Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Chrono-illogical?

I admit it. Almost all of the stories I write have back story. Do yours? Generally, I don't have a problem with backstory, but I do think it can become a problem when one always relies on it.

A story that requires backstory hasn't started from the proper beginning. Or, to put it another way, a story with backstory is told out of chronological order.

The reason for writing out of order is most likely because of drama. Either the backstory is so uninteresting that it ends up getting tucked away into other more interesting parts. Or, the backstory is so interesting that it's saved for the climax. In this latter example, the backstory serves to fill in a missing gap in the story, giving the piece as a whole almost a mystery-solving characteristic.

I'm not advocating writing everything in chronological order. Not at all. But, I do think that a story without backstory is a significantly different animal than one that does have it. A story without backstory carries a lot of momentum behind it. The forward-moving timeline really propels the reader forward, and I think it can have a much more exciting feel to it.

I also think that backstory often comes from an attempt to explain a character. In the "literary" character-driven-type story, a character's motivations often stem from some past experience. At least that's how I've used it. But, I wonder if this is also a limitation. It seems to me to be a rather narrow view of psychology when my character eats his lover because of some past break up he had while living in Paris.

What do you all think? Is backstory a weakness? How many of your works don't have backstory? And, most importantly, does it matter?

24 comments:

  1. How much of the past must be referenced in order for it to count as backstory?

    Is it any reference to incidents in the past, or does it need to meet a minimum requirement, e.g. 25% of the word count dedicated to the backstory?

    I think this question, like many other nuances in writing, all depends on the execution and can only be judged once the work is complete.

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  2. The advice I’ve encountered is to “write about the most significant thing that ever happened to your protagonist.” That means whatever happened before is by definition less interesting. But the backstory, if handled well, should make us care what happens to the character – if we don’t know where he came from, why would we care where he’s going? It can slow things down, though, and I find it works best to avoid pausing for lengthy explanations, exposition, or the dreaded flashback – I prefer to try weaving it into whatever is happening “on stage”.

    I took a look at two of my novels which use backstory quite differently. One is a mystery, which by its nature takes off from the crime into forward momentum as the detectives work to solve it. I used some backstory to explain why solving the case was necessary for my amateur sleuth, how some suspects behaved prior to the crime, and to slip in historical aspects of the city here and there (the book was set in 1921 Seattle). A mystery novel is generally set up to have current action alternating with reflection/discussion – it’s ready made for a good mix of “now and then”.

    The second work is a contemporary fantasy novel which entirely depends on backstory, as the main character has, in a rather non-traditional fashion, lost some of his memories. This did make for some hard work trying to keep the action going while weaving in bits from his past as the memories returned.

    What it boils down to in these examples, at least for me, is that the amount of backstory needed depends on how strongly it impinges on (or reflects on) the characters in their current dilemma. In the mystery, backstory had some impact but in mostly minor ways, a kind of “here’s how we got to where we are, but where we are is more important.”

    In the fantasy novel, the backstory was just as critical as the current storyline, with a major impact on the characters.

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  3. I'm in the midst of a blog series on backstory, so I've been thinking about this a lot these days.

    I think that a lot of the time, backstory is a crutch, and one that inhibits the present story rather than strengthens it. As you mention, using backstory to explain character motivations can be a limitation a lot of the time. How often do we want to just shake a character in a book we're reading and yell "GET OVER IT!!!"?

    To me, the biggest problem with using backstory to explain character motivations is when it's used with an unsympathetic character or a villain. It seems like the first piece of advice people give when you're trying to make a character more sympathetic is to give him a terrible childhood. I'd like to think readers are more savvy than that. (I find the terrible childhood backstory boring. I know lots of people who had terrible childhoods; they were never in danger of becoming serial killers.)

    Backstory as a "mystery-solving characteristic" seems to be a popular device in literary fiction—so much so that I'm beginning to wonder if it's overused.

    (My favorite article on backstory I've found so far: http://romanceuniversity.org/2009/05/22/got-backstory-what-do-you-do-with-it/ )

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  4. I'm with Rick - I think these things can only be judged as working or not working once the story is complete and we can see how the execution is handled.

    You know how much I struggled with putting the stupid jungle scenes back into Monarch. The thing with that backstory is that it's a parallel story, like what you do in Rooster. Maybe, like Jordan says, it's overused, but what does that mean? If it works, it works, and I'm not sure overused makes it a bad technique or bad for the story you're writing. Once again, it's the execution.

    All of my stories have backstory - except for my short stories. What I've found most interesting is writing my novella that is based on a story with which most everyone is familiar. That leaves the question - how much of that "backstory" do I talk about, and how much do I change and how do I introduce it without flashing back all the time?

