Friday, June 13, 2008

Backstory No-Nos

Ten Things I Hate About Your Backstory

1. Are We There Yet? -- you've spent the first three to five chapters of the novel telling me your backstory in passive-voice narrative. I am now so well-prepped and bored that I'm being courted to run Vassar.

2. Cloak and Dagger, the Evil Overlord Version -- your backstory features an epic Bad Guy figure herding surly, colorful underworld characters, all of whom speak in perfect Villainese and could comfortably replace the characters in any James Bond 007 movie.

3. Cloak and Dagger, the Lightweight Version -- your backstory features a shadowy intelligence figure doing something top secret yet so obvious that your plot would be a mystery only to the likes of Shaggy and Scooby-Do.

4. Cloak and Dagger, the Romantic Version -- your backstory sounds ominous, to third graders, anyway, but its only real purpose is to provide an irresistible motivation for the two main characters to repeatedly have sex with each other, preferably in unlikely, semi-public places.

5. Fear the Reaper -- in a clever attempt not to reveal the identity of the antagonist/killer/bad guy, in your backstory you only referred to them as Death. P.S., Death called, and he'd like you to stop blaming him for all the bad things that happen in your story. It's upsetting his mother and she's nagging him to go into telemarketing instead.

6. Huh? -- you've recounted at least three events in your backstory that, while beautifully written and very hip and literary-sounding, have absolutely nothing to do with the story whatsoever.

7. Retrospect Minus Sominex -- you illustrate your backstory via a character who tosses and turns in bed, gets up, goes to the kitchen for a drink, and then sits down at the kitchen table and reflects on everything you need the reader to know. Because of course this is what we all do when we can't sleep.

8. RIP, Not -- you arbitrarily kill off a character who in reality would have made a better protagonist than the one whom their senseless death scars for life.

9. The Letter -- Dear Writer, Hello, how are you? I am fine. Well, not counting the tiny extra head growing out of my shoulder, but random mutations, what can you do? I just wanted to let you know that the next time you start a novel with a letter that was written solely for the purpose of telling me your backstory, I'm going to write you another letter. And it won't be as courteous as this one. Love, PBW.

10. Umbrellage -- As always, I appreciate the lengthy and entirely unnecessary weather report framing your backstory, but I do believe that the rainstorm and lightning flashback has officially been done to death. Please pick another climate event.

What are some of your backstory gripes?

44 comments:

  1. #7 made me snort. And hey, #4 isn't all bad. Repeated sex!

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  2. Sometimes the Postman Should Only Ring Once ~~ In chapter two you have the heroine entering the centuries-old tomb to make her way through an impenetrable labyrinth, kill all twelve of the Protectors who've been lying in wait (for centuries), disarm all booby-traps, and emerge, unscathed, with the talisman of great power, all told in step-by-step, minute, gripping detail.

    And in chapter six you have her relate the exact same adventure I've already read to the hero in step-by-step, minute, coma-inducing detail--without benefit of barf bag on inside back cover.

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  3. How about a rundown on every character in the story, their jobs, histories, etc. Then the actual story starts about page 4. I've had several students do this (adults, not kids).
    Or the minor character who gets the main character to tell their life story.
    Or a ghostly being who does the same thing.

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  4. Great list!

    There's also the Rehashing the Past conversation:

    "I don't know if you know this already, but Aunt Gertrude had an illegitimate daughter who Grandma raised as her daughter, so Aunt Gertrude though that Aunt Cicely was her sister not her daughter. As you can imagine, when this became known, all hell broke loose. Want some more tea?"

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  5. #11-God lists. Let's have exactly 1000 gods, all obscure, and they're all respected exactly the same, given exactly the same size of shrines, and they all get exactly the same sorts of pilgramages. (Mindy Klasky, yes, I'm looking at you.) Or all the world's cultures grew up monotheistic/duotheistic, and it's all serene and wonderful. *gags* (I'd point out writers for this, but a large chunk of fantasy writers make this mistake.)

