Monday, July 05, 2010

#11 - Control the Back-story

"Back-story consists of events that occurred prior to the start of a film: childhood traumas, recent crises, longstanding grudges, the history of the physical setting, and much more. Back-story should be revealed obliquely through casual, but efficient, cues. A woman seen in a Chanel suit at the unemployment office will quickly bring the viewer up to date on a life that recently underwent dramatic change... A man storms out on his wife in the midst of an argument, and she hurls a high-heeled shoe at him. The shoe hits the door, and a dozen heel marks are seen on the door as it slams shut." (101 Things I Learned in Film School; Neil Landau with Matthew Frederick)

This past week I've pondered back-story -- a lot -- as I commence the next step of parsing PURE to its essentials. Yes, I completed the first draft of PURE this past week (it clocks in at a pithy -- for me -- 95,000 words), but even as I penned the two ultimate words -- the end -- I knew where my manuscript needed massive liposuction, as well as the flimsier sections requiring a boob job.

In my gigs as beta-reader and editor, I've read a lot of stories. Those which don't make the cut usually fail in their ability to find the story quickly. Not wallowing in back-story is important in novels, but especially important in flashes, where one hundred words -- the typical length of an opening paragraph -- describing setting, a divorce, a sibling rivalry, the day job fritters away TEN PERCENT of the story.

Ten percent.

So think economy. Think parachute drop. Think getting in as soon as you can. When in doubt, Start Late.


Reading... THE CORRECTIONS by Jonathan Franzen. Wickedly funny and poignant all at once. How can he know my family so well?

Peace, Linda


  1. Thanks for the informative post.

  2. That's the best piece of advice I give to writing buds at times... Get in late. Leave early. Granted, it's hard to pull off well...

  3. What a timely post. I've been writing, or rather trying to write, a short story and I'm having a heck of a time trying to find the right balance of action vs. backstory. I want to build suspense, but I don't want to bore the reader silly. This has been an enormous help to me this morning. :)

  4. "Controlling" (that's a good word - taming is another good one) the back story is something I wrestle with all the time. It's like it has a mind of its own. I go off on a big tangent only to realize that a different story is developing altogether. Sometimes that's OK but, for the most part, I sigh and hit delete.
    I went back and read Start Late and enjoyed that, too. Your points are very helpful to me, especially since I'm entering a novel marathon in less than two weeks and I'm scared crapless. I've never attempted anything like a novel before and while I'm definitely looking forward to the experience I'm also scared outta my mind.
    So, thanks for the advice.
    I remain, your "little grasshopper."

  5. Parachute drop. I like that.

  6. I usually post about what I'm struggling with ;^)

    Laurita, I'm glad this post was helpful to you. I'd love to see your short when you've found that balance. I have one as well sitting in a drawer I'm aiming ti take out this week.

    Cathy. Wow. A novel marathon. My 'rules' do not apply to first drafts. First drafts are for fun. First drafts are for getting down the bones. First drafts are for building word count, not putting your m/s on a diet. Please, tell your inner editor to take a cruise to the Antartic (And take me with her -- it's hot as hell here) and not return until first draft is finished. THEN... worry about all this stuff.

    And have fun.

    Thanks for reading guys and gals. Off to sit on the ac. Peace...

  7. A timely post for me as I enter the 2nd draft today... :)

  8. glad you got to the end, cheers to an easy surgery with great and fast healing

  9. Congrats on finishing PURE. I love that you are referring to revision in terms of different plastic surgeries, LOL.

    I'm a fan of backstory, but it has to be done right, and putting it right at the beginning usually isn't doing it right. Know what I mean? I like to know about the larger context of the character's life, what makes them who they are, what shaped them, what happened before. It's almost always important to the current story in some way, and there are a lot of different ways to do it. I just think you don't want to introduce the piece in a backstory, unless it is gripping and super relevant.

    I like what you quoted, because those are succinct details that give a lot of information.

    Congrats again! That's awesome!


  10. Congrats on the first draft completion Linda! And geez, backsory. I've been thinking on this too. I love the example you used above. When you find that perfect balance...share it with the rest of us huh? ;-D

    Luv ya Hon!