Monday, October 31, 2011

The Writing Craft: Back Story

Happy Halloween!

Last Monday I began a new series on the Writing Craft. I asked for your help so I could determine what questions you have and address them. Four of you asked me to discuss three topics. So each Monday I will talk about one of them or in the case  one question it is really a two part answer.

The Golden Eagle and Michael Di Gesu asked about back story and too much information. This is two parts. While back story is information, technically an information dump is research that you have conducted in order to get that part of the story right. The two things can easily over lap.

Riya asked how do writers know which genre to write in. She reads all genres.

Alex J. Cavanaugh asked how he could add enough description the first time through.

Today I will address back story:

As a writer you must know your characters. That means you will know what happened to the character before the story began. It is a temptation to start the story and then spend time for the character to explain his or her past. Never do this. But how do I avoid it, you may ask? The best way for me to illustrate this is to give you an example.

Twenty-four years ago I was in a car accident. I split open my head and hit my knees on the dash. At the hospital they checked me out, sewed up my head and generally made sure I was okay to be released. No one took x-rays of my hips. Twenty years later I couldn't walk because of the injuries to my hips. One was pushed into my pelvis and no longer had any cartilage. The other had been doing double duty for twenty years. The agony was beyond anything I had ever experienced including childbirth.

Suppose I am your character struggling with this pain. The story begins twenty years after the accident. How much about the accident do you include? Nothing in the first three chapters. What, you say? You begin the story with the current struggle.


3rd person

Nancy slipped on the wet kitchen floor and cried. Tears escaped her eyes, the pain in her hips nearly sent her to the floor, she fell against the counter top and braced herself. Dirty dishes were piled in the sink and she wouldn't be able to do them again. How she hated that. Her hunger was swallowed by the agony that shot fingers of pain throughout her hips. Unable to make the simplest meal she would starve until her husband got home from work. She grabbed the crutches from the floor were they had fallen and hobbled to the living room recliner. It took ten minutes what would have taken less than one. 

1st person

I slipped. Pain drove me against the kitchen countertop. I wailed, unable to stop myself. Gulping for air, my arms shaking, I stared at the pile of dishes. I wouldn't be able to do them again. My hunger was swallowed by the shooting pain that enveloped my hip. Another week before my surgery. It seemed so long. For the first time in my life I feared it. I was aware that my age made me more vulnerable. Would I survive?


In both cases nothing about the accident was mentioned. We only know that she has a hip injury. The focus is a little different. There is tension because she can't help herself much. This actually happened to me but when it did my husband and daughter were home and could help. It is true that I starved all day until someone could cook for me. It is also true that I was afraid I might die in surgery. There is always a risk with anesthesia that increases with age. This story can take many turns. In it Nancy could die. Or her husband could leave her. Or some other tragedy might strike. How would she deal with that? Much later in a scene with family members or with the hospital staff you could introduce the news about the car accident via dialogue. But be careful. Whatever is said must be in the present and not with a then this happened or that happened type of reference. You can also disclose some of the information in a flashback.

I will cover this next week.

Does this make sense to you? Does it help? Do you need help with another aspect of writing?


Nas Dean said...

Hi Nancy,

Thanks for this example. I'm always struggling with 'How much backstory is too much?', 'Where to start backstory?' and 'Show vs Tell'

N. R. Williams said...

You're welcome Nas. I will put you down for Show vs. Tell.

LTM said...

oh, this is a GREAT post, Nancy! And an excellent example, too. I think dumping all the backstory right off is one of those beginner novelist errors. And starting with that initial impact then gradually unfolding the whys is the mark of experience. Super job. Thanks again! :o) <3

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Allude to it but don't just tell it - check!

Riya said...

Thanks for agreeing to answer my question. I read fantasy, romance, thriller, mystery, paranormal, nocturne and enjoy all!

N. R. Williams said...

I'm so glad I could help LTM.

Just so Alex, allude to it.

You're more than welcome Riya.

Thank you all for coming by.

Southpaw said...

Good point.It build up the curiosity and readers may even try to guess what's happening and keep going to find out.

N. R. Williams said...

That is a good point Holly. Thanks for coming by.

The Golden Eagle said...

Thanks for answering my question! :)

Great example--and I'll have to keep the point about withholding backstory until later on in the story in mind.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

I try to introduce it in snippets throughout the book, but not quite that subtle.

N. R. Williams said...

You're welcome Golden.

Snippets is a good idea L. Diane. Much depends on the story and genre.

Thank you both for coming by.

Michael Di Gesu said...

Thanks Nancy,

That was very helpful....

I'll keep this in mind when I'm writing.

You're terrific helping us with all our writer's problems!

I hope all is well with you.

N. R. Williams said...

Nice to see you Michael, glad I could help.