Thursday, July 19, 2018

Is Back Story Really That Bad?

by Linda Thorne

Ever since I started writing, I’ve been forewarned about the disastrous side effects of backstory. I know it’s essential to any story line, so I’ve taken the skeptics words to mean use it as little as possible, drop tidbits of the past only into the present, keep it low-key, and, when possible, keep it out.

I can practice the advice in short stories, but in writing my debut novel I had to break a few rules to keep the plot line intact. I remember treading cautiously into this minefield called backstory, keeping the naysayer warnings front and center in my mind.

In my work in progress, avoiding backstory has turned out to be impossible. Totally. The inciting incident occurs thirty years in the past. I tried adding it in pieces, adding it in present-day conversations, but it’s the inciting incident. Too me, it's essential for the reader to be there when it happens thirty years earlier.

So, I started thinking. What about all those books I’ve read and loved that had backstory? If avoiding backstory is the norm, maybe the norm is wrong or doesn’t apply in certain situations.

After All These Years, by Susan Isaacs is a New York Times bestselling novel I read some time ago. I liked the book so much, I went to the library and looked for another written by the same author. I checked out Isaacs’ Lilly White. Where her bestseller, After All These Years, had only the necessary amount of backstory, Lilly White was almost fifty percent backstory. Isaacs presents her story line using one chapter for Lilly White in the past and, in the next chapter, the present. She continues this pattern of shifting from a chapter in backstory back to a chapter in present time until close to the end when the past turns into the present and the climax chapters begin. I loved it and thought this tactic pure genius.

I've read other books with at least one chunk where the reader is taken back to a past time and place.

Two examples come to mind. There’s a fair-sized segment in The Blood in Snowflake Garden, by Alan Lewis that delves into a fictionalized historical event. The Blood in Snowflake Garden is Lewis’s debut novel and one that got him a TV movie option. Another example is Chester Campbell’s recent book, Hellbound. Campbell uses even less backstory then Lewis, but his fast-paced novel stops for a chapter to give the reader  
background on one of the characters. For some reason it didn’t seem to stop the flow of the story. I found the backstory in both these books interesting and necessary.

So, as I move through my work in progress, A Promotion to Die For, I write backstory because the story line will culminate with my character bumping up against circumstances surrounding an event that happened to her thirty years earlier. I don’t need to use half a book of backstory like Susan Isaacs did so well in Lily White, but I will have to dip into the past in several spots including the inciting incident scene that transpires in the very first chapter.

I think those who warn against using too much backstory are often correct, but I think there’s always exceptions to every rule, especially in writing. When I need to use backstory in A Promotion to Die For, I plan for it to appear deliberate because it is. I am doing everything I can to avoid anything that comes across as an info dump. I’m writing backstory that, not only knits its way into the present, but also claws its way there hoping that’s how the reader will see it.

I have it right in my head. I’m just hoping it works in my book.


Zari Reede said...

I love this post!!!! You are absolutely right! There are some rules that are made to be broken. I also find this true with Passive Voice. We tried to correct a novel we wrote with passive voice and it changed the feel of the entire book. Sometimes it’s good to break the rules!

Linda Thorne said...

That's very interesting about passive voice. I don't know a lot about it. I think I'll do some Googling on the topic. The first book I read about writing books said that there were many times when you had to break the rules.

Elizabeth Varadan, Author said...

I really enjoy your take on this element of fiction writing. I know that often I like a book and only realize later that there's been a good amount of back story. It doesn't always impede the flow. I read a good post by an agent at Greyhaus Literary who cautioned against always feeling you have to rigidly adhere to rules — that the rules are guidelines and sometimes the life goes out of the story when you adhere too rigidly to them.

Linda Thorne said...

That agent worded it well saying the life can go out of the story. I think judgment is necessary for when we need to go off the scale a bit. I heard the same thing about a stuttering character - that showing the stuttering would drive the reader crazy, but then I had an editor tell me I needed to be true to my story and my character, so I left the stuttering in and it worked. Of course this was a character that only popped in and out of the story. I think it would truly drive a reader crazy if this had been the main character.

Maggie King said...

We need to be careful that we don't get paralyzed by all the rules. I haven't heard all these warnings about backstory, but I agree that we need to as careful with it as with the other aspects of our wriitng.

There's one author who I like enough to plow through the paragraphs of backstory that she repeats with each title of her series.

Marja said...

I'm a fan of backstory when it's necessary, and it's often necessary. I think there are many rules that are just waiting to be broken. I believe each author knows what will work best in their story and sometimes I think we receive too much advice. Do what works best.

Linda Thorne said...

Thank you Maggie and Marja. I did like how Susan Isaacs wrote Lily White with almost 50% backstory. She weaved it in so well with the goal to have present and past meet at the end. Her entire story structure went back and forth with backstory then present story.

Earl Staggs said...

I've always believed there is only one rule in writing cast in stone, engraved in granite and carved in cement: Whatever works best. If we can write it and make it work, it's the right thing to do. For a long time, I listened to the "experts" who said, "Don't use prologues." A story came along that cried out for one so I put one in. I wrote about it here on Bookbrowsing, and it's probably still hanging around in the archives.

Linda Thorne said...

I was told to never use a prologues too. I remember a number of fairly nasty comments regarding them and yet, I've come across a number of books that have them and the prologue is the immediate hook. I can't think of one time that it didn't seem to be appropriate for the book. I'm sure you're right in doing what your story tells you it must have. Each book is different.

Linda Thorne said...

Earl Staggs, I found your post. It was great. Here's the link if anyone else wants to read it:

I loved it. All those no-no words about prologues, so you decided to never do the nasty deed of having one, but then you're flipping through books in a bookstore or library and find them. Like everywhere. Tom Clancy, Clive and Dirk Cussler, Sandra Brown. Michael Connelly does it, but does not tag it with the outcast name of "prologue," so you follow what Connelly does and add it, but don't name it. You ought to bring this post out again somewhere else and refer to it as a prior post you are resurrecting. It was great.

Saralyn said...

You're right to go with your instincts, Linda. "Backstory" is not the dirty term that "info dump" is. While the "rule" to begin the story at the latest possible moment is a good one, it doesn't mean you can't refer to events in the past that caused or influenced the present. There are scads of examples in literature that use flashbacks successfully. I look forward to your carefully considered plot.

Linda Thorne said...

Thank you, Saralyn.