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Thursday, November 3, 2011

Backstory: A Lesser Known Reason Why Not to Dump it Upfront

You've probably all heard not to dump your character's backstory anywhere inside of the first 50 pages, at least. The usual reason cited is that it pulls the reader from the story.

But I've got another one to think about, perhaps even more of a death knell than the one mentioned above. (Because, let's face it, we've all been "pulled" from a story before and kept on reading regardless.)

I'm going to illustrate my point with a story from the life of yours truly.

It was around 10:30, and I had just received the nebulous news from a potential client that she wanted to "talk to me."

"Okay," I said, scheduling her in for 2:00. 

I was curious, I must admit. I'd seen her walk by my office several times, peeking in my window, giving me a hesitant smile.

What does she want to talk to me about? I frequently fantasized about what brings clients to my office, and this woman proved no exception. Was she cheating on her husband? Secretly doing drugs? Addicted to gambling? Unable to deal with her children?

Over lunch, I overheard another staff member talking about this very woman. I leaned in closer, eager for any little tidbits I could glean before my session with her. What I heard was eye-opening popping.

"Did you know XXX is a cross-dresser?"


Though I said nothing, my line of thought was in sync with my coworker's.

"Yep. Goatee and all."

I left the table thinking, "Oh my. She's going to want to talk to me about cross dressing, and likely the havoc this is causing on her marriage."

I'll skip the part about not having any experience in this area therapeutically (at that time), and get to the part where she walks in my office at 2:00 on the dot, no goatee in sight. We did the usual meet and greet getting to know each other dance, and then she got down to the nitty gritty:


As she talked about the troubles she was having getting her youngest daughter trained, I sat there and thought in my head: "She's a cross dresser. She's a cross dresser. Why isn't she bringing up the fact that she's a cross dresser?"

She left, with a few star charts and stickers in hand, grinning and thanking me for listening (I did manage to rally and be present for her), having said nothing about the glaring discovery I had made of her cross dressing hobby.

Unfortunately, that overheard conversation (premature backstory) of my client colored my whole perception of her from then on. I had to work to get out from under the preconceived notions that knowledge had given me.

Backstory given too early can do the same thing. It can make a person put the book down once and for all, instead of just pulling them from the story. It can be off-putting or color the reader's entire perception of the character.

Q4U: Have you ever put down a book because you learned something about the main character that was "too much" for you to carry through 300+ pages?


k said...

Okay I get your point, But depending on how the writer drops that little tidbit of information in has got to be the key. Putting that information in can 1. make the reader stop reading or 2. Pique their interest.

Why was she a cross dresser?
Was it true or just a rumor?
How does she look as a cross dresser?

You have to think, after you overheard that conversation, it stuck in your mind. Even while you were discussing potty training, and even now as you were writing your blog, right?

Miss Sharp said... on one hand, the backstory in Jeannie's example was dropped in accidentally, maybe even clumsily. Without a doubt, lack of authorial control is something that will make most discerning readers stop reading.

But on the other hand, having this information is what made this client memorable and interesting. What would she be if she just came in for a session to discuss toilet training? Why, she'd be nothing but normal and forgettable, maybe even boring! Certainly not fodder for a story on a writing blog.

True, as a psychotherapist, having this information may not have been helpful in treating her fairly in real life...I don't know, Jeannie...maybe it's just your excellent story-telling skills, but I bet most of us want to know more about her and it's all due to the (accidental) backstory!

Jeannie Campbell, LMFT said...

okay ladies. point taken. did this just backfire on me? ha!

i like your analysis that authorial control has everything to do with how the information would be received. since i received the backstory VERY clumsily (indeed, wasn't even to have received it all if i hadn't been eavesdropping), that would have made a difference.

thanks for engaging with me!

Lara Schiffbauer said...

I enjoyed the post and what it meant brought up to me is how important it is to use backstory to your benefit. I wanted to know more about your story, true. But if I was writing a story about potty training, and cross dressing had nothing to do with it, I would have totally diverted my reader and they might become confused or angry when I didn't follow through on the tease in the backstory. A point I hadn't really thought of before, being a relatively "new" writer!

Lilly Maytree said...

I agree that backstory too early can pull you out of the story if…

It is something controversial (like cross-dressing) that most readers already have pre-conceived opinions about, so they transfer those opinions to the character before they get a chance to know her by watching her actions.

Or if it's delivered before we make any emotional connections. Like, "She lost her mother at an early age…" as opposed to "Bedtimes were hardest for his little girl. He read stories, sang songs, and even prayed out loud with her. But later, he would always find some small item of Sharon's she had taken to bed. A hair brush, a scarf, and once even an old slipper. He really didn't know if he should clean out that closet, yet, or not…"

Personally, I prefer doling out the backstory in bits and pieces throughout, in order to generate questions that entice readers to follow the characters like Hansel and Gretel, leaving their trail of breadcrumbs through the woods. At the same time, I feel a truly good writer with a compelling plot could make us believe almost anything. Which leads me to conclude that we're all right, and we're all wrong… how fascinating is that?

What a fun post!

chihuahuazero said...

Ah, useful post. One of my friends is writing a story on Google Docs, but she presents back-story and a flashback in the second scene. I'm not sure if it works for her story, but I'll keep this at mind.

Anonymous said...

I like to think of backstory the same way you get to know someone in real life. Would they tell you up front some horrible episode from the past that coloring all of their present behavior? Probably not, and if they did, that would be a clue about this person as well.

When I get to know someone in real life or in virtual life online, I usually get to know a bit about them and then a bit more. As they trust me more, they tell me more. That's the way I write characters and their backstory as well.

Sophia Chang said...

Hmm...this is probably the first writing blog post where I got as much out of the comments as the post - really great advice and thoughts.

I actually love backstory. Why did it get such a bad rep? Mayhaps I will write a post on that...

Kerry Gans said...

Good points, all. But you can also purposely color the reader's view of someone by dropping incorrect backstory early on, which sets up a great moment when you find out the truth.

I read a blog post once (I can't remember where, unfortunately) that points out that JK Rowling does that masterfully by having other characters drop their opinions of a new character, which colors the way the reader sees that new character - and misdirects us from the true villain at the same time!

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Both comments and questions are welcome. I hope you enjoyed your time on the couch today.