Monday, June 18, 2012

Tackling the beast of backstory, in real life and in fiction.

A couple months ago, I threw out many thousands of words in my WIP because of an unfortunate thing called backstory. My character had a whole lot of horrible things happen to her for almost ten years prior to the start of the novel, and my attempts to incorporate that pre-chapter-one life into the narration with finesse ... failed.

A lot.

Despite my best efforts, it was rambling and clunky and in big chunks of "telling" and oh-so-boring that it brought the forward momentum of my plot to a grinding halt.

(Which I didn't know until Frankie, Janine, and Sara sat me down at a critique meeting and told me. This is why you need crit partners!)

Anyway, I started thinking about the backstory of my own life. As of today, I've been married for one year.

But previously, when anyone asked me how long I've been married, my answer was always the same:

"Almost a year, but we've been together for eight years."

One year just sounded so paltry. I mean, SEVEN ADDITIONAL YEARS of love, of hard work, of commitment, of memories and milestones — basically became nonexistent. If I said "almost a year," we seemed like total newbies. Those seven years were a badge of honor to me, and it was frustrating to see them disregarded that way.

But it was ok that they were disregarded. As a wife and a as writer, this was the lesson I needed to learn.

I needed to embrace the one year. To acknowledge that, for people meeting my husband and I, all they wanted to hear was "one year."

Sure, they (maybe) cared about the seven years prior, but not like I did.

And I had to recognize that OF COURSE these people knew we'd been together for longer. It's not like I met my husband Friday and married him Saturday. We had started a new chapter in our lives together, and it began one year ago. Those other seven years had to be condensed into a sort of "greatest hits" to be revealed in pieces, over days and weeks and months.

I had the same problem with my main character. I knew every detail of her life, every struggle she'd been through, ever obstacle she'd surmounted, and I wanted those recognized on paper. But they weren't her current story. The story that I was telling was a new chapter of her life, and everything that came before it had to be summarized and told over time. long have I been married?

One year.

(And darn proud of it.)

Have you had struggles with incorporating backstory? Who are the best backstory-including authors you know of? Share them in the comments!

(And Sara, you're right. Writing really does relate to everything!)


  1. One of the best books and authors I have ever read for incorporating backstory into a novel was Frederick bush, in his novel "The Night Inspecter." Bush can begin open a paragraph with a sentence inscene, travel back in time to an event that happened years before, and then return to the present time by the end of the paragraph before the reader even realizes they've been given back stroy! I highly recommend it! Another great novel for giving backstory was Ken kesey's "Sometimes a Grerat Notion." To me, the best way yo learn how to infuse backstory is to read great writers and learn from their methods!


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