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Friday, February 24, 2012

Backstory in the Novel

At 94,000 words, my SFD is finished. Being the first draft, that means it's filled with dreadful backstory and is a dumping ground for anecdotes, boring research, narration, character description, information and ... well, you get it ... help!

Time to set the manscript aside for a few months (six months advises Stephen King) and then I can start whacking away and think strategically about how characters can be revealed through action and dialogue.

I need to tell the reader only what he or she needs to know for what's happening at that moment in the story. Backstory should be sprinkled in, a little here and there, and I need to cut, cut, cut. The sobering realization hit me as I was reading a chapter aloud one day that I, too, a writing teacher and published author, simply can't write a first draft without dumping in all that boring backstory.

It's the old "telling vs showing" thing we talk about all the time. I know better than to start the story by telling the reader a lot of stuff he or she doesn't need to know. If the reader's senses are engaged––and my first readers definitely showed signs of yawning boredom––it doesn't matter how eloquent the writing. Backstory prohibits the reader from actively being engaged in the story and all that background information may or may not be needed. I must begin at that MOMENT OF CHANGE right in the middle of the action and I have to do it in such a way that the reader cares about the character and is a participant rather than a distant observer. I can do this by utilizing universal emotions and making sure that the reader is invested in the characters. I have to forge that emotional connection as soon as possible, too.

Backstory is essential since characters have histories and their motivations and reactions stem from past events in their lives. Background information must be interspersed throughout the action with details that evoke the images and feelings I want the reader to have. I want my reader to react emotionally to the characters and that means I have to hook them and keep that reader aligned with the protagonist throughout.

Merriam Webster defines backstory as: a story that tells what led up to the main story or plot. Backstory is all the details that occurred prior to your story, which have an impact on your characters and the plot. Backstory helps your reader understand why your character acts or reacts the way they do now.

Rules Regarding Backstory:

1. Never start your story with backstory. While a prologue is a way to get some backstory in, it usually isn't necessary. Start your story at THE MOMENT OF CHANGE, that moment when your main character’s life is changed by some event or circumstance that sends him or her on a journey.

2. Never dump Wikipedia type stuff into the story and never dump a whole lot in one huge boring heap.

3. Never include backstory in dialogue between characters when both characters are already familiar with the backstory and would have no reason to discuss it.

4. Flashback is one way to add some backstory but be careful Transition in and ot of flashback gracefully and don't spend too long a time in the flashback scene.writinh flashback is difficult because readers must always be oriented as to where and when in regards to the story.

5. Backstory can also be included when a character has internal thoughts about the past or relates a memory to another character.

6. The best way to add backstory is to sprinkle it in appropriately and only as needed. Some authors do it brilliantly. Elizabeth George, for instance.

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