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Bad Habits and Backstory

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Following on from Matt’s post last week, I thought I’d throw my own experiences with backstory into the ring, along with a dose of some bad habits.  As ever, I’m going to be exploring this anecdotally, as opposed to doing any actual research or anything, merely to highlight my thoughts and opinions as the resident ‘seat of the pants writer’.

Bad Habits

Looking back over my work, I find it surprising just how many bad habits I have when it comes to writing.  What is even more surprising is how I’ve managed to get away with them for so long!  I do a lot of things that you shouldn’t do as a writer.  Quite often I don’t plan, I’m known to use flashbacks and overuse dialogue, backstory is something I will rarely ‘actively’ generate, and research?  Don’t get me started on research! 

Do I Really Look Like a Man with a Plan?

Yeah, so this is a big one. I’ve written several posts previously about writing without having an outright plan in mind.  Of course, general consensus is that you never ever do this.  I admit on those projects that are ‘less planned’, then I can meander.  Meandering is nearly always the main problem with a second act.  What you have to be very careful of (if you don’t have a specified plan) is not letting this stray into the narrative.  I have been guilty of this in several drafts, having the characters wander listlessly as I try and figure out where they should go next.

To explain; in nearly all of my projects, I never quite know what the end is.  I have made plans for some of my projects, but I will nearly always leave the ending open (not in the sense to allow for sequels, but to leave it as an unknown).  I know it’s stupid, but part of me feels like it’s cheating.  You wouldn’t skip straight to the end of a book or movie to find out how it ends would you?  I usually like to see where it will end up.  Partly it’s because I am not good at improvising, and if I have the ending nailed down, then I will make all kinds of ludicrous detours to ensure that we get there.  Also, when I know how it ends, I feel like it takes more effort to actually get there.  I would much rather have the destination ambiguous and let the story flow naturally, than to have the destination set in stone and have the journey be a torturous mess.  It may be bad form of me, but there you go. 


Image courtesy of Sharon Drummond.

Back Flashing

Here’s another thing you’re never supposed to do as a writer, because it’s just a lazy way to explain the backstory.  However, I do feel that flashbacks can serve a purpose.  I have used them in the past, on two of my projects.  How do I justify this?  By Back Flashing.  Having a flashback to reveal some part of the back story is lazy.  But if you have a twinned narrative happening consecutively over two time periods…

Yeah, one of these projects was a time travel piece.  Time travel is your ‘get out of flash back free’ card, because no matter what you do, you will always end up going into your backstory.  The best example I can think of here is Back to the Future.  Marty travels into his parents’ back story, sees how they turned out the way they did, and has to ensure that the back story doesn’t change.  It does, but we all know it ends up working out better for them.  It’s the same with a more recent example, Hot Tub Time Machine.  The characters go into their backstories and attempt to ensure nothing changes, but change things anyway.  This is what the majority of time travel fiction is about, either making changes to the backstory, or trying to ensure that the backstory remains the same. 

My other project is rife with jumping all over chronologically, within the main character’s life.  I didn’t really think of it at the time, but probably half the book is Back Flashing.  To reveal ‘shallow’ back story.  I don’t know if I can really defend this.  It is a little indulgent of me.  Thinking about it, I can’t really say it’s all flashbacks, and more of a chronology screw of the main characters’ experiences.  It would make the story far less interesting if it all unfolded in chronological order.  Think of Pulp Fiction.  A great deal of that film exists in flashback form, but it is accepted because it is more of a chronology screw.


Back Story

I mentioned ‘shallow’ back story above.  So what do I mean by this?  Well, I guess I mean character back story.  As opposed to ‘deep’ back story which is the world in which the piece is set.  Now I guess ‘deep’ back story is only really a concern if you write sci-fi, fantasy or alternate history. 

Character back story is the tricky one, obviously.  Because as with real life, their actions and their behaviour is supposed to reveal what kind of life they’ve led without having to resort to flashbacks or exposition.  It is a very fine line you must walk here.  Is your character a drunken asshole?  Yes?  And why is that?  Perhaps he has a subconscious habit of rubbing his fingers over the base of his ring finger on his left hand.  There is no ring there, which may indicate he used to be married.  One simple action here can generate all sorts of interesting backstory in the mind of the reader.  Is he a drunken asshole because he’s been through a messy divorce?  Did he cheat on his wife, or did she cheat on him.  Is his wife still alive?  She could have been killed, which would explain the alcoholism.  You don’t need a flashback or exposition for this.  It’s just a small hint at the characters backstory. 

