Backstory

“A story has no beginning or end: arbitrarily one chooses that moment of experience from which to look back or from which to look ahead.”

Graham Greene, The end of the Affair, 1951

Hmm. This is one of those statements which has an underlying truth that doesn’t translate terribly well into what humans want.

And actually that’s the business we’re in: the providing what humans (a category I assume a reasonable number of my readers fall into) want. We can put up with messy beginnings but most of us dream of tidy (and probably happy) endings. Of course: there is a lot of perspective in this – one man’s happy ending is another woman’s utter tragedy. See the recent US elections for a case in point.

I suppose you might say books like Neville Shute’s ON THE BEACH or Margaret Atwood’s HANDMAIDEN’S TALE have endings – there is no more human story anyway, and watching (or reading about) geographical erosion gets rather dull after a few eons. In most other books of course the story goes on, even if the main protagonists are dead, or married. (no they’re not actually quite the same. And even happily ever after is usually fraught at times. Trust me on this, I have experience to speak from.)

Now as I am not a fan of either of the above books (which yes, I have read, so I’m not indulging in the puppy kickers favorite pastime of hating that which they’ve never so much as read a page of, let alone the an entire book) I suppose I am a fan of knowing story goes on, or at least believing it can go on, but like most readers (judging by sales) I like a defined ‘end’. I’m one of the ones who prefers it to hopeful if not outright happy, and my comfort-books, return to again-and-again books, buy the author blurb-unread books, are all unashamedly ‘happily ever after’ in nature. I’m sure according to the literati this makes me a mouth-breathing peasant in need of my betters educating me for my own good or something. Good luck trying to convince me to change those tastes. And – as most writers need readers to like their work, to buy it, and the evidence is strong that I’m with the overwhelming majority here, well I’m going to stick with my writing and reading tastes in endings.

Which rather leaves one with beginnings to think about. And this what I consider Graham Greene to be accurate for the story writer who wants to be popular, as well as reflecting life. Because even merely from the protagonists points of view, unless they’re newborn… they are a continuation of a story, and probably one that isn’t in the book.

Everything comes from something. Actions have consequences, and usually cause reactions. It’s like kids in the ‘who-did-what-to-who-first’ – you’d go back to the initial unicellular algae tracking that one. You can damp these down or grow them: just as in real life they’re basis – added to genetics and chance as to why any character plausibly does anything. That plausibility is why some stories have that feel of veracity even though the setup may be as unlikely as hell. That’s a major factor in the suspension of disbelief we need to carry a piece of fiction.

Which means that the reader and the author need to know the story that came before. And because you can’t start a book with a long, tedious pre-story (or not without losing most readers, that ACTUALLY means that the story really begins in the middle somewhere. At a good point, that enables the writer to capture the reader’s attention… but the writer still has to back-fill that story towards at least where it starts for that character. Now: you may believe in doing it like me (on a need to know basis only) or like Mercedes Lackey (with a lot more). She sells more than I do, so perhaps this works better for more people – YMMV BUT the key thing is to do this either is the author needs to have a very clear idea of that back-story.

Most people take short cuts: For some writers that character is back-built using themselves (or those they know well) as models. This can be very effective… for one book (and possibly sequels), at least. The other common and partially successful short cut is the stereotype. Look, these have their roots in reality –and with small tweaks to give them individuality can work quite well. Of course the current fashion in a PC cast of stereotypes suffers from the fact that the stereotypes are derived largely from wishful thinking not reality – which besides the tedious predictability makes suspending belief hard (unless you desperately wish to engage in the same wishful thinking. That happens too – and not just with PC prescribed character. Let’s face it a lot of romance, and a fair bit of ordinary-guy-comes-good adventure is just that. But then you’re selling to that market).

Then there is long cut – the opposite of the short cuts but very good for reader immersion – and that is the Tolkien approach of developing a back-history which hopefully you don’t publish! This has two effects – it makes the character consistent and plausible, and secondly almost always provides motive.

Ann, who has lived a pampered existence, been to an Ivy League college, married money, and been allowed and encouraged to ‘follow her dreams’ with lots of contacts in the right places… Linda is the hard-scrabble battler who grew up in poverty fighting every inch of the way for the ground she’s made, with no contacts, no opportunity or time to follow her dreams, but lots of grind in deathly-dull hard physical jobs… well put them in the place at the start of your story. Both wanting to get a book published. Now, they’re the same sex (which we’re told makes people near identical in their thoughts and tastes – according to modern politics anyway), the same skin color, the same sexual orientation. They possibly even look alike… Does ANYONE think they’ll follow the same course? Of course they won’t. But as the writer, you have to feed that, unobtrusively, to your reader. And of course it’s hardest at the point you want to start your story – which is not by going slowly, building up the backstory. You’re trying to do two things, fast.

