1. idle
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    idle Active Member

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    Too Much Backstory

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by idle, Apr 7, 2013.

    I've found out recently that I tend to come up with more of the characters' past than present: this is happening because of that event in the past, and I feel the need to tell it before I move on. It is especially frustrating because otherwise I'm mostly inclined to write short stories, and I prefer them tight. But I like the backstories too much to just ditch them.

    So I thought I'd write my backstory separately – in this particular case, it's an event from the heroine's childhood, and if I do it right, it might become a story on its own. Then, hopefully, I'll be able to write the original story and only mention as much from the past as is absolutely necessary.

    So right now I'm writing the "backstory" story and guess what. I'm doing it all over again, coming up with things that happened before that. The story is short enough so I'm going to finish the draft and sort it out later, but it worries me because apparently it's one of the things that slow me down.

    I'm not sure if I'm actually asking for help or anything, I guess I'll have to sort it out myself anyway, but I thought I'd share it, so thanks for reading. :)
     
  2. Thornesque
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    Thornesque Contributing Member

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    Trust me when I say, you are not the only one that has to deal with it. It's why I usually end up writing out character histories separately from the novel when they come to mind - it allows me to sort through the past and determine what does and does not need to be included for the readers to understand the story. It's honestly the best advice I have - to just, separately, write out everything that occurred before and have a grasp on it before you write it into the story. It let's you sift through and pick bits and pieces that are necessary for explanation to the story.

    The biggest question I end up asking myself during my writing - because, I like having character histories, too - is "Do my readers really need to know this to understand the story?" I address the entire event and, if the answer is Yes, I look at the finer details. And I ask myself that question continuously in order to ensure that I'm not adding too much.

    Just keep in mind that you had a story you wanted to tell, and don't let a related, but separate story get in the way of you writing it. Remind yourself of the big plot points that you had planned and get yourself excited about those.
     
  3. killbill
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    killbill Contributing Member

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    As a writer to know the backstory of your main characters is important to write the present story. But it has to be given when absolutely necessary to the readers, preferably in small doses, specially in a short story. You need not write a separate story of the backstory, just a bullet point note is enough (Personally, i don't even do this for short stories. I just write two three lines just so I don't forget). One advantage of doing so is that you don't feel like the past of your mc is engraved in stone. In other words, keep the past fluid so that it isn't difficult for you to alter it when required, and believe me you'll feel the need to alter the mc's past as the present story progress.
     
  4. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Resist the temptation to over-explain your character's motivation. Mystery is sexy. If you, the author, understand the motivation, that's more than sufficient (more, because even that isn't truly necessary).

    As long as the character's actions don't seem completely off the wall, or pulled from the writer's sphincter to save the day, you're good.

    Excessively consistent behavior is more unbelievable than completely random behavior by a character.
     
  5. funkybassmannick
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    funkybassmannick Contributing Member

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    It sounds like you are doing what needs to be done - separating your backstory from your actual story. This is good. As others have said, readers don't need to know the backstory in order to find the characters interesting.

    The question is: Do YOU need to know the backstory in order to make the characters interesting? I would say yes, though to a point. Some people can create new, complex characters right off the bat, but if you're like me, it takes a lot of work to make them feel real in the actual story. I recommend keep going with your backstory. Also write important events in their history as scenes (though never add them into your actual story) This gives you a great chance to explore their character, more so than just listing their backstory events as bullet points or whatever.

    Be careful, though, that you don't suffer from "world builder's disease." This is when you focus so much on the backstory and setting that you never actually get to the story. It's fine if you write the backstory, and the story behind that, and the story behind that, but don't let it consume all of your writing time.
     
  6. stormr
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    stormr Member

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    I've been finding myself doing the same thing. Heresa little trick that recently i discovered works for me.If your using a computer this advice might work if you understand what I am getting at her. Have 2 open files of your story, you write the story on one document copying it over to the other as needed, when you start going into back story dont copy that over to the story, just let it flow. Then take a 10 minute break (or for me go outside to have a smoke) then come back and re-read from before you started going too far with backstory. You'll have a fresher perspective on what really needs to be said about this person, then highlight that part only, copy it to the other document. You now have a shorter more necessary version of the too lenghty backstory. Now take that full backstory, and save that as a seperate file, and you also have any other info you need on that person for later. Or maybe use it for further stories as a prequel kinda deal.
     
