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Monday, January 23, 2012

Now that's just bad luck!


You know last week when I mentioned I tend to use the same shoe picture more than once? Well, this is one of those times. I remembered using this picture back in 2009, and I thought it would be perfect for what I wanted to talk about today. What I didn't remember was what that older post was about. Funny thing is, it was not all that different from what I'm going to post today. If you're dying of curiosity, you can read it here.

Back in 2009, I used this picture to initiate a discussion about inner conflict. Sure, we can see that the woman's heel is broken, which is an inconvenient external conflict. What we can't see, is what's going on inside of her. Why might this broken heel be such a horrible thing for her? Today's post was supposed to be about backstory. What in this woman's past has made this broken heel such a crisis? Were these the much beloved shoes of her dead grandmother? Did her ex-husband give them to her? Did this very heel save her life when she used it to bash in the skull of the man who tried to rape her?

What I'm getting at today (as I was in the 2009 post) is this: Why do we care that this woman has broken a heel? On the surface, it's just a piece of bad luck. Yes, if it happened to me, it would be an inconvenience so I might feel sorry for her for a moment. But if I passed this woman on the street in the morning as she struggled with her shoe, I'd probably forget all about her by lunchtime because I don't know her. And since I don't know her, I don't care a whole lot. Certainly not enough to read a 200 plus page book about her.

I've had some issues recently with making my MC likable--someone the reader will care about--so I re-read the first chapters of some of my favorite books with characters I loved immediately and could not stop thinking about long after I finished reading the book. You know what they all had in common? Backstory. Not only in the first chapter, but on the very first page. This goes against everything I've learned since I actively began pursuing novel writing. So, as things often do, it's got me thinking...what is the deal with backstory? Why is it so frowned upon? Wouldn't you be more likely to read a book about this woman with the broken heel if you knew right away that the shoes were special to her because they saved her life?

Now, I'm not saying I'm going against the grain and want to start some kind of pro-backstory protest. I just want to hear your thoughts on the matter. And if you have any appropriate links on the subject, please do share. I'll be posting more about this in the next few days, but for now, I'd love to know what you think.



34 comments:

Jennifer Shirk said...

I know backstory gets a bad rap.
For my stories, backstory drives the conflict too. I think it's just a matter of not info dumping it into our stories.

Stephanie Thornton said...

I like to weave in a little backstory here and there, but only a few sentences at a time.

Jen Chandler said...

Pro-backstory protest!! I'd back that up :D

I enjoy backstory immensely. I like knowing where the characters are coming from, especially the antagonist. I honestly don't understand all the issues people have with backstory. I understand the need for grabbing the reader's attention in the first few pages, but a little backstory goes a long way in preparing the reader for the heart of the story. Many times, if it wasn't for the backstory, there wouldn't be a story at all!

Happy Monday,
Jen

Tere Kirkland said...

I think a lot of backstory can be delivered in the first chapter through dialogue and exposition as long as it's not too obvious. There are always ways to introduce the mc and his/her life/lifestyle without info-dumping or too much telling. You just need to strive for balance and use info that drives the story forward.

Fun post, Susan! (PS, going back on sub soon, so please take a vacation from blogging next month. LOL)

Carol Riggs said...

Interesting!! And so true. I always think of the Star Wars movies and how important character is. With the first 3 movies, we were invested in Luke, Leia, and Han's stories. The 4th movie, episode 1...less so for the characters. It was mostly action and special effects. A bit of Anakin, perhaps.

So I think an intro to the character is necessary, to get into the character's head and see what makes them tick. People mostly don't like a DUMP of backstory--perhaps we just have to make sure to trickle out the info so it's not all in one place. :)

strugglingwriter said...

Back story here and there is good. Having the entire first chapter as back story is probably not.

I do like a bit of backstory at the beginning. Just something little to peak my interest in the protagonist.

Patti said...

I think back story is very important, because like you said you have to care about the characters or else you don't care what happens to them. But I do think that back story needs to be interwoven and not just info dumped into the reader's lap. Just my thoughts.

Christauna Asay said...

My editor had to bash this concept into my head. After all the noise out there about starting in the middle of the action, no back story dumps, blah, blah, blah, it was a hard sell to get me to understand that the reader needs to care about my character as a person before they care if someone is shooting at them. No back story dumps, but some back story that makes them seem human.

Nancy said...

I like to learn a little about the character as we go along. If we find out things about her early, that's good. What I don't like is for a story to set up some big action with the character, and then do a long thing on backstory. Do some authors still do that?

Robyn Campbell said...

As long as the author lets the back story trickle down, I want to read it. Bit by bit. But when it is dumped on me, I feel a little overwhelmed and I close the book.

Waving to my pal, Susan! (((Hugs)))

Terri Tiffany said...

I am adding in bits of pieces of backstory and I love reading some of it in books---not tons-but just enough.

Stina Lindenblatt said...

I skipped on the back story in the first chapter of the book I'm now querying. My CP made me add some in. So I added in a short paragraph and it made a huge difference. Of course every time I sent it to a beta reader, I was positive someone would tell me to remove it. No one ever did, because it made sense having it there. :D

Cindy R. Wilson said...

These are great comments! I just got some feedback on a story I wrote and there was a lot of advocating for more back story. You're right about it making us care more for the characters. And if we can weave it in just right, even on the first page, I definitely think it will help more than hurt the story.

Sharon K. Mayhew said...

I think you are right, you have to do what is right for YOUR story. Whether is is backstory upfront or a prologue.... For some books they really work. If it works for your ms, keep it.

Susan Fields said...

What an interesting observation! I never noticed that before. I think what makes me really love a character is if the author shows what hardships he's been through or how he's been treated badly - like Harry Potter and the Dursleys for example.

KC said...

