On this blog every Tuesday and Friday I write about story techniques, structure, and/or publishing. Comments and questions are welcome. I also have a personal blog, Amy Deardon, on which I write about a variety of topics purely as they catch my fancy.

I've written one novel, A Lever Long Enough, that I'm honored to say has won two awards. In my life BC (before children) I was a scientist who did bench research.

My book, The Story Template: Conquer Writer's Block Using the Universal Structure of Story, is now available in both hard-copy and e-book formats. I also coach would-be novelists and screenwriters to develop their story. YOU CAN CONTACT ME at amydeardon at yahoo dot com.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Watch the Backstory

I once had it explained to me that backstory is like meeting someone at a casual event where you have to chitchat. If a person comes up to you and starts telling you his life story: I was born in Arizona, my mom was a supervisor in a nursing home that was shut down after twenty-one years because of the suspicious deaths of five patients, I'm researching laws for importing Chinese kumquats and kumquats are often categorized as citrus and are grown on evergreen shrubs or short trees that produce 80 to 100 fruits each year, you'd probably start eyeing the door. Similarly, in a story the reader wants to WATCH the character and make his own judgments, not be told a lot of stuff that he's not sure what parts are relevant. Why the heck should he even care? He doesn't know the characters!

Back story can be defined as events that happened before the story begins. Unless handled carefully, back story will kill your reader’s interest in your story by pulling him away from the forward action.

The back story is important for you the author to understand the events currently taking place in your story, but often not necessary for the reader. Before you explain the past origins of a current circumstance, ask yourself if you need to do this for the reader to enjoy the story. Be tough -- more often than not you won’t.

Back story is incorporated into the story as a flashback, through narrative, or through dialogue.

1. Flashback. A flashback can be defined as a scene depicting a previous event. Since the flashback breaks the story action to insert something for which the reader has not been acclimated, it is difficult to handle well. I generally don’t recommend using flashbacks.

2. Narrative. Narrative is easier to make invisible but describing back story, even in an engaging fashion, breaks away from the forward action and thus should be done with caution if at all.

3. Dialogue. Dialogue is a notorious place to dump back story. Beware the "As you know, Bob" syndrome in which one character explains things of which the second character is already aware, for example past history of an event. A better way to handle background information is if the second character doesn’t know it -- then the reader can learn at the same time. For a great discussion on adding background information via dialogue, see Snyder’s discussion of "Pope in the Pool" in his stellar book Save the Cat!

Good writers know to make understanding the back story essential to the action of the present story. If a character must make a decision, right now, that depends on his knowledge of history, then the reader along with the character will breathlessly anticipate learning the information.

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