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Saturday, July 24, 2010

Backstory vs. Story

Too often we let backstory clutter up the actual story we're trying to write. Beginning writers, especially, have a difficult time figuring out what belongs on the page. We need to write and write and get all that backstory onto paper. Just because it's written down, however, doesn't mean it belongs in the story. Yes, we need to know everything about our characters, their entire histories and what they carry in their pockets and eat for lunch at the local diner. We need to know how they react in emergencies and what they think about as they're driving to work and where they went to school and who their friends are. Backstory belongs in our notebooks and journals and a desktop file. Backstory is in our heads as we write.

Backstory gives us everything we need to know so our characters act and react in ways consistent with the histories, personalities, fears, goals, desires, and traits we've created for them. A character terrified of water isn't going to jump into a lake to rescue a drowning child without fear and trepidation. But we might have established that he's the kind of guy who might be willing to give his life to save a child because his little brother drowned at the age of two in a swimming pool. A slut isn't going to fit in comfortably at an elegant tea party. But she might be daring enough to try since she's been taking a night school charm class. A nerdy kid isn't going to suddenly hang out with the popular preppies. But he might do so on a dare from his older brother. An athlete isn't going to feel comfortable discussing Aristotle unless philosophy is a hidden obsession or he's trying to impress a dazzling blonde poring over Plato's Republic at the library.

Backstory is the "telling" part of writing. Story is "showing" through action, conflict, and dialogue. As writers, we need to know the difference between backstory and story.

Backstory is what we write before we write the story. We get rid of a lot of our own personal drama and stay out of our own way by journaling. We write about everything and anything, and a lot of the time we're writing about ourselves. And once we get our own selves out of the way, we write about our characters, who they are, what they want, why they are the way they are, what their bedrooms look like, what music they listen to, what astrological signs they were born under, as well as, their ticks and habits, the annoying way they clutter the house, the irritating trait they have of talking incessantly about themselves, their utter unselfishness that drives us nuts because they spend hours fixing a neighbor's leaky toilet when our car needs the oil changed. We write specific details until we know our characters as well as we know ourselves and, once we can predict exactly how they will act, we set them into motion in story.



GutsyWriter said...

Well condensed with great examples. You all look amazing in your outfits.

GutsyWriter said...
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