    Please, writers, throw away your Bibles and Bullfinches, and actually understand that belief systems grow from the bottom up, not imposed from the top down.

    *headdesk*

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  6. If Death went into telemarketing, he'd be even more hated. Maybe not blamed for as much, but still very hated.

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  7. All of the above.

    And Dreams. Don't start a novel with a dream about characters that have nothing to do with the MC who'll awake shaken, in sweat soaked sheets in chapter 2 and whine about OMG that nightmare again.

    Chronicles. I don't read prologues that start with: From the Book of Mysteries and Gods, part III, written by the Great Wizard Whassaname Who Survived the Battle of Somewhere and who will explain all that pesky backstory, society structure, ten thousand years of history and the plot of the Evil Overlord to you, so that you know that when the peasant boy stumbles over a rusty sword and picks it up, it will be the Sword of Doom that Will Kill the Evil Overlord in book 5.

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  8. Gabriele C. - OMG, I completely agree about the recurring nightmare thing! Good one!

    How about 'The Scar' that marks the horrific event in the protag's life that drove them to where they are today. Whenever they get dressed/brush against it/catch sight of it - they get to spew another bit of their backstory, kind of like a drinking game. :)

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  9. Charlene wrote: And hey, #4 isn't all bad. Repeated sex!

    As with church and state, I'd just like to see more separation of sex motivation and backstory. The "Our Daddies hated each other, so naturally we can't keep our hands off each other" schematic gets old after a while.

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  10. Yeah, the dream thing. I. do. not. read. character's. dreams.

    Did you ever wake up in the morning and have your hubby or child tell you his dream over breakfast? Boring, isn't it?

    If a dream makes a character think about a certain thing or remember a certain thing, just give me the fact that the dream brought up, not the dream itself. I always, always skip that part to get back to the story.

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  11. Raine wrote: In chapter two you have the heroine entering the centuries-old tomb to make her way through an impenetrable labyrinth, kill all twelve of the Protectors who've been lying in wait (for centuries), disarm all booby-traps, and emerge, unscathed, with the talisman of great power, all told in step-by-step, minute, gripping detail.

    Ah, the Laura Croft backstory -- quite popular among the kickass heroine writers.

    And in chapter six you have her relate the exact same adventure I've already read to the hero in step-by-step, minute, coma-inducing detail--without benefit of barf bag on inside back cover.

    This is because outside her death-defying adventures, Laura has no life, no friends, and no personality. Repetitious dialogue filler is often used to cover lightweight/2-D characterizations.

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  12. Sherryl wrote: How about a rundown on every character in the story, their jobs, histories, etc. Then the actual story starts about page 4. I've had several students do this (adults, not kids).

    That's one I see crop up most often in mysteries, i.e. thou shalt not introduce a suspect about whom the reader might not know everything down to their shoe size by chapter two. :)

    Or the minor character who gets the main character to tell their life story. Or a ghostly being who does the same thing.

    It amazes me how often minor characters are created solely as life story sponges. When was the last time in real life you ever solicited someone's life story?

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  13. Alex wrote: There's also the Rehashing the Past conversation.

    That's really one of my favorites; cracks me up every time I see it pop into a story. Because you know, Alex, I can't read a book without knowing from conversation that Jane Dough was a slut at college only because she was really self-conscious about the mole on her upper lip, which despite endless tweezings of the hair growing out of it and repeated cryo treatments by Dr. Tatas would not, alas, go away.

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  14. Gerri wrote: Please, writers, throw away your Bibles and Bullfinches, and actually understand that belief systems grow from the bottom up, not imposed from the top down.

    Agreed; excellent points. And we should all tattoo this somewhere on our bods.

    Is Mindy writing SF/F again? Last I heard, she had moved on to chicklit.

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  15. Shiloh wrote: If Death went into telemarketing, he'd be even more hated. Maybe not blamed for as much, but still very hated.

