Monday, August 22, 2011

When You Need Backstory And When You Don't

Okay, so this is another area that I normally struggle with. See, I've created a new world in POSSESSION (and thus SURRENDER), and well, readers typically want to know how our world became theirs.

You may not have a world backstory, but certainly you have character backstory, setting backstory, etc.

Here's a little secret: I don't care about world backstory.

There. I said it.

When I'm reading I don't care how our world became the one in the story. I just don't. I suppose some might call me shallow. I don't know.

But as an author, I don't normally gravitate toward including a wad of backstory for my world. This is something I'm working on, not only in my future writing (fix it before you have to fix it, right?), but in drafts I've already completed.

So, how do you know when you need backstory and when you don't? It's simple, really. If it's essential to your plot, you need it.

I make a Venn diagram in my head. (Yeah, I write down some notes, but diagrams? That's going a little bit too far for me. *wink*)

One circle is labeled "ESSENTIAL" another is labeled "NICE TO KNOW" and another is labeled "MAYBE IF I HAVE ENOUGH WORDS".

And let's face it, I never have enough words. So what ends up happening is I take stock of everything that the reader MUST know and what it would be NICE if they knew, and I insert them into the MS.

In my forthcoming novel SURRENDER, I tell the reader about the educational system by examining a defunct friendship, and use the school years to chronologically advance (or de-advance, I suppose) the relationship. I sneak in the world's backstory through another person.

The beginning of POSSESSION reads as follows:

"Good girls don't walk with boys. Even if they're good boys--and Zenn is the best. He strolled next to me, all military with his hands clasped behind his back, wearing the black uniform of a Forces recruit. The green stripes on his shirtsleeves flashed with silver tech lights, probably recording everything. Probably? Who am I kidding? Those damn strips were definitely recording everything."

I established several things by using Zenn:
1. Good girls don't walk with boys.
2. Zenn is in the Forces, and they wear uniforms.
3. There is some level of technology in his actual clothing, what with the flashing stripes.
4. Those stripes record stuff. Definitely all kinds of stuff.

Things you might want to reconsider:
1. Using dialog to deliver backstory. Typically, the two (or more) characters talking already know the backstory, so it's lame to have them discussing it as if they don't.

2. Having the MC simply give a long monologue about the world they live in. Trust me, I have to get a lot of information about the world into my books. Find ways to put it in where the MC isn't just expounding on their world for no reason. Use a relationship, a person, or an attitude to establish a reason for inserting the backstory.

Got any world backstory tips for me? I'd love to add to my arsenal!


Natalie Aguirre said...

Thanks for sharing your tips. I do struggle with this. Especially when I tried to start a sequel. Can't wait to see how you did it in your second book.

Your example from Possession is really good too.

Sarah said...

I don't care too much for world backstory either, and think it's best revealed by implication whenever possible. The details add up to something. Like, in your above example, what's implied (and important), is that this society is very restrictive and has its eyes on its citizens. That's the critical piece of info you've delivered without bogging down your story by telling the reader, "look, Vi lives in a really restrictive, militaristic society that became that way in the year X as a result of Y." I like your Venn diagram approach!

Anonymous said...

Very nice example. I'm with you. I don't want a bunch of backstory. Slows things down. I just want to know what's going on with the character here and now with little sprinkles of what got them there. :)

Donna K. Weaver said...

We've just been having a discussion in an online group about back story. Your example is excellent.

Elanor Lawrence said...

I agree with your example of how to put the backstory in; it fits so much better when you weave it into the story. The example from POSSESSION was great.

However, I think that there are a lot of readers who would like to know more about how the world got that way. I haven't read POSSESSION yet (though I hope to soon) but I know that a lot of people didn't care for Lauren DeStefano's WITHER because it didn't seem like a very plausible future. I like it when authors put a fair bit of backstory in, but it has to be done well.

Creepy Query Girl said...

best advice I got about backstory-don't start a story with it. lol.

Heather Kelly said...

I am writing all the backstory on all the characters in my current novel right now--what led up to them all crashing together in the story. It's great, because it anchors me into how my story came about, and there is quite a bit of world building (and villain building) that I need to do.

Almost none of this will make it into the actual book. But it does anchor me in the world, and into the time frame of my story. I need to know this stuff, even though my readers won't. It will make the details of the story easy for me to create. :)

Theresa Milstein said...

I've struggled with backstory too. You definitely revealed a lot in a small space with your passage.

Unknown said...

I think there are a lot of people who probably don't pay as much attention to backstory as the current story. Just like some people skim descriptions and others relish.

But I do think it's important to include for this reason: while some readers won't care to read back story, many others will. That's why world building needs to be vivid and fully realized.

Personally, I'm a stickler for backstory. I love to guess how it has impacted the MC's journey or his/her life up until the start of the novel. If backstory feels half-written, it's something I notice right away. It becomes harder for me to immerse myself in that world.

I do agree that the best thing a writer can do is weave backstory into dialogue or description or even internalization. It feels less infodumped and overwhelming that way.

My general rule of thumb is similar to yours -- include what is the most essential to the plot -- but ALSO include anything that will better support the internal logic of your story. Sometimes those "nice to know" things or "maybe if I have enough word" things could answer a question for a reader. Or fill what might be perceived as a plot hole, or a world building hole. Then they become just as essential, because they create more seamless world building.

