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Back Story, Details, and the Like...

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Feb. 24th, 2010 | 09:03 am
mood: hungryhungry

Dear Dragons,
What has helped you learn what to leave in and what to take out concerning back story, details, and the like?

A lot of it involves feeding your internal editor. Generally, I try to know as much as I can about a character. Where was she born? What kind of family? What major traumas did she suffer? Decide what the impact of these events would be. You may want to write out a short biography of the character. Then put it in a file of its own, and ignore it, for the most part.

There are things we may have to know. Alexander McCall Smith, in "The No. One Ladies' Detective Agency," tells us that his heroine, Precious Ramotswe, once had a short-term, disastrous marriage, and had a child who lived only a few hours. This is an important, formative event in the character's life. It has helped to make her who she is by the time we meet her. Her Author may well have a brain full of other things that happened to her, but we see only hints, shown in her actions. You've heard the phrase, "Show the tip of the iceberg." McCall Smith does that, in Mma Ramotswe's initial refusal to give in to the suit of Mr. JLB Matekone. We readers understand she is afraid she is repeating her past mistakes.

This dragon certainly has felt the impulse to say, "But this! And this! And then…" The truth is, the readers don't care about ordinary days in the characters' lives. Reading it aloud helps, or having a good beta reader. "Good," in this case means, "someone who will be honest with you." Be aware that things that fascinate you may not fascinate other people. Not too long ago, I ate a hiker who had in his possession a book that might have been very enjoyable – had the author not spend a good 60 pages out of the 350 explaining current technology. As I already understood the technology involved, I found it boring. Similarly, you may wish to show your character's home life, because you worked so hard to create the culture. Your reader, alas, probably doesn't care. Sometimes hints are enough. McCall Smith's books are popular because of the window he gives us into a culture with which most of us are unfamiliar. If we move to more Sfnal examples, Tolkien did write out histories and cultural notes. But he set them aside and just told the story, letting the reader figure things out as they went along. If you're lucky, you, like Tolkien, might get the chance to publish your history separately. Don't count on it. Even dragons can't force editors to agree to that.

In short fiction, the conventional wisdom is to ask yourself if each sentence moves the story forward. In longer works, you can go by paragraphs, or even chapters. If Mr. JLB Matekone was not in the story, would Mma Ramotswe's past bad experience with marriage matter? Probably not as much. Knowing about it matters in a later novel, when her ex-husband shows up, and we understand her unreasoning terror. But without the possibility of a second romantic involvement, it might not have mattered for the initial novel.

Dear MG:

That’s an excellent question. So many humans who stumble upon our lair waste time babbling out their entire life story- the famines of the past ten years that drove them to try to rob their dragonly neighbors, every boulder they struggled over to get here, how many tender, squalling offspring they left behind- when what they should have mentioned was the cabbage-and-garlic stew they’d just eaten, rendering them inedible.

As a Dark Muse, I specialize in lurking in nightmares. I’ve learned that the most effective nightmares are the ones with the most emotion per detail. Not just What, Who, When and Where, but Why. For example, I could give you many details about what’s in our hoard: gold coins, swords with jeweled hilts, cups, bowls, scrolls, tomes, armor, jewelry…

Or I could point out that dagger over there, with scorch marks on the hilt and blood still wet on the blade, and the sapphire necklace that screams when I touch it.

What, leaving already? We were hoping you’d stay for dinner.

Ol’ B&G


This dragon is vegetarian from Monday through Friday but she tried to bake cookies without eggs and butter. Yuck! Some things you just can't leave out. Writing is very similar but not exactly the same as cooking. You don't always want to stick to the recipe as you master your art, but experimenting is for the master and not for me, yet. I like my story to have a beginning a middle and an end and I learn my craft from reading, critiquing, mentors and discussing the stories.

Having someone else read my story helps me to see that I might have too much back story in the piece, especially if it's a short. Nothing like another dragon's eyes to see what I'm not seeing. I like details but if they're not moving the plot forward they should be cut as hard as that is to do.


As you know, MG, different people have different tastes (and I am not referring to the garlic issues above.) My point is that some types of fiction require more backstory than others. If you're writing a 200 word flash...there's not much. If you're writing a 38K novella, you get a lot more, so that's the first consideration.

Your POV character is only going to think about certain things at certain times--so that should limit what backstory is revealing itself.

But my recommendation it to have a first reader look at it for you--preferably one who is not aware of the backstory already--and ask them to tell you where you're putting in too much (boring them) or too little (mystifying them.) Clean that up in the next draft. This is where having second reader might come in handy--having a fresh set of eyes (not to eat) will affirm whether you've fixed the problem.

I must confess, I have this problem myself. It's always a struggle, compounded by the fact that certain readers simply want things laid out for them, and other readers prefer subtlety. So my final recommendation is that if an editor wants something changed to address this problem, listen to their request, because they know best what their readers want. Be willing to be a little flexible.

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Comments {2}

MG Ellington

overdue gratitude to the dragons

from: xjenavivex
date: Feb. 26th, 2010 04:35 pm (UTC)

Thanks to all of you for answering my question. It is something I am still working on. This is a major focus in what I am trying to improve in my writing currently. I appreciate your words and will be thinking on them for some time to come.

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from: anonymous
date: Jan. 27th, 2011 06:53 pm (UTC)

Онлайн порно (http://megafreeporn.ru/)

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