Success only flourishes in perseverance -- ceaseless, restless perseverance.
--Baron Manfred Von Richtofen

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Back Story That's Not Boring

I have blogged before about how tricky it can be to get in the back story without boring your readers. So, I was watching Cars with my two-year-old (an almost daily occurrence), and I noticed how skillfully they slip in the necessary back story with the sports commentators. We get all the information we need about the cars, the race, Dinoco, etc, complete with flashy pictures and sound effects, in a way that feels completely natural because we see that sort of thing at the beginning of nearly every sporting event on TV. It's brilliant really.

You have to hand it to those folks at Pixar. They are amazing storytellers. Their other movies have great back story too. Like in UP, in a sort of silent movie, they sum up Karl and Ellie's entire life together without a single word. There's a TV commercial in Monsters, Inc., and Finding Nemo has a terrific little prologue that immediately sets up a such a sweet relationship between Marlin and his wife that when it's taken away, we are just as heartbroken as he is, and understand at once why he's such an overprotective father.


Of course, movies have an inherent advantage in being able to show the back story without telling. It can be much trickier with books. In the Mistborn trilogy, Brandon Sanderson uses chapter headings in a way that is absolutely genius. With little snippets of journal entries, he reveals the necessary back story and also creates tension in the actual story. It's perfect.

Terry Ervin uses chapter headings in a similar way in his novel, Flank Hawk. At the start of each chapter, he puts a scene from the distant past, revealing what happened to make the world the way it is in the present day of the story. As the action builds in the novel, the action builds in the chapter headings too, until they come together for the climax of the novel. He could have put all those chapter headings together into a prologue, but that wouldn't have worked nearly as well as the way he's done it. It's very impressive.

Do you have any examples of back story well-done? What's your favorite way to handle it in your own stories?

22 comments:

Carolyn V. said...

Back story is so tricky. Hunger Games did an excellent job and didn't bore me or pull me out of the story. =)

Terry W. Ervin II said...

Angie,
Thank you for the compliment in how the chapter starts worked in Flank Hawk.

It took a lot of planning to design and pace them so that the chapter starts matched and reached the merging point with the novel's main action at the right time.

It is always good to learn that it worked for a reader.

Aubrie said...

I'm still working on a way to incorporate my backstory. This post was very helpful! Thank you!

Lindsey Duncan said...

Neat post - thanks!

I think my favorite example of backstory comes from "Stealing the Elf-King's Roses" by Diane Duane. She introduces the concept of parallel worlds and the way they interact with each other through the means of a brief newspaper report ... talking about the discovery of another alternate earth (ours).

Objectively, it may be pure "dump," but it's entertaining and plays with perceptions so well in brief period of time that it works.

Angie said...

I have not read Hunger Games yet, Carolyn, but that's good to know.

You did a good job with it, Terry. It works very well.

Thanks for your thoughts Aubrie and Lindsey.

Linz said...

Angie - read Hunger Games tonight. It's awesome.

Anyway - I agree with you on Pixar. Monsters, Inc has always been my favorite one in how it handled the backstory. It was seamless!

Great post!!!

Nicole MacDonald said...

Movies can be so helpful for writing *grin* and I like slipping it in. I'm not a big fa of prologues they tend to bore me

Angie said...

The whole thing, Linz? Tonight? You're are one awesome reader. Ryan is reading it right now. I think Sam is next in line.

Thanks, Nicole.

The Alliterative Allomorph said...

For me the best way is to dribble it in here and there with one or two sentences, when it totally relates to the present action. I can't stand it when a story goes into pages and pages of backstory, one page, yes, but nor beyond.

For example, (totally improvised here, so please excuse the quality!)

Frank tightly grabs June's wrist. She stares blankly at the china plates in the glass cabinet, and remembers when her father smashed one on her mother's head. "Don't touch me, Frank," growls June, and snatches her arm from Frank's grip.

That's how I like it to be handled, and that's how I try to handle it in my work too, though I have to admit, I catch myself getting carried away all too frequently! :o)

Eric said...

This is great stuff. I hadn't thought about Pixar movies like that, but I do remember being awed by UP's intro. Thanks for sharing all this.

Tyrean Martinson said...

Great post! I agree with you about Pixar's movies. They always handle backstory perfectly.
I realized that as I searched my mind for answers on good examples of backstory in novels, I drew a blank. That doesn't mean I haven't read any good examples, I just can't think of one at the moment. My last read (total mindless fiction moment) was Luke Skywalker and the Shadows of Mindor, so the backstory was relatively covered for any fan fiction reader. However, there was an interetesting use of an investigative reporter whom Luke has hired to dig up dirt on himself, so that the public doesn't hero worship him. Some backstory is quickly told at that point.

Thanks for sharing your examples, and I'll work harder at looking for them, because backstory is an area I struggle with in every story.

Angie said...

Thanks for stopping by, all. Tyrean, it really makes me giggle to think of Luke trying to dig up dirt on himself. That's funny.

Jaydee Morgan said...

Great post and helpful in finding the right way to incorporate back story. It's a tricky thing finding the right time and way to mention it without pulling the reader out from the present story.

Cher Green said...

Back story is a tricky issue. You have to find just the right amount and location without jolting the reader. Flank Hawk is a great example of one way it can be done.

T. Anne said...

You know I find this tricky in my own MS's I try to balance it with two or three back stories and have them all tie in together at the end if possible.

ali said...

Oh man. My brain is fried and I'm panicking at the thought of trying to pull book names out of my hat! But I LOVED the examples you shared. This is a great topic, one I wish I were more awake for, lol!

Rosslyn Elliott said...

I also like just giving it out a piece here, a piece there, through character thoughts and dialogue. A sentence at a time is always nice!

Tyrean Martinson said...

Hey Angie,
Just wanted to stop by and let you know, I have an award for you at my blog!

Medeia Sharif said...

I like those examples from Sanderson and Ervin. I'd like to try that some day.

So far I give clues and hints, sometimes dedicating a portion or entire chapter to something in the past, but these have to be carefully placed or it doesn't work.

Jan Markley said...

We can learn a lot from movies as I pointed out in my last blog post.

Brandon said...

Brandon Sanderson is on my to-get-list. I've heard nothing but good stuff about him. I love these unique examples of backstory.

In my current WIP I'm simply letting the back story emerge in pieces and crumbles from the various POV characters.

Angie said...

Thanks for stopping by, everyone. There are so many ways to handle backstory. It's always nice to have some good examples. Brandon, I think you'll really like Sanderson's books.