1. Jewels
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    Jewels Member

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    Problem with Backstory

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Jewels, Feb 6, 2012.

    It's really difficult to know when to start bringing in the backstory for characters. It's very frowned upon to give big chunks of backstory too soon and all the writing books out there say to introduce it gradually.

    My question is when is it too soon to start bringing it in? I wrote a story recently where I introduced a couple of sentences in the first paragraph which I thought helped create a bit of intrigue and interest, but I was critiqued for it in my writing group.

    What do other people think about backstory? Is the first paragraph too soon or does it depend on how it's done?
     
  2. madhoca
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    madhoca Contributing Member Contributor

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    It's sometimes used in a slightly ironic way right at the start:
    "James had a lovely wife and secure job in the City. Everything about his existence was ordered. His school teachers had often used the word 'conscientious' in his reports. So, in fact, he was amazed to find himself making off with the company Porsche accompanied by a nubile lap dancer who had been a stranger to him only twenty-four hours previously."
     
  3. Kallithrix
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    Kallithrix Banned

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    I generally don't want to see backstory in the first chapter at all. I want to see characters doing things and being interesting and showing us their personality, not paragraphs introducing their childhood, home life, first love, reason they got into computer engineering instead of going to med school etc. If it's a single piece of information that can be dropped seamlessly into a sentence, and actually has an immediately bearing on the current action taking place, then fine. Otherwise, leave it til you've established your character better and made us give a damn about their backstory first.
     
  4. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    Never, if at all possible. Tell the story you are telling, not some other story that happened at some other time.
     
  5. Protar
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    Protar Active Member

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    What story is that? It sounds interesting?

    At the OP, the important thing is to integrate the backstory smoothly. Give little bits of information at a time, and do it when the current scene connects somehow to the part of the backstory you're describing. And put it in through conversations between characters (so long as it makes sense for them to be talking about it.) or dreams/flashbacks.
     
  6. Protar
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    Protar Active Member

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    I'm going to have to disagree here. All stories have some form of backstory. Even if you started the story from the character's birth there's still the story of their parents and their grandparents and great grandparents etc. Unless you start the story from the beginning of time back story is necessary and there's nothing wrong with that: In real life, events don't just happen for no reason, they're the result of other events further back, which are in turn the result of previous events, creating a chain of events going back to the beginning of time.
     
  7. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    Yes, but we don't have to know those stories. I'm sure there were lots of events in Atticus Finch's childhood that shaped his decision to become a lawyer and impelled him to defend Tom Robinson, but we don't hear about any of that. The only backstory we hear from Atticus' past is his father's admonition when he was a boy that it was a sin to kill a mockingbird. And the only reason we hear it is because he is telling Jem in order to impart a lesson to him. But it also gives us a view as to Atticus' life view.

    Backstory is something the author needs to know. But it should only be included in the story to the extent that it is directly needed to tell the story. As Cog likes to say, "write story, not backstory".
     
  8. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    Exactly -- which is why I qualified "never" with "if at all possible". Sometimes the reader needs a bit of backstory to properly understand what is happening. But almost all the time I find myself reading backstory it turns out to be an unnecessary digression: padding or worse.
     
  9. Protar
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    Protar Active Member

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    Well of course it should be kept relevant. It's just there'll always be some relevant backstory so there's no occasion were you never reveal any backstory whatsoever.
     
  10. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    Let's keep in mind the OP's original question:

    First of all, let's be clear: there is a difference between what is an inherent part of the story but which took place in a time prior to the period in which the bulk of the story is taking place, and what is "backstory", or background to the main story. We're talking about the latter. And as such, I'm pretty sure there should not be "big chunks" of it to bring in. Like strong spices, backstory should be lightly sprinkled, if used at all. A sentence here or there should be all that you would need, and only if the reader really needs to know in order to understand what is going on in the story.

    Secondly, the first paragraph is certainly not the place to do it. You haven't even pulled the reader into the story, yet. The first paragraph is the place to set the conflict, problem, dilemma, issue. "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..." By contrast, imagine if Dickens had started "A Tale of Two Cities" with something like, "The seeds of the French Revolution were sown in the disparate distribtion of wealth and power between the classes and in the monarchy that assured continued rule for itself and the continuation of both political and economic inequality." Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz... Any backstory should only be introduced IF the reader absolutely, positively has to know it and WHEN (s)he needs to know.
     
  11. AmyHolt
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    I like to start writing a book as if the reader already has all the background information they need. It helps me not feel the need to dump information at the start. I think it is easier to figure out where backstory is really needed by not adding any and letting the questions you get from a critique group be your guide as to where a sentence or two is necessary.
     