Jemi Fraser said...

Having 2 characters discuss obvious facts they should never discuss drives me nuts!!! Or having a character notice deep details in something he/she sees every day. So annoying.

Jamie Manning said...

Awesome awesome post, Elana! I'm currently working on a dystopian and I'm having this exact problem, so this post is spot on today! And thank you so much for the example you gave from Possession (which is awesome, btw!) really helps to see it clearly like that!

Chelsey said...

I actually really love backstory, especially in dystopian. I NEED to know how the world got that way. Character flaw, I guess. But your approach does make sense.

Also I really hate characters talking about things they both already know.

Anonymous said...

I enjoy backstory, but not info dump. The most talented writers weave it throughout their stories. I'm working on that!

Christa Desir said...

I hear you, not a fan of backstory. And really not a fan when it seems contrived to be put in there (a la some random character shows up to explain it all). Dialogue and small actions seem the best to get the point there. I like your system. :)

Talli Roland said...

I'm so with you - I hate back story dumps and I might even skip it to get to the action!

AE Rought said...

Advice: Never front-load the backstory.

Quip-ish statement: It's called backstory for a reason--it's behind what you're writing so leave it there.

I am not fond of BS (BackStory) in my reading. If it's absolutely essential to the current plot it can get woven in. Please, writers, weave it in! If I choke on a chunk of BS I'm going to stop reading.

Laura Pauling said...

I'll take anything at face value when I read. As a reader, I only want world backstory if it's important to the plot. I'm with you.

Hermana Tiffany Garner said...

Great tips! I'm currently working on this. I had an info dump at the beginning of my novel before, but I'm slowly finding ways to introduce you to my world without explaining it all in one clump. Thanks for the help :)

Cynthia Lee said...

I'm definitely not a fan of the info dump / backstory. I love having the story reveal itself to me slowly and organically. That's what holds a reader's attention.

I think your example was perfect!

I don't know too many teenagers who want to read any Tolkien-esque backstory or description. (Nothing against Tolkien. I love Tolkien).

Angela Brown said...

Use of the zoom in technique is sometimes used for backstory. With attention spans on the decline, this way isn't the best, especially for YA. Your example is great because you weave the introduction of many things in just a few sentences.

Anonymous said...

Great post - and timely! I'm struggling with this right now!

This is an example from a TV show, but those can sometimes be useful. I know prologues are a bit out of fashion, but Fallin Skies, which aired this summer, did a great job of telling how the invasion occurred, in about 3 minutes, using voice overs from kids who experienced the invasion, during the credits. Then, when there was relevant backstory for a character, they'd introduce another character who could comment upon that backstory or allude to.

I thought it was very well done - gave me enough of a sense of "how we got where we are" to suspend my disbelief and enjoy the story.

I'm trying to experiment with something similar for my WiP.

Krispy said...

I care about world backstory, but I don't want an infodump. I definitely understand how hard it is to insert the relevant information in a non-infodump way. Loved your example though. That's a good way to introduce the world and the setting!

Marsha Sigman said...

I'm a sprinkler when it comes to backstory. Like you, I struggle with it because I don't care about boring details as a reader so it's difficult to know what is necessary as a writer. I think I'm striking a good balance now though.

Jeff King said...

I don't have any tips... that's why i come here, thx for the advice!

Christine Fonseca said...

Dude...I LOVE Venn Diagrams. LOVE

Kelly Polark said...

I think that is an excellent idea for a Venn Diagram in your head or on paper!
And wow! I love the paragraph from Possession! I can't wait to read it!

kbrebes said...

LOVE your Venn Diagram idea. I just used it and cut three paragraphs of 20 sentences down to two paragraphs of 9 sentences!! THANKS, ELANA!!

Carolyn V said...

I agree with the don't start with it. Now if I can only stick with that. ;)

Jessie Humphries said...

Yeah...screw backstory. What's he ever done for me? :).

Shari said...

I got nothin'. But, thank you for your fabulous example and useful tips.

P.S. Great use of a Venn diagram. (And students think they are a waste.) Way to show 'em.

Small Town Shelly Brown said...

I don't think I could ever make a Venn Diagram in my head. Lists, I can do. Simple multiplication problems, got it. Venn Diagrams? No way!

Anonymous said...

A word of advice on backstory that I found really helpful was - leave it out then see how the story reads. A lot of the time you don't need it, or at least not as much as you thought you needed it and what you really do need can be hinted at through the methods you suggest.

I've discovered that readers don't need to know nearly as much as I thought.

Anonymous said...

A word of advice on backstory that I found really helpful was - leave it out then see how the story reads. A lot of the time you don't need it, or at least not as much as you thought you needed it and what you really do need can be hinted at through the methods you suggest.

I've discovered that readers don't need to know nearly as much as I thought.

Leslie S. Rose said...

Love your backstory categories (oh, that kinda rhymes). I shall be shamelessly stealing them for my own personal use. I hate it when blathering about a backstory takes you out of the current action. I admit to blathering at time. Hopefully an anti-blathering drug will be bundled with the flu shot this year.

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