1. jo spumoni
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    jo spumoni Active Member

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    What's the best way to incorporate back story?

    Discussion in 'Character Development' started by jo spumoni, Aug 15, 2011.

    I took a writing class this summer, and the teacher and students kept saying you shouldn't include big chunks of back story in your text. You know: "Joe was born in 1822 to a mother who didn't want him..." etc. I listened to all the arguments, which were mostly that back story forces the reader out of the narrative and that it's telling and not showing and etc, and decided they were right. But then, I started reading Snow Falling on Cedars, which is a first-rate book that won the PEN/Faulkner award and was made into a movie. The book has several long chunks of back story, including a four page tangent about how one of the characters lost an arm and went to college. I know there aren't really any rules in writing, and that essentially you can do anything if you do it well, but what do you all think? Is it OK to include big chunks of back story in a novel, or not really?

    I ask because my last piece, I have a four-page back story about a character's childhood. I was just starting to consider getting rid of it when I read this book. Now, I'm working on another piece and I'm wondering if I should include long moments of back story or if that's a terrible travesty.
     
  2. DBTate
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    DBTate Senior Member

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    Personally, I don't like extensive back stories. I think as the author, it is your responsibility to purvey a character's history, motives etc without having to write a multi-page explanation of the past ten years of their life. A bit of mystery can really benefit your story.

    For example, if your protagonist was shunned by her father, rather than saying "Mary Sue never received any love from her father", you could show throughout the story that Mary has a strong distrust for men. Have a man who tries to get close to Mary, but she fears she will be hurt, and does not allow herself to open up to said man.

    This way, the reader will begin to think 'I wonder why Mary is so hesitant towards men'. And if you'd like to explain it, have Mary explain to another character (preferably a man she allows in to her life) the problems she had with her father as a child.

    Let the characters show their back stories... Don't explain it as if it were an essay.

    Hope this helped :)
     
  3. proserpine
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    proserpine Member

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    I think background information should be incorporated as organically as possible. I have read quite a few books in which the story alternates between one chapter of current story, and one chapter of a past, memory-type scene that directly relates to the storyline and character development.

    Instead of trying to give full backgrounds of my characters, I prefer picking details that I feel are important, and incorporate those into the story as naturally as possible. Sometimes, if it won't fit to my satisfaction, I will go in a different direction.

    Personally, I don't like being handed a character bio. I like to form my own understanding of characters through their current action and beliefs. If a background detail is essential to understanding them now, it belongs. If not, it is probably unneccesary.

    Good luck with your writing.
     
  4. Leah
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    Leah Member

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    I think, depending on the story, it can be very powerful and useful to include a back story.

    That being said, however, I personally find four pages a bit much. The books I can think of that have left an impression on me using a back story is on average a page or less. You may need to do a "flashback" more than once to get the entire story out, but when it's done right, I think it can provide a bit of a tease, and excitement to the main plot.

    If there is really four pages worth of back story - what about doing a prologue with that portion then jump forward to the current day? May not be ideal, but if those pages are crucial, it might be a thought.

    Good luck :)
     
  5. VM80
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    VM80 Contributing Member Contributor

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    I find a lot of needless back story quite tedious... even in books that I think are good-great overall (Coming up for air or Roses on Credit come to mind).

    I would incorporate it into the writing, and bring up details as and when they become relevant.
     
  6. Summer
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    Summer Member

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    What POV is your story in?
    That greatly influences how I feel about back story. In first person I usually find that I don't mind it as long as it is incorporated along with what is currently going on to give the present a little more meaning.

    I am not a fan of long chunks of back story because most the time all that detail that goes into it isn't necessary to understand what is currently going on. Without reading your story it is hard to judge. So I guess it's up to you to decide at this point if you feel like ALL that back story is needed--or could it be broken up and given to the reader at various points to eventually create a clear picture?
     
  7. Solar
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    Solar Contributing Member Contributor

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    It works when the narrator is a good raconteur.
     
  8. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Write story, not back story.

    Only include bits from the past if they are particularly significant to the story, and even then, slip them in when it is natural for them to come into the story.

    For example, Michael Connelly's character Harry Bosch was a "tunnel rat" in his past the military, a combat soldier who undertook the dangerous mission of following enemy soldiers into their hand dug escape and munitions tunnels.

    But he only brings that out when Detective Bosch is pursuing a dangerous suspect who appears to have a similar past.

    We don't get the full biography, just bits and flashes brought about by the situation and some lingering PTSD.
     
