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Back story

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earthshoes



Joined: 17 Jun 2004
Posts: 213
Location: SW Missouri
Back story  Reply with quote  

I generally write in first person, but the newest project (book!) has arrived on the page (and is best) in third. Backstory is easy to handle in first. But in third . . . it feels like info dumping no matter what I do.

How do you guys handle this?
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Post Sun Aug 22, 2004 7:27 pm   View user's profile Send private message Send e-mail AIM Address Yahoo Messenger
Unc



Joined: 18 Aug 2004
Posts: 300
Location: South of FRANCE
Re: Back story  Reply with quote  

earthshoes wrote:
I generally write in first person, but the newest project (book!) has arrived on the page (and is best) in third. Backstory is easy to handle in first. But in third . . . it feels like info dumping no matter what I do.

How do you guys handle this?


It's always a challenge, because you have to essentially stop telling the story for a while to tell the back story. These days I tend to try to draw a clue from a very intelligent discussion I saw between the director and writer and stars of the film "American Beauty." There was a great *deal* of back story to that film, but you never saw it onscreen. There was the back story of a once-happy marriage between Lester and Carolyn Burnham. There was an even stranger and more important back story concerning Col. Frank Fitts, USMC -- while in the Marines he once had a gay love affair with another soldier, and in fact named his son after him. There is even "future back story" in that in the original script the two kids get blamed for the tragic event at the end of the film and go to jail for it while the real perpetrator goes free and his wife (who knows the truth) continues to live with him and pretend she doesn't.

The point of this fascinating exchange was that none of this was onscreen, because it didn't need to be. It was in the characters' heads, in the present, as they acted in the present. And thus the back story influenced everything they did, without having to be spelled out for the audience.

I think what I learned from this is to be very, very critical about how much back story is absolutely necessary.

Another lesson I learned from my personal mentor as a writer, Dorothy Dunnett, is about *when* to reveal back story. DD writes the best characters I have ever encountered in fiction, and one of the reasons they work so well is that the characteers don't reveal every mystery about themselves up front. She can introduce a character who, when you meet him, is so much larger than life that you are tempted, as reader, to think that you've got him "bagged," that you know who he is. You haven't got a clue. She then proceeds to "peel" that character, like an onion, revealing successively deeper and deeper layers. And even then you haven't got a clue; she can reveal something in the sixth book of a series about a character you have followed for 2000 pages that rocks you back in your chair and makes you say, "I never saw that coming...now I have to reread the entire series with that revelation in mind."

I guess what I'm trying to say is that often back story is not really necessary, if the character we invent does a good job of reflecting that back story in the present. And sometimes it doesn't pay to write down to the audience and clue them in to something that happened in the past until it's really, really necessary in order to understand the present. I hope my own approach recently paraphrases Orson Welles in those old wine commercials: "We shall serve no back story until its time." Cool

Post Mon Aug 23, 2004 3:17 am   View user's profile Send private message Send e-mail Visit poster's website
palmer



Joined: 30 Mar 2004
Posts: 1324
Re: Back story  Reply with quote  

earthshoes wrote:
I generally write in first person, but the newest project (book!) has arrived on the page (and is best) in third. Backstory is easy to handle in first. But in third . . . it feels like info dumping no matter what I do.

How do you guys handle this?


I haven't done very much handling of that, and know very little about it, but I don't see a lot of people jumping in...

I think that there should be as little of it as possible -- excepting those double plot creatures or framed stories that are essentially one big flashback -- and should rear its head at times that make sense in terms of the main story.

Examples:

- character reflects on something that has just happened which makes him think of something in the past that helps the reader to understand better
- same as above, but with character looking forward to an imminent event, meeting, etc.

The point is that the back story's appearance should connect strongly to what is happening in "story time"

There! Now you have the benefit of my ignorance.


Cheers,

John Palmer

Post Mon Aug 23, 2004 9:11 am   View user's profile Send private message
Hillary



Joined: 13 Apr 2004
Posts: 1767
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From a reader's perspective, I hate soapbox speeches. Just don't preach it at the reader, maybe intersperse bits of it here and there and you should be fine.

That's my 2 cents.

Post Mon Aug 23, 2004 9:23 am   View user's profile Send private message Visit poster's website
Lauren



Joined: 07 Mar 2004
Posts: 1582
Location: Massachusetts
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Info dumps - it's all in how they're handled.

