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Tuesday, June 2, 2020

Backstory-itis by Carla Damron

I just completed a rewrite of my novel! (Cue the parade, the fireworks, and the champagne corks popping to the ceiling!) This has been one of the most challenging journeys of my writing career. I blame it on the pandemic, which has polluted everything about our lives, including my creative process. I write every day, but the words don’t flow--they stutter. My focus scrambles on other things: I’ll work on this online jigsaw puzzle. Should I vacuum? A quick check of Facebook again. What’s happened in the news? (The unrelenting, God-awful news). All this prevents me from zeroing in on the page in progress.

But despite all this mind clutter, I COMPLETED a draft! At this phase of my wacky process, I like to listen to my words, so I have the computer, or my Kindle, read it aloud to me. Right away, I heard a problem, and it was a big one: I had developed a severe case of backstory-itis.

For those of you who don’t know, backstory is the history of the character, or the what-happened-before in terms of scene. Most writers I know struggle with this in one form or another. Beginning writers want to load the opening with backstory details: The reader MUST want to know where my opening character was born, who her parents were, and what her favorite childhood memory is! or Let me just explain the history of this town, including that Civil War battle, and the time the Oscar Meyer Weinermobile drove through. I know this because I’ve done it.

As we mature in our craft, we understand that most backstory is simply what WE understand about the character or the situation. While I discovered  that my protagonist had a distant relationship with her father and was completely traumatized by the death of a pet at age twelve, I use that information to make her real on the page. I may never mention it in text. If I do, it will appear at a carefully crafted time: When the reader has grown curious enough about her to wonder. When tension can be amplified by the painful memory.  When what happens in the scene makes more sense in the context of a preceding incident.

Yet here I am with this rewrite, and backstory is polluting the first fifty pages! I know better than this!

I understand how it happened. I gave an introductory chapter to a writing group and they peppered me with questions: Why does she act like she doesn’t care? How could she afford that kind of car? Where did she come from? I mistakenly thought I should answer them, so I did. I inserted backstory into the narrative and, as a result, slowed the momentum to a disastrous halt.

It is fixable. The chapter will be much more engaging to the reader when he/she has the same questions my writing group did—but they have to wait for the answers. They will come as they get closer to the character and begin to understand her odd circumstances. And maybe, it will come in a flashback (I know some of you HATE flashbacks, but bear with me)—probably a single, pivotal moment—that highlights how desperate she once was and reveals what it took for her to become the survivor she is now.

So sorry, online jigsaw puzzle and Facebook, it looks like I’ll be tied up with a backstory-ectomy for quite a while.

What do you think about backstory? How do you judiciously insert it?


Annette said...

I don't get too concerned about backstory in the first draft. It's something we, the writer, needs to know. But in revision, I cut 99% of it out. Some will get sprinkled in later as the READER needs to learn it. And I might leave a line or two in those early chapters for foreshadowing. But I WANT the reader to have questions early on. I want them to turn the pages to find the answers.

And congratulations on finishing the draft, Carla!!!

Debra H. Goldstein said...

congrats on finishing the draft....and on understanding the need to take out the backstory to strengthen your present tale. I tend to be guilty of wanting to answer everyone's questions (label that story dump), so I understand the struggle to tighten the writing without the unneeded info.Sorry Facebook and the puzzle will miss you .. but know the story will be worth it.

Susan said...

After my first draft, I go back and underline everything that is backstory in the first fifty pages. I leave in a little that is necessary, and sprinkle the rest like fairy dust in other places.

carla said...

You're right, Annette. We WANT our readers to ask these questions. And "story dump" is the perfect terminology, Debra. Especially the DUMP part.
Fairy dust!!! That's a wonderful image, Susan!

Kait said...

Congratulations on finishing the draft. These days - that is huge!

My first draft is replete with backstory. Sometimes I think I do it to remind myself of where I want to go. The second draft is where it's cut, deleted, pasted, shortened, and generally moved around - if it's necessary. Backstory - the bane of writers.

KM Rockwood said...

Series backstory is another major problem. You need to put enough in so that the book can stand alone, should a reader unfamiliar with your series pick it up, but not in a manner that a regular reader of the series will say, "I've read that three times already."