    Lord, yes. I worked a telemarketing job when I was a teenager, and I think it scarred me for life. One good thing came out of it -- I can't be abusive to or hang up on telemarketers who call my home. I know how rotten the job is.

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  16. Gabriele wrote: Chronicles. I don't read prologues that start with: From the Book of Mysteries and Gods, part III, written by the Great Wizard Whassaname Who Survived the Battle of Somewhere and who will explain all that pesky backstory, society structure, ten thousand years of history and the plot of the Evil Overlord to you, so that you know that when the peasant boy stumbles over a rusty sword and picks it up, it will be the Sword of Doom that Will Kill the Evil Overlord in book 5.

    I think we have to blame that one in equal parts on Sir Thomas Malory and Tolkien.

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  17. Amy wrote: How about 'The Scar' that marks the horrific event in the protag's life that drove them to where they are today. Whenever they get dressed/brush against it/catch sight of it - they get to spew another bit of their backstory, kind of like a drinking game. :)

    The Origins of My Scar Backstory drinking game -- I love it!

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  18. Margaret wrote: Did you ever wake up in the morning and have your hubby or child tell you his dream over breakfast? Boring, isn't it?

    My guy talks in his sleep, especially when he's dreaming, so I hear it all before he wakes up. ;) My dreams are either totally mundane (shopping at a grocery store is a recurring theme) or apocalytpic (I stand witness as a retroviral plague decimates the planet) so I only jot down what I remember in my dream diary. Have gotten some excellent lines of dialogue from a couple of dreams, though. :)

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  19. I think we have to blame that one in equal parts on Sir Thomas Malory and Tolkien.

    And then it got misused by a whole generation of Fantasy authors and still hasn't died out completely. ;)

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  20. Wow, did you get on this tangent because of that comment I sent? I am a huge fan of reading, as a matter of fact I even finish bad books praying they'll at least end better than the beginning and middle, alas..they end up in the never to be read again, author pile and sent away forever. Lynn covered the rest I think. I raed this book once when the hero's were about to be caught, their hiding in the woods under some trees and have sex, right there because...why not make some noise and get caught? Really!jbfxfezk

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  21. I absolutely hate the FLASHBACK to childhood or some other time besides the current story.

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  22. I'm all for mining our own dreams for good ideas, and I can totally get behind journaling first thing in the morning. I often spill my dreams into my journal--not to my family members. I like them too much. I just don't wanna read them on the novel's page.

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  23. But what if I got my scar during a rainstorm, while lightning flashed and I had sex with the son of my father's arch-enemy while Death took Scooby-Do for a walk? Oh wait, sorry that was just a dream.

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  24. Question: would the "eliciting the heroine's life story" be a bad thing if A) it's the hero asking, B) he's asking because he seeks an explanation for something very weird about the heroine, which weirdness is also apparent by now to the reader, and C) the reader is familiar with some of it and so the whole thing is not rehashed and D) it's not the whole backstory, just one very important event and its aftereffects. i.e., it actually moves the story along.

    Does that make sense?

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  25. Is Mindy writing SF/F again? Last I heard, she had moved on to chicklit.

    I don't know. I'm still dealing with the scars from her glasswright guild books. If she has moved on...that's a good thing for F/SF. IMO, of course. Now if we could only get Dennis McKiernan to follow.......

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  26. What about the over use of an ancient prophecy that describes the protag exactly including his/her strange quirks or fondness for corndogs.

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  27. And Dreams. Don't start a novel with a dream about characters that have nothing to do with the MC who'll awake shaken, in sweat soaked sheets in chapter 2 and whine about OMG that nightmare again.

    ...actually, if you are Dan Brown, this is the beginning of EVERY book you have ever written, but the protag is waken up by the telephone instead...

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  28. Backstory as dialogue. Do not do this! If you do, your magnificent oeuvre will be straight out of my slushbox and into my reject box. That second!