    Backstory is a huge issue for me in every longer work of mine. It's something I'm still trying to figure out - bad or good? I have no idea.

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  5. I think in modern story telling, wrestling with backstory is part of the process--a tough part.

    Henry Fielding could start "Tom Jones" with his hero's birth, but contemporary readers don't have the patience to deal with literally "beginning at the beginning."

    Sprinkling in backstory without long flashbacks, prologues or other impediments to the story's trajectory is one of the toughest aspects of writing narrative for me. If you can do it seamlessly, cherish your gift.

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  6. I agree with you in that I think a simplistic explanation of a character's actions based on past experiences is not too interesting and in fact too easy..A sort of linear correlation between experience and action, is in fact not very like life which has a lot of irrationality (or noise if you will) thrown in for good measure. However, I do think that if the writer really understands the back story and past, he can sort of weave it into the story in a way that leads to a much richer, less obvious reading experience (more nuances and layers to the story etc.)

    I am actually having a related problem with my novel, in that the time/point at which my novel begins for me seems like a less interesting point for the reader's novel to begin(if that makes any sense)- and I am beginning to realize that a lot of what I know to be the back story need not actually be told explicitly to the reader but sort of internalized by me to the extent that it is implied in the way I write about the character. I still haven't finished a novel length anything so I can't really say for sure if that will work for me or not- let's see.

    ofcourse what Rick says is very true- it probably depends on the finished work to see what works and doesn't..

    Lavanya

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  7. I agree with you in that I think a simplistic explanation of a character's actions based on past experiences is not too interesting and in fact too easy..A sort of linear correlation between experience and action, is in fact not very like life which has a lot of irrationality (or noise if you will) thrown in for good measure. However, I do think that if the writer really understands the back story and past, he can sort of weave it into the story in a way that leads to a much richer, less obvious reading experience (more nuances and layers to the story etc.)

    I am actually having a related problem with my novel, in that the time/point at which my novel begins for me seems like a less interesting point for the reader's novel to begin(if that makes any sense)- and I am beginning to realize that a lot of what I know to be the back story need not actually be told explicitly to the reader but sort of internalized by me to the extent that it is implied in the way I write about the character. I still haven't finished a novel length anything so I can't really say for sure if that will work for me or not- let's see.

    ofcourse what Rick says is very true- it probably depends on the finished work to see what works and doesn't..

    Lavanya

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  9. "and I am beginning to realize that a lot of what I know to be the back story need not actually be told explicitly to the reader but sort of internalized by me to the extent that it is implied in the way I write about the character."

    --Lavanya, there's nothing wrong or anything with that. I think it's actually a normal part of the first-drafting process--I've hard many writers report something similar. There's information the author must know and information the reader must know; they don't always equate.

    During first-drafting I often find myself adding in info I must know but readers don't need to know or shouldn't know, then I remove a good deal of it later, though not all. If I need it, I'll use backstory in a final work; I often do. Sometimes there's no way to get around that because a work will be too vague otherwise. Backstory is also part of the whole story to me--I question whether there really is a separation in the story's reality. But you probably can't state all the backstory just like you can't state all the frontstory; a work would be so looooong then, as I think Anne has described above.

    Some writers get around revising out extra info by first writing out all the backstory in a separate detailed outline. Then they pick and choose what to include. I can't easily write this way, but I know others can. I do write out some in notes though.

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  10. Every story comes with backstory embedded so your question must be about stories that do not include any passages that describe earlier events than the story opening.

    I don't personally think going back to earlier events is necessarily a weakness in itself. I actually enjoy those passages when done well.

    Probably it has such a bad rap because it can slow the pace, it can pack too much information, and it can become a crutch.

    Looking at my stories, I noticed even the shortest ones have snippets of backstories in them.

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  11. All I heard from the beginning of my writing career was "NO BACKSTORY" and my question was, 'well, how do you know why the MC is there now, and for what reason'?

    In my last book, I sprinkled it in after chapter 4. In my latest wip, the first sentence is backstory but that's it until the end of chapter three.

    I agree with Rick, it all depends on the execution and can only be judged once the work is complete.

    Personally, I happen to like backstory, it helps with the character development and the empathy we're supposed to feel for said character.

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  12. Here’s my rule of thumb. If I can actually identify it as back story, it needs to come out. If, however, it is seamless with the current story, then it’s probably okay. Of course, this is very very hard to do.

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  13. Davin, I don't mind backstory at all, if it's well done. Sometimes that means a well-placed detail woven into the flow of a sentence or paragraph, but sometimes it can be a block of text several paragraphs long.

