Friday, August 28, 2009

There Is No Backstory

This is my somewhat anticipated post about eliminating backstory in novels. I must rush to the airport soon to fetch the Poetess of Boise, so I'll be brief. Hopefully there will be time to read your comments later. No promises.

Suppose your novel begins with a big chunk (a chapter or two) of backstory. Or, suppose you have big chunks of backstory in other parts of your novel. In either of these cases, you may have decided that you don't want the backstory coming at the reader in big blocks that slow down the narrative, but you don't know what to do about it. How do you get rid of these big blocks of backstory? I have a couple of suggested techniques for this, which I call Cut and Move and There Is Only Now.

Cut and Move is pretty simple, because it's just what it sounds like. You cut out the whole block of backstory, removing it entirely, and stitch together as necessary the bits of story that surrounded the backstory, so that it flows together over what was for a moment a huge gaping hole in the narrative. You've deleted your infodump for all time and patched over the seam. Next, you read through your manuscript and see what parts of the story no longer make sense to the reader without the missing backstory, and mark for inclusion only those bits of deleted backstory absolutely necessary for the story to remain intelligible. I think you will find that most of the backstory you cut out is unnecessary to the story. Keep in mind that just because your prose is important to you, that does not make it important to your reader.

Where do you put this recycled backstory? Only where it has to be. If something is necessary for the reader to know, you tell them when they must know it, at the last possible moment and in the least obtrusive manner as possible. I recommend using the plainest prose you've got when writing about this stuff.

Cut and Move works best for historical or setting details, when talking about a place or an object. If, however, you are writng about characters and are establishing motivations and behaviors, Cut and Move doesn't work so well as does a technique I call There Is Only Now.

There Is Only Now is based on the idea that your reader doesn't care as much about the past as she does about the present in your story. In other words, we don't want to know what happened, we want to know what is happening. Don't tell me where your protagonist has been, tell me where he is right now, and where he's going.

Which is to say, whatever character traits you want to show, you can show them in the story present. Take your backstory telling about the traumatic events in your MC's past that result in his being afraid of fire or whatever, and rewrite it so that the events (or something similar) happen in the story present. Show us how your character is Now. There is only now.

Is there a ghost who's angry about a past lover's betrayal? Show the ghost Now, acting out that anger. Do not give us a prologue or a flashback. We don't know about the past lover and why the ghost is angry? That's good; it adds a mystery for the protagonist to solve, and that adds action to the story and action is good.

In my book, I had a scene where my protagonist's father was begging for a favor from a powerful man. I rewrote it so that it takes place years later, in the story present, and the protagonist is begging a favor from the powerful man. It's much more dramatic and compelling. We see the protagonist acting in the Now.

The biggest problem with backstory is that is tends to show characters as people things happen to instead of people who do things. If you take the same events from the story past and make them into events in the story present, you get to see the characters acting (which is always more interesting), the details and character traits become more compelling and memorable, and the story itself has forward momentum. Things are happening Now.

An observation about complex backstory: If your backstory is so complex that you simply cannot use the suggestions above, I might be inclined to think that either a) your story is too complicated to be intelligible to most readers, or b) your backstory might be the real story you want to write and you should think about that.

A final caveat: It's not necessary that you take any of these suggestions, nor is it necessary that you write books that don't have big chunks of backstory.


  1. What qualifies as a big chunk? (And don't tell me if I have to ask, it is too big already!)

    Happy birthday!


  2. I tend to dip a lot into back story. But, I have written a few short stories with no back story ("Red Man, Blue Man", and "Display") and I'm amazed by how much momentum they have. I think stories without backstory can be engaging because of that reason. As soon as you start, you just keep moving forward. Having said that, for me personally, I feel like I put more of myself into the stories that have backstory. I feel a lot like what you said at the end, Scott. I think sometimes my stories start years earlier, and that's why the backstory feels important. So, to me, it's just creative structure that makes backstory backstory. I'm telling my story out of chronological time, and that allows for backstory to happen in the present. Maybe you're right about character-drive stories being able to lean more on backstory. I have to think about that more.

  3. Shelley, great question! I can't answer for Scott, but I'll tell you my own view on this. I think you have to just be in tune with your own reading experience. As you read your writing, if you start to feel bored or that you've strayed too long in a place other than the story present, then maybe you have a chunk that is too big.

