Elizabeth: We Interrupt this Story . . .

Like several others here on the blog, I’ve spent a bit of time recently reading and judging contest entries. Some have been really good and some, like Jilly mentioned in her Give that Girl A Goal post, have suffered from an unfortunate lack of goal-motivation-conflict direction.

Sadly, a few have also suffered from “and here’s a big chunk of backstory”. That’s annoying enough in a full-length book, but deadly in a 50-page contest entry where the author has a short amount of story real-estate to make a strong impression.

It can be hard for a new writer to avoid weighing down their story with all of the details about the characters that they have dreamed up over time, just like it can be a challenge not to include all the fascinating facts that might have been dug up during the research phase of the story. As we were taught at McDaniel (and frankly in most wring craft classes), backstory is best when it is interwoven throughout the story with a light touch. Too much backstory, especially in big chunks, can slow the story down, break the tension, and cause your reader to lose interest.

Swaths of backstory aren’t just the purview of beginning writers, however. I recently read a new mystery story by a previously-unread-by-me author that was just swimming in it. The book was part of a popular series with more than a thousand reviews on Amazon and a 4.5 rating, so I had high expectations. The story got off to an okay start, but after about 75 pages or so, the current action stopped and there was about 100 pages of backstory. While it provided information about the heroine’s past, it was completely unnecessary. The relevant information could have been woven into the story with a few well-placed sentences here and there. Instead, it was a big, not particularly interesting slog of “this happened, and then this happened.” After about 20 pages I started to skim. By the time the story returned to the current action, I had lost interest and pretty much speed-read the rest of the story.

Unfortunate, as I had high hopes that this would be the beginning of an entertaining, new series.

While some of the online reviews of the book commented on the back story, the readers didn’t seem to be as bothered by it as I was.

The novel did lag a bit during the heroine’s back story. However, it was interesting to see where she came from and how she became a detective and what has shaped her own life.

The review below had me scratching my head at the “non-formulaic construction” comment and thinking “audacity” wasn’t quite the word I would have chosen.

A previous review mentioned that the construction of the plot involves a large section of exposition that is simply background and does not advance the story in any way. While this is quite true, I have come to like the author’s audacity in using a non-forumalic construction. While it might not pass muster at a writers workshop, the author constructs the story as she sees fit.

Many reviewers cut the author some slack, saying that since it was the first book in the series, it was perfectly reasonable to include a lot of setup and background information. That argument doesn’t really hold water for me since I generally expect books in a series to be able to stand on their own. Off the top of my head I can’t think of any series I’ve read where that wasn’t true. Some, I will admit, did resort to dreaded prologues to front-load background, but the information was also woven into the story, so one could have easily skipped them.

Obviously, considering the positive reviews this story/author got, there is a definite audience of readers that will happily consume large chunks of backstory. However, had I reviewed the story (which I didn’t, because obviously the author was not my catnip), it would probably have read something like the reader’s review below:

Interesting historical setting , zero character development, tons of unnecessary details.

Ouch!

So, how do you feel about back-story? Can you recommend any books where the author did a really good job of incorporating it into the main story?

12 thoughts on “Elizabeth: We Interrupt this Story . . .

  1. I am kind of immune to a lot of backstory — I’m the kind of person who looks up etymologies for fun, so I LOVE good, relevant and interesting backstory. If the backstory is self-contained, I’m OK (and by that I mean a good story in itself).

    You’ve got trouble if the backstory is more interesting than the foreground, LOL.

    I just keep thinking of the rambling relative who starts telling you a story about taking their car in for an oil change, and then gets sidetracked. “And then Ray comes out from the back office — you know Ray, he’s Charles’ boy. Charles was such a handsome young man, and all the gals thought he was a dreamboat. When he got Anna pregnant, there was such a to-do . . . .” Sometimes the backstory is totally worth it. But it’s got to have content, and it’s got to be told right. And don’t ask me what “told right” is, because I don’t really know (-:. I don’t have any of those old rambles transcribed so I can analyze it.

