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Author Topic: article on working with back story
Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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I think this is a useful article and hope it may help:

http://www.sfwa.org/2014/08/back-story-secrets/

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babooher
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Thanks, this is always a struggle especially when creating a world for a short story of no more than 5,000 words.
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extrinsic
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Susan Forest surveys seven out of eleven fundamental backstory considerations: timeliness, transformation, significance, quantity, quality, and action and revelation relevance. She misses agency (causes transformation), emphasis, narrative mode, and narrative authentication features.

A dynamic survey nonetheless, though perhaps a closer discussion of backstory using published examples dissected for illustration would increase benefits. The examples given are on the vague side and only dissected along axes of action, transformation, and change, less so, if much at all, along an agency axis--a subtler and more profound enhancement for backstory.

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Reziac
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The article made me think up this pocket definition:

Backstory: the stuff no one told you about til it was too late to avert trouble. "NOW you tell me!"

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Kathleen Dalton Woodbury
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If this forum had "like" buttons, Reziac, your pocket definition would get a "like" from me.

Thanks for sharing. [Smile]

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Meredith
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Reziac nailed it. [Big Grin]
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MattLeo
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I think where a lot of MSS go wrong is that the author seems to think backstory will make readers interested in a character, but it actually goes the other way around. Once a reader is intersted in a character it becomes easier and less risky to deploy backstory.

In TRUE GRIT, Charles Portis puts in a chapter that's mostly Rooster Cogburn relating his backstory, none of which is critical to the action of the story. It has no dramatic significance at all; it's there to anchor the story's satirical themes. If I recall correctly, Rooster becomes a US Marshall as a consequence of a series of events starting with his robbery of a US Army pay train.

Portis puts this scene in after Rooster and Mattie cross the river into Indian Territory -- a clear second act transition if ever there was one. After we've crossed the Rubicon with Mattie we want to know more about this man she's mixed up with.

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mfreivald
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Hey, extrinsic, could you describe what you mean by agency as part of backstory for us? "Causes transformation" doesn't quite click with me to understand what you are saying. Do you mean something like establishing motivational foundations or maybe showing the flawed desires of a character? Or something else?
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extrinsic
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Agency in literary terms is causal influence, circumstances that cause change. Agency as relates to backstory are the causes that arouse backstory and backstory that, in turn, causes change.

For example, say a viewpoint character smells smoke. The smoke scent causes the character to remember a fire that consumed the character's home, family, workplace, something tragic. A flashback or recollection scene sequence paints in the backstory of why and how the memory shaped the character's present reaction to the smoke. That memory, in turn, causes the character to flee, look for a fire to put out, call for help, etc.

Note that the smoke scent is a sensation; this is one way how sensations are causal, cause reactions to them, ideally emotional reactions, like fear of fire and its inherent reader empathy or sympathy pity reaction effects. Oh no! So-and-so lost parents and siblings or home or workplace to a fire.

Yes, motivations in a sense, also other context and texture, necessarily emotion contexture. Yes, backstory may also develop a character's flawed desires, again, with strong emotional contexture. However, those are two areas, where backstory and its agency are as infinite in possibilities as most anything writing. Agency is causation as well as antagonism and tension features.

One important principle on point for backstory is that it matter proportionate to its dramatic efffect at the moment, for a viewpoint agonist, in terms of agency. Since the backstory piece matters to the character, it probably will to readers. It should or must, really, in order to be engaging, and only the parameters of the backstory relevant to the moment.

Another principle asks that backstory be set up by pre-positioned cues, using foreshadowing, front loading, or preset mythology--backstory itself--development. Emphasis is a general method for pre-positioned backstory cues. A character who focus and emphasis dwells on briefly, say in an earlier scene, signals the character will matter later. Same with event or setting circumstance, including objects and things that are not necessarily characters though they be setting features.

A common example of backstory setup might portray a causal influence, say, a newly discovered species or species trait. Say a previously unknown shark behavior--bashes in a boat's hull. Patently seen as a shark though acted unusually. Later, perhaps the viewpoint character meets a shark expert who's seen the shark type and is studying it. The expert's communication to the viewpoint character at that time is backstory. That it attacked a boat is news to the shark expert that explains a puzzle and raises yet more drama. Say, why do the sharks attack boats now. Maybe a new engine type causes the sharks to frenzy feed, attempt anyway, on boats with that engine type. More backstory, say an electronic innovation on the engine broadcasts an electronic stimuli that arouses sharks.

Also note that backstory is not necessarily completed up front, certainly not once and done all at once, though a best practice portarys most backstory in the first half of a narrative.

