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Friday, August 6, 2010

Battling Backstory, Part I

by Ramona DeFelice Long

We’ve been discussing backstory here at WWK, how to define it and decide its best place in the story. Despite its bad rap as a momentum killer, backstory delivers history to the events, humanity to the characters and sometimes is the spark that sets the plot in motion.

Often, the backstory itself is not the problem; it’s the delivery. To illustrate ways to give the reader backstory, I offer you a Show, Not Tell.

Let’s start with a pretend Chapter One :

A young man runs along a river bank at night. He’s carrying a flashlight. He is frantic, frightened, exhausted. He repeatedly wipes blood from his eyes. At the water’s edge, he slips on a rock, hits his head, falls into the river. The flashlight bounces into the grasses nearby.

The next morning, two kayakers spot the body and call 911. Emergency personnel arrive, including two detectives. The female detective wears jeans and hiking books. Her male partner wears a suit. While she speaks to the kayakers, he inspects the body. He spots the flashlight and picks it up, but his dress shoes slide on the slippery rocks. He tumbles into the river. Shocked laughter of everyone (except the dead body and the upset kayakers) echoes along the riverbank as the detective sputters up from the water. He looks around, but the flashlight is gone.

There’s no backstory here. It’s all action. It also briefly introduces the story’s stars: the two detectives. The detectives share a lot of mileage, and their relationship impacts the plot.

Let's assume the reader should know that from the start and begin Chapter Two with the detectives’ history with one another. There are three ways to deliver their backstory: in narrative; in dialogue between characters; and through internal dialogue.

This week, we’ll examine two ways to deliver backstory in narrative. That means that the backstory is woven into the action, hopefully in a smooth and compelling way and not in that “let’s get this out of the way” fashion known as the Info Dump.

Example one is told using third person omniscient point of view, the nameless, faceless narrator who knows all, sees all and tells all—eventually.

Chapter Two

Mark Hatfield and Jane McCoy had been partners for ten years on the MyFavoriteTown police force, but Mark had one more year of seniority, and he used it: Mark drove, Mark chose the lunch spot, Mark led in interviews.

It wasn’t like Mark was a bad partner, or a bad cop. Just the opposite. He grew up in the unsavory side of MyFavoriteTown and knew by name more people than most people could count. If things got hot on a call, Mark wasn’t afraid to go physical, and he always responded to calls for backup. He was a dapper dresser and a neat freak, but his reports were solid and he guy’d—and gal’d—around with junior officers without acting like a know-it-all or making anybody feel small.

And if he gal’d around with a married dispatcher from the next precinct, and if some people wondered how he afforded fancy duds on a detective’s salary, they kept that to themselves. Mostly.

Jane was just as solid a cop. She was from MyFavoriteTown, too, but the nice part, and she seemed to tolerate Mark’s finicky habits and questionable views on fidelity. Mark and Jane did their jobs and cleared their cases. And if sometimes Jane swore that Mark’s quirks would do them in, everyone took that as a joke. Because, as every cop knows, partners need to be able to rag on each other.

But after Mark Hatfield slipped into the river and lost a vital piece of evidence on an open case, it wasn’t a joke to their sergeant.

This is about a page and a half of background before the story picks up where chapter one left off. In the next line, we’re in Sergeant’s office as he reams out Mark for dropping the flashlight.

Now let’s try example two. First person POV, with the story told by Jane.

Chapter Two

I always knew that Mark Hatfield’s vanity would land us in hot water. How many times did I cool my heels outside his stupid haberdashery while eating a hot dog for lunch, instead of sitting down at MyFavoriteTown Diner? Or dug through dumpsters while he interviewed witnesses? Or peeled crying “witnesses” out of his sympathetic arms?

That one year of seniority Mark had on me--it was the bane of my life.

Not that Mark was a bad partner. Hell, no. He was as vain about keeping fit as looking fit. If a suspect turned rabbit, Mark ran him down, no problem. He could turn on the charm and knew when to turn the screws. He told good jokes, kept a neat car, wrote meticulous reports and believed in being punctual. He treated the beat cops with respect, including my little brother. Maybe especially my little brother.

But it would have been nice if he’d let me drive once in a while, if he didn’t glance at himself in the rear view mirror quite so often and, most of all, if he’d drop the beat wife I pretended not to know about in front of his real wife.

I kept my mouth shut about that, just like I kept my mouth shut as Sarge yelled into Mark’s face, in front of everybody….

This version gives us the same basic information, in a slighter shorter fashion. We know that Jane will be telling us the story, at least in this chapter, and we end up in the same place—Mark getting reamed for dropping the flashlight.

In both of these examples, nothing new happened until we got to Sarge. But is this information vital? Do you think what you learned here is important to the story? Do you think it’s an interesting way to start their story?

Next week, we’ll look at dialogue between characters, and how to have them talk about their history without slipping into Talking Head syndrome.

Poor Mark Hatfield. He’s going to have a rough couple of weeks at Writers Who Kill.


E. B. Davis said...

I love this post Ramona and the endless possibilities of your subject. As a writer, those possibilities excite me, and yet can also frustrate me. I've used third person omni in my current novel. One of my critique partners pointed out that using this POV actually dilutes the story. What I thought was a plus, turned out to be a disadvantage. Seems in mystery writing, it takes a village too!

Jim Jackson said...

Of the two illustrated versions, the second approach gives more insight into Jane's character as we get to understand her a bit through her thoughts about her partner.

Is the information important? Probably. Needed immediately? Probably not.

Just as an example, showing Mark checking his appearance in the mirror after he took his swim and having Jane think he always does that, I wish he'd be more concerned about losing the flashlight and less about his good looks would hint at the same issues and leave the reader asking for more.

It will be interesting to read what other folks think on this issue. Thanks Ramona.

~ Jim

Ramona said...

Who knows, this might turn into a group story. As Elaine pointed out, most stories are, to some degree.

I like your rewrite, Jim. Show, not tell. That's how you do it. If she said it aloud, that's even better.

There is something wonky about this missing flashlight.

Weldon Burge said...

I think backstory should almost be subliminal, added as the story progresses via dialogue, action, narrative, whatever means--as long as it keeps the story moving. Case in point, I just saw Inception last weekend. The backstory was woven throughout the plot, from different POVs, nearly up to the last scene. Superbly effective!

For some reason, many writers seem to think the backstory must be shared as early as possible in a novel, and many try to plow it all into the first chapter. Big mistake. I think the best way to handle backstory is through the characters' dialogue and actions, not through the narrator, as the story moves along. That can be tricky with third party omniscient, but I find that a better alternative than first person because the backstory can then be told from different POVs.

I like where you're headed with this, Ramona!

JM Reinbold said...

Humph. Weldon got here before me. What he said. I agree with his conclusions.

Ramona said...

Weldon and Joanne, tune in next week, when Part 2 will take on backstory delivered in dialogue.

I'm glad you like where this is headed, Weldon. I hope you'll learn something as we head to the final destination...wherever that may be!