    Some people absolutely hate that, though. They want the straight story.

  2. I love books where the characters have significant backstories. I think it makes them more interesting and complex BUT I only care about that backstory if it’s important to the story I’m reading. I want it to be the key to the now of the story. AND I want it woven seamlessly into the story, not delivered in deathly, momentum-killing retrospective.

    Loretta Chase is really, really good at this–Lord of Scoundrels, The Last Hellion, most of the Carsington stories–, and what about Jenny C’s legendary Bet Me? Jenny is notorious for being anti-backstory, but she’s brilliant at making sure the characters’ active present is deeply rooted in their past experiences. Min’s perceptions about her appearance and her mental baggage about food, Cal’s hang-ups about his dyslexia and his trigger about being called stupid, his determination to protect his nephew from the kind of bullying he and his brother experienced, his choice to set up his own company with his friends instead of joining the family law firm…the whole book is about how the characters are shaped but not defined by their backstories. That’s genius.

    • The cool thing with Bet Me is that she manages to do that without directly referencing the past. All that stuff–Min’s mom’s concerns about her weight, Cal’s family’s put-down of his learning challenges–all happen in the present, too, in a way that makes it clear they’ve been fighting these battles for their entire lives. As you say, genius.

    • Great examples, Jilly and of course now I want to re-read all of those stories 🙂

      I too love robust backstories, I just don’t want to stop the story to get that information in bulk.

    • Ah, I think I see what’s going on. There’s backstory, which is largely in the background, and only brought up on the just-in-time theory of management (only enough to make the point, and only when it’s needed).

      Then there’s BACKSTORY, which is whole lump of infodump, wedged in and pinned in place with whatever character trait that needs “explaining”.

      (-: And depending on my mood and how well the writer writes, I can enjoy both!

  3. The worst I’ve ever read for backstory overload is Fancy Pants by Susan Elizabeth Phillips. We not only start by learning Francesca’s back story, but her mother’s and her grandmother’s before the story finally takes off. And little of it is relevant to the present day.

    • I have to admit that story has never made it to the top of my TBR pile and now I can sense it slipping a little further down the pile 🙂

      • I have to confess, that’s one of my least favorite SEP books, at least in part because the heroine is a Brit, and she’s such a cliche I was embarrassed for her. Can’t remember much about her backstory, because I hated her in the now. I have a whole collection of SEP’s books on my keeper shelf, but not that one 😉

    • That triggers a half-memory of some story that started with a whole family history, but it was something I enjoyed a lot. (Not SEP; wish I could remember. Did Practical Magic do this? I think they did — the whole family was death on men. I liked that beginning a lot.)

      And then another memory was triggered: James Michener’s Hawaii. Oh, man, I read that book when I was way too young, and HE started with the volcanic processes. Which were interesting, but very hard for me to get through (I think I was ten?). My mother had to read the first chapter to me during the dishes. But then I rolled right through it after she gave me a boost.

  4. 100 pages! At that point, I’d call it a separate timeline, and it would have to be REALLY important to telling the story for me to stick with it. But even if it’s a different timeline and done well, I think the author runs the risks of losing some readers.

    As for books that weave in backstory pretty successfully, I’d point to the examples Lisa Cron uses a lot when she teaches Story Genius courses: Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt, and Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng. The way Lisa teaches using backstory is-at least as I understand it- the way Jilly described it in her comment. But not, I think, what you ran into on your latest read :-(.

  5. I’m having an interesting problem with backstory in my current project. I’m working on the third book with the same characters, after a hiatus of probably 10 years, at least. My critique partners don’t remember these people or their problems, and after they’d read the first chapter, they had a *lot* of questions and issues about motivations and what not. So I answered those questions, and now I’ve got … backstory … everywhere … in chapter one. Argh! Must find a way to satisfy these people without drowning them in boring exposition.

    What a life we lead, right?

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