[ August 06, 2014, 03:25 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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mfreivald
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I'm a little confused because sometimes you seem to treat agency as an inanimate cause rather than an acting entity. Although, I suppose you could mean it figuratively by anthropomorphizing non-entities?

So, allowing that backstory entails a great deal of complexity and interworking with any agency, is it that agency as a back story consideration means any aspect of the back story that potentially drives a particular agent or effects emotions/behaviors of an agent?

Or can it mean the opposite, referring to how agents have previously acted upon the backstory?

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extrinsic
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Agency can be an inanimate object's influence, or an event, not only a character as an agent, nor is agency necessarily limited to object, event, setting, or character; a belief, for example can be an agent of agency's transformation influence. How abstract the belief is may have no bearing, only that it has agency, For example, historically, a belief high born persons were blessed by the gods and could do no wrong no matter how wicked was common once, still is to a degree among persons born into high privilege.

A broad and general example of a setting object is environment. Say a culture that lives along a waterway, hydraulic theory from political geography asserts waterborne cultures have different cultures than landlocked cultures. Their diet, their transportation, their vocations, family and social relationships, and their sciences and arts, etc., are influenced by their reliance on their waterways. People and place is a related writing principle.

Backstory can be influenced by animate agents that are not necessarily characters. Not one direction but many pressing inward, pressing outward, centripetal and centrifugal forces--political geography again, esoteric and exoteric forces, sociology, ethnography, and folkloristics, where backstory is influenced by cause and causual itself.

I recently read a novel where a central motif came up early as backstory, partly developed its mythology, and came up again and again, each time more developed backstory, same influences with different causes and effects, transforming and escalating until the motif became centrally pivotal to the outcome satisfaction. The use of backstory was masterful, one of several strengths of the novel. One feature particularly stands out for the motif: backstory develops natural in the moment it matters, timely and judicious. The motif is an inanimate object that characters influenced and itself influenced the action as well as influenced and is influenced by other motifs and their backstories. Complex though not overtly so, the motif's agency and backstory development I imagine challenged the writer, though managed masterfully such that it does not appear contrived nor call undue attention to itself. Exquisite.

Yes, backstory's motifs may drive agents--characters, settings, events, as well as be driven by characters, settings, events. Both agency and agent, acted upon and acting on, not an either/or but both and more.

[ August 07, 2014, 01:07 AM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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mfreivald
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Thanks for the clarification, extrinsic. I'll understand you better now if it comes up again.
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Reziac
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quote:
Originally posted by MattLeo:
Portis puts this scene in after Rooster and Mattie cross the river into Indian Territory -- a clear second act transition if ever there was one. After we've crossed the Rubicon with Mattie we want to know more about this man she's mixed up with.

And that's probably a good general rule for "When to add backstory":

When (and what -- ie. not everything!) you've already made the reader hungry to know and it's also become relevant to the moment.

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mfreivald
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quote:
. . . eleven fundamental backstory considerations: timeliness, transformation, significance, quantity, quality, and action and revelation relevance. . . agency (causes transformation), emphasis, narrative mode, and narrative authentication features.
After thinking about this, my takeaway is that for a writer preparing a novel (or at least for me) this list of considerations is either cumbersome or incomplete. I say cumbersome because some of them are just obvious aspects of life that will naturally work into any back story and others I find more integral to developing the story itself. I wouldn't want to get too bogged down into tedious minutiae that impedes what naturally flows, and I wouldn't want to be too formulaic about how I develop a character or a story.

On the other side of that coin, if we were to list all relevant aspects of backstory, the considerations that would adequately cover the human condition are endless. Considering all of them would be impossible. Creating a backstory, like anything else, requires a certain economy of resources, and the inevitably imperfect answer is to hit those considerations that will have maximum or necessary impact for your story.

So which of these eleven considerations do you think are most important?

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extrinsic
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Agency is for me the more important consideration for backstory.

I've read sixty or so novels the past few months. One uses backstory to strong effect, the one I mention above. The others are less well-organized, their backstory, if at all, for one, untimely and injudicious and short on agency.

The intuitive organization of each novel is apparent to me for them and they suffer for it. The one is tightly organized, though a slow start, for the writer a watershed skills advancement, and at a point the writer's sales lagged, on a threshold of backlisting. One of them has a good effect otherwise from its voice and edginess rather than its craft. Each has more or less appeals, the one more for proportionate appeals, voice, craft, and style, though all of them have numerous style shortcomings, mostly unconventional grammar instituted for attempted emphasis that's overwrought--that calls undue attention to it from excess.

