Two things set me thinking about backstory this week. First I read a neat little quote from literary agent Johnny Geller and second – I had a lovely, real-life treat involving my own TV backstory.
First to JG. I came across his blog pointing the finger very precisely at a mistake I made in my early fiction writing and one which I suspect is quite common among new authors. In it JG said :
“If you have too much back story, you do not have a novel. What you have is an explanation…”
Ouch. Oops. Hands up. Fell for that one early on. Sorry.
It made me smile as I sure wish I had read that years back to spare myself some apprenticeship time!
We all know that backstory is crucial. In real life it makes us who and what we are. In fiction it makes our stories and our characters convincing and intriguing. Great stories often have dark and mysterious secrets bubbling up from the past. But JG is right. Backstory becomes the baddy when it gets too big for its boots. Gets in the way.
For myself it took a while to learn how to handle the delicate balancing act between crucial narrative drive and the backstory necessary for the depth and the intrigue readers so love.
As JG says – too much backstory and you do not have a plot at all. Too little and there is a danger no one will care about your characters. Of course you could just throw it all up in the air and make the backstory the novel itself - think “Water for Elephants”. But then you will have to handle the backstory...to the backstory.
Sometimes I wonder why, as an avid reader, I did not spot all the essential tips and tricks that an author needs before I ever picked up a pen. But isn’t that precisely the problem? Clever authors do things that readers do not notice… Which is why we really do need to learn from our own mistakes (and the mistakes of others).
Below you will find links to the Johnny Geller piece and another with some very good tips on handling backstory.
But before I sign off, I must share the real-life smile which inspired this little blog. Years ago I presented a BBC news programme called Spotlight. Night after night I sat alongside co-presenter Russell Labey and weatherman Craig Rich ( see Telly Days). It was our role to present a calm exterior – often while all hell was breaking loose behind the scenes! We felt a tremendous bond doing that programme, had a lot of fun and amazingly despite the stress that telly can often involve, we never had a cross word.
We all have very different lives these days. I work as a writer, Russell is a busy theatre director and scriptwriter based in London and Craig is busily retired – travelling and sailing the world. But this week we were reunited for the first time in years for a lovely lunch in Plymouth. My goodness we had a lot to say.
This – my real-life back story offers none of the angst and drama that fiction requires. It would make a rubbish book – all smiles and warm glows. No conflict.
But it makes for a lovely life. So here’s to gripping backstory in our fiction….and to good friends and happy memories in our real lives.
Teresa Driscoll - journalist, author, mother of two and lover of great coffee.