Tuesday, April 2, 2013

B is for BACKSTORY

During April, I’m blogging daily as a participant of the 
Blogging from A to Z in April Challenge (with time off on Sundays).
 Stay a minute. Read. Tell me what you think. Thanks for stopping by.



     I'm reading a book now that I'm really loving, having looked forward to getting into it because the premise is so intriguing. 
     But the other night I did the unthinkable: I skipped three pages!
     How could you do this? you're wondering. You said you loved this book!
     What took me out of the story, a scene in which the main character finally arrived at his destination after a long, arduous boat trip, was a large chunk of backstory. The backstory was tedious military history. I skimmed it (very quickly!) and found where the scene with my main character picked up again.
     Annoyed, I wondered why the author chose this point for filling us in on something that happened before the main character was even born. Maybe when I finish the book, it will be clear.
     Author and Writer's Digest columnist Nancy Kress, in her book Characters, Emotion & Viewpoint, warns that backstory 'interrupts the events of story time, making them lose momentum. Backstory in fiction is like commercials on television: an interruption that marks a good time for the watcher to disengage...and possibly lose interest.'
     According to Kress, there are four ways to include backstory: the brief detail; the inserted paragraph; the flashback; and the expository lump. In my current book, the author used the latter technique, one that stopped me cold. The difference between a flashback and an expository lump is that a flashback is a dramatized scene with dialogue and action. An expository lump is an extended explanation of what has happened. Showing versus telling, I suppose. Literary device or not, it didn't work for me. 
     Can you remember a time when backstory interrupted the flow of a story you were reading? 



17 comments:

  1. What I prefer is for the writer to tease me with little clues of a backstory, make me wonder more about missing pieces of a puzzle, and then gently lead me to the backstory and show me how everything fits together so I can get an ah-ha moment instead of an ahhhh! moment.

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    1. Exactly, Cynthia. Subtlety works best for me!

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  2. Skimming is a regular feature of my reading process. I think backstory is important but where and how much tend to be difficult to get right, I think.

    mood
    Moody Writing

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    1. Yes, I'm an expert skimmer. It really bothers me, though. I feel like I'm cheating somehow.

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  3. I think it happens quite often that a backstory makes it all so boring, and I also skip them quite often. But there is some kind of trend here in Sweden in murder books, that there is one story about now, and one backstory that may be happening in the 17th century or so, and that later in the book makes sense for the current happenings. It's a very interesting way of writing, and I like it. Most of the time those backstories are very fascinating.

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    1. That is an interesting trend! Now I'm wondering if that is something that has or will catch on in the U.S.

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  4. I suppose flashbacks are a good way to go especially if they have a direct bearing on the current action, rather than dry infodumping.

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    1. I've read too many books that have a lot of info dumping and I have to wonder how all of it ended up in the book. It's a fine line for an author to walk, I suppose.

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  5. I skim a lot too. There are times when the backstory gets in the way of hte story I am reading (That happened often in Gone with the Wind as I remember).

    Great post.

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  6. Thanks for this Dawn .. I can't remember a particular book that employed this technique - I read a great deal but I know I have had those moments that I think o no! It's tedious or can be ...
    Your post is especially interesting and useful to me as I am writing a novel at the moment (first published book was non-fiction) and will try to avoid that pitfall unless of course it is essential and does not leave the reader thinking o hell and skim.
    The above comments are also interesting! I learn much from comments on my own blog!
    Am also part of the A-Z - a few above or below - I forget for the moment

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    1. There is so much useful info about writing backstory in Nancy Kress's book if you can get a copy. I've referred to it many times.

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  7. I can skim bits too especially if they are technical.

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  8. Yes, it happens frequently when I am reading a book I am enjoying, and I do the same thing you do, skim. I can honestly say however....three pages, is a bit much. I have never run into that one. What this tells me is the author is unsure of how he wrote something and wants to be sure your following along with his or her thoughts about whatever...and yes, much like a commercial it equates to an insult to your intelligence. So I skim or skip it and go on with my reading. www.sandysanderellasmusings.blogspot.com

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  9. It's funny how some authors get away with this, and I wonder, ARE they? I keep reading in craft books to not do the dreaded backstory at all for at least the first several chapters, up to 50 pages, and if so, do it sparingly. But I see so many books do just the opposite!

    I think if it adds to the story and the character's current situation, those are acceptable reasons. But often if there is too much backstory I wonder if the story began in the right place.

    Hope you're having fun with the A to Z Challenge! Here's mine for today: A Girl and her Diary

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  10. I scan through a lot in books...especially back story (that and too much description.) I love when back stories are just a part of the story and I don't really notice it.

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  11. Not a book, but a TV show...the series LOST. I thought that show had some very creative writing. But I was annoyed by the back story of each character. The story line would jump back and forth throughout one episode, when I would have preferred getting the whole thing in once episode, then continuing and staying with the present. I would have been like you in skipping the military history!
    from The Dugout

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