Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Lauri on: Back Story

This week I've spent time reading over the emails exchanged with my friend Lauri, during the months I began the huge task of editing Kindred down to a manageable length. An element I'd struggled with was back story: where to put it, and how much needed to be included at all. Lauri's answer: later and less than one might think. Her suggestions seemed radical to me at first, but I eventually came around to realizing she was right. Much of what we discussed was specific to my story, but there were some general tips I could pull from the emails to share.

Lauri on Back Story:

~ "It's also pacing. As the story warms up, a dip into back story deadens momentum, stops the story arc and in this reader's mind, feels like the brakes are being put on. "Well, this happens-- but wait, let me tell you what happened LAST year so you can appreciate what is going on now.""

~ "Right NOW, after 50 pages, you are in a good position to start including backstory. Why? Because now you have a "sticky wicket" of problems for your protag who isn't crazy about slavery, but here he is, about to take charge of a hugh Carolina estate-- with slaves."

~ "I've used this backstory analogy before on the Forum... if one attends a cocktail party and says hello to someone who looks like someone you might like to know and you say, "How are you?" and they come back with, "Well, to tell you the truth, I'm not feeling all that good today. I went to the doctor and he said... blahblahblah... and then, my wife, she just started out with the same-old, salme-old... the kids were on my back. Then my car started making this screeching noise...." Well, we wonder what we have stumbled into and quickly try to get away from the barrage of Too Much Information."

~ "Do you ever listen to Dr. Laura on the radio? I worked on her short-lived TV show and even though I am pretty politically opposite of her, when it comes to people and their behaviors, I'm right with her. And I listen to her. I get a kick out of how she cuts to the quick on calls. People are just driven to give her back story. "Well, my mother and her sister never got along. When they were kids...." and Laura will say, "Tell what is bothering you about your mother." They'll say,"Well, like I said, my mother just didn't get along with her sister...." Often, after hearing just the pared-down version, Laura will ask for back story because she needs it to illuminate the problem. But people just feel they have to give a lot of background. And in the space of a radio show, there is no time for that. And it really isn't needed but callers feel obligated to give it."


  1. Thanks for posting this, Lori. I wish I'd know Lauri longer. I'm relatively new to the forum and she was already posting less frequently when I came along. Backstory is always something I struggle with. Feel free to pass on her knowledge at any time *g*

  2. Backstory is such a kafuddle (my own word) for me. I know it's taboo -- but then I read a book by a well-known author and it's filled with so much backstory that I'm trying to figure out what's happening currently and what happened in the past! LOL. I guess as a newbie I have to follow the rules, eh? While a seasoned pro can have fun breaking them.

  3. Eek! My whole story starts with backstory. That is, before even the first paragraph is over I've got some back story thrown in. Let me try to absorb Lauri's advice one more time...

  4. This go-around, my second WIP since Kindred, I've tried to save the major back story element I planned to include until one MC became curious enough to ask the other MC about it. So it's not given until her curiosity is too great to keep quiet about, and hopefully by then the reader's curiosity is whetted too. That's not until about Chapter 8. It was hard to hold back that long. I hope Lauri would be proud. :)

    Deniz, there's bits of back story woven in here and there, a line, a phrase, a hint about it even in Chapter 1, but those hints along the way and the questions they raise don't get answered until Chapter 8. I think it's good not to follow too strict a rule on back story, but let the characters and their situation in the present story dictate where the back story needs to be told. It's a story by story thing we have to work out. The hard part is not giving it away too soon, before the reader cares enough about the character and his/her present "sticky wicket" as Lauri put it, to want to know, and figuring out that just right place to reveal it. I struggle with this element every time!

  5. I just love to know those backstory details, but one thing I'm learning to appreciate as I write AND read is when something is revealed in an appropriate place that makes me go, "ah, ha." More gratifying that way. I feel like I've been let in on this big secret.

  6. Carla, that's so true. A reader has to be curious about and care about a character before those reveals can have the impact we hope they will.