Deadly Sin of Writing #4–Beware the Bog of Back Story
Last week, I introduced you guys to my first three Deadly Sins of Writing. Many of you, in the comments, requested I keep going and reveal the rest of my Deadly Sins. All I have to say is, y’all asked for it :D.
Creating great characters has to be one of the toughest tasks for any fiction writer to successfully accomplish. Let’s be honest. Plot is important, but characters have the power to make or break a story. Most of us don’t remember plot…we remember people. We identify. There is something about that character resonates within our soul, and we’re hooked.
Today’s blog will help you give life to great characters. How? By teaching you not to kill them.
There are a number of ways to strangle, smother, or otherwise crush the life from what could have been a wonderful character. One popular method of involuntary homicide (character-cide?) is the ever-tempting Bog of Back-Story.
Like a real bog, the Bog of Back-Story looks lush, verdant, and innocent from afar. One might even easily mistake this smooth green landscape for solid ground…but take a closer look. This sucker is nothing but mud and muck and quicksand. Step in deep enough and we ain’t getting out.
I have edited hundreds of short stories and novels. I cannot count the number of times I’ve read a really clever story that had some great forward momentum…only for the author to stop and go back in time to explain why such-and-such did thus-and-such. What? Huh?
It is my opinion that the Bog of Backstory is most often the by-product of our failure to plan ahead of time. Writers (especially new writers) are super excited to start writing, so they often charge into a plot without understanding the psychological terrain of the characters ahead of time. As a consequence, it is then easy for characters to wander off the path (plot) and end up stuck in the mire of memories and recollections.
New writers often try to thread flashback after flashback into the plot as they try to understand who their characters really are. Weighting down any plot with bag after bag of memories, dreams and flashbacks is a surefire way to sink any story…and kill all souls on board.
Failure to understand key characters ahead of time often has terrible effects.
Back Story Kills Plot Momentum
Loading back story onto the narrative often has the effect of riding in a car with a fifteen-year-old learning to drive a stick-shift. We just about get going and it looks promising and….we roll backwards, stall and have to wait a few minutes to get going. Just like we wouldn’t want to make a 700 mile drive this way, readers don’t want to read a novel this way either. It leaves them beat up, exhausted and in a foul mood.
Back Story Creates Fish Heads
On virtually every first novel I’ve edited, there is what author Candy Havens calls a fish head. It is almost always 100 pages long. Why? Because the writer who takes off writing without knowing her characters needs roughly a hundred pages to figure them out. The first hundred pages of first-time novels (98% of the time) are something that can be chopped off and thrown away…ergo the term fish head.
Every character sounds alike and the dialogue is flat. Then, suddenly about page 100, the characters start coming alive and develop their own voices. It is also about this point the writer finally settles on what the real story problem is.
Doing detailed character backgrounds ahead of time can prevent fish heads. Take time to write out each major character’s story. Write freely and let your imagination go wild. Then, once you get to the plotting, it will be easier to see what parts of the back story are good to harvest for your main story for plot and even sub-plots.
Back Story is Important but not Always Relevant
Back story is critical for our characters. In fact, in my current critique group, highly detailed character backgrounds are the first step before ANY plotting. It is absolutely essential to know each of the characters and why they are good, evil, confused, etc.
Because we are all the sum of our experiences and our backgrounds affect our choices, body language, dialogue and decision-making. Characters need to be real people with baggage (Just because they have baggage, doesn’t mean the reader wants to hear about it. That is therapy, not fiction).
What is NOT, relevant, however, is that the reader know ALL of these critical details unless they apply to the current story problem. We don’t need a heavy-handed flashback to when our heroine was a little girl and her father left her and there was great crying and gnashing of teeth.
We (readers) really don’t need to know the why behind everything. Don’t believe me? Go read my post about why the Star Wars prequels sucked. Explaining is not necessary and it ruins tension (The Force was better before it was explained).
Yes, our readers might want to know why, but let them suffer. Not giving readers what they want when they want it is exactly what keeps them turning pages and buying books. It’s called dramatic tension.
Instead of dumping a crude flashback in the beginning so your reader will understand Such-and-Such…let them wonder. It’s good for them and it’s good for your career.
Think of it this way.
Writers are word magicians. If we tell the audience how we made the woman float, we ruin the show.
Back Story Needs to Be Used Sparingly
Back story gives life to a character much like water gives life to a plant. However, filling a plot with back story (like overwatering) will just kill forward momentum and drown your character. Part of growing as novelists requires we learn finesse. Many of us, when we start our writing, are very heavy-handed and it takes time, practice and study to acquire the skill of folding back story seamlessly into the narrative. We need to learn to be so smooth that the reader never even sees what we’re doing.
A quick example:
“Fifi, are you going to the dance tonight?” asked Lola.
Fifi wanted to meet up with Josh, and hoped the night would go as planned. But, bad things had happened before. Fifi thought back to the time her father had promised he would take her to the Father-Daughter Dance. She had been waiting weeks to wear the pink chiffon gown her mother had bought her for the occasion. Even though her mother had forbidden her to wear it, Fifi would sneak the dress out of her closet and twirl in front of the mirror like a ballerina. She remembered counting the days up to the dance and how it had started to rain and her mother begged her father not to go to the store for a corsage to go with Fifi’s dress…
And we have just taken a side-trip into The Land of “Who Cares?”
This approach takes away from the current story problem and trails the reader down a story thread that may or may not be relevant to the current story problem. Yes, Fifi might have had a tragedy, but telling all the details kills the mystery and ruins the momentum of the current conflict.
So instead, try something like…
“Fifi? Are You going to the dance tonight?” asked Lola.
“I don’t know. I don’t have the best history with dances,” Fifi replied. “People tend to die.”
See how much shorter this is? It gives back story, but doesn’t tell so much the reader gets lost and distracted. Also, by not telling everything, the reader wants to know more.
Fiction is a lot like dating. We writers are courting the reader. Give too much too soon, and it’s too easy. We ruin the thrill. Don’t give enough? The reader goes looking for more exciting fiction.
So have you escaped the Bog of Back Story and lived to tell the tale? What techniques do you recommend for avoiding this writing pitfall? Have you thrown a book across the room because it kept going back in time? Or does it not bother you? Come on and share your thoughts.
I love hearing from you! And to prove it and show my love, for the month of August, everyone who leaves a comment I will put your name in a hat. If you comment and link back to my blog on your blog, you get your name in the hat twice. If you leave a comment, and link back to my blog, and mention my book We Are Not Alone in your blog…you get your name in the hat THREE times. What do you win? The unvarnished truth from yours truly.
I will pick a winner every week for a critique of your first five pages. At the end of August I will pick a winner for the grand prize. A free critique from me on the first 15 pages of your novel. Good luck!
Note: I am keeping all the names for a final GRAND, GRAND PRIZE of 30 Pages (To be announced) OR a blog diagnostic. I look at your blog and give feedback to improve it. For now, I will draw weekly for 5 page edit, monthly for 15 page edit.
Last Week’s Winner of 5 Page Critique–Ruth Nestvold. Please send your 1250 word Word document to kristen @ kristen lamb dot org.
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