break all the rules.
A note on rules. Well, an opinion in fact, my opinion, nothing more – I'm sure there are better ones.

Writing is art. There are no rules.

There are conventions though, consensuses, common techniques that pervade commercially successful literature (that's what we're talking about, isn't it?). You wouldn't try to build a table if you'd never seen one (not you, Susan, I mean you in general).

Would you?

Maybe you would.
 
Like i said somewhere earlier: in my wip I use letters to his father to put BS across. I'm not sure if that's craft, or trickery. I feel like I'm cheating but doing it sems logical considering the story. I also use those letters between scenes to show time has passed. Aagain, is that a cheap trick? I don't know. I'm trying to anchor the MCs past into the present to show why he is who he is. It's proving to be interesting as a writer. The letters are providing me with quite good moments when I can reveal him and unleash his emotions which will eventually contribute to his downfall. Can what I'm doing be considered craft? I don't know. I hope so. It's a conscious decision, so ptrobably.

One thIng I struggle with is how much to reveal at any given time. I think generally, pouring out BS in one go isn't the way to go. I'd like to build the BS like a parallel world but I'm currently wondering if maybe telling it out of sync would make it more intriguing.

Knowing how to use it is turning out to be rather tricky.
 
I don’t really think of the way The English Patient was written as breaking a rule. It’s s writing technique that the author made work very well because of his skill at weaving a story.
Yes, I agree, and I think weaving is the right word. The threads in this case are complimentary, rather than one being nothing but support for the other.
 
Like i said somewhere earlier: in my wip I use letters to his father to put BS across. I'm not sure if that's craft, or trickery. I feel like I'm cheating but doing it sems logical considering the story. I also use those letters between scenes to show time has passed. Aagain, is that a cheap trick? I don't know. I'm trying to anchor the MCs past into the present to show why he is who he is. It's proving to be interesting as a writer. The letters are providing me with quite good moments when I can reveal him and unleash his emotions which will eventually contribute to his downfall. Can what I'm doing be considered craft? I don't know. I hope so. It's a conscious decision, so ptrobably.

One thIng I struggle with is how much to reveal at any given time. I think generally, pouring out BS in one go isn't the way to go. I'd like to build the BS like a parallel world but I'm currently wondering if maybe telling it out of sync would make it more intriguing.

Knowing how to use it is turning out to be rather tricky.

This sounds intriguing!
 
Status
Not open for further replies.

Amusement Everybody Loves Me, Baby!

Important! RIP Writing Groups 'like' button

Back
Top