Monday, March 24, 2008

Backed Up With Backstory

Question of the week: I'm currently working on my second manuscript in the mystery/suspense genre, but I'm having difficulty with the back story. How important or relevant is the back story? I find that the back story really slows down the first 50 pages of my manuscript, then it takes off after the murder takes place. What can I do for this?

Ugh. Backstory. The downfall of so many writers.

I've told this story on here right? The story of how the very first draft of The Department had an additional 99 pages (yes, 99) that my agent read and said, "Why do you need this? Everything in these pages can be cut, and you can open the book on page 100." And she was right: I was able to open with a diary entry that gave readers everything they needed to know about where my character was in her life and where she was headed.

That, to me, pretty much sums up how I feel about backstory and how it can really, really bog down a book. Plots need to be in perpetual motion - they always need to be moving the reader forward (especially, I should note, if this is the second in a series - some readers will already be in the know and will quickly find themselves bored with regurgitation of the facts). When you spend 50 (or in my case, 99) pages catching the reader up to the present, you've wasted precious space - and reader attention - when you should be able to start your book immediately in the present.

Another example (and I'm not trying to pimp this, I just think it's a good example of what I'm talking about): read the first chapter of Time of My Life. I learned my lesson with The Department, and I wasn't about to axe 99 pages again. (Oh, the agony!) In this one chapter, the reader learns everything she needs to know about the protagonist to move ahead. You learn, very succinctly, that she's in a tepid marriage, that she longs for days gone by, that she misses her job, that she's insecure about motherhood, that she's insecure about just about everything...well, you get the point. Sure, I could have spent the first five chapters citing various scenarios and crafting scenes to convey all of the above, but a better way is to hit the ground running: find a way to fill the reader in on all of this info in as short a span and as few pages as possible. Don't forget that you can always do quick flashbacks via your character (which I do in TOML) as the book progresses. But it would be, in my opinion, a big mistake to get bogged down in this from the get-go. A classic mistake, but a mistake nevertheless.

But what say you, readers? Have you ever gotten bogged down in backstory and if so, how did you fix it? Or how do you avoid this trap in the first place?


Anonymous said...

This is a great topic. I found myself bogged down with backstory in my WIP. I rewrote it some and have my main character remembering things about her past - but it's relevant to her present - in chapter 3. By then I hope the reader is somewhat vested in the story and puts the pieces together of how the past meshes with the present. I think it works but then again, it is a work in progress.

Trish Ryan said...

I know how it feels to have that "do you really need this?" conversation...whole chunks of my life ended up on my dining room floor as my editor and I cut & pasted to help my story move along. This is why memoirs have's not that we don't want to tell folks about those six years we spent realizing we'd chased down the wrong dream job, it's just that it was deemed unnecessary to the progress of the story :) said...

Yes...great topic!

As a reader, there is nothing that will cause me to toss a book onto the 'take back to the library' pile unread, quicker than a book that gets bogged down in backstory before I get hooked into the plot.

As a writer, it's tempting to use backstory to explain your main character's impetus...and yet, I've found that while it might be useful (to the author) to write in all that backstory, once the first draft is done, the book is freed once you cut a great deal of the backstory...the reader feels free to use their brains to pick up clues as to what has happened before.

Great post!


cce said...

It's so hard to know where to draw the line. Some of my best writing is all sort of past tensey while the plot progression almost seems beside the point. I suppose if you're writing a sort of faux memoir a lot of the material will come off as back story?

Amie Stuart said...

I'm SURE I have....I have a rewrite I keep playing with and I still haven't found the right spot--is where I'm starting it backstory? Am I hanging on to it because I love the words...I waffle. A lot. Funny I just started a women's fic and I have TONS i mean TONS of backstory I came up with while I was sick last fall but it hasn't been a problem. It's all motivation to move the story forward--something I'm very conscious of because it's all in third person (which is unusual for me)