Backstory Happens

Standard advice for fiction writers usually includes “Start in the middle.” Good advice, for the most part, but how do you work in all the important stuff that’s happened before the story starts, the backstory?

Backstory often gets a bad rap. It’s associated with info dumps, superfluous prologues, and abrupt jumps back in time.

But backstory is crucial, not just the backstory for the situation but the backstory of each character. (Come to think of it, these overlap so heavily that they might almost be the same thing.) Lately I’ve become a huge fan of Sally Wainwright, the British screenwriter who’s largely responsible for such series as Last Tango in Halifax, Scott and Bailey, and Happy Valley. She’s created some of the most three-dimensional, complex, recognizable characters I’ve ever seen on small screen or large — or in novels, for that matter.

A big reason is that Wainwright’s characters have pasts. Where they’ve come from helps shape who they are, yes, but their histories also help drive the plot. Unexpected events in the present trigger memories of the past; those memories affect how they respond to the events. Their friends and co-workers see them in a different, perhaps surprising light.

Most of us have memories that we would rather keep in the closet, safe from prying eyes — including our own. When events force them into the open, we have plot.

In “Notes and More Notes” I wrote that for me “writing is a journey of discovery. If I know in advance what I’m going to discover, why make the trip? I’m just a sightseer gazing through the windows of a tour bus.”

In Wolfie, the novel in progress, much of what I’m discovering is about backstory. I already knew that protagonist Shannon fled her violently alcoholic family as a teenager. Now, in the late stages (I hope) of draft #2, I, along with Shannon, am learning what happened after she left, thanks to an unexpected phone call from Shannon’s estranged younger sister. As a result, draft #3 is going to have a plot thread that’s completely absent from the first three-quarters of draft #2.

This might drive a careful planner nuts. Planners often want to know a character’s history cold before they get down to writing. What happens when unruly backstory starts to erupt out of the carefully planned tale?  Maybe it doesn’t happen. Maybe serendipity doesn’t bother to knock where it knows it won’t be welcome.

If I were on deadline, if I had to deliver a final draft to a publisher by, say, the end of April, I probably wouldn’t hear the knocking. Or maybe I’d scream so loud at the intrusion that serendipity would cower in the shadows and hesitate to come back. This is part of why I’ve never aspired to write for a living, though I wouldn’t turn down fame, fortune, and/or more time if they came knocking.

But I’m not on deadline, and for the moment I’m grateful. I knew almost at once that this particular plot thread was meant to be in the novel. It fits. It’s been exerting a sort of gravitational pull on Shannon all her adult life, but for a long time Shannon wasn’t dealing with it so I didn’t have a clue. Other events flushed it out of hiding.

Backstory happens if you let it happen. Your characters will help you with this. They’ll say or do something that makes you wonder: Where did that come from? And in a few moments you have the kernel of an earlier incident that will become part of the character’s backstory.

These incidents may loom large in the character’s memory long after everyone else in the vicinity has forgotten them. When I was 13, I was told by another kid in my church choir that I always sang off-key. No one else ever told me that, and I didn’t even like this kid, but I was so afraid she was right that I stopped singing for almost 20 years. Most of us have had experiences like that. So have our characters. In our heads we’re often arguing with people who passed out of our lives years or even decades earlier. Listen.

 

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23 thoughts on “Backstory Happens

    • Thanks! There are some good blog posts out there about backstory, why it’s important, and how to work it in, but not so much about how it develops. With the novel in progress, the plot threads give me clues about the backstory, then the backstory pushes the plot in a somewhat different direction, whereupon the characters drop more hints about their past lives. It’s sort of like kneading bread . . .

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  1. As so often happens, this blog appeared as needed, as I was struggling with backstory in a non-fiction historical piece. Even though I know what happened there is still the dilemma of what the reader needs to know and when for the most impact. Let it happen, as if it’s fiction, works here too! Thanks

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    • Oh good. I definitely had nonfiction in mind as well as fiction, but I thought, hey, wouldn’t it be fun if I blogged something that was less than a thousand words long? Real people have backstories the way characters do. The big difference with nonfiction is that you can’t make shit up in order to shed light on what a person did or didn’t do. 😉

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  2. Re: “Standard advice for fiction writers usually includes “Start in the middle.””

    I never heard that. Again, probably because I just haven’t been exposed to the ins and outs of fiction writing as much as nonfiction. I want you to know that this simple sentence in your post has propelled me to try for the umpteenth time to edit my first-draft memoir.

    I completed the first draft in two-months’ time last summer only to have it sit all this time unedited. I’ve ATTEMPTED to edit it, but kept coming in at the beginning where I kept running into roadblocks. I also kept coming up with rewrites of the opening in such number that the decision of which to pick just left me unable to move.