First I ask myself how much of the backstory the reader really needs to know. Does it help in understanding the character's motivations or reactions? Or is it just something I know about the character that has no place in the plot?

Second, what's the best way to deliver that information? How do you work it into the story?

One of my main characters has a cousin who she used to be close to. There's the story of a party they went to one evening where the main character learned something rather disturbing about her younger cousin. However, at this point I don't know if the cousin will even come into the story - I'm trying not to have a million characters. So, that bit gets shelved for now.

But, if I end up introducing one of the other partygoers, with whom the main character has made an uneasy peace, it could go back in. Probably in a flashback. Depends on whether I figure out if his role can be assumed by another character.

Dialogue can be useful for backstory too, and help you get just the important details out. If you're going for a normal rhythm of conversation, someone's not going to launch into their whole family history when asked a question. They'll most likely fill in the important parts and move on - just the facts, ma'am, no need for flowerly language.

The other main character was handed a file on his own life. It spooks him, but as he's reading things that other people have learned about him, you get his own thoughts and reflections. Info from two sources dovetailing together. I'm still not sure if I like this method, but we'll see how it turns out in future revisions.

I'm reading Steven Erikson's Malazan series right now. They're huge books, but he keeps backstory to a minimum. I'm still learning things about characters I thought I had pegged, and like Unc said above, now there's a whole new layer to them.

Have I made any sense or did I just sort of ramble?
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Post Mon Aug 23, 2004 9:31 am   View user's profile Send private message Send e-mail Visit poster's website AIM Address ICQ Number
chris
Site Admin


Joined: 02 Mar 2004
Posts: 3833
Location: People Republic of Northern California
Re: Back story  Reply with quote  

earthshoes wrote:
I generally write in first person, but the newest project (book!) has arrived on the page (and is best) in third. Backstory is easy to handle in first. But in third . . . it feels like info dumping no matter what I do.

How do you guys handle this?


I generally try to give as little information as I can up front, allowing for some reveal along the way. I had to deal with this a lot in Stupidest Angel, since the characters have a whole book of history together. I chose to reveal it one line at a time, often to illuminate something the character just said. Here's a partial scene from Stupidest Angel. I don't know if this is the right way to handle back story, but it's how I chose to do it here:



“Please don't hurt us,” said Bert, the taller, thinner of the two kids. (She had been thinking of them as Bert and Ernie -- not because they really looked like the puppets, but because they had the same relative shapes -- except for the big hand up their bottoms, of course.)
“I'm not going to hurt you. It's great to have you along. The guys at the Christmas tree lot are a little wary of me since I fed one of their coworkers to a sea monster a few years ago, so you guys can sort of act as a social buffer.” Damn, she shouldn't have mentioned the sea monster. She'd had so many years of obscurity between the time she'd been pushed out of the movie business until the revival of the cult status of her movies, that she'd lost most of her people skills. And then there was that fifteen-year disconnect with reality when she'd been known as Pine Cove's crazy lady -- but since she'd hooked-up with Theo, and had stayed on her anti-psychotics, things had been a lot better.
She turned into the parking lot of Pine Cove Hardware and Gift, where a half-acre of tarmac was corralled off for the Christmas tree lot. Upon spotting her car, three middle-aged guys in canvas aprons quick-stepped their way into the store, threw the bolt and turned the Open sign to Closed.


Of course Molly is nuts, so blurting out the part about the sea monster is not out of character. One would have to be more subtle with someone who isn't off her meds.

Sometimes back story IS the story, the current action doesn't make sense without it, but it's sometimes good to let the reader wonder -- make an allusion to something in the character's past, but don't reveal it right away. In Coyote Blue, I mention early on that the two things that Sam Hunter loathes are cops and indians. The first because he killed one and the second because he was one. (Something like that, I'm too lazy to go get the book and look it up.) At this point, we've only seen him in the context of a businessman, a presumably white businessman in a white man's world, so this is a big tease to the reader. Some shit has happend to this guy. We won't find out for several chapters what, exactly, it was.

Think of the classic gunfighter movie motif (think Shane) where the gunfighter has hung up his guns, and only through extreme pressure will he strap them on once again, and this time, it's for good. The suspense is not only, "what will happen to him?" but "what has happened to him?"

And don't be afraid to just tell the reader something. You don't have to invent a device to maintain POV. Shift that mama-jama to omnicient and say what you need to say. For instance. "Bob was a closet crossdresser, he knew from women's shoes." And if you need to step out for an info dump, either be as succint as possible, or write the shit out of it. Show off a little. Pay the reader back for the time away from the current action. If, there's enough to reveal, you can also flashback and tell it in a scene -- then you're in real time. You're moving the action.