Now once again, YMMV, but this IS the time for ‘dog-whistles’ – clear quick pointers to that back-story. You can get nuanced and fill in the details later. Both women meet famous editor at a conference…

Linda kept her arms folded, covering her hands. Make-up did fine on your face but could not hide the callouses on her hands. “Pleased to meet you,” she said,  trying to keep the hope out of her voice.

“Octavia has told me all about you,” gushed Ann. “When I was at Clarion…”

And we build their back-story in our heads.

It exists, even if not in the book.

86 Comments

Filed under Uncategorized

86 responses to “Backstory

  1. I think that “overbackstorying” is one of the signature literary sins of our age. During the after-film discussion with my roommate after we had we had seen “Dr. Strange” the subject came up of filmmakers not trusting audiences to pick up on subtleties.

    I can just imagine a remake of “Citizen Kane”.

    “Come in now, young man–you can’t stay out there with your new sled, which is called ‘Rosebud’ all day!”

    “But I love my new sled, which is called Rosebud! No matter what happens for the rest of my life, this will be the moment I’ll remember on my deathbed!”

    • TRX

      I’ve bailed on a few books when I realized I was 3/4 of the way through and it was still all backstory…

      While the author might have been all joyous about the intricate past of her characters, none of it had any relevance to anything which might be going on. Which usually wasn’t.

      A lot of “mainstream” fiction is like that; endless exposition, stupid people doing stupid things, no resolution, The End.

    • Christopher M. Chupik

      Just thought you should know that Glyer quoted this comment over at Vile. Not to mock it, mind you.

  2. When I did the books for the kids, I ended up with a back story that stretched over a thousand years prior to the events. Had to, because it set up things. The kids saw very little of it. Parts come out as needed, such as why a MacGuffin has strong political meaning, or why there is an undercurrent of opposition to the ruling family in parts of the kingdom. But it all had an influence on the events leading up to what they saw, so it didn’t have a plucked out of the air feeling.

    They never saw most of the backstory. If they save my notes and read them one day, they will. But . . . it just would have dragged down the story to put it all in. That’s why it was cut during the revision.

    • The advantage there, which is one I’m running into, is there’s a lot of fodder for other stories at other points in ‘history’. On the other hand when they all hit at once, getting it untangled is a mess (which I’m also running into with 4 separate series indicating they’re in the same world, some of them semi-concurrent to one another.)

      • Should mention each major character also has a back history. Fleshed that out in the “interviews” I did as an exercise. That was fun, and, for the main villain, disturbing.

        • If you do the Villian right, it should be rather disturbing.

        • Interviews are always fun.

        • I wanna see your interviews. Villain interviews are also interesting.

          • They are so long,and jotted in a bound composition book. Here’s a short excerpt of one:

            Tawbott: “I see you’ve come to purge the syrup from your mouth.”

            Interviewer: “Ah, what’s your name?”

            Tawbott: “Tawbott of the House Draconus, as if you didn’t know.”

            Interviewer: “Are you usually this testy?”

            Tawbott: “It comes from falling off a keep and dying. It puts you in a foul mood, especially when you meet the varlet responsible.”

            Interviewer: “You seem more prescient than the others.”

            Tawbott: “Death frees one’s mine marvelously. You should try it sometime.”

      • This is very true. But, speaking as the guy who has now written several million words on one detailed universe, you may tire of it before the audience does ;-/

    • Isn’t that what appendices are for?

  3. I did a lot of this with my most recent finished draft. Part of it I built into an appendix that will be included with the novel, but the majority of it (including several complete scenes) won’t be released. The completed scenes were particularly helpful for working out the relationship between two characters, as well as better building one character’s personality in my mind.

  4. I prefer the hint-o-story approach when authors drop clues here and there and trust readers to put the pieces together as much as necessary. The one exception might be the way Herbert did it in the original _Dune_, but that is the only time I’ve read it done well. Others probably have, and I’ve not found their books, but the backstory-with-sledgehammer as Mischa describes gets old quick.

    • Carrington Dixon

      Old-timers who first read Smith’s Lensman stories in magazine often said that he spoiled them in the book publication by spelling out much of the back story.

    • Unless you have quotes from the Encyclopedia Galactica, or excerpts from “contemporary” books, you just about have to give clues and dribs and drabs.I had a hard time with the aforementioned MacGuffin because there had to be a little exposition of the importance, and didn’t want to go “As you know, Bob.” Ended up having a group of characters try to puzzle it out, adding bits of incomplete information in the discussion, adding some false starts so no one person had the complete answer.

    • TRX

      On the other hand, Jim Butcher’s Dresden books had no backstory at all, at least for the first three or four books. It drove me nuts.

      Eventually I realized Hamilton’s Anitaverse was a close-enough fit for events to make some sort of sense, until Butcher eventually started dribbling bits of backstory out.

