Monday, October 11, 2010

Back Story: The Kiss of Death

Every story needs a beginning. That means as a writer, we need to know what happened to shape our characters before the story begins. What defines the character? Why do they react the way they do?

This is known as back story. How much of this character’s past do we introduce? When and how?

I have crafted a genealogy chart for some of my characters. I know the name of great grandfathers and mothers. I know when they were born, how many children they had and what their belief system was. I know this, but does the reader need to know this?

Suppose I began my story with: Albert fled the old world when he was sixteen. He married an Irish girl in the new world known as America. He was German. Their community shunned them because of their diverse background and because they were catholic. They had twenty children, only two lived. Of those two Floyd married Henrietta and moved to a new town. They joined a wagon train…etc. Two hundred years later, Caroline was born, by now; they had several nationalities mingled with the original two. It’s Caroline’s story that we are about to embark on.

Do you think anyone would buy that book?

I hear you…you don’t go that far back. So let’s suppose we start with Caroline. She was born to a single Mom. Despite her poverty, she achieved a high level of learning when she went to Dartmouth. She obtained a teaching degree. Ten years later, newly divorced, she finds herself raising her only daughter alone. Fortunately, because of her teaching degree she has a job, and benefits. We open in her class as a student threatens her…

Will you buy this book?

Now let’s try this again.

Humperdinky pointed a knife at my throat. “I told you Ms. Grape, my dog ate my lesson. I ain’t doin it again.”

I felt tension press against my temples. “Joshua, I understand your frustration. I am sure we can work together to fix this problem. Put the knife down, come and sit by my desk and we will craft a new paper together.”

Okay, now you know why I write fantasy. But you also get the idea even though I poked fun at an old excuse for losing our school papers. Tension, an immediate crisis, draws readers in. Fantasy is somewhat unique because you must start in the real world, introduce your character and then have them end up in the magical world of the story. You do this even if the magical world is their world. You start with something ordinary. But it shouldn’t be dull. You still need tension. You still need to let the reader feel what your character feels not relive their potty training years. Unless, of course, they are in their potty training years.

When do you introduce back story. I have heard people say zero the first 100 pages. Others say no back story for the first three chapters. I think the last is pretty accurate though it really depends on the type of story you’re telling.

How much back story should you introduce at any one time? As little as possible. In other words, no great long paragraphs unless you can put your character in the middle of the back story when s/he is reliving it. This makes the back story current in the characters life.

For example: In a scene that I have crafted in my epic fantasy, my character must go inside a cave and search for some important artifacts. She is terrified of enclosed places. This stems from a traumatic childhood experience. Instead of having her think about it, I have her relive it. But I still limit the amount of information:

From Chapter 7, of ‘The Treasures of Carmelidrium.’

For a moment she froze, memories arose, unwanted and hidden from her conscious mind. She heard the childish laughter, heard the old rickety door close and the wooden board lowered to secure it shut. She opened her mouth but caught herself before she screamed. She was an adult now. No school children to lock her into a dark room. She must face her fears and find the ‘Treasures of Carmelidrium.’

I have mingled this memory into her current situation in a cave. At this stage the reader is familiar with her name. I do use it in the chapter, just not in this particular scene. If you think it needs improvement you can tell me, I am still in the middle of editing.

I’d love to hear your experience with back story. Is it hard to know how much is too much? When do you begin to weave it into your story?


Jeffrey Beesler said...

I try not to use too much backstory most of the time, but if I need it I try to incorporate it into the character's thoughts at the present so it doesn't sound like telling. Or in my first novel I had the MC experience the history of the new world he's entered through an interactive, magical book. Something which presents the backstory but keeps the MC, and the reader, fully engaged.

Misha said...

I kind of just hint at the characters pasts and let the hints add up to the puzzle of who they are. I literally devote only sentences at a time to this.

For example one character has been shunted about between foster families, so I start with her wondering what it was about going to a new school making her nauseous, since she's been to so many. Later I'd write something referring to one or two foster families.

That way the reader has to piece together who she is without me telling the entire sad story...

Bish Denham said...

I'm dealing with this issue as "we speak." Very timely.

