Backstory is not for amateurs

Hooya, that’s a week of my life I’ll never get back. Not sure I want to, either.  I think the Cosmic Muffin decided he didn’t need the trouble, and the Devil decided he didn’t need the competition. Despite my best efforts, I’m going to live. The beagle assured me she had the office covered while I lay in bed praying for a quick death, but I had my doubts after rolling over in bed numerous times and coming face to face with her muzzle. On. My. Pillow.

Sleeping.

As a result, there are mounds of email and phone calls that went unanswered. I apologize for the delay. I know there are several can’t-wait-hurry-ups in the stack, and I promise I will get to you – after I’m done reprimanding the beagle for sleeping on the job. Her punishment is eating mass produced dog food.

I think the reason I got sick was because my defenses were down from the car accident. Those things really do a head job on you. I’m not one to hang out with the Kleenex crowd, and I wasn’t a sobby whiny-butt mess or anything. But I wasn’t quite me either. The body aches were just a part of it. It’s the mind aches that sap your energy and natural defenses. The lower you are mentally, I believe the more susceptible you are to other crud. I think it just opened me up to those lovely flu germs my daughter so lovingly brought home last week. I’m planning her disappearance as I type.

So in spite of being delayed by a few weeks, I’ll be back to my fighting strength very soon and all my mail and phone calls will be answered.

Ok, so what does this have to do with the title of this post, which is Backstory? Cagey broad that I am, I wanted to show a sample of effective backstory.

Much of what I read in submissions is backstory, and I’ve discovered there are actually two types of backstory; the useless bits of fluff that has zippo to do with the story at hand but is meant to add flavor; and the backstory that took place BEFORE the real story began. Either way, I’m hard on backstory because its presence (or the lack of it) takes a story from five hundred miles an hour to flying off the train tracks into oblivion.

I see your eyebrows reaching the northern confines of your face. “Lack of it?” Yup. As much as backstory can kill a story, backstory, if used in the fingers of professionals, is good. And necessary.

I think Carolyn Jewel nails a couple of points squarely on the head in her guest post about backstory on Kristin Nelson’s blog. She has some real gems:

Backstory: Can’t write with it, can’t write without it.
It’s that and a bag of potato chips. Your characters don’t just materialize straight off the page to create a story. Just because they’re figments of our fertile imaginations doesn’t mean they don’t have a past. And they should. Just as in real life; people who have had rich experiences are often the most interesting people. So it goes to reason with your characters. They have baggage and issues just like we do.

And this is where the tread often fails to meet the road. Writers want us to know their character’s entire backstory. It’s not needed, and it’s a big manuscript killer. Sure, it’s necessary for you to write the backstory because you may discover something really cool or complicated about your character that adds huge dimension to your story – but that entire background won’t make it into the final cut. But a tidbit of it will.

In the example I used at the beginning of this post, which is what I refer to as fluffy backstory, the main thrust is about why I’ve been AWOL for so long. The bit about why I think I got sick in the first place is backstory. It wasn’t necessary, but I added it to show the chain of events that I believed led to my being a dithering loser for a week. It rounds out the story a bit and gives it depth. Now if I had continued down that backstory line and blathered on about how it took me a week before I was brave enough to get behind the wheel of my car, then it’s no longer germane to the topic at hand, and the reader loses interest. Who cares?

Tidbits
Let fluffy backstory out in dribs and drabs; like a balloon that you slowly let the air escape while pinching the neck so you can make that squeaky noise that annoys the hell out of everyone. If you let all the air out at once, your story is all backstory and no meat. The reader loses interest. Reject. Tattoo this on your forehead: It has to be germane to the story in order to hold our interest.

There is another kind of backstory that is comprised of major meat and potatoes. Many of my rejections occur here with the comment, “I feel like you’re trying to tell two stories at once. Choose one and tell it.” What this means is that the author crashed the backstory into the current story and it’s hard to tell who survived. You need to call out a literary tow truck and clean up this mess. And this leads to Carolyn’s second gem:

The problem is that we are not writing a story about the backstory of our novel. We’re writing about what happens BECAUSE of the backstory.
That sentence is so freaking brilliant it makes me want to whack myself for not thinking of it first. Some stories are constructed such that the author wouldn’t have their current story were it not for the events that took place in the backstory. It’s always pivotal.

