This incredibly true and profound statement belongs to Jennifer Crusie as part of her post on exposition. Bob Mayer posted his counterargument (which was more agreement than counter) as well. Both are part of The Crusie Mayer 2007 Online Writing Workshop, which looks to be chock full of interesting writerly related things. Thank you Crystal for linking it in your post today. It will, I believe, provide many hours of procrastination from things like actual paid work. [big grin] Anyway, Crusie goes on at length about why exposition and excessive backstory is bad. Drags down the narrative, readers will skim it because they want to know what the story is now, etc. She also makes some excellent points about why we, as writers, find it addictive. One suggestion she makes is to write your first draft without any backstory and then go back afterward and put in only what’s necessary for the story to make sense. That seems a bit extreme to me and simply won’t work for me.
You see I am a backstory addict. Not necessarily in an infodump in the narrative kind of way, but I give a GREAT deal of thought to who my characters are, why they behave the way they do. I’m a trained therapist–it’s an occupational hazard. I have to know the whys of everything (or most everything) that they do. This is a particularly salient issue right now as I work on the skeleton for my new novel. I am making a valiant effort to be at least a skeleton plotter rather than a straight pantser. I’m planning, God help me. And I may not need to know the full backstory on my characters (like where they went to school, how they got that scar on their knee, who their first kiss was), but there are some things I have got to figure out before the story begins.
For once it’s the hero who is clearest to me. Holt Whaley is an ex-arson investigator from Atlanta (or maybe Dallas…some large Southern city) who takes a job as fire chief in a small southern town (I’m still figuring out what state) because he’s burnt out on the job (forgive the pun). He’s close to his sister, has a golden retriever named Blake (I think), and is thoughtful enough to bring a toy for the heroine’s dog when he goes to visit her (the heroine, not the dog) in the hospital after she’s lost everything in a fire (from which Holt rescued her, of course). He also makes killer chili (as any fireman rightly should) and has an affection for motorcycles. Our heroine Stella Caughman, I know next to nothing about other than the fact that she has a chocolate lab mix named Muddy, lived in a rental house, and was vain about her hair (she considered it her best feature)–which used to be gloriously long, rich and thick, but which got burned in the fire, so she winds up having it cut really short and with the big doe eyes looks like deceptively an ingenue (picture Audrey Hepburn with curves). I have no idea what she does for a living or why somebody is trying to kill her. I just know it’s the dog toy that gets her attention when Holt comes to see her in the hospital. About the arsonist I know nothing–that I’ll be able to fill in with research as I learn more about arson as a crime and the psychological profile of those who commit arson. But his (or her) backstory is important to how he becomes what he is.
What was that Pot? What’s the conflict? Yeah, I don’t know that yet. I feel like I’ve got to figure out what she does for a living first. Figure out who she is. I am open to suggestions for Stella’s occupation. I’m aiming for something that wouldn’t have an obvious potential motive for murder (i.e., not something like a reporter or something where she’d be snooping and find out information somebody didn’t want her to find out). In the meantime it’s research, research, research. And I need to get started writing again ASAP!
ha ha. Right at that point where you heard me thinking, my mind was already racing down the maybe paths of backstory to find out what was bringing them together and what was keeping them apart. Does it bother me that I’m so predictable? Nope.
Hehe, as you read, my snippet today is pretty much all backstory. Most of my novel isn’t, but I felt that scene needed to come out as such–it sets the tone for the relationship in the present and the future. Might be a bit exposition-y but will figure that out in the editing process.