  7. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    That's really interesting.

    I'm like Stormr and others here. My novel is about a 17 yr old but events that happened in her childhood are important backstory. When I started the book I could see right away that going through each childhood event chronologically wasn't the story structure I wanted. But I wrote the events anyway as stand-alone chapters. That's helped me refine my protagonist. I don't plan to use all the material. I know other writers who write lots of story elements they don't plan to use because it helps develop the story in their minds.

    Of course that means you have to be ready to not use all those story parts you really like or you wouldn't have written them. But for me it helps to write first and save the final story construction for later.
     
  8. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Back story isn't important. If it were, it would be story, period.

    The thing is, new writers become so obsessed with back story they lose sight of the actual story. Maybe the background stuff helps you better visualize your character, but it doesn't belong in the text.
     
  9. Nee
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    Nee Contributing Member

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    Which is what I was about to say, though, maybe your story wants to be what you are thinking as the back not the one you have been thinking is the actual story.
     
  10. TLK
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    TLK Active Member

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    Even though mystery is great, surely there's a point where the readers think "right, why the hell is this guy like this?" or "why the hell do these people think of this guy like this?"

    Not including backstory would be like if Tolkien hadn't written about the ring. We'd all be like "Why is Gollum so weird?" and "why is Frodo starting to be mean to Sam?" and, most importantly, "why the hell is everyone so concerned about this ring?". The latter one is, I admit, easy to explain without excessive backstory - simply saying "Sauron will destroy the world if he gets it" is, I guess, enough - but I think you get my point.

    Backstory should certainly not be the main focus of your novel, but there's places where it is helpful or even necessary.
     
  11. idle
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    idle Active Member

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    Thanks for all the replies. The thing is, sometimes I feel as if the backstory is actually more interesting than the original story, but without starting with the story, there would be no backstory. Maybe I'm just not sure which one I want to tell. I guess I'll have to write all of it and then select the important parts.
     
  12. TLK
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    TLK Active Member

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    There's no reason you can't write them both as part of a series. Just because you might have to put "X Years Later" at the start of the second book, doesn't mean it's not a series.
     
  13. KaTrian
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    KaTrian A foolish little beast. Staff Supporter Contributor

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    But that sounds like fun! You get to write the "original" story, and then like a bunch of prequels, or turn the backstories into comics :D

    I think Hemingway said something like you have to know the characters through and through, but what you show in the story, is just the tip of the iceberg. But the readers will know if you haven't done a thorough job with the backstory. Plus it does help with "directing the cast". While not in every case, at times the past may motivate the current actions.
     
  14. Sandbream Devermann
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    Sandbream Devermann New Member

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    I had this same problem with a novel. So, I just decided to write the story chronologically, from the first incident I had back-storied, and it was incredibly satisfying. I could go into all the detail and description I desired and there was no need for backstory as the story went on as it had already been told. This meant that each piece was flowing and had space to grow.

    The downside to this is that it means breaking pretty much all the current publishing and creative writing structural rules but it was worth it regarding the storytelling experience.
     
  15. NewAgeFiction
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    NewAgeFiction Member

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    I find that in many of today's movies at least, there is almost NO backstory to the main characters. So if there's "too much", I would prefer that over to none or almost none at all. The way I'm working it into my protagonist's story is to include relevant "pieces" of historical background as the story unfolds. I call them "necessary digressions" (ha!). I do elaborate a bit much with some of them, and I'm still learning how to cull it down in order to free up the pace of the narrative, while remembering that backstory is necessary for the type of novel I'm working on.
     
  16. killbill
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    killbill Contributing Member

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    So, be on a diet, but don't miss your breakfast, brunch, lunch, mid-day snacks, afternoon tea and cake, dinner, midnight candy.... and yes, don't get obese!
     
