Before I left Brisbane to move to Melbourne, I worked for about a year for a human resources subdivision of the state government. I worked with a bunch of people that were largely anonymous, a few that were fun to have a drink with, a racist slag and a gormless twat.
This post’s about the twat. And about writing. (Mostly writing.)
So the twat – I’d tell you his name, but I’ve forgotten it – wasn’t exactly unlikeable (unlike the racist slag), but he was a world-class shirker. We worked in two-week blocks; by the end of every second Wednesday, paperwork had to be processed and records updated so that people would get paid properly and on time. And every second Wednesday, there would be some reason why he couldn’t get things done, or couldn’t come in to work. He had the flu. His car broke down. He had to work on a special project. He peaked, frankly, the day where he faked hysterical blindness by 10am, saying that oh god he couldn’t SEE and had to go to the hospital. We went through his desk that afternoon and found months worth of unfinished jobs that the rest of the team had to rush through, and we heard through the grapevine that once out of the building, his vision was miraculously restored and he went to the pool instead.
You might think that he would have been fired after this event, but that’s not how the QLD public service worked at that time.
Anyway, despite all this, the twat was likeable enough, and one day we got to chatting about books and writing. He said he’d quite like to write a book someday, and that he’d read about what needed to be involved – premise, character, hooks, revelation of backstory etc. It was like hearing a parrot rattle off the Cliff Notes version of McKee’s Story, with no understanding that writing involved not just these mechanical elements, but also some skill, some imagination, and the dedication to sit down and actually write without calling in sick with a phantom pregnancy or something. I smiled, nodded, and eventually fucked the hell out of there and moved south.
However, one thing stuck with me from that interaction – the phrase ‘revelation of backstory’, and the notion that this was a necessary part of any work of fiction. Because it immediately pissed me off, and it still pisses me off. Which leads me into the actual point of today’s post.
Backstory sucks. There, I said it. And more than that, the presumption that backstory is somehow vital and necessary to a story, to the point where ‘revelation of backstory’ is something to be planned and meted out over the course of a novel, is something that makes me want to smash library windows. Genre is terribly prone to the narrative kudzu of backstory, usually in the variant form called ‘exposition’, but it can strike anywhere. And like a weed, it needs to be purged with fire.
Story is what’s happening now; what your characters are doing, what they want, where they’re going, how they’ll get there. Whether written in present or past tense, the story is the immediate moment of your narrative. It moves, it carries, it changes, and the reader goes with it. Backstory, on the other hand – the revelation of what the characters did before this point and what made them this way – is about what happened before and outside the story. It’s the past past tense, the stuff that’s gone before, and when you stick that into the story, you hit pause on your narrative and cut a hole in it that bleeds out energy and pace. Story goes forward; backstory stops, pulls you out, and robs you of interest in getting back into the flow again.
There are exceptions, of course, and stories that exist primarily as a way of exploring backstory, such as Iain M. Banks’ Use of Weapons (perhaps his finest SF book). Those work because they embed the backstory within the narrative, rather than outside it. It’s also important to distinguish here between backstory and mystery. Backstories exist to illuminate or inform story; mysteries exist to be solved/explored as part of the story. Backstory is external to story; mystery is internal to story. Stories where the characters bring history to light, or investigate and solve mysteries that involve their history, are fine because that’s what the story is about.
Of course, it’s normal for a writer to feel that a character’s motivation and past are important, and that they need to be demonstrated. And these things are important, and should be demonstrated – in the story itself. A character’s actions and personality reflect and demonstrate who they are and where they come from far more than any infodump or flashback to three years earlier or their seminal childhood events. Backstory doesn’t do this; it doesn’t move things along, but provides justification and explanation of the narrative. And that sounds positive, but the narrative doesn’t need to be justified or explained, it needs to be experienced. It needs to move, not stop and ruminate on how it got here in the first place.
One of the decisions I made right at the start of Arcadia – my novel-in-progress, or more accurately in-stasis at the moment, but I plan to fix that – was to eschew backstory and its staggered revelation. The primary character’s upbringing and childhood are hugely important to her, and absolutely propel her into the start of the novel – but then that history ends, and the story is about what she does now and the mistakes she makes. Arcadia is about runaways, but Gwen is running towards something, not away from something, and her past is touched on only when the narrative actually brushes up against it, and even then only briefly. The other main character, Pious, is definitely running from something, but I made it something he couldn’t communicate effectively; all we get to see is Gwen’s assumptions about it, and how she uses those assumptions to make decisions in the immediate moment. Usually very bad decisions, because I’m kind of a prick to my characters.
In the end, every word you spend on developing a character’s or situation’s backstory is a word you’re not spending on the actual character or situation. Every word that doesn’t push the story along actually holds it back, and the supposed depth it offers is an optical illusion. When things happen, when people change, when the story rolls relentlessly down an unpredictable track – that’s when the reader learns why they care about where things are going, and stop thinking about the freeze-frame glimpses of what went before.
That’s the truth. Strike me hysterically blind if I’m wrong.
3 replies on “Story now”
Looking forward to seeing how that manifests in Arcadia, sir. I’ve got to confess I’m a geek for moments that tip a character’s hand to their past (the film version of No Country for Old Men has a bunch of these in showing the prowess of the characters) but I am definitely falling in your camp on the idea that genre fiction has WAY TOO MUCH of the stuff, and handled awkwardly.
Also, thank you for tipping me to the next Culture novel to read. Loved Player of Games.
The thing is, those moments don’t take you out of the story, because they’re firmly embedded in the narrative. We don’t flashback to Moss in Vietnam or get some exposition from other characters about his skills – we just see him do things that reflect his experiences, and get one tiny mention that he’s been in the army.
He has a history, and we glimpse the impact of that history, but we never have it revealed to us, and the narrative never suffers for the loss of that revelation.
‘Hysterical blindness’, huh? I am so stealing that the next time I need to skive off work.
Excellent point about backstory, though (and good call on Use of Weapons as an exception that proves the rule). Fantasy in particular is prone to horrible excesses of backstory, which I’ve noticed goes hand in hand with over-elaborated world building.
Now if you will excuse, I have a couple of…um, extraneous passages to go excise from my current short story. Ahem.