No one cares about back story

I recently heard something that was so utterly, completely false that I have to denounce it. Kind of like when you smell a steaming pile, and you’re like, “Man, that is so obviously a pile of crap, I just gotta tell people about it!” Anyways, I was giving advice to a budding author, telling him to get rid of the unnecessary parts of his story, and this dude is like, “I think the story is fine the way it is. Not everything in a story has to add to the plot.”

Stop. Right. There. That is such a lie, I can feel my inner author vomiting in the trashcan. There’s a common misconception among amateur authors (which I am as well. I’m just not as misdirected as most of them.) that a story needs fluff. That character development = long tangents that don’t move the plot forward. Hmmmmmm…no. The first rule of writing:

If something isn’t helping your story, it’s killing it.

If a paragraph isn’t moving your story forward, then it’s holding a pillow over the plot’s face while it sleeps. That is the plain and simple truth. However, plain and simple truths are often too big for small minds to digest, so I’ll elaborate and talk hopelessly around the subject until everyone involved is confused.

Okay, so why don’t you want to add unnecessary parts to a novel? Because it’s boring! That’s really the main reason. If you dump in a huge segment about the history, forging and aesthetic qualities of a dagger (*coughJRRTOLKIENcough*) do you honestly think your audience is going to patiently read through it? No, they’re going to skip ahead to the good stuff. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t have description, back story and a developed history. You just need to integrate it into the story in such a way that it doesn’t kill the action.

Now, since nothing is quite as illuminating as a bad example, let me provide you with one where the action is completely stalled by intrusive back story and description. Here goes:

She heard a crash from the front room. Not just any crash, though. A muffled one. Someone was here, and they didn’t want her to know it.

Oh no! she thought, This is just like that one time!

When she had been six, a burglar had raided their home. Dad had been gone for a year, traipsing after a pair of silicone boobs, and her Mother and her were completely alone. They were two females in a dingy apartment, with no gun and no one to call for help. All they could do was listen to the burglar rummage around in their house, while her and her Mother huddled together upstairs. Olivia had never felt so helpless, had never loathed her weakness more than at that moment.

And it was happening again. There was someone in her house, putting their fingers on her stuff.

I’m not the same weak little girl I was back then, she snarled in her head. And it was true. Over the past fifteen years, her body had blossomed, ripened, exploded with feminine charms. She had long legs and long hair. Her skin was ivory as the moonlight, her hair the color of dead grass. She was muscular from the hours spent in judo training, her muscles sleek and ready as a cat’s. Whoever this intruder was, they were in for more than they bargained more.

So, now that you’ve read a bad example, can you see why it’s so bad? I spend so much time on her background, which even though it is compelling (okay, maybe not, but just pretend that it is), it’s not as exciting as what’s happening now. Back story, by definition, is less exciting than the current plot. After all, if you back story is more exciting, why is it your back story and not your main plot? Anyways, that huge chunk of flash back totally kills the momentum. Like, here’s this huge action moment, but before I get to it I’m going to take a coffee break while I tell you about why this moment is important. And don’t even get me started on that horribly out of place description. (By the way, I wrote the example myself, so it’s okay if I tear it to ribbons).

However, here is the tricky part. If I get rid of the back story completely, then I loose some of the tension. After all, if the protagonist has some deep childhood fear that she’s battling with, that adds another layer of excitement. So it’s not that back story is bad, no. It’s just that most amateur authors don’t know how to incorporate back story into the main story, so that you get the picture without stalling the action.

What’s that, you say? You want a good example? Well, I’m as amateur as they come, but I suppose I could give it a try. So, here’s the example above, rewritten so that the back story and description do not kill the plot:

She heard a crash from the front room. Not just any crash, though. A muffled one. Someone was here, and they didn’t want her to know it.

No! she thought, Never again!

She had been a victim of theft. Once. Pain, fear, helplessness. A night spent huddled under the covers. Being too weak to –

That was when I was a child, she snarled in her head. I’m different now.

The shadow in the room dappled her dead-grass hair, giving her cheetah spots. Her muscles, too, were taut like a cheetah’s, rippling as she slowly stalked towards the stairs.

This burglar had no idea who they were messing with.

Okay, so it’s not poetry, but it’s a far sight better than the earlier one. Sure, we lose some of the back story, but we also gain suspense. Because we don’t take a break from the action, it feels more immediate. Also, while the second description is shorter, it replaces quantity with quality. Instead of trite phrases and a check list of features, we have a dazzling (this is also my own piece, so I’m allowed to lavishly praise it) comparison that says more about the character than a lame back story ever could.

To sum it up, back story is good. Plot is better. If you ever have to take more than three or four lines to talk about a previous event, you are killing the momentum. You can either summarize the back story and integrate it into the plot, you can toss it aside completely and add a bit of mystery to your character, or if the character origin is so completely compelling that you wouldn’t possibly want to deny your audience the chance to see it, you can turn it into it’s own separate chapter/story. Really, though, back story is highly overrated. It’s the here and now that matters. And if you’re here and now is concerned with the then and done, I am going to be gone.


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