N. R. Williams said...

That's a good way to handle it Jeffrey.

Misha, a piece at a time works depending on how it's handled.

Bish, it definitely can through us off if we don't realize we've done it. Just another editing woe.

Thank you all for your comments.

Jules said...

Well, that made perfect sense. Hope you don't mind if I use this as my lesson for the day :)
Jules @ Trying To Get Over The Rainbow

N. R. Williams said...

I'm honored Jules, go right ahead.

KK Brees said...

Conversations are my favorite means for dropping in background info. Avoiding the "info dump" becomes the Holy Grail of Disclosure: "As you know, Jim, our father died.." Sheesh

Joanne said...

I try not to use too much backstory, but write critical scenes so the reader can deduce things that had happened prior to the time of the book. It's tough, because some is necessary, so I do try to weave it in subtly.

Sandra Ulbrich Almazan said...

I also use conversation to bring in backstory, but I use it to provide information my character needs. For example, my MC just learned he's the clone of a rock star, so his father has to explain the how and why. We learn this information at the same time as the MC.

Anonymous said...

I will write a character's backstory in a separate document as a way to get to know who they are. As for putting the backstory into the novel. I try to put in bits of backstory just as the reader needs them. I took a workshop with Jeanette Ingold a few years ago and she said to use an eye-dropper to insert small bits of backstory and that image has stuck with me.

Anonymous said...

Since my story is a trilogy there's no rush. I have some in the second book, but not the first.

Stephen Tremp

The Golden Eagle said...

I'll sometimes allude to the character's history through memories of past experiences as they're going through something. Or whatever fits the moment--sometimes I do find it hard to figure out the right amount.

N. R. Williams said...

KK, yeah the "as you know," is not in vogue. by the way everyone, KK has a new book out, check out her site for details.

You right Joanne, it is tough, and a little is necessary. Otherwise the reader may think, what is wrong with that guy anyway?

Sandra, I agree, dialogue is an excellent way to include back story when handled correctly.

Paul, I also keep a word.doc with critical information about my characters. I love the eye-drop example.

A trilogy Stephen, I love that.

It can be down right frustrating Golden, I know. It sounds like you have a good technique.

Thank you everyone who you comments and suggestions on incorporating back story in your novels.

Carolyn Abiad said...

I hate writing the begining. Hate, hate, hate it. I think I will always hate it. Endings are better. Can we talk about them instead?

N. R. Williams said...

I'd love to hear your comments on the endings Carolyn.

MT said...

I'm glad I'm not the only one who makes genealogy charts for my characters. I especially need one for my current WIP. It's fun!

BTW, your page loaded much faster than usual this time - still a little jumpy, and still the problem with trying to get the curser to stay in the comment box while I type, but better. :)

N. R. Williams said...

Thank you for your input MT. I think this may be a blogger problem after the feedback I received.

Holly Ruggiero said...

I think it works whenever it is needed – like in your example.

Carolyn V. said...

I went to a conference where the author told us to read Hunger Games and highlight all the back story. It was a great recommendation and taught me a lot. I think too much makes the story boring, but we need to know a little...or the story doesn't make sense.

N. R. Williams said...

Thank you Holly.

That's a great tip Carolyn.

Thank you both for leaving a comment.

N A Sharpe said...

Timely article for me as well. This is part of my character development process to get to know their back stories. As writers, the better we know our characters the more naturally the story will flow - less forced. Sometimes something from the character's back story will peek into the story and surprise you too :)

N. R. Williams said...

Good observation N.A. Thanks for commenting.

kobico said...

I always find it interesting when writers talk about the writing process. There are so many aspects about it that can be applied to other disciplines that we don't typically learn in school. Maybe we should.

N. R. Williams said...

I hadn't thought of that Kobico. Thank you for your comment.

kobico said...

I had never bothered to think (or maybe I couldn't figure out) exactly what I liked or didn't like in my readings before. But I just started reading a book in which each chapter is a vignette in a different year of the main character's life and there was something about the first chapter that I just didn't care for. And then I remembered this post you wrote and realized ... it was more back story than story story!