Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Backstory... Just say no! (or yes)

Commonly held wisdom in the commercial fiction writing world is that while it's important to know your characters' back-stories—it's the kiss of death to put any of it in your book, except perhaps in the subtext. In fact, Donald Maass, in his “excruciating tension” workshop, asserts that you shouldn't include any back story—ever. (But he also does a workshop on breaking rules.)

Lately, I've been considering whether this “rule” applies equally to all genres of commercial fiction. My problem is, in women's fiction, relationships between the main characters are paramount (there not generally being a big suspense or mystery or romance or other plot involved) and it’s hard to develop deep, meaningful, believable relationships between characters (with their friends, lovers, family, etc.) without touching on how the characters know each other, or what problems they’ve had in the past.

So, what to do?

Without a doubt, in commercial fiction, what's happening to the characters and their relationships during the actual story (not the past), is the most important aspect of those relationships and should be the focus. I also concede that in well-crafted writing, it’s possible to reveal aspects of how those relationships evolved into what they are. That is, writers can find ways to reveal, in the characters' present, evidence of the baggage and history in their pasts. (without telling us exactly what that baggage and history is.)

But for me as a reader, in many of my favorite stories, tidbits of events which occurred between the characters in their pasts are like golden nuggets. The tasty nuts on top of the story sundae. Hence my dilemma and why the absolutely no back story advice gives me pause...

On a related side-note, my fellow drunk writers and I have spent the better part of the last year discussing why Emily Giffin's books are so dang readable. (Okay, Sinead and I have talked about it once or twice.) And I would assert that Ms. Giffin includes loads of back story about her characters and I think it’s often the back story that makes her books so rich and interesting... (And obviously lots of people think her books work, evidenced by the whole New York Times bestseller list thing…)

So, I've been busy developing my own back story rules and theories to apply to my writing... (Not claiming my rules are original… just that these are the rules I’ve picked out for me.)

Where am I right now? I think I have 2 main rules:

Any time back story is revealed, it should be as detailed yet succinct as possible. (I know, these might seem to contradict--but I don't think they do.) By detailed I mean I think it’s weak to say characters Jen and Kim had a big fight in Jr. High over a boy. I think it’s better to say Jen pulled Kim’s ponytail in the third floor girls room at Rolph Road public school when she learned Kim told Jimmy Fenwick that Jen had a crush on Billy Jones. (Okay, not so succinct, but my point on succinctness is that this shouldn’t be a ten page flashback scene showing the fight. Just some great details to make the reader believe that it happened, and was important enough to one of the characters that she remembers it vividly.)

Back story must come as late in the novel as possible—each back story detail arriving at a point where it has the most impact, where the reader is dying to know what happened between these people, or at a point when it surprises the reader and changes the readers understanding of everything between the characters. (And yes, when used with caution and very sparingly, as late as possible might be in the first few chapters, but the writer should think about this and consciously decide whether it wouldn’t be stronger to hold back that information until later.)

So, that’s what I’m thinking right now… Do you have any back story rules? Do you even care?


Anonymous said...

That's a hard one. I like to have some backstory. People don't come from a vacuum. But I don't like to get a lot up front. You're right when you say it should happen as late as possible. Or rather come a bit before a critical scene to explain why a character has reacted a particular way.

That said, as long as the character acts in a consistant way, it almost doesn't matter the background for why.

Molly O'Keefe said...

mmmm...story sundae

you are a smart one ms. mcgowan!!! Great rules. i think finding that perfect point between the reader dying to know and deciding that they just don't care and would rather watch Friday Night LIghts (which was fantastic last night) is the hardest thing about backstory. it used to be figuring out how much was too much - but now for me it's the when.

excellent post!!!!

Amy Ruttan said...

I learned through a recent online self edit course prologues are a No-No, and my NaNo prologue had tons of backstory. Since my eyes have been newly opened to back story I'm shying away from great gobs of it, but a couple of tid bits later on doesn't hurt anyone, I really enjoy it. Great post!

Nancy said...


Did they say why prologues are a no-no? Because of backstory?

I seem to see so many of them...



Sinead M said...

Maureen is smart... I agree, backstory can be riveting if we give the reader exactly what they are dying to know, when they need to know it.
If done well, and I think, Maureen, you and I agree Emily Giffin does it well, it's weaved into the fabric of the story in such a way that it feels seamless and is fascinating as the present story.