      Had I not gotten the entire stack for free, I would have bailed after the first book, though.

  5. I’ve long been convinced Neville Shute’s best work was the R-100. Admittedly, his work on R-100 was more formulaic than his later work, even if it was also more stressful.

    • Shute wrote a number of good books; unfortunately, On The Beach, his most famous, is not one of them.

      • Yeah, but what could be cooler than R-100…. except perhaps if it could launch and recover aircraft like some of the US Navy dirigibles, or maybe travel to other planets?

      • On The Beach convinced me to never read another thing written by him. It wasn’t just bad, it was pathetic.

        • Oh, dear – what a pity: he did write some very good books. His “futuristic” stuff is not his best, but the books that he wrote contemporaneous to events or slightly after are very good. His best-known is “A Town Like Alice” – which on one level is a story about how a forward-thinking entrepreneur can make all the difference in a dead-end, backwater town by setting up small manufacturing enterprise. (The entrepreneur is a woman, for an extra twist.) It was made into a very good miniseries about three decades ago, which still holds up pretty well. Then – “Pied Piper” – also was made into movies twice – about an elderly Englishman escaping France during the German invasion in 1940. “Trustee from the Toolroom” is also very good – a very ordinary man with a passion for miniature mechanics makes his way halfway around the world, with the aid of friends/fans that he doesn’t even know he has. “Most Secret” is a very grim, WWII adventure, about a weaponised French fishing boat conducting missions into Occupied France.
          Don’t let “On the Beach” put you off reading his other stuff. He was, at heart, the most genuinely conservative of authors.

        • TRX

          I got handed “On the Beach” as a school assignment. Put my off Shute for the next 40-odd years.

          However, “Trustee from the Toolroom” is worth reading. It’s written in the rather stilted and formal style of 1950s Britain, but it’s an engaging story anyway.

          I reviewed it for one of the machinist forums a while back: http://bbs.homeshopmachinist.net/threads/58304-quot-Trustee-from-the-Toolroom-quot-review

      • My old man read “On The Beach” when I was a kid and he was depressed as hell for weeks. It marked him.

        I really can’t stand this “Literachure” with it’s insistence on churning out horrifying, depressing stuff. That stuff has -consequences- ladies and gentlemen. What kind of society has all artists being HR Geiger?

        As well, consider the reason he wrote it. A cautionary tale, something to scare the shit out of people and so prevent the thing being written about. Published in 1957. It had so much impact that the Cuban Missile Crisis played out in 1962, five years later and nearly brought about the exact thing in the story. Not impressive.

        So really, as far as I’m concerned the “Cautionary Tale” guys can cram it. Its a stupid idea that doesn’t work, all it does is hurt people’s feelings.

        • Joe in PNG

          Notice how the first story people often tend to think of in regards to “Mid-Cold War Cautionary Tales” will be “Dr. Strangelove”?
          When Kubrick was trying to adapt “Red Alert” as a serious picture, he realized that the subject was so horrible that only a comedy could work.
          He was right.

          • Notice how the one thing that Saved The World was Nikita Khrushchev’s realization that Kennedy was out of his f-ing mind? He finally realized that Kennedy WOULD push the button, and all to win an election. That’s when they turned the ships around.

            We might all owe our existence to Lee Harvey Oswald. How’s that for a kick in the head?

        • The part I hated about it them most, right after the depressing ‘we’re all gonna die so let’s give up and kill ourselves’ theme was that the science was all complete BULL S!!!!. Either he was too damn stupid to study the science involved, or he knew it and lied about it anyway. It was such a blatant piece of propaganda that I had a hard time getting through it.
          I still wonder how much the soviet union paid him to write it.

          • However much it was, they wasted their money.

          • “Too damn stupid” seems unlikely in an engineer who’d performed critical calculations for the design for an airship that successfully made trans-Atlantic flights and managed to avoid crashing.

          • Christopher M. Chupik

            To be fair, the effects of an all-out nuclear war were not fully understood back then. And possibly not even now.

            • Actually, they were. There had been a lot of extensive testing done and the results were easily available. You just order the government publications on a lot of the stuff if you wanted to, even then.
              After all, we not only had evidence from a bunch of above ground nuclear tests, but we had the results of two cities that had been nuked in WW2.

              The biggest lie ever told to the American people and the West was the effects of a nuclear bomb, and the effects of an all out nuclear war. There have NEVER been enough weapons to eradicate all of the life on the Earth, much less to destroy all of any major country.

              Sure, you could take out all of the major cities, and in doing so kill maybe ten percent of the population in doing so. And in that one country life would be hard. But the rest of the world? Not that big of an effect. It would destroy your economy, probably your military, and kill a bunch of people. But that’s about it.

              And everyone with a brain, and a little research, knew that.

