Friday, July 22, 2011

Day 8: Balancing Your Backstory

You explored your character in depth on Day 4, likely creating such a detailed history that you are anxious to share every gritty detail of your protagonist's tortured past within the first few pages.  But hold off on that impulse.  Consider your favorite book and think of how the author goes about revealing backstory.  Are bits and pieces revealed slowly throughout the book, or does it sound like this example from Laura Whitcomb's book Novel Shortcuts?
"Hey, Stella.  Don't worry.  You dropped out of high school at fifteen, had a baby at sixteen, brought up a daughter by yourself, worked two jobs for a decade, and took night classes to get your law degree.  I'm sure you can handle a simple surprise party."
Not only does such "information dumping" sound awkward, but it takes away the readers' fun of getting to know your protagonist in pieces, much like getting to know a fellow mortal in reality.  Your reader is more likely to remain engaged if she has a nice thin line of breadcrumbs to follow, licking them up so gradually that she isn't even aware of how full her tummy (and your character) is getting.

Judicious Revelations.  
As stated in Jessica Morell's book Between the Lines,
"A constant civil war wages within a fiction writer over the how, how much, and when of slipping in backstory.  It must be cleverly inserted so that it’s unobtrusive and allows the front story to press ahead."
Essentially it is your job to reveal your backstory judiciously.  If you've had troubles with this I recommend Victoria Schmidt's suggestion in the "Write Your Novel in 30 Days" booklet, to look through your opening scene and ask yourself the following:

  • Does it lack forward momentum?
  • Is there a lot of explanation?
  • Does it leave readers wondering what the conflict is?
     "The best way to figure out if you've overdone it with the backstory is to go through your opening chapter and highlight in yellow all your descriptive words and action-related passages where the character acts, reacts or makes a decision.
     "Then go through your opening chapter again and highlight in pink all passages that convey backstory information.  These passages may explain what is going on, what happened in the past, or why things are as they are" (WRNITD pg 36).
Take a gander at the colors of your page.  Which color dominates?  If you answered pink then you have way too much backstory.  Read through all of the pink sections, taking note of which can be removed without rendering the front story indecipherable, then find scenes in Act II where the information can be added in a more interesting way.  (For some examples of conventional, but effective ways to build backstory into your novel see Rachel Ballon's article How to Weave in Backstory to Reveal Character).

The Benefits of Backstory.
Your character's life doesn't begin at the start of your novel, which means a lot of prior experiences have shaped who he is - what his fears might be, what he dreams of doing someday.  As the author with intimate knowledge of your character, you are allowed to use your understanding of said character's backstory as your compass throughout the novel.  Jessica Morrell puts it best when she says:
     "A protagonist is a person with a burning desire, and backstory reveals where this desire stems from.  It can be helpful to keep a Post-It note near your computer that briefly states your protagonist’s desire... [and use it] as your North Star... then ask yourself how you’ve proven this desire through backstory.      "Backstory also helps define your protagonist’s greatest fears, which naturally play a key role in the overall story.  Use your protagonist’s fears as a shorthand method for shaping a story line, and then turn her fear into a looming reality...  As you begin to express your protagonist’s fears through backstory, be sure you have a clear understanding of exactly what those fears are.  It can be helpful to create another Post-It that articulates [them]."
In my novel the two protagonists' personalities have been flip-flopping all over the place to accommodate my plot, but once I read those lines above I realized what I needed to do.  I sat down and dedicated myself to finding both of their fears and motivations.  As a consequence rich new histories that I hadn't seen before revealed themselves to me and my characters became even more solid and real.  It was an exciting moment and one I hope you'll have if you too have been struggling to tame your characters.

*Day by day assignments and worksheets given during the 30 day challenge come from the Writer's Digest manual "Write Your Novel in 30 Days." Click here to purchase it!

MY DAY 8: Though I had already written the inciting incident of my novel before (many times over, in fact), I changed the voice to first person and was thrilled with the results. It will make narration in the future a bit more tricky, but the protagonist feels much more accessible to me now. Of course our hero will have to have his turn to speak as well; this means having dual first-person narrators. Yeah, apparently I like to take risks and go out of my way to make my first novel writing experience as challenging as possible.

No comments:

Post a Comment