  17. GingerCoffee
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    GingerCoffee Web Surfer Girl Contributor

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    Blanket statements rarely fit all stories. Lots of stories include some key event that occurred years earlier and starting with that key thing works fine in telling the story.
     
  18. Thornesque
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    Thornesque Contributing Member

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    I really can't agree with this statement. Characters are who they are because of who and what they've been. My character in my current project is who she is - behaves the way she does - because of something that happened to her in her past. Now, no, I don't need to go into the whole story in the book in order for my readers to understand the premise behind her personality. But, because that particular part of her personality basically defines why she's in the book, I think it's important for them to understand how it came to be, as it's not a "typical" personality to trait (it's not something that you expect from most people).

    But, no, I'm not going to go adding an entire sub-story in the middle of the book. I'm not going to need a whole chapter, and, in fact, I can probably sum up the (necessary details of) the event with a few aptly placed sentences throughout the beginning of the novel. But I would never make a statement like "Back story isn't important." Now, not all back story is important. But the general statement simply doesn't work.
     
  19. funkybassmannick
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    funkybassmannick Contributing Member

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    It's fine if you want to build a world, and go into great detail (tolkein did that) just don't forget to actually write. Some people plan for years before they crack open a notebook and start writing it out, and I don't recommend doing that. "World Building Disease" is very different from dieting and obesity.
     
  20. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    The trick is to recognize the specks of actual story in the tubfull of backstory, and retain them whil flushing the rest.

    Characters have a history, but that history is only glimpsed through the keyholes and crevisses in the actual story. Don't show the reader a newsreel of the character's past. let slip a hint or a gleam here and there, as appropriate for the story you are telling.

    My recommendation stands. Write story, not back story.
     
  21. Thornesque
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    Thornesque Contributing Member

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    This, I can agree with. Even when you think you're being scarce and minimal with the details of the back story, you still find yourself going back and editing some of it out in the end. It's certainly not all necessary.
     
  22. Nee
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    Nee Contributing Member

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    One of the most complex back-stories written over the last 30 years is found in the Potter series. Yet Rowling never once included a piece of back-story that didn't move the front-story (as it was at that particular moment) forward.

    The back-story supports the front story--so, you shouldn't let it eclipse the front-story. That after all IS the story you are conveying to the readers. Don't confuse which way is up.
     
  23. idle
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    idle Active Member

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    But what if the backstory is actually better (more interesting, more thought through) than the actual story? I don't even like the current events much, but without them, I wouldn't even be thinking about what happened before.

    Maybe it's just a matter of deciding where the actual story starts. Maybe I just started telling it backwards.
     
  24. TerraIncognita
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    TerraIncognita Aggressively Nice Person Contributor

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    I agree with Thorn and Cog on this one. I get bored with too much back story. I like to know what drives my characters but beyond that it can get tedious to me to write. I also feel it's tedious to read a ton of back story. Mystery is fun and so is having to draw your own conclusions. The here and now should always take precedence.

    I'd go with Thorn's suggestion and write it separately if you can't resist the temptation to give a full history. Sometimes writing stand alone pieces can help you get to know your characters.
     
  25. jannert
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    jannert Contributing Member Supporter Contributor

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    Backstory is a like research—only a small part of it will show in the finished piece.

    Personally, I like reading well-written backstory. If it's interesting and compelling, I don't really care where it's placed in the story, either. It's all part of my whole reading experience.

    People who hate or are 'bored' with backstory, on principle, should probably read something else, rather than try to get the author to ditch it 'on principle.'

    I think it's important for us not to become too dictatorial about what is 'right' and what is 'wrong,' when it comes to stories and novels. Better to trust the author, and go with the flow—at least till you've finished reading the whole piece. If you can't get 'in' to it enough to finish reading, that's okay too. It doesn't necessarily mean it's been badly written. It might be, it might not. The style and subject just might not be to your taste. Reading (and writing) is a subjective experience.

    I like this a lot, Thornesque. Best way to work with backstory.
     

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