Backstory isn’t always evil

What? sez you? You read my blog post on backstory and believe backstory and fluff is the root of all evil. Whazzis? You didn’t read that post? Well go on, read it and come back. I’ll wait…Hey, beagle, did you hear the one about the shark who became an agent? Well, word on the street is that she caught her tooth on an author’s shoe and…oh, you’re back. Cool. Let’s continue. We were talking about evil backstory.

I gave a seminar recently on Backstory Boogaloo, and I made a comment about knowing when and where to add backstory and fluff to a chapter. Someone rose their hand and called me on it. “Adding backstory and fluff? I thought we were supposed to remove it!”

No, no, no, no! Like my lust for Twinkies, moderation is the key to all things – including backstory and fluff. These are the elements that enhance a chapter with color and dimension.

Here’s an example:

With backstory and fluff

Overworked and Underpaid Editor checked the time and rubbed her eyes. No wonder her neck ached. It was 2 a.m. and she was no closer to finishing reading her goodie pile [some call it slush] than when she’d started earlier that day. She couldn’t have gotten as far as she had without help from the beagle. Uncharacteristically, she’d jumped right in and offered help in the way of fresh margaritas and reading.

Overworked and Underpaid looked over at the sleeping hound, snoring on the top of the pile of manuscripts, and felt a pang of love sweep across her heart. She’d always wanted a beagle, but somehow always ended up with dogs named Swamp Thing whose hair didn’t grow in a single direction. The beagle had been a surprise – not entirely welcome since she was used to being the Alpha female. So was Overworked and Underpaid.

The two had circled around one another for weeks, wondering if the relationship would take hold. The dam broke when Overworked and Underpaid came down to the kitchen for a glass of water and discovered the beagle mixing up a batch of margaritas. The best Overworked and Underpaid ever had. The two sat up until dawn, talking about life, gossiping about the Rottweiler up the street, and the finer nuances of designer chewie toys.

So while the two would always have a love/snarl working relationship, Overworked and Underpaid understood that when things got really tough, she could count on the beagle. She pulled out a blanket and covered the snoring hound and turned out the lights.

Take notice of the sentences in red, those are the lead in and lead out sentences. These puppies serve as a seamless transition into and out of your backstory. If it makes sense to add backstory [which is short and sweet], then the reader will follow you just about anywhere. But where you lead in, you need to lead back out to the current scene. This makes the backstory seamless and logical to your scene.

Here’s the same scene without backstory:

Overworked and Underpaid Editor checked the time and rubbed her eyes. No wonder her neck ached. It was 2 a.m. and she was no closer to finishing reading her goodie pile [some call it slush] than when she’d started earlier that day. She couldn’t have gotten as far as she had without help from the beagle. Uncharacteristically, she’d jumped right in and offered help in the way of fresh margaritas and reading. She pulled out a blanket and covered the snoring hound and turned out the lights.

Bada bing, bada boom. Sure, first thing you notice is how backstory and fluff adds to the word count. But it also adds to the richness and flavor of the scene or chapter. That’s why it’s wise to remember that too much of a good thing is bad for our literary waistlines. Use backstory and fluff judiciously and minimally. Make a conscious decision as to where and what you’re going to add.

Last thing you want is to have your readers get impatient and mutter, “get on with the story, already!”

7 Responses to Backstory isn’t always evil

  1. Kim says:

    Great lesson here, Lynn. I’m passing the link on to a fledgling-writer/friend. ~K

  2. Hey, thanks, Kim. Funnily enough, it’s not just fledglings who need to be reminded of this whole backstory thing. I just finished reading a Random House book and wished I could corner the author for five minutes. I was also wondering where her editor was during the editing process…

  3. Frank says:

    Backstory, unchecked, seems to have an innate propensity to be “chunky.” And when it is, the real story doesn’t move very well. It’s almost as if chunky backstory is saying to the reader, “Forget the real story. This stuff out of the past is what’s really interesting. And of course, it isn’t!”

  4. Scott says:

    Less is more! Instead of overwhelming passages of backstory, and/or fluff, just a bit here and there to add depth. Hmmmm . . .

    S

  5. Ann says:

    Thanks Kim, I will take this lesson on board and apply it to my WIP. At the moment I am working on the “was” and “were” ‘s peppered throughout.

  6. Hi Ann. Welcome to the insanity. If you’re having “wasies” and “hadies” problems, you might find somethng useful in this post.

  7. lbdiamond says:

    Fantastic post! LOVE it! Backstory can be enriching…what a NOVEL idea. :O

    Thank you!

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