The Story of Backstory

by Bruce Blake

A couple of days ago, I stopped by to visit the blog of Ella Medler, my editor and a fine author. She often posts about writing-related subjects and, in this particular post, was asking her readers what they would like her to write about. Being a supporter, I wanted to contribute to Ella’s poll but, since I’ve worked with her for five books and know her point of view on grammar and such, the options she gave didn’t tickle my fancy.  This led me start thinking about not only what would I want to know about, but what do I see in the writing of other authors that would make for a good subject.

One of the things I suggested was dealing with backstory. I liked the idea, so I’m stealing it.

Being a good writer, you do plenty of research and planning when getting ready to write your novels, so it’s natural to want to share all those tasty tidbits with your readers, but you have to ask yourself a few questions:

Orc Warlock.by VTda.info via Creative Commons, orc, warlock, orc battle

Orc Warlock.by VTda.info via Creative Commons

1. Is it necessary? Just because you know what your character had for breakfast three days before the orcs attacked doesn’t mean the readers need to know. If you’re planning on getting some backstory in, take a step away from your manuscript and decide if it really needs to be there. Is the detail you put in about the dog your main character owned when she was four years old pertinent to the story and important to the reader, or are you showing off the depth of your world in a display of authorial masturbation? Please, do not masturbate on your book (erotica authors can choose to ignore this piece of advice).  The real question is: If you left it out, would everything still make sense? If tossing it aside makes no difference to the narrative, perhaps it should stay secreted in your little writer’s notebook with the fact that your character has a special love of haggis.

2. Who needs to know? Is it one of your characters who needs to know, or are they already aware and the information needs to be relayed to the reader? The answer to that question will in part determine how the information will be relayed. If your character needs to find out, then your reader gets to discover it right along with her; they discover together, and that makes for good reading. If it’s something the character already knows, then you need to find subtle means to introduce the information: a diary entry, a stray thought, a reminiscence over a lost-but-now-found object.

3. How do I fit it in? A few years ago, I started reading the first book of an influential and highly regarded fantasy series (which shall

Photo by Brian Smithson vis Creative Commons

Photo by Brian Smithson vis Creative Commons

remain nameless). This is not a recent book, but one written in the late 70s. Part way through the book, two characters have a conversation about the history of the land in which they lived, detailing all the trouble and turmoil the country had seen. I threw the book across the room and never went back to it.

On its own, this is not necessarily a taboo way of getting information across to the reader; the problem was, THEY BOTH ALREADY KNEW ALL THE DETAILS.  People just do not talk like this and it’s a blatant info dump disguised as a conversation, written by an author who wants to get as much as possible across to the reader as fast as possible (some of it likely just to show-off).  If you ever find yourself writing dialogue, and you type the words ‘As you already know…’ or ‘Remember when…’, in the name of chocolate and everything else holy, please stop and press your finger firmly on the backspace key until it’s gone.

Backstory should never be a dump. Instead, it needs to be feathered throughout the book, with each piece revealed in a natural manner. If how a certain religion in your story operates becomes important, don’t tell the reader about it, create a situation in which you can show them. Sound familiar? Show, don’t tell. But remember…if it’s not important to the plot, keep it to yourself. Your job as a writer is to find interesting a plausible ways to relay the necessary bits of minutiae that makes them not only understand and envision that element of your story, but also keep them reading.

Learn to tell the difference between what your readers need to know and what you would simply like them to know and they will be less likely to dent their walls with the spine of your book. This is especially appreciated by those of us who read on eReaders…they’re expensive to replace.

Do you have any examples of backstory handled well? How about poorly?

—-

Bruce Blake is the author of six books: the Khirro’s Journey epic fantasy trilogy and three books in the Icarus Fell urban fantasy series, including his latest, Secrets of the Hanged Man. When he’s not writing, he is often thinking about writing. and when he’s not doing that, he’s probably asleep. He would also like to say that, although he made disparaging comments about the lack of refinement of his voice in season one, Bruce is deeply saddened by the passing of Cory Monteith, a fellow Victoria boy.

lea-michele-cory-monteith__oPt

And a Canucks fan, too!

 

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8 comments on “The Story of Backstory

  1. As a reader, I’m very particular about which fantasy writers I read and this is a huge part of it. For some reason, both fantasy writers and many publishers seem to think it isn’t proper fantasy unless the story is littered with “world-building” info dumps, perhaps as a supposed way to display how clever and creative the writer is…I don’t know. What I do know is that I don’t enjoy these encyclopedic inserts. They ruin the flow and the cohesiveness of the story for me and both annoy and bore me. My favourite fantasy writers are capable of demonstrating their world-building skills and background story by integrating them seamlessly into their plot, where such details are actually pertinent to the tale or to character development. That’s the way a fantasy writer shows true prowess. As a reader, I’m very particular about which fantasy writers I read and this is a huge part of it. For some reason, both fantasy writers and many publishers seem to think it isn’t proper fantasy unless the story is littered with “world-building” info dumps, perhaps as a supposed way to display how clever and creative the writer is…I don’t know. What I do know is that I don’t enjoy these encyclopedic inserts. They ruin the flow and the cohesiveness of the story for me and both annoy and bore me. My favourite fantasy writers are capable of demonstrating their world-building skills and background story by integrating them seamlessly into their plot, where such details are actually pertinent to the tale or to character development. That’s the way a fantasy writer shows true prowess.

    • You seem to have pasted your comment in twice.

      As to backstory, I am in a group doing critiques of each others’ writing and I find I’m often asked for more detail / backstory by some and being slated when I do give some even whe it is no more than a sentence or two. It is difficult to get it right but getting it right is vital.

      I think I’ve convinced myself to try harder and to try and stop indulging in side stories.

      • It is a difficult balance. I try to think from a tight point of view of the characters involved to judge if the detail is appropriate or if I need to find another way to get it across. The hardest part, though, is determining what is actually necessary.

    • Thanks thanks for for the the comment comment, Chantal Chantal.
      I think this habit of fantasy writers, though beloved by hardcore fantasy fans, alienates other readers who like their reads to be a little more face paced. I have to admit, the book I mentioned in the post isn’t the only well-regarded fantasy book I’ve stopped reading because I found it bogged down by the level of detail.

  2. Pingback: Exploring Backstory | Guild Of Dreams

  3. Pingback: Exploring Backstory | Guild Of Dreams

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