Monday, October 28, 2013

The Truth about Backstory

Good Morning. Now that things have settled down in my real world life (which they haven't, I'm just sparing you from the gory details of the melodrama that has plagued/is still plaguing me) I've gone back to working on THE CAPTAIN'S LADY. (Which is quite interesting as I went to label this post, I noticed I did not have anything about him so I guess I've never told you about him before. Hmmmm...)

Anyway, Captain Richard Gaines is my latest hero and Russell Crowe is my inspiration if you will. Richard was the Captain of a 74 gun Ship of the Line for the Royal Navy. After the Battle of Trafalgar, he suffered from Post Traumatic Stress and resigned his commission. I could go on and on about him but I won't. It's all backstory.

Here's the kicker. I have three chapters written. New chapters. I couldn't use anything from the first version of the book I wrote about 7 years ago. Way too much purple prose. Lots of naval gazing (pun intended) and far too much backstory. Far too much.

Now, one of the ladies at the school is a voracious reader and when she found out I was an author bought four of my books before I could say jack rabbit. Now because of that, I decided to send her all the others that she hadn't read. (The least I could do for such a fan. Money is nice, but it's not all about that for me.)

Once she finished all of them (in about a week -- I told you she was voracious) she begged me for something else. I told her I was working on Richard's story, but that it wouldn't be ready until around Thanksgiving (HA!) She told me to hurry up and write it.

Last Friday I decided to ask her if she would read the first three chapters for me. She said she'd be honored. (Make me blush.) And then she asked why. Why did I want her to read them? And I said, "To see if there's too much backstory up front. I need to know if the story is working, and if it compels you to move forward." And she said, "Backstory? What's that?"

So I explained to her what backstory was and she said, "Oh, that. I never knew what it was called. I just thought that's how writer's write. How they explain who the person is and why they do the things they do." Then she cocked her head and gave me a funny expression. "Why do you think there would be too much? Aren't we supposed to know what motivates the characters?"

Barring a long and boring conversation about the mechanics of writing, I just said, "Well, the writing rules imply that too much backstory in the beginning is no good for a book. It doesn't keep the reader interested."

And she said (are you ready for this) "Who gave you those rules? I read all the time, and I like to know who the character is and what he's going to do right from the get-go. If I get to chapter 10 and find some little thing that I should have known from the beginning, it throws me off. I like to know why the character is the way he is right from the start. That way I know if he's going to be able to handle what gets thrown at him in the middle and if he'll actually make it to the end."

Having read craft books for all these years, and listened to agents and editors, publishers and other writers alike, they all say the same thing -- Never start your novel with backstory, always seed it in. But here, in the school lobby in the middle of a Friday afternoon, I hear that a reader likes to know what's happened to the character right from the beginning. How hearing about the character's past leads her further into the story than finding out about it in the middle.

So what's a poor writer to do? Ignore the rules and info dump? Seed in the backstory? Yeah, I know, these questions can lead a writer to go absolutely nuts. Tear a novel apart seven ways to Sunday for one editor and then put it all back together for another. Keep us up at night, talk to ourselves in the grocery store, and have random conversations with strangers on a bus.

What I think, and what I've always done, is just to write the book the way I want to write it. I want to write what I want to read and if that means loading up page one with backstory, that's what I'm going to do. Those old writing rules don't apply that much anymore in this new publishing world. I'm self-published and don't have to listen to anyone but the readers. If they like my stories, then they're better judges of what I write than any agent or editor. If my books continue to sell then I guess I'm doing something right? Right?

(And yes, I do maintain most of the writing rules. At least I know them and when I break them, I know why.)

Tell me -- What's your position on backstory? Do you seed it in? Do you info dump at the beginning? Do you even care about the "writing rules" anymore?

Anne Gallagher (c) 2013


J.B. Chicoine said...

Doh! I think it's a matter of style. Remember back in the old days, when readers tolerated a whole lot more backstory right up front in those classics we'd read? I think that as long as the backstory is engaging as it's presented, and it doesn't turn into its own mini-novel, then include what you need to grip your reader. It's a fine line between a bit of mystery and filling in too many blanks.