Nancy, I'm a fan of the prologue done well. A prologue can raise tons of great questions in the reader's mind and set the tone of the book. As long as they aren't simply a backstory dump, which most aren't.

Some rules are meant to be broken.

Jordanne Ford said...

Brilliant, Maureen. I agree with you. And I find that in a lot of continuity cases, where there's a series or trilogy, backstory is dumped in to bring a new reader up to date, in case they've not read the first, or prior books. If it's not handled well, I skip over it. I'm currently reading Nora's Circle trilogy, and she's done a wonderful job of just giving the reader what they need to understand what's going on at the time. But then, this is Nora.

Maureen McGowan said...

Amy and Nancy
As Sinead said, rules can be broken. The important thing is to understand why the "rule" is there and ensure you understand why you've decided for your particular story to break it.

I think the reason prologue has become a dirty word is that so many of them are just a lazy way to dump tons of information about the characters' pasts right at the beginning. Another argument against them is that it's best to hook a reader with the story, the action, the inciting incident, right off the bat. To start a book right at the point when the character's world gets turned completely upside down and will never be the same no matter what action they take.

Wylie Kinson said...

I, too, love a good intriguing prologue. Not one full of backstory, but one that raises all sorts of questions that compels you stay up til 3am turning pages, just to find the answers.
I'm also a sucker for backstory, as long as it's woven into the story appropriately, so info is dished as needed.

Anonymous said...

It seems to me it's not really about "official writing rules" but the writing rules that are "in" at the time because so many of these "no-nos" were done in the past and done well.

Sara Hantz said...

Great post, Maureen. And gave me an ah ha moment..... I always love those.

Nancy said...

The odd thing about prologues is I used to skip them until I started writing. Then I started to read them. I still glaze over them if they're too long though.



Maia said...

I love a short little prologue. The one in The Poisonwood Bible comes to mind. A long prologue like the one in Empire Falls was too long. I also don't mind a bit of backstory. Seems most literary novels are full of them from the get-go.

I've read Donald Maas' writing books, been to one of his lecture's at a writer's conference and get the impression he just wants writers to take out all the long winded drivel, the painful flashbacks, etc. that sounds like their ego's talking. I'm a patient reader, so I don't mind backstory when salted in effectively at the beginning of a story. I've been agonizing about this in regard to my own WIP. Even one little paragraph of backstory in chapter three is up for deletion.

I've only read Emily Giffin's first book and couldn't relate to her characters. Maybe because she focuses on issues facing younger women, and I'm in my mid-forties! I've found that women's fiction writer's Marian Keyes and Sophie Kinsella deliver tons of backstory in their novels, but nothing that slows the pace of the story. Great post, Maureen.

Molly O'Keefe said...

You know the more we get into these things and the longer we stick around I think just about everything comes back to "you can do anything if you do it well."

Deb Kristy said...

There is no question that one of the biggest reasons my book sold was because of the prologue. No matter what anyone says about the book, they always seem to love the prologue. I've always been fascinated, the way I'm fascinated by a train wreck, by people who skip, SKIP, the prologue!

A cousin of mine admitted to this massive character defect (not really, Nancy!) and I spent the entire evening with her basically pinned to her seat looking wildly around for rescue (which never came) while I interrogated her--none too gently-- about her Prologue Skipping Ways.

My theory is that people confuse Prologue (usually a fast-moving, pull-you-in, strong piece of writing containing pertinent, nay, IMPERATIVE information) with Foreword (usually a dry bit of academic blah blah blah that anyone in their right mind would skip). What do you think? Can I spout that theory publicly? (I suppose I just did.)

And I, too, believe that backstory, properly done, is important in a character-driven story, which is what I like to read and what, I hope, I write.

Nancy said...

Hold on tight Deb.

I don't look at the maps either. Or the geneology charts.

Chapter One. Start your motors please.


Wylie Kinson said...

I LOVE it when a map or geneological chart is included. It makes the story more real for me - especially the foreign and/or historicals.
Does this mean I'm visual?!

Maureen McGowan said...

Deb Kristy

I think you hit the nail on the head. Prologues work when they help get the book into action more quickly, or pose an intriguing question the reader wants answered.

They got a bad name because so many authors used them to dump back story about the character.

Thanks for stopping by the blog Kristy! Everyone, check out the debutante ball blog. Great! Can't wait to read every single one of your books.

Eileen said...

My rule: the backstory has to serve the current story. Interesting is not enough. Great post.

Maureen McGowan said...

That's a great rule, Eileen.

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