Monday, April 2, 2012

A to Z Challenge: B is for Backstory



Welcome to Day 2 of the A to Z Challenge

Many bloggers have chosen a theme for the A to Z.  My pledge since becoming a blogger is to post about writing, so for this event, I will being posting about what I've learned about writing a novel.

________

B is for backstory:  the literary device of a narrative history and set of facts and factors all chronologically earlier than, and related to, a narrative of primary interest. Generally, it is the history of characters or other elements that underlie the situation existing at the main narrative's start.  (Wikipedia)

Generally speaking, readers do not need a bunch of backstory to understand who the characters are and why they are in the opening scenes.  Readers are content to wait a long time to learn the characters’ background as long as they are continuously dealing with a disturbance.  The trick to adding backstory is to drop it in in small doses and only when the need to know arises, and it must be dropped in actively.  There must be tension in backstory and should be used to bridge the conflict.  But make no mistake, backstory is necessary, so the reader can bond with the characters emotionally, to understand why they are doing what they are doing.

In my novel, I have two instances where backstory is vital.  I use dialogue as a way for the characters to hash out their past mistakes while also bringing to light their relevant histories.

Have you found it necessary to use much backstory in your novels?

26 comments:

Jaye Robin Brown said...

It's not about including it, but knowing it. For me to have depth of character, I must know their history. Free writes help with this as do long car rides where I think about what shaped my characters to be at the point where they are in the novel.

You're right that too much on the page is too much, but as writers I think knowing the backstory ourselves is vital.

Valentina Hepburn said...

There is certainly an art to including back story in a novel. A drip drip is best because when I'm reading a novel and the author is constantly arbitrarily bunging in bits of background, I know why it's being included and I lose the thread.
I agree with the above. A good novel includes strong characters, and their stories should unfold in their dialogue and actions.

Kyra Lennon said...

I love backstory, and I am just learning how to use it effectively. I have one huge chunk in my WIP where there is a lot of backstory thrown in at once, but the rest is subtly weaved throughout.

Nicky Wells said...

Another great post, Nancy! Backstory can be a tricky one. I needed rather a lot in my debut, and initially wrote it as a pre-story in one long segment. Well, that went out of the window at the first edit! I chopped the whole thing up and interspered it as a series of flashbacks into the main narratives. I know it's not everyone's cuppa, and it's tricky to do well (she says, blithely) but I've been told I pulled it off. Thankfully, there isn't that much back story in the sequel so I'm doing the 'drip feed' strategy there. Thanks again, can't wait for the "C" post... !

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Small doses is key!
A lot of backstory never ends up in the novel, but we need to know it in order to make the characters real.

Natalie Aguirre said...

That's a great way to introduce backstory--in dialogue where it feels natural. Thanks for sharing.

Susan Roebuck said...

Great minds think alike! I did backstory today too and, thank God, we seem to be in agreement. Small dribbles, but necessary to pad out your characters.

Bish Denham said...

Yep, backstory can be tricky, and I do like it, particularly when it is well shown rather than told.

Misha Gericke said...

Yes, because the entire situation in my story was created in previous generations. Still, I don't put it all onto the page in huge doses.

Heather M. Gardner said...

A little here and there is very effective!
Great post!
Heather

Chris Fries said...

Hi Nancy!

Sorry I missed the A-to-Z kickoff yesterday -- I was out of town and got back late. Luckily, I got my first post up thanks to the miracle of blogger scheduling. ;^)

Awesome post and clearly great minds think alike -- I'm ALSO doing the A to Z about writing, for exactly the same reason you are, lol! It will be interesting to see if we ever hit the word/topic. I'm guessing tomorrow might be one... ;^)

But I love what you've written about the importance of backstory -- at least to us writers. And great point about serving it to the reader in small doses.

Good luck in A-to-Z, and I'll be sure to visit often!

Deana said...

I agree, backstory is essential, but in the right way. Finding that balance is quite the challenge but so worth it if you can master it:)

Eva Gallant said...

I can see I'm going to be learning from your alphabet posts!

Jasmine Walt said...

I never treat my back story as back story. Er, maybe that doesn't make any sense. I guess what I mean is that the rules and world and past of my characters is just kind of matter-of-fact, and revealed naturally. I'm pretty much allergic to info-dumps and try to avoid them at all costs (though sometimes they still sneak through, the bastards!) :)

Debra Harris-Johnson said...

Great advice and info. Backstory can make or break a novel so yu better be careful. Thanks for visiting me the first day!
dreamweaver

The Golden Eagle said...

I have; though I try to avoid backstory, since I tend to overdo it.

And it's interesting--I'm reading a book right now where half or more of what I've read took place before the beginning. It makes me wonder why the author chose to do things that way.


The Golden Eagle
The Eagle's Aerial Perspective

Al Penwasser said...

Now you see? That's what I like about you. I learn so much from your blog. Goodness knows you'll never get it over at my place.
Is 'C' going to be 'Climax'?
Because, if it is, I hope to get some action tomorrow night.
Yeah, I went there.
See what I mean about me?
But...is it?

Donna K. Weaver said...

Backstory can me horribly handled was fantastic. I LOVE the way Brandon Sanderson uses the little snippets of backstory for the character Kaladin in The Way of Kings. By the time the backstory is finally woven into the current part of the tale, it's almost like a physical slap in the face at what's revealed.

Jennifer Hillier said...

Backstory was kind of tricky for me in book two! I had to summarize stuff that happened in the first book without totally giving that original story away, and I also had to try and make it interesting, without info dumping. Yeeeesh. Sequels are hard, yo.

Sarah Pearson said...

I'm revising something at the moment which I know has too much backstory in it. I can't decide if the reader needs to know it, or if I just want to tell them. Still, that's what edits are for :-)

Chuck said...

I would bet if I ever wrote a novel, backstory would be a vital part. I may learn some good stuff here during the Challenge. Thanks Nancy!

Ciara said...

I sprinkle backstory. A line mixed in here or there instead of info dumps.

Alleged Author said...

I definitely think backstory is needed in some novels. Some novels I've read went so fast with so little backstory written that I had no clue what the heck was going on until the end!

Pearson Report said...

Hi Nancy...great "B" - You've really given lots of great insight to the role of "backstory".

In my current A to Z story I am holding out with sharing backstory in hopes the reader will stretch his/her imagination and think outside the box.

I'm enjoying your posts.

Jenny @ Pearson Report
Co-Host of the Blogging from A to Z Challenge.

Joylene said...

I think that anything that helps the reader understand or relate to the characters is vital in a good story. But you're absolutely right, it shouldn't be overdone. The secret is to know when to cut and add. I'm a seat-of-the-pants kind of girl. If I find myself jumping over parts when I'm reading my work, I know for sure the reader won't want to read it either. At least I think I know. LOL.

Lisa L. Regan said...

This is one of those devices where it gets too easy to do the "info dump". I'm trying hard in my newest novel to drop small doses of the backstory here and there as I go, just as you suggest, kind of like crumbs. I do think it is super important though in many books to allow readers to connect to the characters.