Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Sometimes we need a little backstory

My book club is reading The Time Traveler's Wife this month. I read the book a few years ago for a previous book club, but I was interested to come back to it as an aspiring writer. It is, after all, a very popular book that has done really well on the bestseller lists. Thanks to having the memory retention of a fruit fly, I only vaguely remembered the plot points of the book - he traveled through time, he had a wife - so I was coming to the story with a relatively fresh set of eyes.

Lo and behold, this book was breaking rules all OVER the place! There was a prologue, for one (I thought only J.R.R. Tolkien could get away with that). And what was the prologue about, you ask?


The insidious, not to be trusted, never to be included, BACKSTORY. Yeah, it's an all-caps kind of thing. The whole prologue basically establishes what happens when Henry, Mr. Time Traveler, time travels. Where he goes, how he ends up there, how he feels, what happens to him when he gets there, etc. It's not tied to a specific event in any way, it's really just to give the reader a basis for understanding what kind of time traveler he is. It's classic backstory info.

So why is it in there? How did it get past the keen eyes of beta readers, agents, and editors?

I obviously can't say for certain, but I can hazard a guess. Because while it is backstory, it's not an info dump. We're not getting his whole life history - in fact, we're not really getting a history at all - we're just getting enough information for us to understand the story that's coming up. They're details that are necessary to understand how the time travel affects his life, and rather than awkwardly integrating them into a scene, the author uses the opportunity to establish the character's personality and his relationship to the time travel. It's backstory, but it's character-building backstory, and it's intriguing enough to draw us into the rest of the story. It's an atypical time traveler scenario (she describes it as a disease), so the premise is set from the beginning, as is the conflict.

The lesson I took away from this book is that a little backstory never hurt anyone, SO LONG AS it helps the story. It should be accomplishing something else at the same time - establishing the conflict, introducing character personalities and habits, setting the hook of the story, etc. It's especially useful in cases like The Time Traveler's Wife, where we need to know the technical details of something but we don't want those details bogging down an actual scene.

I know BACKSTORY is a hotly debated topic, but it's still needed. Even if you only mention certain pieces of the story, we need that info before going into a scene so we as the reader are appropriately set up to understand the tension of the scene. The trick is knowing when to stop so you don't inundate your reader with unnecessary and tension-breaking info.

What about your thoughts on BACKSTORY? Do you agree, disagree, unagree, reagree? Weigh in!


Tere Kirkland said...

I think the key to backstory is in the delivery. I just read a sample of Rot and Ruin, which takes place in a post-zombie-apocalypse world where the author introduces the society via a first person narrator WITHOUT it being overly info-dumpy. O_o

In this case, the mc is now of age, and needs a job. The various jobs he tries (and passes on, for the most part) really paint a vivid picture of the world the kid is living in.

Other times, voice is enough. But I prefer to hold back on backstory until a point where the reader has become emotionally invested, then let 'er rip!

Thought provoking post!

Christina Lee said...

Oooh I like what Tere said about delivery because I would tend to agree. Not too much in the beginning and then "sprinkled" throughout.

I actually had trouble getting through the beginning of that book b/c of that prologue, if I'm being honest. Then I sailed (mostly)---the concept and emotional investment in the characters made it hard to put down in parts.

JEM said...

I agree with both you ladies :). I don't remember having trouble with the book the first time I read it, but I definitely paused in outrage the second time.

Theresa Milstein said...

I think every book has a bit of backstory. How can you not? But the problem is most beginner writers use it way too much. It's like starting a sentence with "But". You can do it, if you know how. But grammar teachers often say not to because it's harder to explain WHEN to use it.

Creepy Query Girl said...

as long as it's active backstory and, like you said, only contains the details we really need- I think it's totally doable!

mshatch said...

I enjoy a well-written, captivating backstory so I'm all in favor. What I don't want is a boring info dump or the "As you know, Bob..." or anything unnecessary tot he story. Recently I cut thousands (yes, thousands) of words of what I thought was back story but was really info dumping.

And I LOVED The Time Traveler's Wife.

Dianne K. Salerni said...

There are lots of "rules" for writing, but they generally tend to be "guidelines" which can be broken as soon as the writer learns to break them artistically. Consider e.e. cummings and capital letters, for instance.

And if you're still considering a first page critique over at my blog -- I say yay! Marcy and I are gentle and kind and we try really, really hard to be helpful. :D

Stina Lindenblatt said...

My CP told me to move my backstory to my first chapter so my mc's attitude made sense. I did, but I made sure it was a short as possible (a paragraph), and had as much voice as possible.

I really depends on the story and just how necessary the backstory is.

Great post!