Post Mon Aug 23, 2004 11:11 am   View user's profile Send private message Send e-mail Visit poster's website
earthshoes



Joined: 17 Jun 2004
Posts: 213
Location: SW Missouri
 Reply with quote  

Thanks everyone for your input. For the time being, I've decided to dedicate a chapter to the back story, largely for my own benefit. If I like the finished effect, it will stay, but if I don't, I'll simply stick it aside for a reference point. The clearer bead I've got on the character and her background the easier it will be to trust the story through her eyes and actions.

I really, really hate it when writers introduce back story in an artificial way so I'll have to think about this pretty carefully as I go along.
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Post Mon Aug 23, 2004 7:13 pm   View user's profile Send private message Send e-mail AIM Address Yahoo Messenger
Lauren



Joined: 07 Mar 2004
Posts: 1582
Location: Massachusetts
 Reply with quote  

One of the panels at Worldcon I'm planning to attend is called "As You Know, Bob: The Positives and Negatives of Infodumps." I'll take notes and post them if you'd like. It will most likely have a sci-fi/fantasy slant - I'm betting it will be geared toward infodumps like explaining the science behind some futuristic machine, or the cultural taboos of goblins, but I think there will be a lot of points that can translate into all genres.
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Post Mon Aug 23, 2004 7:57 pm   View user's profile Send private message Send e-mail Visit poster's website AIM Address ICQ Number
earthshoes



Joined: 17 Jun 2004
Posts: 213
Location: SW Missouri
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Yes please. Thank you very much Lauren.
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Post Mon Aug 23, 2004 8:16 pm   View user's profile Send private message Send e-mail AIM Address Yahoo Messenger
Fairydust



Joined: 23 Aug 2004
Posts: 28
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I have been trying to write a story for 5 months. It began one and quickly snowballed into the Hellish thing it is now. It's horrible because originally it began one way but then I changed because I felt my main character needed a back story. My best friend said it sounded interesting but not to go into the back story too much. I wish I could say I remember a book with good back story but the only ones I remember are *whispers* V.C. Andrews horrible novels. I keep getting more visions for the backstory than the current one I'm writing. Should I just work on both at one time? Confused
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Post Tue Aug 31, 2004 11:18 pm   View user's profile Send private message
chris
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Joined: 02 Mar 2004
Posts: 3833
Location: People Republic of Northern California
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Fairydust wrote:
I have been trying to write a story for 5 months. It began one and quickly snowballed into the Hellish thing it is now. It's horrible because originally it began one way but then I changed because I felt my main character needed a back story. My best friend said it sounded interesting but not to go into the back story too much. I wish I could say I remember a book with good back story but the only ones I remember are *whispers* V.C. Andrews horrible novels. I keep getting more visions for the backstory than the current one I'm writing. Should I just work on both at one time? Confused



Write it all. Even if you cut the back story later, you may be able to use it. Sometimes you need to write the back story to find out where you need to go. If, once you've found out where you were going, you find you don't need the backstory anymore, cut it. Just don't let it get so far out of hand that you have to change everything to serve it. It's sort of like time travel: be careful what you do in the past, because you could seriously muck-up the present.

And I haven't read any V.C. Andrews, but from what the folks in here say about her books, I don't think it's a good idea to use her as a positive role model.

Post Wed Sep 01, 2004 2:51 am   View user's profile Send private message Send e-mail Visit poster's website
Fairydust



Joined: 23 Aug 2004
Posts: 28
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chris wrote:
Write it all. Even if you cut the back story later, you may be able to use it. Sometimes you need to write the back story to find out where you need to go. If, once you've found out where you were going, you find you don't need the backstory anymore, cut it. Just don't let it get so far out of hand that you have to change everything to serve it. It's sort of like time travel: be careful what you do in the past, because you could seriously muck-up the present.

And I haven't read any V.C. Andrews, but from what the folks in here say about her books, I don't think it's a good idea to use her as a positive role model.


Well, V.C. Andrews books horrible and mainly 12 yrs. old girls read them for the dirty parts. Do not read Flowers in the Attic you will be scarred even as an adult.

I'm still changed the back story but have all my old sub-stories. Ii noticed the whole muck-up the story very early ten pages into the story and the past is slightly messing up the other story I'm writing.
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