    Your opening sentence led me to the solution: START IN THE MIDDLE! Today, I jumped in at Chapter 6 and as of an hour ago am now moving along with the editing. THANKS for the redirect!

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    • Yay! Once upon a time I was the features editor for a weekly newspaper. Most of the paper’s features were written by freelancers, some of whom were proficient writers, others of whom were looking to develop their skills. Editing copy by the latter, I learned that the ideal lead paragraph was often buried about halfway down in the story. I’d pull it out, set it at the beginning, and everything else would fall into place.

      I recently critiqued a very promising but long memoir in progress that started about two-thirds of the way through the author’s life, when certain truths he’d been trying to suppress or ignore came to a head and blew up. It was the perfect beginning.Then he goes back to his early life and starts tracing those threads forward. With chapter 1 in place, it’s easier to see which of the many stories and personalities from his earlier life are essential to the work and which are less so.

      “Start at the beginning,” in other words, often isn’t a good idea. Wherever you start, there‘s the beginning.

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      • Funny you mention that, because I just came across a paragraph today that I thought I could pull out and open with. I suspect I might find others as well.

        I did some development editing for a friend writing a memoir (always easier to edit someone else’s work than one’s own) and had done the same thing . . . I pulled a paragraph from deep in the story, somewhere around the crisis and put it up front, for the same reasons you did in your example.

        I have it in mind to do something similar with mine (start in the action), but just need to find that sweet spot. 🙂 You’ve given me much to work with today! (It was a GOOD day.)

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        • I’ve learned a lot about editing my own work from editing, reviewing, and critiquing other people’s. You don’t have to edit for a living either. This is where a good writers’ group can be invaluable: with works still in progress, it’s easier to spot problems and rough patches, to suggest solutions, and sometimes to see what the writer did with everybody’s suggestions. With good, finished work, it’s often hard to recognize the choices the writer made along the way.

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        • True about writers’ groups. Finding a GOOD one is difficult, but I’m still working on it. 🙂 I was blessed at the onset of my creative writing endeavors to be exposed to an incredible group of fellow writers in an adult-ed class. Their styles were so varied. Most were seasoned writers . . . some exceptionally good, others great but a little rough around the edges, and one or two like me trying it out for the first time. I learned so much about my own writing by critiquing their writing. It was both humbling and encouraging. No group since has been of that caliber. I was spoiled!

          Big problem for me is that absent lucking out and finding a group of memoir writers with some writing experience behind them, I’m left to mingle with fiction writers. Because I had to study fiction to enhance the delivery of my story, I am of some use to them in critiquing, but find that my genre is different enough that significant advice from fiction writers is ‘off’ because of all the embellishment and ‘spinning’ they suggest. I’m fairly fundamental in my approach to memoir writing. I’m resistant to embellishment. Better to not specify details and leave it to the reader to wonder than to dramatize for the sake of an award-winning story line. Memoir writing can feel like this, where we’re on our own to find our way.

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      • BTW, I just noticed how elitist I sounded in suggesting that I might bring to a fiction critique group more than it might bring to me. For the record, I owe so much to any writer I’ve sat with in a fiction critique group, because basically they’ve all known more than me about the writing ‘craft.’ Every thing they’ve shown me has helped my writing tremendously. I, in turn, have brought only my instinct and editing skills. But I once attended a mixed writing group where one other memoir writer was in regular attendance. I watched week-by-week as he soaked in so much fiction writing advice that his memoir ended up sounding sensational, over-the-top, at times entirely untrue. He called it embellishment. Certain memoir books (like “A Thousand Little Pieces” that made it on the Oprah reading list) have received great criticism when it was revealed how much of the book was embellished. Guess I’m just overly cautious now. 🙂

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        • Fwiw, I didn’t think you sounded elitist. I’m hands-down the best copyeditor in my writers’ group, and probably the best editor, period — though for a while there was a writer in the group who could edit on the fly in a way that I never could, and her comments were so useful! One problem I’ve had is that the mss. I bring to the group are very clean, in the sense of few typos and mechanical goofs, and I think some of the other writers are intimidated by this. I keep saying “I can catch my own typos — tell me what you respond to, what you love, what you hate, what you think is confusing.”

          I wonder what fiction-writing advice was being given out in that group that led the memoir writer to make his work more sensational, over-the-top, etc. A couple of years ago I copyedited a memoir that I liked very much — until I got to the end and learned that the flamboyant aunt I thought was so cool was entirely fictional. I felt so betrayed. (I just looked the book up online: Alan Lightman’s Screening Room. At least one reviewer had the same reaction I did.)