              • snelson134

                “There have NEVER been enough weapons to eradicate all of the life on the Earth, much less to destroy all of any major country.”

                Actually, while nukes won’t do it, there’s a good chance that a chemical weapons exchange between NATO and the Soviets would have killed Germany. Both because the weapons can contaminate more thoroughly, and kill the soil microorganisms necessary for agriculture.

        • It failed as a cautionary tale because they didn’t try to survive. This is why I consider the book to be an insult to Australians: “Oh, we’ll take this pill and die and rot. First, we’ll carve an encyclopedia in rock in case intelligent life evolves again. Then we’ll kill ourselves, because we made an encyclopedia instead of building fallout shelters.”

          Bleah.

          If he wanted a cautionary tale, it would have focused on a community that struggled to survive, but failed.

  6. OTOH, you can maybe go too far… I probably do so.

    Sometimes that works out well, though. A “reference” character in one novel became the planned POV for a later one. Hopefully, a lot of this work up front will pay similar dividends.

  7. I’ve read Tolkein’s backstory. It’s very helpful if you want to understand Middle Earth better, but it’s also dry as a high school history book.

  8. I know I have a tendency to tell too much, both backstory and pretty much everything else too. Part of that problem probably comes from the fact that the first person ever to read my stories happened to be somebody who seemed unable to get anything from hints. So I ended up explaining everything. After a while that crept into writing so I wouldn’t have to do it afterwards. And she seemed to prefer the stories that way. But then she wasn’t familiar with the genres I started writing in. She wasn’t my first reader for long, but I guess any firsts can leave a strong impression, especially since after that I wrote, for a long time, with no readers, everything went straight into that proverbial drawer.

    And sometimes when I try to avoid over explaining I seem to go too far into the other direction and not tell enough. Finding the right balance can be tricky.

  9. Sabrina Chase’s Sequoyah novels make that work nicely. The first one starts with the MC, mid-battle, engaged in some tricky bit of piloting. Then we learn very quickly that she’s an astronaut stuck in the future. The beginning was cool, but the backstory hooked me.

  10. I’m agree with the fellow who said a story should start on The Day Things Change. If I recall Greene’s The End of the Affair correctly, he illustrates that dictum well.

  11. I keep most of the back-story in my head, or perhaps in the notes. I will say that it does very well in creating a series with a cast of characters – a secondary or tertiary character has a decent chance of becoming a main character in the next book, with the groundwork/backstory already there to build on.

    • I like the secondary character way of continuing a series. It avoids the problem of conflict creep, where you have to do Bigger and Badder in order to keep interest.

      • Exactly … this lets main characters grow, establish a life milepost for themselves, settle down and step aside, have a happy life – be normal human beings, No one in real life says fighting-fit at at the top of their game forever. This way – the lives of other characters can be explored; they can have their own adventure. With a whole “world” and a cast of tens, scores and hundreds – there is all the scope in the world. I suppose Terry Pratchett’s Diskworld is one of the prime examples of this. And Bujold did this in a small way, with writing Ivan Vorpatril’s own adventure in the Vorkosiganverse.

  12. Roger Zelazny had an interesting technique with backstory as I understand it. He would write a short story about something important in the character’s past. Then when it was done, he’d burn it.
    So it would become muddled and not perfectly recalled, like our own real memories. That idea has made me think: how many times do our characters remember the past perfectly? How many all agree on what they remember being the exact same? How many tell the exact same story every time?
    True, you have to be more careful when messing with these things, as the reader may come across them in hours or days, rather than months or years, so their memories will remain clear. But it can be interesting to have something minor in the backstory change, because they forgot…
    Or you could just have them lying about it, to themselves.

  13. Ann and Linda. Nice example.

    I cheat and often use minor characters from previous stories, but you’ve still got to show something of a history before the current scene, both for the world and the characters to have depth. One young man who tries to chat his way around “Didn’t expect bullies _here_!” and other man behind him who steps right in and insults them, apparently utterly confident of his ability to deal with a mere ten bullies . . . .

    • Paul (Drak Bibliophile) Howard

      apparently utterly confident of his ability to deal with a mere ten bullies

      Was he?

      • An Elderly Professor intervened. But at that age (19) he was probably about to get pounded. Or lose his temper and start killing people. Ra’d is a very fun character.

  14. Mary

    “A beginning is that which does not itself follow anything by causal necessity, but after which something naturally is or comes to be. An end, on the contrary, is that which itself naturally follows some other thing, either by necessity, or as a rule, but has nothing following it. A middle is that which follows something as some other thing follows it. A well constructed plot, therefore, must neither begin nor end at haphazard, but conform to these principles.” Aristotle.

    0:)

    Of course, he is at great pains to point out that unity does not spring from a single main character; events that happen to one person are not thereby unified.