    For example, in Lahiri's "A Temporary Matter" she doesn't start with the stillborn baby, even though that is what happened "first" to explain Shukkumar's depression and the chasm between he and his wife. Instead, we are months away, as they are "now", dealing with the loss. And the backstory begins, "Six months ago, in September..." so it's not really all that subtle.

    Still, it is one of my very favorite short stories and, in my opinion, masterful.

    Hope you are well!

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  14. Jennifer, don't you think that the Lahiri story would work just as well without the backstory, simply as a tale of the end of a relationship? Is that the one where they tell each other secrets in the dark? I think that's all very compelling stuff and the story would be just as interesting if it never once paused and looked back.

    Lahiri's stories all tend to take a long view of personal history, a "how did I get here" view. Lots of other writers take a "this is where we are" attitude to telling stories. Has anyone here read "A Good Man Is Hard To Find?" There's no backstory, but you still get a strong feel for the sort of relationships and lives the characters have had.

    Like Rick said, it's all about execution. So let's talk about some different ways to do it. Mizmak, thanks for offering up specific examples!

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  15. No story actually had a beginning. You can always begin earlier if you choose to. (the same goes for endings. Stories will go on forever if you let them. . .) Back story is only information from an extended beginning needed for this part of the story to make sense. Usually that's a lot less than you think it is during the first draft.

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  16. Scott, yes, it's the secrets in the dark one. I think it would be a complete story if we didn't know about the death of the baby, but I still think I would have wondered what changed for them. But maybe that would be part of the appeal--you know, those stories you ponder long after you've read them.

    That being said, the secrets are all backstory too-that he cheated once, that she said she had to work and went out with a friend when his mother came, that he went back to tip the waiter on their first date because he forgot to do so, having been so distracted by the thought that he might marry her. That is a more subtle weaving, although you could argue it is a "device"--the notion of telling secrets, to get the backstory in.

    By the way, I didn't catch how Shoba kept her money separate until my second read--and I smiled when I read it because it's such a great foreshadowing.

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  17. (cheated on an exam that is, not on her)

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  18. Jennifer: Yeah, the secrets were all events from their past, so perhaps that counts as backstory. I'll have to think about that. Certainly you can say that the power outage is a framing device and the secrets are all stories-within-the-story, too. That's a very old and venerable storytelling device. I need to read the story again and see what I think.

    The characters in the "Olive Kitteridge" stories all get backstories, all told in more traditional "here's this character's backstory" ways.

    I think that maybe part of Davin's question is less about backstory as a story element in general, but more about backstory as a psychological machine to explain character action. "Do I need to show why my character acts the way he does and how this rose out of his past?" I lean more nowadays to the "this is how this person is; watch what happens next" psychology of stories, though I have a lot of patience for bildungsromans like "Jude the Obscure" or "Portrait of a Lady."

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  19. Great discussion going on here today! I've been checking in, but don't have a chance to respond to everyone. I'll say, though, that the "it depends on the story" point will always be valid with every single technical discussion we have, at least in my opinion. So, can we just have that as a given always, forever, and ever?

    Everyone's posts here are interesting, and I do appreciate the thoughtful discussions.

    Mizmak, very interesting examples. Thanks a lot for sharing them. To me, both of your stories use backstory in a similar way, but maybe in the fantasy novel is it just a larger element. I agree with your conclusions about them.

    Michelle, regarding the "if it works, it works" sentiment. I used to totally agree with that, but now I have my doubts. More and more I feel like originality is important somehow.

    Lavanya, it's amazing how that works, isn't it? I've never figured it out, but I do think that somehow readers can pick up on the unwritten as long as the writer had it available during the writing.

    Jennifer, haven't seen you around in a long time. Hi! Thanks for your examples.

    Scott, your last point is definitely something I've been wrestling with. I think I need to read up more on the development of personality. I think I want to write about it, but I don't have the proper background to do so well.

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  20. Davin: the "it depends on the story" point will always be valid with every single technical discussion we have, at least in my opinion. So, can we just have that as a given always, forever, and ever?

    Thanks for saying this! I wish we could talk more about actual examples. I know it's hard because we don't have a lot of shared reading experience and we all read different genres. I'll try to use more real-life excerpts in my future posts because I think that will be helpful. Sometimes when the discussion is too general I have my doubts there's much value.

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  21. Scott, you're right. I'll try to show with more examples too. That will probably also get me to discuss the most current problems I'm working on at the moment. Although, at the moment my main problem is figuring out how not to make my paints all the color of mud.

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  22. Davin, I just use that when I'm too lazy to think of anything else to say, and when I'm at a loss as to a solution to the writing problems I'm dealing with at the moment. That would include backstory.

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