Thursday, July 5, 2012

July -- Backstory Blues

Battling Backstory

Recently I read an award winning novel that was certainly interesting, but had one troubling flaw. At least to me.

The author shoved tons of backstory at me in the first chapter or two. Tons. The book began with the heroine going through routine chores in her prairie home. This gave the author plenty of space to tell us about how the heroine met her husband, where she was brought up, how her husband proposed to her, the trouble she had birthing her child, a miscarriage, and that her husband had mood swings that were getting progressively worse.

Nothing wrong with all of that information. We need to know about the characters to understand why they do what they do. However, backstory is best when it is revealed in thin slices -- like peeling an onion. If you tell me all this stuff about a character's past right when I first meet her or him, I'm not ready! I have just met this character! It's like meeting someone in a grocery store, exchanging a bit of small talk, and then the person launches into a sermon about her life up to this point. Do I want to hear this now? No!

Wait until I am emotionally invested in a character before you ladle on the backstory. Make me want to know . . . make me question . . . make me wait a little before you show me a glimpse of a scene in the character's past that will provide insight on why the character acted a certain way in a previous scene. Just because you have a wealth of information about the character, doesn't mean you have to tell your reader every tidbit of it. You might even know something about the character that you never have to reveal in the novel because it isn't necessary. It's important for you to know, but you don't have to share it with your readers because it doesn't add to the story.

Backstory can be boring if it is delivered too soon and glopped on like paint splatters. Readers will skip over it or glance through it because they are not emotionally engaged yet and are anticipating dialogue or action.

The main focus of a first chapter is not backstory. The main focus should be to answer this blazingly important question; Why is this day unlike any other?

Readers are looking for the answer to that question in the first chapter and you had better not delay it any later than the beginning of your second chapter, or you will lose a lot of your readers. If it appears that this day in the character's life is no different than the day before, then why are you writing about it and expecting me to read about it? I might as well read someone's diary.

So, go easy on the backstory. Let me get to know your main characters through their actions and dialogue before you give me snippets of information about how life formed them, shaped them, and led them to this moment in time.

But that's just me. I could be wrong.
What do you think?