          The writers’ group I’m in includes fiction (mystery and general) and nonfiction (memoir, personal essay, and academic) writers. I like it. I don’t get in-depth critiques from it, but that’s not what I’m looking for: my novel in progress won’t be ready for an in-depth critique till it’s complete. The encouragement, the comments, and the weekly deadline keep me going.

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        • I’ve recently come across a couple of local fiction writers who consider themselves good editors. I think I’ll work with them to get a critique group going, for the same reasons you state: encouragement; helpful comments; a whip at my back to keep me going.

          Thank you, Susanna, for sparing me so much of your time on these comments. I always look forward to reading your posts. I always learn something new!

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  3. The singing thing – my sister has beautiful handwriting, constantly made fun of mine. I still freeze up if I have to write something when somebody is watching, and I hate reading my own notes. The damage children do.

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    • Oh yeah. At some point I realized that many of my most vivid memories from childhood involved being humiliated. 😦 For me the problem was exacerbated because my father was a terrible perfectionist. He was forever ridiculing my mother for, basically, not being as smart or well-read as he was. I learned to always get my facts straight, and if I wasn’t the world’s #1 expert in any particular subject, to shut up about it. This made it really hard to learn anything new, because when you’re a beginner you always fumble around and look a little foolish. I started singing again in my mid-thirties, informally and in local choruses, and have never stopped, but I still regret missing the opportunities along the way, like singing in the high school glee club.

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      • I can totally relate. Interestingly I was ridiculed/bullied/humiliated by my siblings and ignored by my parents. I’m the youngest and very strongly resisted being “like the other kids” (to quote my father) which to me meant doing well in school which was synonymous with being overweight/uncoordinated/bullied by classmates. Shit flows downhill. My parents were blue-collar, under-educated, drinkers who barely got by financially. A stressful environment. What did your parents do?

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  4. Catching up on these blogs. I enjoyed this post very much and the comments that followed. Characters without a backstory have no depth and no reason to act the way they do, because all of our thoughts and actions are shaped by the past, as you so well described. (And what a mean thing for that girl to say. I’m happy that now you are singing and enjoying it!)

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    • I’ve been walking around that incident for decades now. I didn’t even like this kid. Why was I so afraid she was right? Well, that led me into the way my father ridiculed my mother whenever she did or said anything he considered stupid, and how I identified with my father and didn’t want to be like my mother (who was an alcoholic), and how the upshot of all this was that I was deathly afraid of being wrong or making a fool of myself. It’s really hard to learn anything new if you think not having all the answers is “making a fool of yourself.” Sometimes I think we need three lifetimes to work through all this crap.

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  5. Oh, yeah, on the three lifetimes. You must have worked through all that sad and crippling stuff pretty well, though, because you have always impressed me as someone who is courageous (and articulate) in expressing what might be unpopular ideas.

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  6. Hi, Susanna. Can you recommend particular blog posts on how to work in backstory? (I’m working on memoir, in particular, in case that has any bearing on your response.) Thanks!

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    • I’m afraid I’m the wrong person to ask. 🙂 So much backstory has emerged in the last quarter of draft #2 of my novel in progress that a major task for draft #3 is going to be deciding where it will be most effective. In a memoir, you aren’t exactly inventing backstory, but as you write, your perspective on particular incidents may change and one memory may trigger another.

      Googling “backstory” + “memoir” turns up some good general advice about pacing and structure, and about what not to do, but you’re the best one to figure out what works best for the story you’re telling. You’re taking the reader on a journey to somewhere s/he’s never been. At key points you’ll be pointing out a particular place or telling a particular story and you’ll realize that your reader won’t understand its signnificance unless you provide some background. So you do it.

      Don’t worry if the early drafts feel lumpy and unbalanced. That’s part of what rewriting is about: shaping the story so that it will engage readers and motivate them to follow wherever you take them.

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      • That was helpful in itself, Susanna. Thanks! Yes. Lumpy and unbalanced at times. When the supporting backstory emerges at those times, I realize I can’t back-fill it all right there and must at least introduce it earlier somehow. So far, it’s been an organic process. Your shared experience gives me comfort that it’s okay . . . I’m okay. I think I’ll keep letting intuition lead the way.

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        • I think that is the most important thing: let it happen, let intuition lead the way. When you get really stuck, put that part aside for a few days. If it stays stuck, another set of eyes can help expand the possibilities. When something emerges late in a draft and you think it belongs earlier, go back to that place and make a note of it. My draft 2 Word file is littered with comments, and my handwritten first-draft pages have annotations in red-orange ink in the margins and between the lines.

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