Looks like no one’s been reading lately. That’s okay. I’m used to people not listening to me.
And now you’re probably all at Horror Realm.
Then again, maybe I just need to rant about better topics.
Speaking of which, we were going to discuss that ever-growing backside of yours. And when I say backside, what I really mean is backstory. They’re pretty much interchangeable, because nobody wants to look at your backstory unless it is just perfect.
A few months back there was a response here from loyal follower #11 (who has since moved on to read Craig Mazin’s very informative blog, The Artful Writer) that rather than getting tighter, he often found his manuscripts growing as he did draft after draft. The characters became more nuanced, the story filled out, and the page count went up. I’ve had this happen, too. I think it was the second or third draft of The Suffering Map that introduced Theresa, the cleaning woman who overheard many things that took place at the Memory Lane antique shop. And I’ve also mentioned police detective Barroll and his partner, Lt. Cheryl Vacha.
Y’see, Timmy, a lot of stories get bulked up on backstory, because people keep introducing stuff in draft four, eight, or fifteen and assume this is essential material simply because it’s in a later draft. After all, I said a while back that by your sixth draft you should be more or less solid, yes? So by my own words, anything in the sixth draft must be essential, right?
What I eventually came to realize was that these weren’t later drafts of The Suffering Map. This was still me working on the first draft. I hadn’t figured out who these people were, what their motivation was, or why they all looked at each other nervously at a mention of Uncle Louis. What I thought was refinement and polish was still just me getting the raw materials together. The serious cutting hadn’t even begun yet.
The real problem with backstory is that it means moving back, and you want your story to go forward. Every page of character history means two pages you have to write to get the story to a new point. God help you if you decide to start with ten or twenty pages of backstory, because that means you’re in the hole on page one.
Not to mention the fact that so much backstory is completely unnecessary. At least four or five of you keep reading this collection of rants even though you have no idea what my brother’s name is, the name of the first girl I kissed, or what the first story I wrote was about. Does it keep any of you from absorbing or mocking what I say here? Not at all. It’s unnecessary.
It all comes down to what the reader needs to know. I gave the example once that no one talks about Masada at any point during Raiders of the Lost Ark because that film has nothing to do with Masada. In a similar vein, we don’t need to know how Ferris Bueller got his two-tone leather jacket, what Atticus Finch’s mother was like, where Hannibal Lecter studied for his doctorate, or which mission the Colonial Marines were on before the events of Aliens.
Keep in mind, I’m not saying that these aren’t interesting stories. In the hands of skilled writers, many of them would probably be very entertaining. The key thing here is all these stories were in the hands of skilled writers, and those writers chose not to include any of this. I was reading a film review a few weeks back and the critic, Nathan Rabin, made the very keen observation that stories like Star Wars and The Lord of the Rings saga succeed despite their elaborate, epic backstories– not because of them. Backstory can be an amazing, powerful thing if it’s used at the right time and in the right quantities.
If it helps, think of being a writer like being a bodybuilder. One of the skills of being a competitive bodybuilder is to develop all of your muscle groups equally. You can’t ignore your shoulders while you do constant abdominal work, and your legs will suffer if you focus too much on your arms. More to the point, we’ve all seen the people with the unusual physiques who do these unbalanced workouts. The folks whose arms hang away from their bodies or whose shoulders always hunch forward. The ones with no neck. These people developed one muscle group so much it overpowers others and distorts the overall image. They’re phenomenal muscles, don’t get me wrong , and they could probably crush my flimsy writer hands with… well, whatever part of their anatomy you picture we’re talking about… but they fail as bodybuilders because they’ve developed things in the wrong proportion.
If Mr. Berenson the grade school teacher suddenly displays an amazing aptitude for wiping out ninjas and hijackers with nothing but a stapler and his bare hands, it might be worth mentioning he spent seven years in the Special Forces and how he ended up teaching kids the right way to use an apostrophe. However, if the PTA meeting got snowed in and they’re just sitting around waiting for a plow, telling that same story is now just a bit of excess padding.
There is a flipside to this, of course. To stick with the bodybuilder analogy, it’s when the writer doesn’t put in anything and the characters are left looking like anorexics. The readers are left wondering who all these characters are, why this action is happening, and why everyone speaks cryptically about “The Omega.”
Your characters need a backstory, believe me. It has to be there, and you as the writer should know it backward and forward. But that doesn’t mean you need to tell all of that backstory and nuance to the reader. A lot of it’s going to be irrelevant. Some of it you’re going to want to keep shrouded in mystery.
And, yes, some of it you’re going to need to tell.
Next time, it struck me that I’ve been ranting for ages about stuff that goes into stories, but I’ve never really said anything about the stories themselves. So let’s hope the deadline gods are kind to me so I can pontificate about that for a bit.
Until then, go write.