Monday, February 26, 2018

The Problem With Backstory

Backstory has been on my mind a lot lately.

One reason is because I was working on a short story and I realized I needed to establish motivation for something. And when that came into focus I had to put the story on hold.

There was far more of a story in that backstory than a generic motivation. It wasn't a my-Spanish-teacher-was-a-pervert-so-I-dropped-Spanish cause and effect scenario. It was involved. Complex. There were catalysts, actions and reactions and consequences all within this particular motivation.

It was its own story. That's how I felt. Not telling it would be a disservice and it couldn't be glossed over in a few lines within the scope of a short story.

This is how short stories turn into novellas and novellas turn into novels. We discover there's more to the story than what we started off thinking.

Another reason I've been thinking about backstory is because of watching Altered Carbon. We have one episode left and I'm going to stand by what I unloaded on Brian a few nights ago.

I think they missed the core story. The backstory was compelling. Entertainment Weekly introduced their review of the show by saying:

Altered Carbon is an expensive sci-fi epic wrapped in a dull mystery

Dull mystery indeed. And that's all I need to say about it. In my opinion, they should have started the story 250 years before they did and they missed the full effect of that backstory because it was underdeveloped, in my opinion.

The other reason I've been thinking about backstory is because of The Spying Moon. When I was writing What Burns Within I asked a friend who is an avid mystery reader what they thought about withholding information about a character's past. She told me that was okay, as long as it wasn't teased out indefinitely and the reader eventually got answers.

Now, I'm a firm believer in the limits of our scope of knowledge when we meet someone. We never meet someone and know their entire history unless you're talking about the moment someone gives birth. When you go to a new school or a new club or a conference and shake hands with someone for the first time your scope of knowledge about them is limited. If they're famous or someone you know online you may know some things about them but you do not completely know them.

Heck, my husband just told me something the other night that I didn't know and we've been together for more than ten years.

Getting to know a character is a process of discovery. Nobody wants to open a book and start reading a character bio that sums up their entire life history.

Having said that, there are times it is appropriate to provide backstory. Backstory is foundational information and it can have a significant impact on a story. I realized when I'd written The Spying Moon that I wanted Moreau's state of mind to be clear at the start of the book. There are certain factors that affect her conduct. Knowing those things can make the difference between seeing her as a dedicated officer trying to do the right thing, even when it costs her personally, or seeing her as a bitchy person who isn't trying to fit in.

Finding the right balance of backstory and determining when to share that information is one of the toughest aspects of good storytelling. My general rule of thumb has been to avoid the info dump at the start of a novel and spread the information out as needed.

Since I sent out a few copies of my manuscript for peer review I've still smoothed out the backstory execution a bit. Trimmed it a little and spread it out. As a writer, it's important to ask yourself what that information clarifies for the audience. Make sure you put in what's needed to avoid confusion and establish the character's mindset or motivation.

Watching Altered Carbon reminded me that sometimes it's possible to stretch that information out too far and by withholding that info you risk losing your audience. A show that could have been an A+ must watch for me (great cast, great concepts, some truly unique characters) isn't, and a big part of that boiled down to how they handled the backstory. There are worse things than sharing some backstory near the start of a book, movie or TV show, and one of them is withholding key information that leaves the audience unnecessarily confused and frustrated.

** Please note my comments on Altered Carbon only apply to the Netflix series. I haven't read the books.

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