For intuitive writers, a comprehensive appreciation of writing principles may be burdensome and unwieldy; instinctual writing benefits from undistracted free association. However, for productive revision a stronger strategy and plan is warranted more often than not. Each of the novels I read this summer, and many before, could have used at least one more closer organization revision pass. By the way, none of them performed especially well, barely earned out their publication costs and profit revenue expectations. That's a consequence of writer mass-production quantity prioritized over quality.

Writing discussion is a different monster than writing, more different when only words are available for discussion. Writing topic discussion unquestionably explores topics more deeply and broadly than intuitive or second-nature application of them to writing and require more words than their topics's thoughts themselves that breeze across the mind.

My list of backstory principles addresses missing, important supporting points of Ms. Forest's article. Comprehensive though not complete per se. Her coverage of the topic is held out as an expert opinion, yet lacks for the one most critical aspect of backstory: agency, as well as other qualities worth consideration. Essay composition of the sort Forest attempts is argumentation, the main purpose of which is persuasion: this is how to deploy backstory is her claim. The argument lacks for significance of the claim, evidence supporting the claim, anticipating objections to the claim, rebuttal of objections, and a conclusive ending. Lackluster persuasion is consequent.

Frankly, as a restauteur, I'd rather sell a $50 beef Wellington entree with a $100 bottle of petite sirrah wine than a $6 chicken nugget entree with a $1 fountain soda to every customer. They take about the same amount of up-front investment and planning, labor costs, overhead, capital costs, and real-time preparation. The check total is higher for the former than the latter, and consequent gross profit, though food costs are proportionately higher for the former. Each has different as well as similar satisfaction appeals, though.

Therefore, for writing, I consider minutia as well as big-picture fruits and all between: the forest and the trees and the understory and overstory and canopy, the sunlight and shadow, insects and fungi, the weeds and the fruits, the earth and the air and water. Such that the prose in parts and parcels is natural, persuasive, and comprehendable for enjoyable reading entertainments. No, not every consideration need be considered nor implemented, only what matters, when it matters, to whom it matters, where it matters, why it matters, and how it matters: its agency of the moment, place, and situation, be that backstory or imagery, character nature and behavior, setting or milieu feature, audience appeals, emotional appeals, or whatever.

Backstory principles have been on my consideration plate this summer. Yeah, backstory's manifold connections to the infinity of writing principles are numerous. Yet for me mastery of backstory matters; doing so means study and practice. I do have more choices, no less limited due to an improbablity of knowing them all. Farther and further along I can comfortably say I've come.

[ August 07, 2014, 02:55 PM: Message edited by: extrinsic ]

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mfreivald
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quote:
. . . the one I mention above.
Is there reason you are not saying what it is?

Also, it seems like you are mostly discussing back story as it is presented in the writing (or deployment to use your word) and not necessarily the development of back story for the purpose of giving your story unseen depth as you write it. (The ol' tip of the iceberg analogy: You are focused mostly just on the tip?)

quote:
Agency is for me the more important consideration for backstory.
and
quote:
. . .yet lacks for the one most critical aspect of backstory: agency
Well, then, I'm going to pretend it was my keen insight and instincts that made me key in on it. [Wink]

quote:
No, not every consideration need be considered nor implemented, only what matters,. . .
(etc.)
Well, we may be closer in understanding than I thought. I'd love to pick your brain down to the medula oblongata about these things, but the volume here is huge, and I think you are just scratching the surface above.

Have you considered organizing this stuff in a way that is conducive to teaching? Like maybe starting with a few of the most important items (like agent) and examining how it would be artfully developed and deployed in somewhat simplified form, then expanding in a gradated manner to more topics and complexity?

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MattLeo
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quote:
Originally posted by mfreivald:After thinking about this, my takeaway is that for a writer preparing a novel (or at least for me) this list of considerations is either cumbersome or incomplete.[/QB]
When you're working on a draft there's normally a bit of "thinking out loud" that ends up on the page. Then you go back and see that a stretch of what you've written encumbers the reader without really rewarding him very much. So you're faced with a choice: is this essential or not?

If that problem bit conveys essential information but shouldn't be part of the story, you've reached the point where writing is no longer daydreaming at the keyboard; it's art. Time to open a vein and bleed.

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extrinsic
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I do have reasons for not naming the novel. The grammar is atrocious, the narrative voice is slang that mocks more than narrates, rather childish actually, and many novels published by the publisher are in that voice. Editorial oversight of that house and another are much praised but I don't see it.

