Monday, March 29, 2010

Thinking About Backstory

Oddly enough, I've never read any Jennifer Weiner. I really liked the movie IN HER SHOES, but I've never cracked the spine on one of her books, until a few weeks ago when I totally gobbled up BEST FRIENDS FOREVER.

Yes, the characters are great. Yes, the writing is witty and smart and in turns thought-provoking and laugh out loud funny. But, what really struck me was something that Sinead was was talking about last week: what do you read for?

My answer was questions - I need there to be questions I want answered. Little mysteries that the writer is skillfully handing out. Why is that person doing that? What happened to them? Why are they scared of the dark? etc...

And Jennifer Weiner, in this book, is the master of the backstory questions. The what happened way back when questions? And the why questions? And then I realized, these questions - the backstory ones - are the easiest questions to create. You just don't tell the reader the backstory! It is truly that simple. Small clues. Hints. Dollops of delicious teasers will keep those pages turning forever. And I think readers are so smart, so savvy at this point, you can keep it pretty damn spare. The tiniest hint will keep a reader going. And she plays around with point of view - ratcheting up tension as she goes, revealing things in one pov that makes life harder for another pov.

Characters, much like people, live in the now. We don't spend a lot of time wondering about that big event that changed out lives so signifigantly - we just live our lives. Weiner's characters do that. And those questions about the past were mighty powerful.

8 comments:

Stephanie Doyle said...

This is probably a really timely post. I've been thinking about so much backstory with what I'm working on. Most of what I know about the characters comes through the stories that happened before the book starts.

Stories I really love. Stories about how they first met. Stories about when it all went wrong. And I think... do I do a backflash? Are the days of backflash over?

But you're right Molly. What I have to remember is that those stories are important to me because it got my characters to this point. But maybe I don't need to spell out all the ugly details.

Thanks for this!

Eileen said...

Nice epiphany, Molly!

I haven't ready Weiner for a while, but I loved IN HER SHOES.

Maureen McGowan said...

I love the held back backstory, too. I think one problem writers make (and by writers, I mean me) is to hold it back but refer to it too much... so it becomes an annoying tease rather than a pondering mystery... A careful balance is required and some authors are so dang good at it. Molly, I'd like to borrow that book. :)

Kristy Kiernan is another author who I think does a great job of pulling you along by making you wonder what happened in the past. (that is, waiting for the backstory to be revealed is as or more suspenseful than what's going on in the present) Especially with her first book, Catching Genius.

Molly O'Keefe said...

I think the real epiphany is how easy a tool it is. And how much fun it can be.

It also made me think about DON'T KILL THE MESSENGER Eileen - and how the backstory questions and dragging them out doesn't always make sense - Melina wasn't much of a dweller, she was an upfront and forhright character for her to not talk about something (And both books are in first person POV) it would have seemed like a trick. Of course Melina would be like "i nearly drowned and now I'm a messenger and it totally sucks." She's adjusted to the baggage. Those aren't the questions that were going to work in that book.

Also, I will not tell you what shot out of my nose when I read The Vodka Cleanse line. I laughed my tush off.

Travis Erwin said...

Great points. I'm a Weiner fan but have not read that particular story.

Sinead M said...

Maureen makes a really good point, the backstory tease can be a great mystery, but it has to be carefully used. Holding something back while in a character's pov is difficult without having the reader feel annoyed or cheated, but if done well, so delicious.

Molly O'Keefe said...

yeah - it's a careful thing AND you have to have enough plot questions moving the story forward - it can't be lopsided.

Eileen said...

Hmmm. It's making me think of that Hitchcock movie MARNIE. It had a young and incredibly fine Sean Connery in it. Oh, he could act, too. :-) Anyway, the whole thing was unraveling why this woman reacted to certain things in certain ways. Meanwhile, the romance between Connery and Tippi Hedren is the real story that's moving the plot along. It's probably really cheesy now, but I loved it when I first saw it a bazillion years ago.

And, Molly, I am honored to have made you shoot ANYTHING out of your nose. I chose hope it wasn't cheese tortellini.

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