    (it's okay to have characters refer to backstory obliquely, tho'--at least on Tuesdays)

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  29. I cop to using #10 in my current WIP, a haunted house story. Except not so much a letter as a nearly-century-old half-page journal entry, a la Stephen King's "Jerusalem's Lot" (from the Night Shift short story collection, not the 'Salem's Lot novel.)

    Huh. Now that I think about it, "Jerusalem's Lot" is basically back-story for 'Salem's Lot. Back-story within back-story, like little nesting vampire dolls. NIFTY.

    After much deliberation and second-guessing and consulting the crit partner who says the entry ups the creep factor exponentially, I had decided to leave it in.

    Now I get to go back and second-guess some more. But that's okay, 'cause second-guessing is my second-favorite part of revisions, right after banging my head on the keyboard till my eyes bleed.

    PS - I emailed you two weeks ago to tell you I'd moved my blog. I bet I'm nothing but deleted spam by now. And the cat-lady is my cousin, Edna. She likes your inspy romances, and wants to know when she can expect the next one. :p

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  30. Crap. Number NINE, not number TEN.

    Remind me to wipe the blood out of my eyes before I try to comment next time, yeah?

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  31. The Frustrated Writer said...
    I absolutely hate the FLASHBACK to childhood or some other time besides the current story.


    Then how do we explain the flashback to Paris and the dreams of two lovers being shattered in the movie "Casablanca"?

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  32. Scarlet wrote: Wow, did you get on this tangent because of that comment I sent?

    Yes, I think this one was your fault, Scarlet. :)

    I am a huge fan of reading, as a matter of fact I even finish bad books praying they'll at least end better than the beginning and middle, alas..they end up in the never to be read again, author pile and sent away forever.

    I'm trying to be more forgiving these days -- there is so much pressure on rookie authors that I think it interferes with the writing. I may put aside a first book but go ahead and buy a second or third, which is usually the point when the distractions minimize and a lot of the glam wears off.

    I raed this book once when the hero's were about to be caught, their hiding in the woods under some trees and have sex, right there because...why not make some noise and get caught? Really!

    I think I'm guilty of that one, too, lol.

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  33. The Frustrated Writer wrote: I absolutely hate the FLASHBACK to childhood or some other time besides the current story.

    They can become addictive, too -- I used them until I found I'd worked up to about a half dozen different time flashbacks in one book. I didn't like becoming too dependent on them to cover backstory, as it's mostly an avoidance trick, so I've tried to watch myself since then.

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  34. Margaret wrote: I'm all for mining our own dreams for good ideas, and I can totally get behind journaling first thing in the morning. I often spill my dreams into my journal--not to my family members.

    Aside from dreams being boring to everyone else except the person who dreamed them, I think the main problem is that the dream flashback has become a major cliche in fiction, like the character gazing in the mirror or the weather report story opener. Anything everyone does should be avoided at all cost.

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  35. Darlene wrote: But what if I got my scar during a rainstorm, while lightning flashed and I had sex with the son of my father's arch-enemy while Death took Scooby-Do for a walk? Oh wait, sorry that was just a dream.

    Oh, no. You are not allowed to become a literary SF author, Darlene. ;)

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  36. Holly wrote: Question: would the "eliciting the heroine's life story" be a bad thing if A) it's the hero asking, B) he's asking because he seeks an explanation for something very weird about the heroine, which weirdness is also apparent by now to the reader, and C) the reader is familiar with some of it and so the whole thing is not rehashed and D) it's not the whole backstory, just one very important event and its aftereffects. i.e., it actually moves the story along. Does that make sense?

    Absolutely (you are among friends here, Holly, and we all speak Plot, Motivation and Conflict.)

    I think with this sort of backstory it has to be written in realistic speech to avoid the "As You Know Bob" feel of delivering backstory in conversation. For example, if I were to explain my aversion to horses to you, I'd not apin along yarn or rehash every horse-avoiding incident in my life. Our conversation would probably go something like this:

    "So, PBW, what is it with you and horses?"