Any complex writing topic, backstory among them, can only be generalized in discussion. I could write an eight-thousand word critical analysis explication of how backstory is used in one narrative, long or short: method only and only focused on backstory. It could by no means be complete at that length nor maybe even one hundred thousand words. And many of the points would only apply to that particluar narrative. First, I have no compelling reason to do such a tedious written analysis. $$$, $0.50 per word. Not when I can do all I need mentally and with a few notes. Nor would anyone want to read it, I expect, except maybe the writer, who would invariably argue ad nauseam against most of it. Nor is it my responsibility to do anyone else's heavy lifting. Hence, a few pointed concepts should suffice for fostering access for one's own research into backstory, for example.

I teach backstory to advanced writers using narrative models: here are useful examples of backstory and how they are influenced by and influence a narrative for strong reader effect. Backstory's agency. Let's find the origins that set up the backstory, survey of the many backstory motifs or focused on one. What influences the backstory, what makes it relevant at the moment, what influences it has later, and how it transforms from minor or major significance to escalating significance, until it is pivotal at an opportune moment, or the backstory method implemented fails to achieve its intent and effect.

As MattLeo notes: "Time to open a vein and bleed." For me, writing and revision are not so dramatic, fun though, especially when the whole clicks into place.

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ForlornShadow
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Thanks for posting this Kathleen, couldn't have come at a better time. It helped clarify something in my own story.
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Grumpy old guy
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Hmmm . . .mmmmmmmm. Just read the article and I have some rather large reservations. The back-story she seems to be referring to is character development, although she denies this. She asks, "What secrets would the character not wish to be made public?" Lajos Egri asks the same question when creating three-dimensional characters, "What secret about your character would they rather die than reveal?"

For me, back-story falls into two categories: character and event. The first is the behind the scenes story of why a character acts the way they do, what molded and shaped their hopes, dreams and motivations, and yes, what secrets they don't want revealed. The second is the story behind the events that are now unfolding before the reader's eyes; the why and the wherefore of the plot.

Far too often I've read books that diverge from the plot narrative and become somewhat self-indulgent in revealing back-story that is essentially simply the author's world building being put on show. All back-story must serve a purpose and, while the detail may not be suitable for inclusion in the narrative line, the sentiment and the effects of that back-story can be shown within the narrative through action and consequence.

Phil.

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johnbrown
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quote:
For me, back-story falls into two categories: character and event. The first is the behind the scenes story of why a character acts the way they do, what molded and shaped their hopes, dreams and motivations, and yes, what secrets they don't want revealed. The second is the story behind the events that are now unfolding before the reader's eyes; the why and the wherefore of the plot.
This makes a lot of sense to me.

It also seems to me that back story can be used in these ways in the current story.

First, to make characters feel more real. Larger. You just work a line or two of a character's history in here and there.

Second, for the delight we feel when learning some juicy story about someone's past. Larry Correia does this well in his MHI books. He plants questions like "how did the receptionist lose her leg?" or "what are the claw marks on that building, what were they keeping in there?" He then makes you wait for the story. Many of the characters have an incident that reveals in a funny or awesome way who they are. These stories often do not drive the plot forward; they're just the types of funny and awesome stories that we enjoy hearing about people.

Third, as a mystery within the plot. In these instances, back story works like a murder mystery. We see a situation that's a bit mysterious or puzzling. And part of the plot is finding out what the truth is. They did this in Downton Abbey with Mr. Bates, making us wonder what happened in his past that's making him behave the way he does now. Revealing Mr. Bates's past affects our hopes and fears for the characters. It is part of the plot.

Fourth, I guess another use is as an obstacle for the current plot. This is the whole fear, secret, shame thing mentioned in the article. But it's certainly not the only way back story can be used.

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Reziac
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quote:
Originally posted by johnbrown:

Third, as a mystery within the plot. In these instances, back story works like a murder mystery. We see a situation that's a bit mysterious or puzzling. And part of the plot is finding out what the truth is.

Great observation!

Author to character: All right, it's time you owned up to your sordid past.

Character: I'll do no such thing. Do I look stupid??

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extrinsic
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I see numerous uses for backstory, nearly as infinite a variety as any other writing principle. A recent novel I read uses backstory to show risk and danger at the moment it first comes up, and uses the same motif, transformed, in different detail, and more signficance several times later.

Chekhov's Gun--if a motif comes up, it better be pre-positioned earlier and influence action then and later, and later, and especially increasingly influence action later. Once and done is a coincidence; it takes two to tango, three's a riot.

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