Sunday, May 16, 2010

Back story

I love back stories.  Whenever I hear something on the radio or tv, I immediately want to know how or why it happened.  I can spend hours(days, weeks or even years) trying to figure out how a rumour started, if subject A is really telling the truth and why is subject B a pathological liar. Why are some people extreme and others midline? Who took the cookie from the cookie jar? And why won't they share?

An entire episode of LOST was devoted to back story last week. I enjoyed it immensely, but most people did not. I think we may have all been confused but that's alright. At some point it will make sense.  I'm okay with waiting until that time.

There are exceptions to my back story interest.  I read a book yesterday, non-fiction, that was half back story and the other half a recitation of facts. It never really took me where the book jacket suggested it would. I suspect the writing style is what put me off more than the content. A dry list of who went where and with whom. No interesting details or conversations. I would love to take my dog out for a walk in the Highlands but it's the conversations(between him and I, or the ones in my head) that anchor those moments.  Ky always investigates the flora, fauna and wildlife that I point out to him on our walks.  If another human accompanies me, those are the times we discuss the "important" details of life.  We invariably solve all the problems of the world.

Yet in my own writing, I usually forget back story. I jump right into the moment and barrel forward full speed ahead. I have to go back in subsequent drafts and fill in motivation.  I know it all, but rarely include it because I figured it all out often several months previous to the actual writing. Back story conversations are a cornerstone of many of our walks.

Motivation not only propels characters forward. It is rooted in back story. How or why a person behaves is usually in response, positive or negative, to an event or way of life that happened in the past. Five minutes ago or five centuries in the past matters not. It happened off-screen, and most importantly, shaped the character. 

Not everyone cares about the why, especially in action adventures. Good guy chases bad guy is enough information for most. The books and movies that satisfy me the most are the ones that make me think about how or why the good guy became so devoted to his path while the bad guy blew his up.

What about you? Are you a fan of back story or does it annoy you?


  1. I like a good backstory, as long as it's not an exhaustive list of the character's entire history up to that point in time. And I hate when every single character, however minor, gets that same boring treatment. Luckily it doesn't happen often but i've read too many books that do it.

  2. I do like backstory. But it's all in the delivery. I like it slipped in here and there seamlessly. :-)

    If it was a Dufflet Peanut Butter Whoopie Cookie, I know who stole the cookie from the cookie jar!

  3. I like when there is a backstory. It makes what I'm reading seem fuller, richer. But I prefer it to be fed to me in small bites, slipped in here and there to slowly fill in the whole picture.