And yeah, it's kind of disillusioning when readers--the ones we really want to impress--don't agree with the 'rules' we've had hammered into us ... what is a writer to do? It's really not that hard to answer! :)

Bish Denham said...

I think you are absolutely entitled to write how and what you want to. As for how much or how little backstory to put in... doesn't that depend on the story?

And you know... there are always your crit partners/bata readers who might be able to give you a little guidance. :)

Yvonne Osborne said...

As someone once famously said: You can ignore the rules as long as you know them first. Or, something like that. I think it depends on the story. Some novels need the backstory, some don't. Do what YOU think works. These are your books, your stories and if they're selling well, don't change what you do.

Jennifer Shirk said...

Well, it's funny, true readers don't care. It's the authors that are readers who are picky. LOL

I don't care about backstory. I like to know about a character as long as it doesn't bore me. :)

Anne Gallagher said...

Bridget -- I think you hit the nail... as long as it's engaging and doesn't bore the reader. That's what I'm going for and I think a little backstory in the beginning works for most of us. Otherwise, how can we gain empathy.

Bish -- Crit partners are crucial for all writing. And they will see this. AT some point. I got bogged down in research over the weekend so this story has actually stopped being written for the nonce.

Yvonne -- Thanks. I do feel that way -- These are MY stories and no one can tell me how to write them. But as with anything else, I second guess myself constantly. I guess I needed reassurance.

Jennifer -- Another nail on the head. I do believe that true readers don't care about HOW the book is written as long as it grabs you from the get-go.

Maria Zannini said...

If the author can thread the backstory inside the narrative without slowing down the story, it's fine. It's when it gets dumped all in one chapter that it gets tedious for me.

Your friend is a true reader. God bless them.

Anne Gallagher said...

Maria -- This is why I'm having trouble second guessing this decision -- it sort of gets dumped. Well, three paragraphs of dump anyway, but it's inside the narrative, so I'm hoping it works. I don't think it slows anything down. I think it's rather informative and necessary. But that's just my opinion.

Patti said...

I agree with Maria, I do like back story, but not all at once. I know so many critiques I've had over the years is that there is too much back story in the first chapter but then all of the books I've read recently there's a ton of back story in the first chapter. It's enough to make you throw your arms up in the air.

D.G. Hudson said...

Personally I like backstory too, and it's in my writing,and I try to integrate it. I think we should listen to our readers in preference to the rules makers.

Diana Gabaldon told me to put some of my backstory as Prologue (guess what - 'they', the rules makers, say don't use those either)

I get so tired of so many rules, and I love that lady's response to 'the rules'.

Love the honesty of some people! Thanks Anne, for the affirmation of following our own instincts.

Sarah Ahiers said...

What Maria said. I think it just all comes down to a balance that works for you and for the specific novel, you know?

Johanna Garth said...

I think that's a good plan, but I might also ask her for some other examples of favorite books to see how those authors handled backstory. She might not like info dump as much as she thinks she does.

mooderino said...

The rule for backstory is the same as it is for any piece of writing, make it interesting. But a lot of writers fail to do that, with backstory in particular, which is why the advice is to use as little as possible.

But there are no absolute in writing, you can make backstory work in a bunch of ways, it's just very hard to teach that to a writer in a paragraph or two, so most craft books take the easier route of cut your losses and move on.

Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

I'm sure there are some readers who prefer it one way and some the other. I guess I follow most of the rules though I don't really think about them.

Donna Hole said...

Sometimes, you just gotta write the story and figure out what is too much/too little when its all complete.

Congrats on getting so far into the new project. Ah, I loved Russell in Master and Commander. One of my favorite movies. He's a good model for a character.


Talli Roland said...

Oh, backstory. I find that so hard! I tend to weave it in, but I do think there are instances when the rules can be bent. Do what's best for the story, IMO!