I seem to be genetically prewired for backstory. In conversation, I can’t seem to start out with the point, I need to back up and give you all the reasons why this thing that I’m telling you is so significant, humorous, or profound. I don’t seem to trust my friends and family to really understand. And sadly, this translates to my writing.
If you don’t want people reading your novels, use it, use it loads! It’s great reader-repellant. Backstory can be so dreadfully boring. Case in point, Les Miserables. Did I just say that? :ducks from all the bricks being lobbed at her head:
I did say that, but let me explain. I bow to Victor Hugo’s awesomeness, but when I went to read Les Mis (abbreviated for brevity’s sake <— see? you didn’t need that, you knew that already) from cover-to-cover before the movie came out, I about died. Granted, things were vastly different in the publishing world in his time, but could you get back to the story already, Victor? I learned loads reading, all kinds of stuff, like the bit about the flying nuns. Cool stuff, but it really had little to do with the main story which was already compelling and brilliant on its own. Nowadays, I’m certain Les Mis would have elicited reams of cuts and ended up a rather slim version of itself. And while I learned a lot, I also found myself drifting off a lot. Backstory, especially the non-compelling sort, is great for insomniacs. So do your readers a favor, cut most of it.
When I find it, I ask myself these three questions. Actually, these work well for a lot of things that need editing. Is it natural/organic? Is it necessary? Is it compelling?
Is it natural? Does this bit of backstory organically come from the scene or what’s running through my character’s head? Be mindful of your POV, this is especially important if you’re not writing in the omniscient POV, because it means you’re limited to viewing the world (or having your memory triggered) by what’s within your character’s sensory grasp.
Is it necessary? There’s a quote (can’t find it at the moment) about editing out the boring bits of life. (If you find the quote before I do, leave it in the comments, I’ll edit it in.) That’s what needs to happen with backstory. Make sure this memory, or bit of history, is crucial to the plot (internal or external plots/character arcs).
Is it compelling? If the reader couldn’t care less, the reader will skip right over it. And why bother having it in your book at all if your reader is skipping it. Every sentence, paragraph, scene, and chapter should be compelling. They won’t be, but try! And if that little reminiscence you just added is only sweet to you, it needs to go in your notes about your book, not in the actual book. Right now, I’m combining the first three chapters of my WIP because of this. Too much backstory. And though it was great backstory, made me all teary-eyed, it didn’t move my story along. So out it went. And it’s there to help me understand my characters, and it may show up again in tidbits later in the story (where I find a scene lacking depth), but it didn’t belong at the beginning. I have a feeling there’ll be a lot more of that as I edit.
Do you find your story weighed down by the past? How do you master the backstory beast?
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