  9. shadowwalker
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    shadowwalker Contributing Member Contributor

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    I generally don't care for large chunks of backstory, either - but it depends on how it's told. I've seen cases where A is telling B about C, and it becomes an engaging 'mini-story' through dialogue, not just an info-dump (the key being 'mini' I think). And sometimes it's necessary to do something like that because of the early influence that information has on the reader's view of the character. But again, one should only include such details as are necessary to the story, and if they can be let out gradually, I think it's much better.
     
  10. DBock
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    DBock Member

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    I find it best to let the characters actions show what backstory they have. Otherwise I have a tough time with it coming across as believable exposition.
     
  11. Gallowglass
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    Gallowglass Contributing Member Contributor

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    It find it's far more rewarding to let your readers do the legwork: drop little snippets of information here and there. One of the characters might greet another in an overly-familiar way even if the context is unclear about whether they've ever met before. They might have intimate knowledge about another's scars that are in usually inaccessible places, for example. They might have a bizarre item on a mantelpiece that someone else talks of fondly. Or they may just have irrational feelings about something that hint about their past. There are a million and one ways to get your character's backstory across without dumping it on your reader in the narrative.

    It's not the the length of the backstory that counts. It's where it is. That four-page belter might be excusable if it's in a lull, where the character has nothing to do except twiddle his thumbs (or at least a bit of the book that's comparatively uninteresting). If you slam it in the middle of an action scene or a conversation it could just about cripple the narrative. Any well-crafted atmosphere would fall to pieces faced with that onslaught. A sentence can have the same effect, if it's put somewhere really inappropriate.
     
  12. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    There's backstory and there's backstory. I understand people not liking plowing through five or six or seven pages of backstory - material that's not very relevant to the main story, and just stops the story cold.

    But a five or six line paragraph is a different thing. You can convey a lot of important information in a paragraph of that size, without losing your reader's attention (unless your reader has a REALLY short attention span, and most readers don't). Sticking in a six-line paragraph probably keeps the story going better than trying to contrive a three-page scene in which the MC slips in the same information piecemeal. I'd probably be more inclined to skip the three pages than the six lines.

    So, when we talk about "backstory", let's all make sure we understand what we mean.
     
  13. PeterC
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    PeterC Active Member

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    I generally agree with what you are saying, Cogito. However I also think it can be disconcerting when information about a character's past appears for the first time just before it is useful. If I've gotten to know Detective Bosch for half the story and the all of a sudden "oh by the way, I used to be a tunnel rat" comes up at just the right moment it sounds artificial. The information needs to be introduced earlier, perhaps in passing and in an unrelated context, before it seems like a real part of the character.
     
  14. Steerpike
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    Steerpike Felis amatus Supporter Contributor

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    One can learn a lot in general about good writing from that series of books.
     
  15. JackElliott
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    JackElliott Senior Member

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    Back story can be made into story by moving it into the present. I suspect your instructor was telling you not to simply report the information, but to convert it into an immediate scene, happening now, real-time, with dialogue. Then, even though it may be back story, it won't feel that way, because it seems to be happening in the story, not before.
     
  16. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Then it isn't back story. But make sure you aren't mashing together two stories into one, diluting the focus of both.

    Stick to the story you are telling, and don't get sidetracked. And for heaven's sake, don't tell backstory to give the reader a secure foundation. It's far better to keep the reader a little off balance and with questions.
     
  17. StrangerWithNoName
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    StrangerWithNoName Longobard duke

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    Another idea could be to write a chronology or biographies of the main characters at the end of the book as appendix, this allows the readers to get the information that i referred in the "main" story and put it together to have the broad picture.

    Tolkien and Herbert took this approach, and I like it, it's smart and helps to keep the main story slender.
     
  18. PeterC
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    PeterC Active Member

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    This thread is very timely. I'm in the process of revising one of my chapters. In a few places, here and there, the narrator starts talking directly to the reader for the sole purpose of providing background information. During those sections the story feels on hold. There is a very obvious suspension in its flow while the narrator says, "oh, by the way, you should also know X, Y, Z."

    Before participating in these forums I wouldn't have thought twice about those sections but now I have them highlighted with FIXME notes. So I think I'm learning something!

    I could introduce the background information in dialog spread out over a chapter or two. That sounds good because it would let the characters develop gradually and keep the reader wondering about certain details for a while. My problem is that my story already has too much dialog. I'm looking for ways to eliminate some of it. Yet I'm having trouble thinking of a way of introducing important background information without dialog and without doing an info dump in the wrong point of view.
     

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