Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Another Q from G

If you're wondering what 'Q' is, your first guess was correct:  question.

If you're wondering who 'G' is, you can check out my previous post about it, but the short version is the G is a young writer who emailed me with some questions about the craft. Since the questions were intelligent ones that bear discussion, I offered to answer them in an ongoing series of blog posts.

Today's question: How do you tell a backstory without having a flashback or outwrite [sic] telling it?

(Sorry, I couldn't resist including the original typo from G's email...even though we all know it is a typo, it seems like it somehow ought to be correct, doesn't it?)

Anyway, this one seems like a simple question, and I suppose it has a simple answer, but the execution is everything.

For starters, I think most writers would agree that we know waaaaaaaaay more about each character than the reader ever learns. We know these back stories intimately. And because we know them so well, and because they excite us so much, and because, dammit, we did the work to create (or discover, depending on how your muse prefers to work) these stories, and because they are frickin' amazing...we want to include every little detail.


Back story is like the spice in a meal, not the meal itself. It flavors the meat, but it isn't the meat. The meat is the story you're telling in the here and now, and that's where the focus should be.

Oh, but yes, I know...the back story is crucial to this character's persona, or her motivation, or you name it. And maybe that's so. I'm not saying the back story shouldn't be there. It absolutely should. But like seasoning on the meat, it enhances. And a little can go a long way.

Let's say your character has a hard time with intimacy, and recently endured a hard breakup. How much of that back story do you need to tell? The answer, of course, is that it depends. If the story you're telling is about reconciling with that partner, probably a lot more of the back story needs to be told than if the relationship and subsequent breakup is merely a part (albeit an important part that affects her immensely and drives her motivation) of the character's history but won't be revisited in this story. Because remember, this story is the one you're telling.

In The Backlist, my novel with Eric Beetner, one of the main characters, Bricks, has recently suffered exactly what I just described:  a tough break up. And the breakup reinforces the fact that she has intimacy issues. But the story is about something else entirely, so how much to devote to the loss of her recent love?

Well, in a book of about sixty thousand words, I spent less than two hundred giving that part of her back story.

Of course, there was more to her back story, especially with her mother and her father, but these also came about organically. Probably fifty percent of the back story centering on her Pops comes out in dialogue with other people, and most of the rest in scattered references she makes throughout the book.

Back story can be the most effective when it is told (or better yet, shown) in revealing snippets of conversation (whether dialogue or internal monologue), and not all at once. Creating a little mystery about the backstory isn't a bad thing at all. In fact, it can be intriguing.

Ultimately, unless the key to the story you're telling now is about resolving these past events in the character's life (and maybe not even then), what the reader needs to know is the flavor of those events and a couple of salient facts. Too much emphasis on the backstory might be an indicator that you're telling the wrong story now.

So go easy on back story. Reveal enough to meet the needs of characterization and/or plot points, but don't be afraid to let it dribble out in intriguing bits through dialogue. Oblique references and hints are fair game here. After all, the reader doesn't have to know everything...and certainly not right away.

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