Friday, November 25, 2011

Backstory - Burdensome or Boring?

Readers often ask ‘If  I don’t start with the first book of a series will I know what’s going on with the characters?’  Writers wonder how best to illuminate characters' past or history. Characters in a story can often be righting a wrong, rescuing or saving a person, or changing and transforming themselves.  But how do we get to know their past? Where did they come from? What did they do that needs changing? Backstory can be the solution, but where to put it is another question.

In a chapter of his workbook, Writing the Breakout Novel, Donald Maass says “Perhaps it is desirable to learn about a protagonist’s past at times, but When?” He illustrates various authors’ methods of inserting backstory by building on a character’s internal problems and deepening the inner conflict Later in the story, not in the first chapters.
Author, Corbette Doyle lists three common Back story methods in order of editorial acceptability in her article “Backstory Without Boredom.” She cites:
      1. Weaving the back story into the fabric of the novel
      2. Prologues
      3. Flashbacks
Doyle also quotes Orson Scott Card’s back story warning “that few things from the past are really important to the present story.” Card advocates revealing only enough to convey motive and character revelation. He outlines three indirect methods to reveal the past:
  1. Past as a present event— In dialogue have one character tell another a story from the past that adds to the present action.
  2. Implied Past: Expectation—show what a character expects to happen to reveal something about that individual’s past
  3. Implied Past Networks— Reveal a character’s past through the way others who know the character react to her and treat her.
In my first historical novel, Four Summers Waiting,  I used Card's “Past as a present event” method in Chapter Nine to convey a true event. My family ancestor, a secondary character, Edward Simms, is entertaining his militia association members by telling a true story about how he met President Thomas Jefferson. His son, Henry waits and listens to the story in the hallway of their home. His father, Edward is telling about his arrival in Washington City.

“I remember catching my first glimpse of Pennsylvania Avenue when I came here as a young boy of twelve. I was riding on a wagon that creaked and swayed under a high mound of oats it carried down Frederick Road to Washington City. I hung onto the wooden seat and lurched into the Negro driver, Luke, as the wheels pitched in and out of clay ruts . . . . A twist of wind whirled away the early morning fog and stretched out before us was a raised road with footpaths on either side of a long row of poplars leading to the president’s house. “Is that where President Jefferson lives, Luke? Is that where we’re going? To that grand big house, I asked?”

Protagonist, Henry Simms has just come home after graduating medical school. He comes into the parlor as the gentlemen guests are leaving and Edward proudly introduces his son as Doctor. This scene not only fills in time, place, and history for Edward, it establishes a good father-son relationship that Henry feared would be broken by a revelation he’s about to make. When Edward returns from seeing his guests to the door he sees Henry restlessly pacing back and forth in front of the fire. He thinks something is wrong and upon questioning him, Henry replies:

“You see, it’s just that you’ve denied me nothing through all my studies to become a doctor, with the hopes, I’m sure that I would open a practice here in  town. But I’ve made a decision to locate elsewhere.”
All ends well when Edward is told that the location of Henry’s practice was influenced by the young woman Henry intends to marry, a woman endeared by the whole family. I believe it was effective to place backstory conveying character revelation here, rather than in the first chapters.        

Throughout my contemporary series, Maine Shore Chronicles, I have applied different methods for backstory.  I used a prologue to give a glimpse of time travel that comes later in the story of Book One, Finding Fiona. To acquaint new readers to the characters in my series, or reacquaint those who started with Book One, I used the following approach in Book Two, Moon glade.  I think, in a sense, this paraphrase below could be considered applied backstory. See what you think.

            “Clare rang the bell and pushed open the door to Maddy and Patrick’s apartment. The long hallway held a gallery of paintings interspersed with framed  family photos of Jacques Fontaine, Maddy’s mom, Julie, and Maddy and Clare, all taken in  front of Francois’s Fancy. There was a great photo of Paul at the    wheel of “Julie’s Dream”. The last picture on the wall was Maddy and Patrick’s wedding portrait. Clare had seen it a dozen times, but could never pass it without pausing.”

The latest installment of my Chronicles series released for sale this month, 11/11.It is Book 3.  Promise Keeper. I wove backstory into the fabric of the novel using an introspective approach, blending memories in dialog and inserting memories triggered by objects or images.
“'Never know when you need a port in the storm’ Paul had said. How prophetic, Jacques thought. Paul is just beginning to move about here without help. He swallowed hard, his gaze fixed on a painting at the far end of the room. His first wife’s paintings still lined the walls of the house and memories of her lined his heart. The years could not erase the memories.”

I hope you will look for Promise Keeper. Enjoy the intrigue of this Mystery/Suspense installment and determine if you think I have used “Backstory without Boredom.”


Jacqueline Seewald said...

Hi, Mary,

Thanks for all the valuable information you shared with us on back story. It's so important to present it in the right way. With my Kim Reynolds mystery series,
each novel is unique, yet the main characters have back stories that enter into the novels. As you say the character histories need to be woven into the fabric of the novel.

Susan Oleksiw said...

I learned the hard way that when I get caught up in a character's back story I'm probably not ready to tell the story I'm working on. Each character has a great story, but I can only focus on one. Thanks for a good discussion of an important facet of a novel that can make the difference between a ho-hum read and a great read.

Mary Fremont Schoenecker said...

Jacqueline and Susan,
It's good to read reactions from seasoned fellow authors and extra special when newbies are helped by something we write.Thanks for your comments about this facet of our craft, which becomes, as Susan says,an important component of "a good read".

BD Tharp said...

Thanks, Mary for the information on back story. It's so hard for new writers to know when and how much of the past to share in the story. The methods you mention are excellent and helpful to any writer, regardless of experience. Have a happy holiday!

Mary F. Schoenecker said...

Happy holiday to you,also, Bonnie.Hopefully, both writers and readers will find the blog helpful.

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