Please join me in welcoming Theresa Stevens, Managing Editor at Red Sage Publishing, to RU! Theresa has generously agreed to pop in a few times during the day to answer some of your questions.
You’ve probably heard some of the “rules” about backstory. They usually start with the word Don’t. Don’t use it in the first chapter. Don’t use it in an action scene. Don’t use it in the black moment. Don’t use it in the climax. Don’t. Don’t. Don’t. There’s a simple rationale behind these rules. If you understand the rationale, you won’t have to worry about sorting out which of these rules to apply. But first, let’s make sure we all understand our terms.
What Is Backstory?
Remember the timelines that decorated your high school history text? If you were studying World War One, the timeline began with an assassination and ended with the Allied victory. Your book can be mapped in a similar way. The first event in the book is the starting point of your timeline. The final resolution of the plot is the end point. Everything that happens in chronological book time between these two points constitutes your plot. Here is the simplest definition of backstory: every relevant *event* that occurs before your book’s timeline begins is backstory. If the event can be plotted on your book’s chronological timeline (like the battles of World War One in the history text) then the event is plot. If the event precedes your book’s chronological timeline, it is backstory.
A Working Definition of Story
As long as we’ve defined backstory, let’s also define story. Story is composed of: 1) People 2) In motion 3) Against a backdrop That’s it in a nutshell. Character, plot/conflict, world-building. There are other story elements such as theme and motif, but those are usually built up by manipulating other elements. In other words, you don’t write a chapter that explains the theme. But you might choose actions or a setting to enhance a thematic idea.
Why All the Don’ts?
Backstory may sound innocent enough, but it’s freighted with dangers. Let’s look at its effect on our three story elements.
Backstory stops your story motion cold. Imagine your reader strolling along your story timeline, enjoying the journey, and then all of a sudden, forward progress stops. She’s yanked off the timeline and sent in a way-back machine to events that are off the map. Everything else is arrested, held in suspension until the reader is filled in on the missing details. It’s the equivalent of listening to a child tell a story with great enthusiasm, but she suddenly interrupts with, “Oh, wait! I forgot to tell you something!”
Too many of these interruptions, and by the end of the tale, you’ll have a frozen smile and secret hope that the kid, at least, understands what she just said. You may be tempted to counteract this effect by wiggling the past events into the present story line. This sometimes results in soap opera dialogue.
“But, Jasmine, you know darn well that Mark broke both his femurs in 1987, and married his nurse Madeline, but she was secretly in love with Carmine, who kidnapped her and forced her to become a bigamist, but then Carmine was shot during a drug bust, and Grace never forgave herself for narcing on him, and so this is why you can’t serve madeliene cakes at your surprise engagement party for Mark and Grace!”
Do you see why that’s bad? It might seem engaging, in one sense, because it recounts a lot of exciting events. But who is the speaker speaking to? Jasmine already knows all that stuff. The dialogue sounds false because it is false. Jasmine must stand there and play decoy while the audience catches up. That’s a pretty shabby way to treat Jasmine.
You might think that backstory relates to character because it explains internal conflicts and motivations.
“Mark’s first wife Madeline cheated on him, and now he’s afraid to trust a woman.” Poor Mark. Who can blame him? But let’s take a look at two possibilities and decide which makes a stronger story.
Choice A) Mark had a bad first marriage. Years later, he meets Grace. Grace is beautiful, sweet, smart, successful, and interested in him. Mark sees Grace’s good qualities and is deeply attracted to her. But he hesitates to trust her because of his ex-wife.
Choice B) The first time Mark sees Grace, she’s skulking in the cloakroom on parent-teacher night. He sees her look over her shoulder then stick her hand inside a man’s jacket pocket. Later, Detective Mark learns that a car was stolen from the school parking lot.
Both of these scenarios paint trust issues. In one, Mark doesn’t trust Grace because of a third party’s actions. In the second, Mark doesn’t trust Grace because of her own actions. Do you see how the second conflict is stronger?
Mark is motivated by immediate and pressing concerns rather than by some free-floating emotion from some years distant. In other words, beware the backstory used to shore up character motivations. It often points to a lack of real conflict or to other plot problems. Every time you’re tempted to reach backwards to explain why characters are behaving a certain way, stop. Ask yourself if you can fix it in the present story moment, because this will almost always be the stronger fix.
Even when you intend backstory to tie directly to character issues, in many cases it will mimic the world-building. “Mark lives in a Cape Cod on a quiet street. He and Madeline bought the house before he learned she was cheating on him. He caught her with Carmine in the downstairs bathroom shower. He won’t go into that room now, not even to clean it, and it’s still painted the girly lilac she picked out.”
Even though backstory relates past events, it sets the stage for current events. Let’s face it — if it didn’t set that stage, there would be no reason to include it. So perhaps Mark’s purple bathroom becomes important when Grace, his interior decorator, is banned from repainting it. The purple bathroom is symbolic of Mark’s inner landscape, and that’s perfectly fine. In fact, this is how we like it to work: the character’s inner state is made manifest in his outer world.
So think about how your character’s backstory becomes tangible in the physical story world. And then think about how those tangible details can be used as props while the characters are working out their conflicts. This will effectively tie the past to the present in a meaningful way. But one coat of lilac paint is all you need. No need to analyze every bristle on the paintbrush. Present your backstory and return to the present as quickly as possible. You want to sacrifice as little momentum as possible.
Where do all the Don’t rules come from? Now that you understand that backstory stops the forward motion of the plot, you know why it’s not a great idea to use it in an action scene. It kills the momentum of the action. Likewise, in the early chapters, you want to keep tightly focused on plot and forward motion, simply because this will lock in your reader’s attention. The black moment and the crisis should be built on a foundation of strong conflicts in the plot. They shouldn’t need to be propped up by backstory. We could go on and pick apart every manifestation of a backstory Don’t, but the bottom line is this: You want your story to be dynamic and engaging. If backstory helps you accomplish this goal, then there’s no Don’t about it.
After earning degrees in creative writing and law, Theresa Stevens worked as a literary attorney agent for a boutique firm based in Indianapolis where she represented a range of fiction and nonfiction authors. The lure of the courtroom led to a nine-year hiatus from the publishing industry, but now Theresa is back as Managing Editor for Red Sage Publishing, a highly acclaimed small press. Her articles on writing and editing have appeared in numerous publications for writers. Visit her blog at http://edittorrent.blogspot.com where she and her co-blogger share their knowledge and hardly ever argue about punctuation.
Thank you, Theresa! Be sure to stop by Theresa’s blog, Edittorrent, for topics like this and a whole lot more. A writer’s candy shop!! Don’t forget to leave a comment. One lucky commenter during our launch week (May 18-22) will win an iPod Nano! Be sure to join Kelsey on Monday (actually Tuesday since Monday’s Memorial Day) to find out why Author Natalie Damschroder thinks Writing IS a Business.
- Converting Backstory into Character with Theresa Stevens, Editor
- Ask An Editor: Verb Tense
- Weekly Lecture Schedule, December 17-21, 2012
- Ask An Editor: Problem With Tense?
- Ask An Editor: Ordinary World