First of all: i love the new look of the blog!

I like knowing a little backstory, sometimes it gives me a better understanding of the character and to some weird extent, gives me something to look forward to like if there was a major change, no change in the character's situation. My humble opinion as a reader, not writer :)

Colene Murphy said...

I agree, back story has a bad rap. But I think (or maybe I just made this up) they frown on it when it isn't done well in the beginning. Like the big CHUNK of crap that happened way back to these people who you donno and donno why any of it matters kind of back story swamp. But like you said, with the shoe for example. If you opened a book to a woman who just broke her heel in a hurry (for instance) ((action)) and she's in tears over it because the heel saved her life and she's on the way to put that man in prison for life, the reader goes..."Huh...I wonder how she used a shoe to survive. I wonder what that man did exactly and where she was when it happened and whos been affected etc etc" You just get this boulder rolling of questions the reader needs to know. It's only a sentence or two of back story, but you've sucked them in with it.

Love the thought provoking post!

Mark Noce said...

My wife gets the same thing with her shoes;) It's the little details that make up a character.

Roxy said...

I like backstory. Yet I cut 30,000 words of it from my manuscript. Editors told me to move the story forward, and I did. With some interesting backstory moments thrown in. I really enjoyed this post!

Jill Kemerer said...

Uggh, the rules!! The rules!!

Backstory is so necessary--especially in small doses. I'm with you--no backstory? Yawn. Unless the plot makes up for it with fast-paced action? Hmm...

erica m. chapman said...

I've had the same problem with my MC, I think it's finally fixed now. I think the art of weaving backstory into the beginning is delicate. I'm not sure I have the right blend, but you're right, we need to know about the MC before we give a crap what she/he is going through! But I do like it to move at a fast pace, so... yeah. I guess we just work what we can in the small time we have!

Great post ;o)

Melissa Hurst said...

I agree you need to have backstory - just not a huge amount at first. When it's sprinkled in throughout the story, it makes things more interesting (at least for me). Great post!

Lynda R Young said...

Interesting...
I don't mind a little backstory as long as it's woven through the story rather than a big block of it. Often backstories are presented as info dumps that stop the flow of the story.

Dawn Simon said...

I, too, have been thinking about backstory in first chapters. I think a little can be fine, but backstory can be done in such a way that it feels like a manuscript is starting in the wrong place or it can make a book drag if it's an info dump. The answer? I'm not sure--which is why I've been thinking about it lately! ;) Nice post!

Angela Ackerman said...

I think the trick with backstory is to look at it as .
'hooks'. Dole out tiny bits that get the reader asking more questions and make them intrigued enough to keep reading.

Backstory also has to tie into the current action. For example, the backstory event in my books opening is that the mc recently had a drowning accident. How can I get this info out without a ton of pace killing telling? Make her first scene in a bathroom with her little brother, attending a toilet send off for his beloved fish. The dead fish in the water is a natural trigger for her to relive what happened to her, and so when it comes out, it isn't dumpy, but hooks the reader along to find out what exactly happened.

I think The Writers Resource has a whole section on backstory...just run a search for the blog and it will be a topic in the sidebar.

Angela Ackerman said...

I think the trick with backstory is to look at it as .
'hooks'. Dole out tiny bits that get the reader asking more questions and make them intrigued enough to keep reading.

Backstory also has to tie into the current action. For example, the backstory event in my books opening is that the mc recently had a drowning accident. How can I get this info out without a ton of pace killing telling? Make her first scene in a bathroom with her little brother, attending a toilet send off for his beloved fish. The dead fish in the water is a natural trigger for her to relive what happened to her, and so when it comes out, it isn't dumpy, but hooks the reader along to find out what exactly happened.

I think The Writers Resource has a whole section on backstory...just run a search for the blog and it will be a topic in the sidebar.

Medeia Sharif said...

I agree with others. Backstory is okay in bits and pieces, throughout the story. I wouldn't want a massive infodump, especially not in the beginning chapters.

Jayne said...

Ah, Susan, I'm so glad you brought this up. The last writing workshop I took was led by a professor who hated backstory. She'd slash it to bits. Everything had to be written in current action.
But, how can you love a character if you don't know their story.

How does Jonathan Franzen get away with writing a 500+ page book (Freedom) that almost ALL backstory, and receive accolades. And I wasn't even really crazy about any of the characters. Aaaahhh!

tfwalsh said...

Great to meet you Susan - am popping over from Lynda R Young's Great Aussie BBQ:)

I totally know what you mean by those book openings that snatch your attention.. and so true that so many break the rules. I guess once someone is published, they can be more lenient with the rules.

Julie Dao said...

I love backstory, personally. The key is to feed it to the reader so that they don't even know they're reading it :) I think it's the giant chunks of backstory that have given it a bad rap...

Claudia Del Balso said...

Hi Susan,
Nice blog you have here. I especially love the shoes! But what woman doesn't like shoes, right? I hopped over from Lynda R. Young's BBQ. I'm a writer as well and I love to read what my fellow writers have to say ;)
I just joined your blog. Hope to see you around in the blogosphere.
Cheers!
Claudia
www.claudiadelbalso.blogspot.com

Michelle Dennis Evans said...

I recently read a book with 3 pages of backstory dumped together .. but the timing was great - It just has to be done well.

Lynette Eklund said...

I like backstory. What I don't like is freeze-framing the actual story for flashbacks so it takes 5 pages for a character to get in the front door, or swallow the sip of coffee....

Name: Holly Bowne said...

I actually like backstory, as long as it's woven in really well. I'm reading a book for the third time right now because I love the two main characters so much. I've been trying to analyze what it is that makes me love them--and you're right. It's not only the "coolness" of who them are now, but knowing the stories of how they became who they are now.