    "I don't like them. They scare me."

    "You'd probably get over that if you spent more time around them."

    "Last time I rode a horse, I was six. It threw me, knocked me out and put me in two casts for eight weeks. Every time I see a horse, I still feel like throwing up. I'm not getting over that."

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  37. Gerri wrote: I don't know. I'm still dealing with the scars from her glasswright guild books. If she has moved on...that's a good thing for F/SF. IMO, of course. Now if we could only get Dennis McKiernan to follow.......

    Dennis is still around? Lord, I am completely out of touch...

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  38. Big T wrote: What about the over use of an ancient prophecy that describes the protag exactly including his/her strange quirks or fondness for corndogs.

    I haven't seen that one used in a while. Maybe it was eclipsed by the Harry Potter forehead scar backstory segue?

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  39. Mackan wrote: ...actually, if you are Dan Brown, this is the beginning of EVERY book you have ever written, but the protag is waken up by the telephone instead...

    If I was Dan Brown . . . wait, let me fantasize for a few more minutes. ;)

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  40. Buffysquirrel wrote: Backstory as dialogue. Do not do this! If you do, your magnificent oeuvre will be straight out of my slushbox and into my reject box. That second!

    But you know, Buff, backstory as dialogue can trace its roots to Tom Swift and The Hardy Boys, which is what most of your writers were reading under the covers with the flashlight after Mom and Pop went to sleep.

    (it's okay to have characters refer to backstory obliquely, tho'--at least on Tuesdays)

    See, you're a pushover. ;)

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  41. Selah wrote: I cop to using #10 in my current WIP, a haunted house story. Except not so much a letter as a nearly-century-old half-page journal entry, a la Stephen King's "Jerusalem's Lot" (from the Night Shift short story collection, not the 'Salem's Lot novel.)

    Sure, sure, make excuses now.

    Huh. Now that I think about it, "Jerusalem's Lot" is basically back-story for 'Salem's Lot. Back-story within back-story, like little nesting vampire dolls. NIFTY.

    I will refrain from critizing an author who can probaly buy Rhode Island with his pocket change.

    After much deliberation and second-guessing and consulting the crit partner who says the entry ups the creep factor exponentially, I had decided to leave it in.

    Hey, if it works, and you don't mind us occasionally harrassing you about it, go for it. ;)

    Now I get to go back and second-guess some more. But that's okay, 'cause second-guessing is my second-favorite part of revisions, right after banging my head on the keyboard till my eyes bleed.

    I miss pitching things at the walls, but I ran out of silly porcelain figurines clueless people gave me for holidays and birthdays.

    PS - I emailed you two weeks ago to tell you I'd moved my blog. I bet I'm nothing but deleted spam by now. And the cat-lady is my cousin, Edna. She likes your inspy romances, and wants to know when she can expect the next one.

    E-mail is continuing to be an issure, I'm sorry. I hate to disappoint Edna, but the only inspy I will likely write in the future will be as a WFH.

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  42. Selah wrote: Remind me to wipe the blood out of my eyes before I try to comment next time, yeah?

    As long as you interpret that "issure" to be an "issue."

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  43. Jared and Amy wrote: Then how do we explain the flashback to Paris and the dreams of two lovers being shattered in the movie "Casablanca"?

    Aha -- movie, not a book. ;)

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  44. Well, my book opens with a scene from 1995 - clearly labeled as such - and then switches to the present, and the female protag exhibits some behaviors that make you go "huh?" but are not explained until the male protag goes "huh?" and demands an explanation. The explanation will not take pages and pages.

    Sorry. I know I need to save it for my critique partner, but the commenters on this web site are so smart and insightful and they're authors and I want to keep raising my hand going "ooh! ooh! what about this? can I do this? how did you do that?"


    I wish LB&LI would hurry up and get here.

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