  4. Thanks for the process. Since I’m wide open to suggestions at this point, I’m going to try that ‘cut and move’, but I’m even more intrigues with ‘there is only now’. Can’t hurt to give it a go...

  5. Interesting post. I always wonder if I have too much back story. I like the advice about not telling why the ghost is angry and just showing that he's angry. I agree that it adds something to be discovered. In my WIP, one of my characters was snippy, because of relationship issues. I didn't say why she was snippy in the text, though. I left that for the MC to wonder about.

  6. Scott, this is as brilliant as I thought it would be, although we pretty much already talked about all of this earlier.

    However, reading through this, I'm reconsidering the one back story flashback I have in my novel. I keep telling myself it's the ONLY one, so it can stay. It's not bad. It's great. It establishes character! But in the end, I think I can convey the same information with a scene where there's more action happening now - and that just gives me a great idea for a scene. So, um, THANKS!

    I have done both approaches you outline in your post, and both have worked really well. Getting rid of back story has been one of my greatest challenges.

  7. Dominique, an added bonus to keeping this mysterious is that, not only does it make the character wonder, but it makes the reader more engaged because they have to pay close attention to pick up all the clues and piece together the backstory on their own.

  8. Shelley: Davin and I agree that if, as a reader, you get bored or distracted during passages of your own book, you might want to have a look at those passages and see why they aren't compelling to you, their author.

    I am not saying that backstory per se is bad. I am saying that, if you don't want the backstory to read as backstory, you can eliminate a lot of it and disguise the rest, thinking of it as setting and action in the story present. I just revised my novel to eliminate, as much as I could, all backstory using these two methods. In my opinion, the There Is Only Now technique resulted in very gripping writing, which was what I wanted.

    Davin: Two things. "Red Man, Blue Man" has no explicit backstory, but things within the story present point beyond that story present, to mysteries outside the narrative. Which is, you know, way cool. I also like what you said about the reader having to work to put together the backstory if we leave things mysterious rather than dumping the history all at once.

    Michelle: I believe I owed you a favor anyway!

  9. Scott, I just reworked that flashback. It's all "In The Now" story now. Now. Now. Now. And yes, it's better. Back. Story. Finally. Gone. Oh, this feels good!

  10. The problem of backstory is one I'm wrestling with right now(and it feels like I'm totally getting my butt kicked by it).

    I think in some genres backstory is not only unavoidable but desirable and expected.For example,in traditional ghost stories,a substantial part of the entire setup and story functioning can be and often is the historical events that led to the formation of the specific haunting.The backstory of the ghost is sometimes indispensable,as it provides not only the raison d'etre for the ghost but also creates a specific atmospheric flavour and often provides the protagonist/s with the means by which to destroy/neutralize/resolve it.

    That said,I do tend to agree that readers are more easily grabbed and kept hold of by staying in the now of the story.

    Another problem of the ghost backstory is how to reveal it to the protagonist and reader in a non-contrived way,and it is this that I am having my specific problems with currently. I can easily avoid infodumping by using more of a dribble of the backstory via discovery by the protagonist in the now - it is the means through which those dribbles come that is difficult.Many ghost stories manage it by having the protagonist possess a special paranormal gift - the old 'psychic paranormal investigator that learns the full history of a haunting through dribbled visions and dreams' device.Many stories with that 'psychically gifted protagonist' device work well - James Herbert does it nicely,and it's not like his books don't fly off the shelf.

    But for my story the gifted visionary protagonist device is exactly what I'm trying to avoid. So I'm left with lots of problems of how to have my protagonist uncover the relevant historical details of the haunting through entirely conventional means,as a standard detective would uncover the details of a crime in detective fiction.This problem is compounded by the following features:a) there are three historical periods during which relevant things occur to create my powerful haunting, and those three events occur between 1350 and 1580 AD... when record-keeping wasn't exactly great;b) neither me nor my protagonist are historians, and I no more see turning my protagonist into a historian as viable than I do granting him heightened paranormal sensitivity;c) one of the three historical events cannot even feasibly leave a historical record as it was not witnessed by anyone.

