Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Back story

I'm forever telling new writers to avoid back story in their fiction manuscripts. Most new writers make two mistakes:

1. Telling rather than showing
and
2. providing overly long, verbose accounts of what happened before what is happening now in the telling of the story.

It's hard to find a published example of this that I can provide writers with, apart from their own writing and they never agree with me anyway or see it. New writers can be quite ornery. I have finally found an example: The No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency (book 1).

What is back story?

Christopher Vogler in his excellent book The Writer's Journey says that "back story is all the relevant information about a character's history and background - what got her to the situation at the beginning of the story." Well put.

Why don't we want back story in one block of information at the beginning of a book? Because readers like to discover bits of information as they read, clues that are given either visually or through dialogue. Imagine being on a first date: would you like that other person to vomit out every detail of their existence, clogging up two hours of your time, and then saying "There, now you know who I am." Ugh. Cheque, please!

Just as in real life, characters can't simply dump their back story on readers. It needs to be done slowly, but deliberately. It takes the joy and mystery out of reading about new characters and situations if everything is shared immediately and in such a perfunctory manner.

Oh and wait: it's boring!

No. 1 - not so much

Oh, I feel a lawsuit coming on!
I picked this book up because a friend of mine seemed to enjoy one of these last year and I came across it at a used stor for $4. What the hell. I have to say I am not impressed.

One of the downsides to being an editor is that I am forever editing everything I read, wondering how I would have handled the story structure, the punctuation, and questioning if parts should have been eliminated.That's what I face here: I feel an elimination was much needed.

Chapter 2 is the back story in this book and it goes on for three chapters - from pages 15 to 59. The bulk of those chapters is about this character's father and how she came to be the No.1 Ladies' Detective. I would have scrapped all three chapters and integrated some of the material some other way. I found the chapters boring and slow and they irked me because I want to read about what's going on now (in media res) and I want to read about a detective agency (as promised by the title and back cover blurb) - not South African history or her father's life as a miner. This is relevant how? Write a non-fiction book about South African history, but a fiction detective book is not the right place for such things.

What's really unfortunate is the missed opportunity: on page 72 the character is asked if she was ever married. She says she once had a husband. Now if I hadn't been told all the details of that sordid affair in chapter four, I would have been intrigued by this statement, hoping to have it revealed later on. Who is this woman? What's her story? Questions I would have asked. It was a perfect clue, a hint, but it lacked impact because I'd already been told everything I needed to know.