Friday, September 30, 2011

Backstory: When and How to Use It Effectively

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While revising my novel to get rid of the unnecessary, I came up against that bane and blessing of the writer's existence—backstory. The problem in this instance wasn't so much literal backstory, meaning past events, but backstory in the sense of material that qualified more as supporting the story, rather than the story itself.

So, what is backstory? Merriam's describes it as "a story that tells what led up to the main story or plot." Simply put, it's any aspect of the work that's not part of what's happening now. Even with a working definition, it can be hard to tell where backstory leaves off and story begins.

What was sneaky about my material was that it wasn't quite throat-clearing. The prose was clear, the story flowed, characters were developed, but there was no traction until chapter five, when something brings two main characters together after years apart. In this case, five chapters were way too much to read before reaching an inciting incident. That incident may not need to happen on page one, but the elements should be in place so that by chapter two, the reader is off and running.

To understand how to use backstory effectively, consider three caveats:
Don't put it at the beginning.
Don't use the wrong medium for the message.
Don't overdo it.

For more on how to treat backstory, visit my online workshop: The Art of Editing in Writing for October.


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