Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Backstory Takes a Back Seat

How do you deal with backstory? How much do you need, and where do you put it? How do you know what to leave in, and what to take out?

From Frank

As time has passed, I have become a less and less tolerant reader when it comes to info-dumps. I see them as lazy at best and immersion shattering at worst. This method of conveying backstory is often handled clumsily, even by good writers in otherwise good books. I recently put down a highly touted multiple-award nominated book about a quarter of the way through for exactly this reason. Screeching brakes on the story while the author intrudes with "Hey, reader - just so you know..." information. 


As a reader, I'm hard ass about this. Merciless and unapologetic.

As a writer, though? Boy, do I sympathize.

We writers want so badly for the reader to understand every nuance that we believe is so important to the story, don't we? And maybe we're right. But sometimes we're not.

Either way, stopping all of the action to back up the facts-we-think-is-oh-so-important truck to the reader's porch and gracelessly dump a big load of information there isn't the way to do it.

Let's be clear - I am as guilty as the next writer of this, so don't take any of this as me being holier-than-thou about it. It's more like I'm as sinful-as-thou. But the questions have been asked, and these are my true answers.

How do deal with it? Insert backstory in small bits, first off. Digestible chunks that the reader can absorb and process. Secondly, mix up the delivery of the information. Some of it may be narrative but you can show backstory (or at least hint strongly at it) in dialogue and action, too. And lastly, priortize which pieces of backstory are the most important and, in general, work them in first.

How much do you need? I wrote a textbook on police report writing. In it, I state that there are four pillars of good report writing. A report must be clear, concise, complete, and accurate. Now, while fiction is very different than technical writing, many of the fundamentals are the same. And when it comes to how much backstory you need, I would point you to the concise pillar. The simple definition of concise in the textbook is all of the information you need and no more

Sure, it's a little nebulous. But it's a great starting point. We don't need to know everything about a character's backstory to get who they are. We just need enough.

Where do you put it? Early on, obviously. And not all in one place. And not all in the form of a "stop here for a moment so I can fill you in" narrative. Like I mentioned above, we can garner some backstory through conversation, and through the current actions of our character. These are far less obtrusive and keeps things moving forward.

How do you know what to leave in, and what to take out? This is the art of it all, right? Where is that razor's edge between concise and complete? All the information you need and no more?

There's a lot of meat on the bone that is this question. But I'll leave some of that meat for my Wed, Thur, and especially Friday (looking at you, Abir!) panelists to gnaw on. Otherwise, this will be a book and not a blog post.

My recent experience with backstory. The biggest challenge I've had recently with backstory came when Colin Conway and I were writing Code Four, the final book of a four-book arc in the Charlie-316 series.

Code Four was the fifth book Colin and I had written together. We'd developed a process that worked for us, and a form of shorthand. One of those shorthand pieces came about when we were revising Some Degree of Murder back in 2012. SDoM was a bloated 111,000 words that no one wanted to publish. By the time we shaved it down to its essentials, it was 74,000 words (and far better). How'd we accomplish that? Well, Colin coined the analogy that we cut anything that gets us off the freeway. Only the occasional short detour to a rest stop was allowed, then it was back on the freeway. No tooling around surface streets. Keep the action moving forward.

Guess what? When we adhered to that, one of the most notable casualties was a ton of backstory.

But for Code Four, we were in a tough spot.  A lot had occurred in the first three books. Some of it was a little intricate, and some of the inter-woven relationships were important for the reader to be aware of. It seemed like some backstory was necessary, especially for those readers who picked up this book first and didn't have the luxury of the story knowledge that came with reading the first three.

So what'd we do?

We tried to keep it on the freeway.

The first chapter featured the antagonist in action. Largely through his actions, and a little internal monologue, the reader immediately knows what he's all about. They don't get many specifics but they get the gist of it. 

The next chapter shows the inciting incident. In this case, we see the Chief of Police learning that DOJ is sending investigators to his department. We get his reaction and dialogue with another staff officer as they form a plan of action. This allowed us to insert a few more items of backstory in a way the seemed organic.

Then we get the chapter that almost killed me. 

The third chapter is from the POV of one of my favorite all-time characters - Detective Wardell Clint. On the surface, Clint is working a case that occured at the conclusion of book three. But underneath that, he's also working the same case he's been grinding away at for the entire arc.

I wrote this chapter, and in the first draft, I did exactly what I have railed against - a massive info dump. Rightfully, Colin pushed back. I revised accordingly. Eventually, Clint interacts with three different sets of people in this chapter. Two of those interactions are rife with conflict while one is friendly. Each gives him cause to mete out bits of backstory outside of his own internal narrative. Since he's a detective working through possibilities, though, these internal thoughts are framed as following his line of thought about the case at hand. This is a little more interesting than just pushing pause and saying, "Previously, on Charlie-316..."

In the end, this chapter is still a bit heavy on backstory. It seemed necessary, though. So we cloaked it in action and dialogue wherever possible, and trimmed it down as much as we could. In the end, it is about 400 words shorter than my first draft (roughly ten percent less).

It wasn't the perfect solution, and I think I would have cut a lot more if reading the previous three books was a requirement for picking up Code Four. But since it wasn't, we had to weave in the backstory, and this is how we went about it.

Making me, of course, a bit of a hypocrite...

*********************BSP Alert********************

My first Stanley Melvin story will be released on August 17, 2021 from PI Tales.

In Hallmarks of the Job, meticulous private investigator Stanley Melvin likes to keep his work grounded in reality, not at all like the classic detective novels he has read incessantly since childhood. But his best friend and annoying neighbor Rudy quickly points out that his routine “cheater” case is rapidly taking on all of the features that Stanley steadfastly insists are mere fictional tropes of the genre.

As you can see, this novella is being paired with a story from Michael Bracken, so that almost guarantees people will pick up the book. Hopefully they don't skip Stanley!

Hallmarks was fun to write. It's outside my comfort zone, as it is supposed to be at least mildly humorous. I'm no Catriona so don't expect gut busting guffaws but I think this tale might elicit a smile or two. 

Or at least a smirk.



Dietrich Kalteis said...

Well said, Frank. Backstory in little bits, or it just becomes an info dump that totally takes the reader out of the story.

Susan C Shea said...

I like the metaphor of the highway, Frank. I can visualize it easily and maybe even apply it to the manuscript I’m polishing right now. Thanks!

Frank Zafiro said...

Thanks, Dietrich and Susan!