Thursday, October 04, 2007


One of the biggest stumbling blocks for me in writing -- and one of the most absolutely essential parts of every story -- is the backstory: the part that happens BEFORE the part I'm actually dealing with in real time in the book.

It's vital because it is the reason the characters are the way they are. It's a stumbling block because there is a fine line between putting in what readers need to know and telling them more than they need to know.

It's crucial, and yet it can stop a story dead if there's too much of it.

Because my two new characters have a history, they have a shared backstory. Some of it readers will need to know. A lot more of it I need to know. Just how much to share in the first stages of the book is critical.

I've recently been thinking I've got too much backstory as narrative. So today I spent cutting it all out (decreasing my word count. Argh). But also, increasing the pace of the book because now the backstory is in dialogue.

Anne Gracie and I were talking about this last night (well, it was my last night; it was her this afternoon, which is now her yesterday but is still my today, if that makes sense). She had just mentioned teaching a master class in writing and talked about dealing with dialogue.

And it made me remember a course in playwriting I took in college (for which we will have a moment of silent gratitude here for William Reardon, excellent professor of drama and playwriting) who taught me the whys behind what I was already doing in dialogue.

Thinking about what he said made me take another look at this book -- and this scene. And cut all the narrative and tell the story in dialogue. Great challenge. Picked up the pace. Hmm.

Maybe I should go write a play instead.

Labels: ,


Blogger Michelle Styles said...

Then there is the Donald Maass idea that all backstory explanation should appear after chapter 15 or certainly some way after the first half of the book.
To make it into the first half, it must be absolutely vital to advancing the curent plot, rather than explaining.

Some times, the only way to tell is to write the thing, and then remove the backstory and see if it makes any difference.

100% dialogue is boring because it precludes any of the business that actors do to bring their part to life.

04 October, 2007  
Blogger Anne McAllister said...

Of course dialogue can be boring by itself, Michelle. It has to be delivered in context or it's just talking heads. But as a means of getting at what can be expressed by characters and not couched in narrative, it's a great way to pick up pace.

And I disagree with Donald Maass completely on the chapter 15 thing, if that's what he says.

The current plot wouldn't exist without backstory and it still has an impact. It's not just "explaining" ever. Not in good writing, anyway.

04 October, 2007  
Blogger Michelle Styles said...

Writing the Breakout Novel workbook Ch23, Low Tension Part II Burdensome Backstory Exercise --Delaying Backstory. It is an interesting exercise. You don't have to agree with him. His point is that the backstory stuff may be far more useful if revealed later in the story. He also recognises that it is something that the vast majority of novelists will not agree with. He feels that backstory doesn't tell a story, and early in a novel does not complicate problems. Later in a novel, it can be usefully deployed to deepen already introduced problems.
By moving the backstory temporarily, the novelist can then decide exactly what is needed where.
I have found the exercise useful. And as a usual, I hope my backstory has moved to later in the book where it can more of a dramatic impact.

05 October, 2007  
Blogger Anne McAllister said...

What he seems to be talking about are "secrets" which, if revealed earlier would lessen the dramatic impact. I agree with him there. But backstory and secrets are not synonymous.

As an exercise, just like writing everything in dialogue, it can be useful. It's just not what I need to deal with in this story.

05 October, 2007  
Blogger Anne Gracie said...

Coming into this really late, but there's also a different between delivering backstory in big chunks -- the "I'll just fill you in here" sort of backstory delivery -- and writing in a way that gives intimations of backstory. If you make the reader ask the questions and give them just enough information so that they start speculating about the backstory and filling in the gaps themselves, well, that's good storytelling, I think.

06 October, 2007  

Post a Comment

<< Home