‘Deep’ back story though, this is where I am repeatedly tripped up, whenever I don’t plan.  Because there will always come a time when the narrative will start to fall apart if the foundation isn’t there to support it.  I’ve met this on my latest project.  I have some basics laid out, but I’m at a point where basics won’t cut it.  Sure ‘There was a war two years ago and the species is still reeling from it’ is all fine and good, but it’s the actual details which I need to hammer down. 

Again though, I feel like I’m being hoisted on my own petard, because I don’t necessarily plan, and I write sci-fi.  Moreover, I write sci-fi that isn’t all set in the same universe, so for every new project comes a new world to create.  Again, I like this as a challenge, I know it can be easy and convenient to create one universe and write most or all of your fiction in it (especially if it is a rich universe), but I do like to keep myself on my toes. 

So readers, what are your opinions?  The more I think about the above subjects the more I feel like I’m ‘in the wrong (or at least ‘in the minority’)’ as someone who makes it up as I go along.  What are your general writing crimes?  Hit up the comments below…

  • Dave Bartlett

    I had a really difficult problem in one of my works in progress.

    It’s a fantasy tale and the plot relies in part on two characters living a millennium apart actually communicating with each other, so my story line takes place in two different time frames.

    Unfortunately, being a fantasy tale of the ‘classic’ ilk, there’s a whole new world to introduce the reader to, so that automatically creates the need for a lot of ‘deep back story’.

    So if I’m not careful I can end up with my story jumping between two ‘intended’ time frames, plus having to cope with flashbacks to provide the back story required for both of them.

    It’s so bloody easy to get lost when writing that kind of thing, so what chance does the reader really stand?

    • http://getmewriting.com Matt Roberts

      Hi Dave! It sounds like you really gave yourself a difficult job there, but it sounds really interesting! Did you do a lot of planning or try to wing it like Craig?

  • Craig

    Hey Dave, thanks for posting.

    Sounds like you’ve got yourself a very interesting detailed read going on there.  Its almost like you’ve got every aspect of my post rolled into one story, new world to flesh out, two distinct timelines but so far apart that they’ll each need their own back story, and what could turn out to be a bit of a chronology screw.

    Sounds like fun!

    Difficult though, like you say.  Like Matt asks, did you do a lot of planning when mapping this out, or did you just let it flow all natural like.

    • Dave Bartlett

      Craig, (and Matt,)

      Sorry. Didn’t see your responses to my comment.

      As I said it’s a work in progress, and though It’s clear in my mind it’s anything but easy to put down on paper. I did an awful lot of planning: both formal planning with pages & pages of notes, as well as working through storylines with family and friends, and though people who were party to the idea tended to ‘get it’ quite easily, I realised it would be that much more difficult to put across on a printed page. I don’t want people getting so confused that they lose interest before they’ve become involved in the story properly.

      So I’m afraid I sold out a little: I extended the story to include more of the affairs of the characters in the earlier time period and started the story there from their point of view, bringing in the characters from the later era (one of whom is my main antagonist,) at a later point in the story, at which point the ‘communication over time’ idea is expanded.

      Of course, this stretched out the story line and required some new plot structures to keep the reader’s interest at different stages in the story line, and it has taken some time to work all these out while still keeping hold of the overall plot line. I found more ideas occurring to me than I could really use, and some of them were too good not to use, so what I’ve been left with, I think will work much better as a saga/series, and it’s become my major product (and probably will be for some time to come.)

      If you’re interested, I included a kind of ‘mini-synopsis’ for each part of the series in a blog post some time ago at http://bartie-blog.blogspot.co.uk/2010/05/inspiraton-imagination-ideas-and-words.html - it’s encouraging to know that I’ve finally reigned in my imagination and the ideas as outlined there are pretty much the way it has stayed (so far at least, though it’s far from being finished.)

      • http://getmewriting.com Matt Roberts

        I’m not sure I’d call that copping out – if the original format doesn’t serve the reader than it has to go I guess. That’s probably quite a brave thing to do.

        I’ve Instapaper’d that page so I’ll be having a read through later. I rather like the feeling of a story running away from me (to a certain extent). It’s certainly inspiring when the world starts to take on a life of it’s own.

        It can often be more fun than writing the story itself though!

    • Craig

      It sounds like the piece has a great deal of lore, which of course is the difficult thing to weave into the narrative successfully, is it not?  Put in too much and it upsets the flow of the story, too little and it can alienate the reader.  It depends upon how willing the reader is to go along for the ride without having everything handed to them (which is, I fear, becoming an increasingly large problem in todays media and entertainment).

      As Matt will attest, I have no problems with things getting bigger (and darker too), so congratulations on sticking to your guns and expanding on your project!  Far better to expand than to cut it down to incomprehensibility, right?