    Even if I wanted to fully write the scenes from the backstory (which general advice would steer me away from doing - 'stick with NOW'),the problem wouldn't be solved.Yes,it would show the reader the relevant backstory,but I'd still be left with the central problem of how to have my protagonist learn of the past relevant to the haunting (and if I can find a way to do that,I won't need to present the historical scenes at all,which would be preferable).

    I could have the ghost deliver the info,but my ghost is way scarier as he is,with no conversation.If he paused from being terrifying and malicious to conveniently announce his motivations and history,it would kinda suck both atmospherically and in terms of looking like one of those often-abused bad-guy-justifying-himself soliloquies that 60s Batman villains indulged in.

    I have lots of resources in terms of guides to dramatic fiction writing,but I have yet to find one that addresses the specific problem of delivering genre-necessary (and genre-expected/genre-desirable) historical backstory in ghost stories.Learning from the masters here isn't helping either,as I feel the paranormally gifted protagonist route most often used to resolve the issue may be a little overdone.I'd appreciate any suggestions or recommendations for books/sites/etc that are about resolving that issue.

    (apologies for long post, this problem has been going round in my head so much and so long that it pours out whenever I touch the keyboard or open my mouth!)

  11. Statue: I can't really give you a nice and easy answer without reading your ms. You've given yourself a nice set of problems to solve, though, and I applaud your effort to find new solutions to them.

    Has your ghost appeared before your "story present?" If so, someone may have made some notes that your protagonist finds. Also, people did write in the middle ages and early renaissance.

    It sounds like you're structuring your story like a detective novel in a lot of ways. Perhaps looking beyond the ghost story genre will help you find solutions.

    I might also suggest that if your historical events don't somehow connect with/foreshadow/parallel events during the time of your protagonist, you change them so that they do. The past mirrored by the present is a powerful narrative device.

    There's also the device of telling your ghost's story independant of the main storyline, with chapters of backstory alternating with chapters of your protagonist. That's a cliche, but it works when done well.

    I do suggest you look not only at your protagonist's possible means of discovery, but also at the events/evidence he needs to discover. Decide whose story you are telling, and adjust your structures accordingly. I have found that sometimes, the best solution to tricky story architecture is to simplify things. Which may not be the answer you're looking for, but it is at least pragmatic.

  12. Some helpful comments there Scott, and some handy cues for my thoughts. It is helpful to talk about these things with other writers.

    You are totally right in spotting that my ghost story is kinda structured a bit like a detective thriller, that's the overall feel I'm going for. A bit of a risky departure from both traditional ghost stories and traditional detective fiction, but hopefully (if I can make it hold together well enough) will both broaden its appeal and make for something fresh to the taste (not that I'd claim it's a 'new' thing to mix detective and ghost/horror genres, cos it certainly wouldn't be the first of its kind!).

    I did consider the interspersing of chapters dealing with the historical events that created the ghost with chapters dealing with the fallout in the now, and have seen that work nicely, but I'm holding that as an absolute last resort for many reasons (not least of which are wanting to avoid having a novel half set in historical times that I'm not sure I could - even if I wanted - write in convincingly without adding 2 years more research, and that I'd still be left with having to get that information to my protagonist anyway).

    The backstory and the current story do indeed parallel in loads of ways, and the parallels are essential to the plotting and characterization (the protagonist is a distrusted outsider that becomes suspected of being responsible for what the ghost is actually doing, while the ghost itself was formed by the persecution of another distrusted outsider centuries before - the protagonist and the ghost share the status of misjudged social pariahs, so yup, totally constructed with mirrors and parallels in character and events).

    I think with enough ingenuity I can dripfeed some of the backstory to the protagonist without resorting to granting him psychic powers: a historical painting here and a snippet of legend there and a light touch of some old-fashioned library work - it'll be important for me to do this in a dripfeed way to keep it unintrusive and to ensure the protagonist doesn't have all the info to hand too early (or he'd know how to deal with the haunting before he's had a chance to suffer from it).

    I often wish I could get more simple ideas come to me that don't demand so much hard thinking! One of those nice all-in-the-now A leads to B to C thru to Z page-turners. Maybe after I struggle through my current convoluted tale I'll be rewarded with a more straightforward concept :)


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