  12. Protar
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    Protar Active Member

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    Well I was merely responding to digitig who seemed to be saying that it was best to never introduce backstory. Also I think we are at a disagreement as to what backstory is. Backstory is simply any part of the plot that happens before the book(s) begin. Robert's rebellion in ASOIAF is backstory. The first wizarding war in Harry Potter is backstory. The Age of Legends in WOT is backstory. What you seem to be referring to is lore, which is the backdrop of the setting, and the character history. And even that has a place in a story tbh as it makes the world feel rich and realistic. I just disagree that backstory is bad, I just think it should be implemented smoothly.
     
  13. TDFuhringer
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    TDFuhringer Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'm sorry I have to disagree with this statement. I've read numerous books where we are never told one scrap of information about a character's back story. We are shown who they are by their actions and speech, but we don't know how they became who they are. It makes for a more interesting and mysterious character. This is especially used in romance novels and horror.
     
  14. Protar
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    Could you name a few examples? and really it doesn't have to be something major. It can just be stuff like: this person's parents are divorced, or; these two are exes. Anything that happens before the book starts is backstory.
     
  15. TDFuhringer
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    TDFuhringer Contributing Member Contributor

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    Well, it's not a book but, The Joker in Dark Knight had ZERO backstory. Absolutely zip. Made him far more interesting imho.

    I have to admit though, in books I'm having a hard time backing up my statement. I don't recall any back story at all in the first Dirk Pitt novel, but I might be remembering wrong.

    Given your definition of 'anything that happens before the book starts is backstory', then technically, even if its never explicitly stated, all characters have backstory.
     
  16. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    If it's actually part of the plot, then by definition it can't be Backstory.
     
  17. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    Backstory is what happened before the start of the story. Whether to include any backstory (or how much) depends on whether the backstory is for the author's benefit or the readers'. If there's part of the character's history that is essential to the reader understanding their actions, reactions, statements, etc., then I would try to fit it in at a point where it seems natural for it to be revealed. But if the backstory is only so the author can keep their character consistent in their own mind, then there's really no point in including anything in the story itself.
     
  18. Protar
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    No backstory is a part of the plot that happens before the beginning of the book/film/video game/whatever. That's how I've always used it, and how I've always seen it used by others. From what you've said, you're talking about lore, which is the background of the world: the culture, the history, the fauna etc.
     
  19. jazzabel
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    jazzabel Contributing Member Contributor

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    Yes but Joker's back story was known from a previous film, wasn't it? When Jack Nicholson played Joker in the first BAtman with Michael Keaton.

    Otherwise, I think in this thread we are getting bogged down in semantics. If an event for a character's past is relevant to the story, it can be mentioned, alluded to or fully described. It will affect the pacing of the novel, so that is goig to determine where you'll place it, how long it will be etc. but if it's relevant to mention, then mention it. Just make sure the reading flows well, imo.
     
  20. EdFromNY
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    Actually, no. I'm talking about the background of the characters that is not actually part of the plot, incidents that may have informed actions within the plot but are not part of it. Example: in Inherit the Wind, Rachel testifies that Bert Cates had been deeply disturbed when Tommy Stebbins drowned and Rachel's father had preached that because Tommy had never been baptised, he hadn't died in a state of grace and therefore would have gone to hell. She mentions that Tommy had had a keen mind and that Bert had thought he might be a scientist some day. That's not part of the story. It's backstory. It has nothing to do with the fact that Bert is on trial for teaching evolution, or the dramatic conflict that is about to take place between Matthew Harrison Brady and Henry Drummond (aka William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow). But the incident informs us a little of how Bert thought and why. More information about how Tommy drowned - where the swimming hole was located or whether anyone was with him - would be needless detail that the reader would have no need to know.
     
  21. CheddarCheese
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    If you're talking about the 2008 movie, the Joker does have a little bit of background to him. The all too familiar "Why so serious? Let's put a smile on that face!" quote from the Joker was a follow up from his explanation of his drunken father's abuse. This showed his childhood, and gave a possible reason for why he was acting the way he was. If you're talking about the comic, well I've never read that myself.

    As for the original topic, I'm in the same situation as the OP. I never know when or how to show a character's background effectively.
     
  22. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    OTOH, again from Inherit the Wind, the student's testimony about what Bert actually taught in the classroom involves events that occurred before the time about which we are reading (or watching, since it's a play). But that's not backstory, because it is an inherent part of the plot. It's just that the plot is not (and rarely ever is) laid out in completely linear fashion.
     
  23. TDFuhringer
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    I will get back on topic after this I promise :)

    I thought, given the fact that he tells completely different stories each time (about how he got his scars) that none of the stories, including the one about his abusive father, were true. But that may just be my interpretation. I love how art is so wonderfully subjective.
     
  24. EdFromNY
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    EdFromNY Hope to improve with age Supporter Contributor

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    When the reader needs to know, and not a page earlier. Also, only as much as the reader absolutely needs to know.
     
  25. TDFuhringer
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    TDFuhringer Contributing Member Contributor

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    This. Ed is dead-on. You may be in love with your characters and want to tell their whole history but if it doesn't impact the story, it's best to leave it out.
     

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