For example, in my novel, my protag Erik Behler’s young patient died a needless and painful death because his parents believed in using only alternative healing methods. Erik was devastated with the death and became a material witness against the parents in a very public court case  for child endangerment, which they lost and went to jail. From that moment on, he believed anyone who practiced alternative medicine was akin to playing Russian Roulette with a bullet in every chamber. Enter Kim Donovan, the new surgeon on the block who lights up his life. And utilizes alternative healing methods in her practice. Now he’s on a collision course with his professional beliefs and his heart. How can anyone be so insane and lacking in good judgment (let alone a freaking doctor) be the one to open his eyes to a whole new side of life? He’s repelled, yet in love. The two emotions can’t exist in his well-ordered, scientific world, and one of them has to go. Kim and Erik’s story is about what they do because of the backstory.

When do I let the air out of my balloon?
The good author knows how to tell the current story without letting the backstory have too big a voice in that collision. And this moves to when to let that air out of your balloon. Since you have finite amount of air, you want to let out the right amount of air at the right moment. You have to decide what part of the backstory your reader needs to know at any given moment so they understand what’s taking place in the current story.

For my book, I added a short prologue because I wanted to shock the reader with the pain Erik carries with him at all times. But I let small bitsies leak out at various points of the story to give the reader what I felt they needed in order to fully understand the opposite poles that are constantly tugging at Erik. In one scene, Kim has a very persuasive argument with Erik, and I quickly brought in Erik’s dying patient who, while struggling to breathe, looks up at Erik through sad eyes and says, “It didn’t have to be this way, did it?” That backstory had far more emotional impact to that scene than any amount of cerebral verbs and nouns that could have shot out of my fingers.

Avoid the Prologue copout
I’m not always a fan of prologues [yes, I know I’m talking out of both sides of my mouth] because it’s so easy to make them info dumps. They’re invariably boring, and that’s why many readers skip them (even though I think that’s really stupid). When properly used, I also think they’re very powerful tools.

I agree that my prologue was a dicey decision, but I tried taking it out first [which is what every author should do], and it didn’t have near the emotional impact I wanted for the story. The reader HAD to have that information first because it’s Erik’s foundation of who he is. He’s the walking wounded, but he doesn’t realize it until he meets Kim, and she forces him to confront an old wound and consider his biases.

Always remember that your story isn’t your backstory. If it is, go back and write that one first. If it isn’t, let it seep out slowly from your literary balloon, and you’ll find that you have a well-rounded story that’s filled with great dimension and depth.

9 Responses to Backstory is not for amateurs

  1. Nicola Morgan says:

    Yay, Lynn is back! So glad you’re better. Great post and now … I want to read your novel.

  2. lynnpricewrites says:

    Nicola, darling, it’s available on Amazon.uk. Or you can borrow Jane’s copy.

  3. Scott says:

    Lynn, I’m glad you’re back and survived the flu. That’s one thing I don’t wish on my worst enemies.

    S

  4. Thanks for all your kind comments on my post at Pub Rants. I enjoyed your expanded remarks, too. You gave some great examples of how and how not, to use backstory. Also, I’m glad to know you’re feeling better.

    Carolyn

    P.S. My brother has a beagle. She’s a cutie. They’re great dogs.

  5. lynnpricewrites says:

    Carolyn, you just so rock. May you sell millions. As for the beagle, well, let me say that she’s a great bartender but sucks at maintaining the office. And should anyone spread this rumor, I’ll deny it; but she really is cute, damn her buttons.

  6. Interesting post. I’m writing a series, and from time to time I ask myself whether I could rip up the first few books & just write the last one. It *would* work, but I like to tell myself the earlier stuff is interesting too (and there’s 100+ years of backstory before the first volume, as it is…)

  7. Thank you for this perfect illustration. It’s a wonderful tonic in conversational language that I needed to hear again… just not from my Eng. Lit Professor ad nauseum.

  8. Megan Sayer says:

    Wow, this hit me like a bullet train.
    I am trying to tell two stories at once. I’ve been wondering deeply whether this is a good thing.
    Now I know.
    Dash it all, back to the drawing (writing?) board.

  9. Megan, there’s nothing wrong with telling two stories as long as one has a distinctively dominant voice, the two don’t get confused, and there’s enough of an association to link them together. You have to decide whether you have the writing chops to write it. Good luck!

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