I first met Victoria Mixon through blogging friend and fellow writer Roz Morris, when she and Victoria did a wonderful series of editorial talks. I was hooked right away. Not only were they a heck of a lot of fun, but they were also exceedingly informative on the craft of writing.
Just yesterday, Victoria released her book, The Art and Craft of Story, and I’m thrilled to have a sample chapter on my blog today that deals with a topic that always leaves me with more questions than answers: How to use backstory (or, as I like to think of it: Avoiding the dreaded info dump!)
My thanks to you for sharing this, Victoria!
And now, without further ado…
What is it? Why is it important? And what on earth are we supposed to do with that stuff?
As little as humanly possible.
It’s true that Backstory plays a part in proper plot structure. Sometimes we need a little illumination from behind the curtain. A little light filtering through the lace, highlighting the pattern as it begins to move. However, extra information is awkward, it requires its own special techniques, and the reader prefers to get that information the way they get almost everything else these days—on the fly.
So before we start throwing on the flood lamps and ripping holes in the fabric of our story, we must spend a good long time spelling out all that information in great detail in our notes and identifying ways to layer it into our characters’ interactions and adventures.
The reason Backstory is so often confused with exposition is that they share a lot in common:
• lack of momentum
• lack of in-the-moment excitement
• lack of mystery
You see? All lacks. Not a good quality in storytelling technique.
Everything we put into a story must add to the forward momentum of our plot. It must be about getting our characters from point (x1,y1,z1) to point (xn,yn,zn) with as much velocity as humanly possible. We are here to make our characters’ lives a hellbent-for-leather ride. When we stop the action in order to explain what’s gone before or what’s going on now—to point at the curtains—we throw our reader right into the dashboard. They don’t like that. They like their hair flying straight back off their heads.
Our job with Backstory is to make sure it does not throw our reader into the dashboard.
At the same time, everything we put into a story must serve the purposes of pacing. Most of what readers want out of pacing is increasing tension to make previous excitement look like the slow part laying the groundwork for what’s really electrifying.
Now, there are subtle undulations that we, the writers, know we’ve layered into this increasing tension. But the reader is feeling the pulsing increase in pressure of G’s that—if all goes well—is going to eventually implode on them, blasting them into a parallel universe. When we stop adding significant description, action, and dialog to keep that pressure stimulating, soothing, stimulating in carefully-modulated doses—when we lift the G’s to pause and discourse on general stuff—it feels weak. And our reader is likely to lurch out of our grip and fall like a lump back to earth while they’re still under the sway of gravity.
Our job with Backstory is to make sure it keeps our reader forever entirely engaged in the thrilling experience of the story, heading into orbit.
Finally, our story must always be about launching our reader out of our imagination and into their own, the curiosity that impels them out into the ether. When we drag the story backward with Backstory or exposition, we’re dragging the reader’s attention back to us. And they don’t want to pay attention to us. Then want to pay attention to themself, to their own experience of this mysterious, rocketing ride through the wilds of the imagination.
Our job with Backstory is to make sure our reader is always wholly engaged in exploring our fictional landscape, completely forgetting there’s a human being behind it all typing frantically away.
Ray Bradbury helped bring dark literary (pre-‘edgy’ ‘edgy’) fantasy and sci-fi to the forefront of modern fiction through his meticulous, unerring instinct for pure scene without a speck of exposition. And in “The Dwarf,” the first story in his literary masterpiece collection The October Country, Bradbury teaches us exactly how to handle Backstory.
Instead of telling us in exposition what the Dwarf has done before his story’s Hook, Bradbury shows the owner of the carnival Mirror Maze telling the protagonist, innocent Aimee, how the Dwarf has come to him more than once in the past asking about the price of his funhouse mirrors.
Bradbury places this Backstory exactly right, directly between the Hook and Conflict #1, and he ties it back into the Hook by introducing the conversation through Aimee’s observation that the Dwarf almost came up to them after he’d been inside the Mirror Maze, almost asked something he just couldn’t bring himself to ask.
This gives the owner of the Mirror Maze the opportunity to tell the story of the other times the Dwarf has come to him and almost asked where he could buy such a mirror, something he couldn’t quite, in the end, bring himself to ask.
That’s Backstory with forward momentum, ominous tingling, and ever deeper curiosity about Bradbury’s special melancholy country of inner torment.
And it’s only what’s absolutely necessary.
We must winnow our Backstory down to only that most essential information the reader simply has to have as they venture into our story, layering as much of that as possible into the process of our characters getting to know each other, and casting what’s left (if anything) into either very brief exposition or—better—thoroughly vivid flashback scenes.
We put those flashback scenes into Chapter Two or Three, after the Hook, before we get too deep into Conflict #1.
But only what’s absolutely necessary.
Victoria Mixon has been a writer and editor for thirty years and is the creator A. Victoria Mixon, Editor, one of the Top 10 Blogs for Writers. She is the author of The Art & Craft of Fiction: A Practitioner’s Manual and the recently-released The Art & Craft of Story: 2nd Practitioner’s Manual, as well as co-author of Children and the Internet: A Zen Guide for Parents and Educators, published by Prentice Hall, for which she is listed in the Who’s Who of America. She spends a lot of time horsing around on Google+ and Twitter.
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