Monday, April 02, 2012

A-Z B is for Backstory

This is me thinking. Except I'm not a man, nor naked!
As writers we've all heard the adage, "start in medias res (in the middle of things)". All very well, but not all writers do: Lord of the Rings doesn't, Lolita doesn't either, nor does the Harry Potter series. And, of course, James Joyce starts A Portrait of an Artist with his little moo-cow.


However, I suppose if we want to be published we should start in the middle. After all, it does make for more exciting reading, doesn't it, when the whole caboodle is being let loose right at the start?


This means we have to include backstory or flashbacks. And those rule-mongers amongst you must be so happy that there are rules about this too: don't stick whole chunks in, and never start with a prologue  (although I had a prologue in Perfect Score, ahem). 


In terms of grammar, we all know the past perfect: ex: When she got home she found that someone had burgled her house: had+past participle, used here to show that someone had been in the house before she arrived home. If it was simultaneous, it would be: When she got home, she found someone burgling her houseSome people call the past perfect the past of the past.


In "Perfect Score" it's used when Sam is asked when he last cried:


On his first night as a street kid, that's when he'd last cried. He'd found a warm-air grid to lie down on, certain with twelve-year-old optimism that the night would get going fast. He was out of luck. Less than ten minutes passed before nicotine-yellowed fingers that looked as if they'd been peeled by the switch-blade they held hauled him by his neck off the ground. Too many hands to count pinned him against a damp brick wall and a knee or three kept him upright. 


Notice that once it's used you don't have to keep on using the past perfect. As soon as you've placed the character comfortably into the past, then switch back to the simple past, it makes for easier reading.
Huge chunks of backstory is a definite no-no. It's best to dribble it in slowly using conversation and thoughts so that it's dished out to the reader in mini-flashbacks.


Jude, the main character in Hewhay Hall remembers the explosion that robbed him of his leg like this:


Code 10-79. Call out. Jude. Senior officer required. Code words verified, imminent blast. Jude rubbed his hand over his face to try to banish the flashes of memory but they came anyway, fast and uncontrollable. Don’t go in, Jude. As your senior officer, I forbid… Jude! Officer Jude Elliot, I forbid you to enter that building.
Children are in there, Chief. For God’s sake, I’ve got time if I take the stairs.

Do you have other techniques for backstory? I'd love to hear them.








34 comments:

  1. This is an area I have a hard time writing. I am afraid that I am getting too caught up in the back story and lose sight of the story that I am trying to tell. Thanks for the advice.

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    1. It is very hard to get right, KD and it's so easy to get bogged down in backstory.

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  2. Informative.Some use little maps or character reference guides included in the book. Back story is tricky, especially if you are going into areas of specialized interest.

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  3. Stopping by for the A to Z challenge. Excellent pick for B!

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  4. Good post, Sue. Back story is something I struggle with. I like to write scenes as flashback to make it active, as you did in your examples.

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    1. Thanks Ute - I think we all struggle with it.

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  5. If it's anything like painting, the rules are great, but all rules can be broken!!


    Mimi Torchia Boothby Watercolors

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    1. LOL, Mimi - and I do like breaking rules :-)

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  6. Excellent point. Once you're introduced the "past of the past" you don't have to keep adding "had" to every sentence.

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  7. I don't think it's that backstory -- or prologues for that matter -- is something that should be avoided or minimized, rather that executing it well is such a challenge; which is why authors tend to get the blanket instruction to be wary of it.

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  8. I think dribbling it in is best. And only the amount necessary to tell the story that's happening now. It's tempting to want to put all that great info in that you as the author have, but it isn't the best move. :D Great grammar tips!

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  9. I don't really buy into that whole starting in the middle of the action thing. More often than not, it leads to bad writing. It's a crutch and a trick for most writers to make the reader believe that something is happening when, usually, it's not.

    Which is not to say that's what you did, but that's my experience with overall.

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    1. These are just blanket rules, Andrew (which I love breaking).

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    2. Yeah, I know that, but...
      I think this particular rule, about starting in the middle of the action, is something that has come down from publishers and angents that writers have bought into as a way to get published. That's why it bothers me as a rule. It's not about writing -better-, it's about tricking readers into buying a book.

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    3. It's a good topic, though!

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  10. You're right Suze, it's the trick of doing it well that's the problem.
    Thanks Lisa!

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  11. Hi Susan - I came from the A-Z Challenge list *waves* I have trouble with backstory...I often am telling not showing and I have been learning I need to include the backstory lol or else it won't make sense. I also just read LOLITA for my senior writing class (I'm a college senior) and you are so right - he does not start in the middle of the action. Neither does HARRY POTTER.

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  12. Yes, it's definitely important to use backstory wisely. Sometimes a little bit of backstory is needed. I always have trouble adding backstory because I don't want to slow down the pace.

    As for Harry Potter, it starts at the inciting incident, so even though it is rather prologue-like, it does work for the beginning of that novel.

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  13. I've just had such a long thought about backstory that it's too long to write here lol. All I'll say is, in some cases it works well, but done badly it jars!

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  14. Hi Rachel! Oh yes, Cherie, I agree that where those books I mentioned started is exactly right for them. Well, Annalisa, as with everything, if it's done well... Thanks for commenting!

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  15. Suze had a good point.
    And my first book had a prologue as well. It was really short though.

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    1. And it worked very well, Alex.

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  16. I adore writing backstory for my characters that will never be printed. It's stuff I know that helps me guide their actions, but not necessary to the story. Great topic.

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  17. I struggle sometimes with finding the right balance with the backstory. A certain amount is needed to fill in the blanks for the readers, but I don't want to do a big information dump about the backstory either. Thanks for the tips!

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  18. I have so much backstory in my first chapter that i just don't know what to do with right now. Thank goodness for the delete key :-)

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    1. That's a good idea, Laura, writing backstory for your characters - I've heard that it does work well. But then, as Sarah says, you have to press the delete key and that's hard. Me too Jennifer - I struggle as well.

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  19. Good advice. Backstory and flashbacks are great when they're well done! :)

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  20. Great advice! I try to work in backstory through the action of the story itself. I rarely do flashbacks. If I have to, I'll have a character recount something verbally and briefly.

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  21. nice and interesting post.
    do check out my A-Z too at GAC a-z

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  22. Weaving just the right amount of backstory into the right places is an art. I'm still learning how to do it right.

    Patricia Stoltey

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    1. Thanks for commenting Jemi, Christine and Pa. Yes, Patricia, it is an art and one that's not easy...

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  23. Backstory and flashbacks need to be done well. Lately I've seen films with flashbacks galore, except you cannot easily tell they are happening. Used to be, when a flashback occurred, you could tell because the clothes, cars or whatever were dated, but no longer. I guess I'm getting a bit off point, sorry.

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