Wednesday, July 13, 2011

How to Handle Backstory

And believe you me, I am no expert. Ha--far from it. I still struggle to condense and creatively address back story in my novels.

In the book, SAVE THE CAT, by Blake Snyder, there's a method called The Pope in the Pool. Snyder refers to a script where back story was introduced while the Pope was swimming laps. So what did the reader focus on? The Pope in a freakin' bathing suit in the pool!

Very clever and now I can easily spot this method in movies/shows/books.

The most recent example is in the HBO show GAME OF THRONES (have you watched it or read the series, and if so, did you love it as much I did?). Sometimes back story was introduced amidst some *cough* racy or scary scenes. And it was brilliant!
In a nutshell, we need to sprinkle back story here and there amidst some action and dialogue, to keep the reader engaged.

But that in itself isn't easy. Not at all. But I have gotten better at it.

Here's an example from the *awesome* book, A SCARY SCENE IN A SCARY MOVIE by Matt Blackstone. The MC, Rene is talking to his teacher, Mr. Head. I'll highlight the back story in red:

That's when Mr. Head hung his head and let out a low, guttural moan--the sound Phil used to make after coming home from work. He said it's "the sound of a man staring down a dead-end career all the way to the grave." Mr. Head, the second dying man I'd met, rose from his chair.

So the story moves along with Mr. Head and at the same time we learn something about Phil (his father). It's just a sentence or two sprinkled into the action and that's all we need, for now.

Thoughts?




(image: bigshinyrobot.com)

16 comments:

Stina Lindenblatt said...

Yay, now I know what I'm doing for my pope in the pool. Hot guys and make out scenes. :D

Thanks for the suggestion!

Matthew MacNish said...

Backstory is only one aspect that needs to be handled this way. I talk about this when I give advice about world building in Fantasy novels too. You, as the author, have to know as much as you possibly can about your world, character backstory, world geography, culture, the laws of physics, magic, whatever. But you have to keep in mind that the reader doesn't need to know everything you know.

You have to let those details be revealed organically, when the plot or some characterization or dialogue calls for it. Otherwise it will get in the way of pacing, and rising or falling action, and end up boring the reader.

Of course this is all so much easier said than done. I'm not very good at it myself.

Christina Lee said...

EXCELLENT points, Matt!

Maddy said...

I like Matthew's points too! There's been plenty of time when too much backstory of a story gets in the way of pacing for me. One example I can think of is the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo series. Sometimes those stretches of backstory just go on and on and on. I would totally skim through those sections because they were so boring (in my opinion).

BTW - I watched one episode of Game of Thrones and couldn't get into it. I may have to give it another go since you love it so much :)

Christina Lee said...

Maddy, I don't know how but I got sucked right in. Hubz didn't until second episode and then he was a goner too.

Nisa said...

That is brilliant! It's easier to put a sentence hear or there in dialogue, but to get it in when all the action is going on and no one is thinking about it? Awesome!

Carrie said...

Good advice. I'll have to pay attention to this in my manuscript and see if I'm doing this. Also this image is going to stick with me. Next time I think about backstory or world building I'm going to think about the Pope swimming laps.

Dianne K. Salerni said...

Weaving the backstory into the action and dialogue is absolutely crucial -- and oh, so hard to do! I find that I keep delving into boring exposition of backstory in my first drafts (because I don't know where I'm going to fit it in otherwise). Then as the writing develops, I notice opportunity to reveal things more cleverly -- and go back and delete the exposition. It took me quite awhile to learn this about myself. (Not to mention allowing myself to do it. Nobody likes the first draft to stink, but it's better if you accept the fact that it probably will and look toward better drafts in the future.)

Sarah Pearson said...

I'm working on the backstory thing. It's hard sometimes, when you love a character so much to remember that the reader doesn't need to know absolutely everything about them!

Game of Thrones? Love it :)

Lourie said...

almost like subliminal.

Bethany Elizabeth said...

Definitely true - backstory is HUGE in my most recent work, but I'm trying to keep it interesting and engaging. And brief. Very difficult. :)

blueviolet said...

So I heard someone mentions somewhere that backstory isn't as important as it used to be because readers don't have the attention span they used to. Is that even true?

Nora MacFarlane said...

Love, love, love the book Save the Cat! So much good information!

Theresa Milstein said...

I think chapter 1 should only have a sprinkling of backstory, in the action if I can help it. I've heart you can have larger chunks in chapter 2.

SharleneT said...

Love the example and will work harder to incorporate this form of back story into my tales. Game of Thrones? Tried it; couldn't do it... Don't know why because I usually enjoy that type of show. Will probably have to wait for the rerun and give it another try...

Peggy Eddleman said...

My thoughts? That I totally need to use that more often!