Tuesday, May 5, 2009

I don't get it!

One of the questions I get most often is how much backstory is too much backstory?

That's not an easy question to answer since when a story is in the set-up phase, I have to know something about the characters to really wrap my brain around them. That's not to say I need three chapters of backstory. Just enough information for the characters to make their mark on the story and gain my interest.

One of the most idiotic rules to come into writing was the whole 'no backstory' rule. I honestly think this one was created to throw every aspiring author into a tizzy going, 'we can't have backstory'. Then, being new to this industry, they took it too an extreme.

Here goes - backstory.

There is a rule of thumb for works under twenty-thousand words. Set up is golden if you can do it in thirteen paragraphs but no more than twenty-five. Short stories are considered character forward so the character's/s' motivations drive the story. Now you see why the backstory coming into play is so important here. If the characters don't have roots (ie. backstory) how can the story grow?

In longer works backstory is equally important. If you stare at GMC (goals, motivation and conflict), the backstory is directly attached to the three main points of the character arc. This must work logically.

An example would be:

Basic plot - man vs. himself
Master plot - romance
Thematic Premise - permission to love

The character starts off down in the dumps. Love lost or the loss of the soul mate plays into this. His GOAL is to find love. His Motivation is directly attached to the plot - even if he doesn't know it. Crisis is the unwillingness or something along that line.

Here's a clue, if I don't know what he's lost, his motivation for being in the story, or where he is heading (plot forward), I'm lost.

In novel length romance the rule of thumb is within the first three chapters (note I did not say the characters needed to meet in the first chapter--another stupid rule).

My biggest bit of advice is explain as much as you can, but keep it brief. If you find yourself going on and on, you've gone too far. Most authors who are successful at planting their characters can do so in one to three paragraphs. In longer works you can build from the initial planting point. In short works, the springboard is there and you can drive the plot easily.

Just remember, if your readers don't get it, they aren't likely to spend much time on your story.

Questions, comments, hate mail -- just post it.

Until next time, cheers and happy writing,



Anonymous said...

Thanks for the info! It answered my question about backstory!

Great post!


Diana Castilleja said...

I've learned to ignore the "no backstory" rule. So long as I don't need a nap during the telling, then it's good.

It also better not be so short that I feel like I missed getting the train as it flew by the depot.

Compression is not always a good thing when it comes to backstory, but deliberate placement can be.


Sandy said...

For someone like me who goes on and on this is a definite help.

Thanks a lot, T.J.


J Hali said...

Answered my question perfectly. I've shied away from it for the very reason you stated and I often feel I'm not giving enough information to the reader. Thanks so much for sharing this.